Braked Parachute Flight—A Life-Saving Skill for Every Skydiver
By Jim Crouch
Friday, June 11, 2021
Photos by Mike McGowan.
For many years, most jumpers regarded the parachute as a necessary evil. It was simply the device that stopped the freefall, allowing the jumper to survive the skydive in order to make another freefall.
In the 1990s, as manufacturers designed and marketed new and improved parachutes, two things began to happen: Landing injuries and fatalities began to increase because skydivers lagged behind in the skill and training necessary to fly the faster, more aggressive parachutes, and a small percentage of skydivers began to focus on parachute flight, which gradually expanded into better training programs and information.
In 2000, USPA adopted its Integrated Student Program with an eye toward improving the skydiving community’s canopy skill and knowledge, beginning at the student level. In 2005, it added additional parachute training as a requirement for the USPA B License. During that same timeframe, many canopy-piloting experts began teaching courses focused solely on improving the average skydiver’s knowledge and skill for both basic and advanced parachute flight. All of that effort paid off, as the number of canopy-related accidents and fatalities began to decline, particularly in the category of unintentional-low-turn fatalities (those in which a jumper died after making a low turn close to the ground to avoid an obstacle or another parachute).
Braked turns are generally used for positioning during the canopy descent and for defensive maneuvers close to the ground. They help you change direction to avoid other parachutes or obstacles while conserving as much altitude as possible. They are one of the most important canopy skills that students and B-license candidates learn. However, like everything else in skydiving, unless you practice these skills regularly, they quickly fade. In order to truly master the skill, it takes more than just completing the minimum requirements. Jumpers really need to get a feel for the maneuvers, and then occasionally practice them to keep the skills fresh. So, why not find yourself a canopy coach and some clear airspace this weekend and work on braked flight?
The Starting Point
When experimenting with flat turns, it is important that you know just how far you can pull your toggles down before your parachute stalls. Most jumpers use a point about midway to the stall point as a starting point for making flat turns. That is a good, conservative place to start, but it is also possible to go much deeper with the toggles to slow the forward speed and descent rate of the parachute as much as possible. Practice these drills with a variety of toggle inputs to gain a full understanding of how your parachute flies.
You can use flat turns on almost any jump to help you stay in clear airspace as you descend toward the landing area. Once your parachute is open and flying, it is important to check your airspace and plan your descent. If you are at the same altitude as several other similarly loaded parachutes, you may find yourself reaching your pattern altitude at the same time and jockeying for position in congested air while close to the ground. It is far better to use slow flight and flat turns early in the descent to separate yourself from the other parachutes vertically and reach the landing-pattern altitude with as few other parachutes as possible.
Any time you are practicing these turns, make sure you are in clear airspace and frequently scan the sky all around you to make sure you remain in clear airspace. A solo hop-and-pop is a great way to practice new skills under parachute without having to worry about canopy traffic.
Pulling both toggles down to the mid-point of the range (or even deeper) can help you float above other parachutes. If you need to change your heading while flying in brakes, there are several ways to accomplish this:
- Holding the toggles evenly at about chest level, try leaning in the harness to apply your weight on the leg strap in the direction you want to turn. Weighting the right leg strap will start a turn to the right. Depending on the size and type of parachute, results will vary as to the speed of the turn. To stop the turn, even out your weight on both leg straps. This is usually a relatively slow way to change your heading compared to the other methods listed below.
- Holding both toggles evenly at about chest level, let up slightly on the left toggle to initiate a turn to the right. To stop the turn, even the toggles back to chest level. Make several turns in both directions.
- Holding both toggles evenly at chest level, pull down on the right toggle to initiate a turn to the right. The farther you pull the right toggle, the faster the rate of the turn will be and the greater the altitude loss. To stop the turn, let up on the right toggle to the same level as the left toggle. Make several turns in both directions.
- Holding the toggles held evenly at chest level, let up slightly on the left toggle and pull down slightly on the right toggle. To stop the turn, move both toggles evenly back to chest level. Make several turns in both directions. The rate of the turn will be slightly faster than using just one toggle to make a turn.
Experiment with these drills using different amounts of toggle input. With practice, the maneuvers become instinctive and a valuable tool you can use on almost every skydive.
Another important use for flat turns is the role they play as a defensive maneuver while close to the ground or when encountering an impending collision with another parachute. The practice drill is slightly different than the ones used for a simple heading change. In this situation, you may already be in a turn and need to recover to straight-and-level flight immediately to avoid smacking into the ground or another parachute.
As with the other drills above, make sure you are in clear airspace and practice these maneuvers above your hard deck for emergency procedures. Start this exercise using turns of 90 degrees, then gradually increase the turn to 180 and 360 degrees before initiating recovery.
Start a turn with the left toggle, then smoothly but aggressively add right toggle input to the same level as the left toggle. The momentum will cause you to swing aggressively under the parachute and continue moving toward the front of the parachute, causing it to pitch upward. Continue to hold the brakes at chest level while the parachute settles back toward level flight. Gradually raise the toggles back up to full flight.
You can try different amounts of toggle input to see how the parachute reacts. Using a digital altimeter can help you see how much altitude you lose in each exercise.
Flat turns are not just a useful tool, they can be a lifesaving tool. Something so useful should be practiced frequently so it becomes second nature. Check with your Safety and Training Advisor, an instructor or professional canopy pilot for supervision while you work through these drills. Before long, you’ll be nailing flat turns like a pro.
More information about turning with minimum altitude loss is available in the August 2013 Parachutist article “When Less is More” by longtime canopy coach and competitor Brian Vacher. In it, he explains the various ways to perform a flat turn. It is available under the Back Issues tab at parachutist.com.
About the Author
Jim Crouch, D-16979, is an FAA-rated Airline Transport Pilot based in Tampa, Florida. From 2000 to 2018, he was the director of safety and training at USPA.