This article appeared in its original form on the extreme-sports blog pussfoot.com.
Riggers receive many questions from customers about reserve canopies, which range from, “What color is it?” to “Should I buy this cheap closet-queen 30-year-old reserve instead of the more expensive brand-new one?” Chances are, you know very little about your reserve canopy (after all, it’s packed away out of view most of the time), but you should. It’s an important piece of equipment, and although you hope to never use it, you probably will at some point.
When choosing your reserve canopy, you should give it as much—or more—consideration as you do your main. First, consider the size of the reserve based on your skill and experience level. If you’re flying a 210-square-foot main canopy, do you really want to purchase a 170-square-foot reserve and have an emergency be the first time you downsize? In the event of a cutaway or off-field landing, flying a reserve canopy that’s one size smaller than the canopy you’re used to jumping may not be a huge deal, but flying one several sizes smaller could pose an enormous challenge. Bear in mind that you’ll probably be landing it during a time of great stress, so choosing a reserve canopy as close in size to the one you normally fly is wise.
You’ll also want to consider the weight limitations of the reserve, which the Federal Aviation Administration’s Technical Standard Orders (TSOs) govern. The canopy manufacturer will provide you with these weight limitations, and you must take them into account, whether you’re buying new or used. Also, be aware that if you are jumping in the U.S., your reserve model must have a TSO. Some non-U.S. manufacturers produce canopies that don’t have this certification, and the FAA prohibits their use in the U.S. If you have a regulation question about a certain reserve model, consult with a rigger.
Choosing either of your canopies—main or reserve—can be confusing, so enlist the help of trusted advisors. If you are newly licensed, speak to your instructors. They have first-hand knowledge of your flying abilities and will be good judges of what canopies are safe for your skill level. However, if you are an experienced jumper, you still shouldn’t hesitate to ask your DZ’s instructors for help. They are there for everyone, and chances are they would love nothing more than to assist you in making smart, safe decisions. Ask them! In addition, your drop zone’s Safety and Training Advisor and staff rigger are good resources when making gear choices.
You can also consult the canopy manufacturer directly. The website will contain lots of information, and you can also call or email. While the staff won’t have personal knowledge of your flying history and abilities, they are the subject-matter experts. Be prepared to answer several questions to help them understand your needs and assist you in making the safest decision.
When you’re choosing your gear, be sure to familiarize yourself with the container manufacturer’s guidelines for canopy size. Choosing a harness-and-container system that fits your body but is too large or small to fit your canopies is just asking for trouble. If you’ve decided to purchase a custom container, the manufacturer can assist you in choosing the correct size. If you’re purchasing a full set of used gear, it’s always a good idea to consult the container manufacturer before the sale to see if the canopies included are within their recommendations. You can find canopy-size and -type specifications on the container manufacturer’s website, but you can also simply call.
If you can afford it, purchasing a new reserve is the best way to get an appropriate canopy in good condition. Remember, the reserve is your last chance of survival in the event of a cutaway. If you are purchasing a reserve used, always ask a rigger or the manufacturer to properly inspect it before purchase. Certain manufacturers even have reserve-recertification programs for older reserves.
Newer jumpers on a budget are often tempted by the seeming bargain of an old canopy (often older than they are) that has rarely been used. These closet-queen reserves may seem like a good deal, but it is crucial to have them inspected and evaluated before money changes hands. Many manufacturers leave riggers in the field in charge of determining whether a canopy is airworthy, and some riggers will not pack a reserve that is beyond a certain age. In that case, you’d either need to send it back for recertification (if that’s even an option) or find another rigger who will pack it. In addition, some manufacturers of reserves no longer exist, but their products are still in circulation. Keep in mind that purchasing a reserve made by a defunct manufacturer means that you won’t have repair and service support available to you.
All reserves are seven-cell canopies that have Spectra lines. However, the canopy material itself may vary. Most reserve canopies are manufactured from F-111 (low-porosity) nylon, but reserves made from low-bulk material are on the market, as well. The low-bulk material packs up smaller than F-111, therefore maximizing the size of canopy that will fit into a certain container. The container manufacturer will provide its reserve-size recommendations for both types of material. A low-bulk option is something to consider if you’d like to use a larger reserve than would normally fit into your container.
Regardless of the model, manufacturer or color of the reserve that you choose, the bottom line is that you must make an informed decision. It is your life, after all!
Next month: Reserves, Part 2: Packing and Flying
Shauna Finley | D-34907 and FAA Master Rigger
USPA Eastern Regional Director