It’s a necessary evil. It gets no respect from skydivers. It’s why we have packers. It’s what we put off until the last second before the S&TA says, “I don’t care how well you can dive and dock, until you can pack that parachute, you ain’t getting an A-license stamp on your head!”
Seriously, everyone should take packing more seriously. Even if you figure on using packers your entire skydiving career—no matter if all that’s available is prison labor (under the supervision of a rigger, course)—you should at least know what to look for in a bad pack job. So, suck it up and buckle down. Learn the basics and practice them. You’ll surely come to enjoy packing as much as making your bed and doing dishes.
There are plenty of good ways to pack. So, starting from emphasizing the negative, here are a few of your manufacturers’, riggers’ and favorite packers’ pet peeves:
Before you pack for yourself or turn your rig in for packing, absolutely, positively:
- Uncollapse (cock) the pilot chute.
- Inspect the line-stow elastics (rubber bands).
- Uncollapse the slider.
- Untwist the brake lines.
- Set the brakes (below the guide ring!)
- Check the closing loop for wear.
- Run the slider up the lines (“four-line check”).
- Double check that you absolutely uncollapsed the pilot chute.
Packers, bless their little hearts, can forget to cock the pilot chute. They’ll skip untwisting the brake lines altogether (no time—the DZO’s on a 10!), set the brakes wrong and skip stowing the excess altogether, blow right through a step-through (assuming you ran the lines up yourself), forget to unset the slider, nurse geriatric stow bands down to the last millimeter of their life and leave a gnarly closing loop for the next packer to change.
OK … so it’s actually rare for a packer to forget the slider and the pilot chute or goof up the four-line check. But even surgeons mess up. Failing to reset the pilot chute can result in such grave consequences that it deserves attention at least twice every pack job and once more on the pre-jump gear check. (You are someone who does gear checks, right?) And, so far, rigs don’t come with a little window to check for a step-through or a collapsed slider.
Absolutely, if you find a packer who routinely takes care of all that other stuff, tip heavily and tell your friends. But nonetheless, whether using that packer, an unfamiliar packer or packing for yourself, prep your rig down that entire list.
That’s right: It’s possible to pack a parachute too much. If you run the four-line and shake it like a T-shirt with bees on it, everything pretty much falls into place. You can spend some time neatening up the inside to get the bulk down, but most of your time is better spent trying to get on the next load. Clear out what’s between the B-lines and C-lines if you like digging around in your canopy. But do flake the tail, put all the D-lines in place—especially the ones at the stabilizers—and clear the edges of the stabilizers. Then comes the important part.
Misplacing the Slider
The slider rules the pack job and comprises the three most important parts of packing a ram-air canopy: 1) slider placement, 2) slider placement and 3) slider placement. We call it “quartering.” It should be “million-dollaring.” Aside from preventing any confusion around the D and brake lines, the slider is almost all that matters.
When looking down into the pack job, the edges of the slider should form an even-sided cross like a four-leaf clover, a little wider side-to-side, with the leaves individually folded in half along the stem. Like this.
The edges of the slider should not look like one of those Celtic knots people get for tattoos.
Over-Rolling the Tail
The PRO-pack (which stands for “proper ram-air orientation”) got its name about the same time people started paying for pack jobs, so the acronym was always kind of dubious. Unlike previous methods, you just squeeze the canopy together in a logical way—especially the slider, in case you missed the importance of that—so everything just expands evenly north, south east, and west. So why the heck do we take the tail from the back and wrap it around the front? Only to help control the bundle as you bag it. (Incidentally, riggers don’t do that with a reserve.)
Contrary to popular myth, the tail wrap does not control the speed of the opening. In fact, over-rolling the tail can lead to hard openings! Plus, rolling it beyond the minimum necessary to get 2-3 flat fold-overs (not tight little rolls) will trap the nose in the D-lines and fast-track you to a line-over malfunction. Have you seen all those little holes that appear around the warning label and the next half cell over? They’re from over-rolling the tail.
