Ask a Rigger
What is the Difference Between a Senior and a Master Rigger, and What’s a DPRE?
The term “rigger” comes from sailing. According to the Federal Aviation Administration Parachute Rigger Handbook, the only place clean enough and big enough for riggers to work on parachutes in the early days was upstairs in an aircraft hangar, hence the term “rigging loft.”
Riggers ready skydiving equipment to save lives—equipment its users often know little about. Despite the purpose riggers serve, an FAA rigger certificate comes with low minimums: Speak and write understandable English, score 70 percent on a 50-question exam (that has all the answers posted on the internet), pack some obsolete reserve 20 times, sew a crooked patch, answer another 20 oral questions from the examiner (70 percent again) and you’re in!
Suddenly, you’re the new go-to person on the drop zone for questions on anything from, “Is this pilot chute safe to jump for the rest of the weekend?” to “Why does my canopy turn to the right on opening?” to (inevitably) “Can you replace the worn-out toes on my booties by next weekend?”
The FAA governs riggers via a few pages under Chapter 14, Part 65, of the Code of Federal Regulations. Riggers earn their ratings according to one or more types of parachutes they train to pack: back, chest, seat and the archaic lap type. (Round and square/ram-air parachutes are not types.)
The FAA issues the certificate at two levels: senior (entry level) and master. A senior rigger may apply and test for the master rigger certificate after practicing for three years, packing 100 reserves of two different types and undergoing a more rigorous oral and practical examination. Relatively few riggers achieve the master-level certificate.
Few would argue that CFR 65 leaves a lot to the imagination, and it has gone virtually unchanged since skydivers jumped surplus military parachute gear. Fortunately, skydiving industry standards have maintained a higher bar for riggers than the FAA minimums. While it’s possible—and even considered an acceptable practice—to blow through a minimum rigger course and be qualified to legally pack mains for others (as the FAA requires), skydiving forges its rigging practitioners through mentorship, and it polices rigging standards from within. Industry professionals describe the senior rigger rating as a license to learn.
The FAA allows a senior rigger to pack main and reserve parachutes and perform minor repairs, unless doing it wrong “might appreciably affect airworthiness.” CFR 105 (the FAA’s skydiving rules) says any jumper may pack their own main, and any rigger may supervise others to pack a main for someone else, but only a rigger may pack a reserve. Senior riggers may supervise others to perform minor repairs on a main parachute, but only a master rigger may supervise repairs on a reserve. Any rigger may train someone to become a rigger.
Master riggers may perform major repairs and alterations on the reserve and harness-and-container system within manufacturers’ guidelines. Outside those guidelines, they must obtain specific manufacturer or FAA approval.
Skydivers have a lot of freedom when it comes to the main parachute, which means everything from the main risers up (not including the reserve static line—that’s part of the reserve). But the FAA requires a rigger to fix or change anything on a main.
At first glance, it may appear that the rules on rigging and riggers in CFR 65 leave a chasm for interpretation, but that’s not so. There are other supporting documents, such as the Parachute Rigger Handbook, FAA Advisory Circular 105-2E, Dan Poynter’s “Parachute Manual” (an older and out-of-print but still-valuable resource), the FAA Technical Standard Order for certification of parachutes, a multitude of technical standards from the Parachute Industry Association, endless manufacturers’ manuals, updates, product service bulletins and informal online rigging resources. Most are living documents under constant revision that receive continuous attention from the various manufacturers, the FAA and parachute riggers.
Within various aspects of aviation, the FAA recognizes and designates certain industry experts as “examiners.” They conduct the tests toward FAA certifications, such as mechanic, flight instructor and parachute rigger. After a rigger candidate passes the FAA written exam, an FAA Designated Parachute Rigger Examiner (DPRE) conducts the oral and practical portion of the exam. The DPRE is a master rigger who has the testing responsibility for that FAA Flight Standards District Office, or FSDO, pronounced “fizz dough.” (The FAA is big on initializations and acronyms.)
When a FSDO establishes the need for an examiner in its district, it selects a candidate from applications it receives from various local master riggers. Once approved, DPREs initially spend three days at FAA Headquarters in Oklahoma City to learn the ropes. They also attend a seminar every two years and work closely with the FSDO in the interim. So, they’re expected to know the rules. However, the DPRE holds no additional authority. It doesn’t come with a badge.
How It All Works
Most in skydiving agree that we like rules that allow for development and evolution. Parachute gear changes too quickly for overly detailed rules to adapt efficiently, especially when they come from the federal government and its thick bureaucracy. The effectiveness of the parachute rigging system testifies to the successful self-regulation that has preserved the sport and many lives over its history.
So, all in all, you need a rigger to work on your gear. Some riggers get their ratings only to pack mains and maybe their own reserves. Some take a deeper interest and hang out their shingles to pack reserves for others. Some work under more experienced riggers until they gain competence in the many loft processes it takes to keep gear in shape. And some operate full-service repair facilities with all the machines and tools to practically build a complete system, and often that’s where you go to become a rigger yourself. You can consult with your DZ staff to see which rigger you need.
Kevin Gibson | D-6943 and FAA Designated Parachute Rigger Examiner
Owner, Rahlmo’s Rigging at Skydive Orange in Virginia