Stuﬃng the Nose
No insult ever complemented an injury like punching a canopy in the nose with an over-rolled tail. So try not to crank all the parts that should be in the back to the front. In doing so, you assure complete pandemonium during inflation by pushing the whole nose and slider behind the C lines. Twist! Pow! Spin! Yahoo! (Back on the ground, you barely hear the packers mumble “body position.”)
Slamming it to the Floor
But wait! There are still plenty more ways to screw up a pack job. It’s important now to lay it neatly onto the floor, preserving your hard work. Don’t be the jumper who slaps it down hard, then watches the tail roll explode as the D-lines skitter to the outside like mice.
As all skydivers know, anything worth doing is worth doing to excess. But please, even if your pack job isn’t the best one you’ve ever done, resist the urge to save it by rolling everything into a tight column like a cigar, locking all the insides into the ready-to-malfunction position and so it can’t possibly fill the outside of the deployment bag when you muscle it in. If you make this mistake, listen later when you close the container-- you’ll, hear your tortured closing loop scream for mercy as your bicep pops from straining to get the side-flap grommets to meet over the big hump in the middle.
Slumping the Slider
Even if you’ve made it this far without abusing your canopy, watch out: the slider likes to run for cover and might make it two, three, maybe four inches down the lines before you notice it’s escaping. What not to do? Check that nobody’s looking and stuff it back up into the bag. Your friends will delight in signing your neck brace in a few weeks once the doctor clears you for driving back to the drop zone. Maybe by then your canopy will be back from the factory (if you ever found it after the cutaway).
After the slider, nothing needs more and gets less attention than line stows. The industry has long agreed that the magic number for holding and releasing each bight (group of folded lines) lies between eight and 11 pounds. Nobody bothers to check this. However, your bagged canopy happens to typically weigh about that much. So, if can you lift the bag with each stowed bight, and it almost lets loose, then you actually may have it about right. But notice that the bights get thinner as you work your way to the links. So how you manage each stow to get that tension counts.
The canopy makers in the industry also agree that using standard (3/8” x 2-1/4”) natural rubber bands double wrapped neatly around all the line groups works in most cases. (Additional research is currently underway.) That advice is based on more than 12,000 jumps in a controlled program conducted by leading canopy manufacturer Performance Designs, not something you heard around the campfire from somebody who knows somebody who thinks they came up with a better idea.
Some of this and all of everything else you need to know is in the owner’s manual for your parachute—one for your main, one for your harness and container, one for your automatic activation device and one for your reserve. Granted, not all manuals are equal. If you need info on something not covered in yours, call the manufacturer. If they get enough calls with the same question, maybe it will go in the next version. But at least you have the right info and can help get the word out.
Manufacturers love to blame problems on practices “in the field,” but some leave too much latitude for lack of specifics in their manuals. Or as a manufacturer spokesperson once told an assembled industry gathering, “We don’t make any money writing manuals.”
One excuse for not knowing what’s in the manual came from an actual rig owner who already had 20 jumps on the rig and asked the kind of question that makes riggers’ eyes roll. When the rigger advised looking it up in the owner’s manual, the owner responded, “Wait, that’s a thing?”
Wouldn’t it be great if all we needed to do to get a parachute to open perfectly every time was knowing how to pack it and packing it that way every time? We wish. There’s age and maintenance, weight and speed, attitude at deployment, body position and control, interface of all the components, temperature, humidity and even how we’re feeling when we pack. (Tired? In a hurry? Under the weather?) So, there’s more to the story than just correct technique.
But getting reliable information, developing good packing habits and tossing out unproven claims and plain bad ideas at least reduces the variables. Happy packing!
About the Author
Kevin Gibson, D-6943, frequently contributes to Parachutist. He is an FAA Designated Parachute Rigger Examiner and runs Rahlmo’s Rigging at Skydive Orange in Virginia