John LeBlanc, vice president at Performance Designs, loves “flying everything that can be flown.” He’s been doing just that for more than 40 years (since age 16, as a matter of fact), and he’s been designing parachutes for 35 of them. Over the course of those years of intense testing, LeBlanc has unsurprisingly suffered more than his share of openings that were slappers.
“I’ve jumped a lot of crappy parachutes along the way,” he said, “and there was always the question, ‘Why did it do that? Was it me or the design?’ Either way, I always had more work to do: on me, on the parachute design, on the technique.” The latter—the technique for a body position that sets any deployment up for success—is one of LeBlanc’s many specialties. Luckily, he’s happy to share that hard (opening)-earned wisdom.
Parachute openings are massively multifactorial, of course, and packing and equipment certainly figure in. Beyond that, however, there’s an element of the opening that many skydivers haven’t particularly addressed: the details of the unpacking of the parachute. Sure, you know that you need to slow down and get stable before you throw, but beyond that there are plenty of tweaks you can make to the choreography that just might make a difference.
LeBlanc tends to think of any given deployment as a dance between the jumper and the parachute, a relationship that, in many ways, follows the same rules as one of the romantic variety.
“You do need to lead,” he explained, “but if you’re overly dominant, that parachute is going to mess your day up. Just like any other relationship, there must be a sense of give and take. You need to give the parachute a chance to do what it was designed to do without over-controlling. You need to be wise, relaxed, methodical and predictable.” Here’s how.
“Some people think it’s too cosmic,” LeBlanc said, laughing, “but I’ve had a lot of people revolutionize their openings for the better simply by relaxing during the opening sequence.”
We’ve all seen what he’s referring to, in ourselves and the jumpers around us. Especially when one’s deployments have been suboptimal for a while, it’s very easy to get caught in the tension trap.
“Lots of jumpers get really rigid during their openings,” LeBlanc said, “which might help them be more prepared for a brutal opening, but then they usually end up looking up at the parachute with their head and neck in a position that’s not that safe.”
The solution? Commit to keeping a relaxed vibe. And the vibe of the deployment, of course, starts with the pull.
“Some people fire that PC out there like it’s a grenade,” LeBlanc said. “In wingsuit flying, that might be very appropriate, but in most cases something very predictable happens: If you’re rigid when you throw the pilot chute, your hand will go to the right and your hips will poke out to the left like you’re doing some kind of dance. It throws the whole deployment off.”
Instead, LeBlanc advises easing off a bit. Be strong, not stiff. Breathe. Keep your mouth closed and your tongue inside your mouth.
Beginners are taught to look at their canopies when they’re opening, because looking is a big part of awareness. Before a jumper’s proprioceptive ability (i.e., the ability to sense movement and body position) develops sufficiently to know what’s happening through their other senses, their eyeballs are where it’s at. Unfortunately, lots of jumpers stick with that habit deep into their skydiving careers (much to the delight of their chiropractors and physiotherapists).
“The best thing you can do as a more experienced jumper is to stop looking at your deployment during the snivel phase,” LeBlanc insisted. “Just stop doing it. Just that alone makes a lot of problems go away. As you become familiar with the sequence of your opening and the way it feels, you really don’t need to look at your parachute until you really need to look at it.”
What’s wrong with gawking? Plenty. Sure, looking up at the parachute puts your neck into a position that’s vulnerable should you have a hard opening. Interestingly, it also adds to the likelihood of that hard opening.
“You aren’t going to help the parachute deploy any better by looking at it during the snivel,” LeBlanc said. “What you are going to do is lose awareness of how you’re flying your body during the deployment. You’re also going to lose situational awareness of what’s happening around you.”
“When you look up,” he continued, “the parachute will often dance around over your head. At least, you will always think it’s over your head. But when the parachute wiggles to, say, the right, you tend to tip your body to the right and put that parachute right up where you’re looking. You’ve tipped in the harness and you don’t realize it because you think you know where the parachute is. It actually moves back and forth quite a bit—in some cases, four or even five-plus feet left and right. If you constantly move your body to keep that thing over your head, you are telling the parachute to do all sorts of things when it just wants to do its own thing at that point.”
Keeping your gaze generally on the horizon and taking in the rest with your peripheral vision puts you—and your equipment—in a much better position for the opening.
“Some people put their hands on their risers; some don’t,” LeBlanc added. “There are pros and cons to both. But the main thing is if you are looking around you, you can see where there might be somebody a little closer than you thought or a parachute flying toward you. And your focus is also much more directly on descending during the snivel in a straight, symmetrical body position.”
At a certain time, of course, it’s time to look up. Perhaps surprisingly, plenty of jumpers have stopped looking once that moment arrives.
“Once you’re open and flying, it’s certainly a good idea to peek up and check it,” LeBlanc said. “Very often when it is actually time to look and check for things like damage, people don’t look.”
Another note: Have someone else film your openings. According to LeBlanc, the worst thing to do is take that forward-viewing camera that you probably have on your head and look up at your parachute while it’s deploying. That footage will tell you almost nothing, and your opening will certainly suffer for your efforts.
Here’s another way that our relationships with our canopies tend to resemble our romantic relationships: People get a little lazy when it’s time to get busy. Instead of making the effort to slow things down and make the moment just right, they end up rushing right to the main event without even noticing they’re doing it.
“People start becoming so confident of how nicely their parachute opens that they start becoming lazy about slowing their body down,” LeBlanc explained. “They’ll start, for instance, in a really head-down position and then flip to a belly-to-earth position and quickly deploy without understanding how fast they’re going.”
According to LeBlanc, a lot of people don’t realize that their track is as steep as it is. Most jumpers are reasonably sure they’re nice and flat … but then they get some awareness and check it out. The revelation usually comes in the moment that they look over and see people higher than they are (sometimes significantly) after breakoff. Bingo. Steep.
“Sure, people will often get away with that,” LeBlanc added, “but they won’t always. When it does go wrong—because, perhaps, there were a few other things going wrong—and they’re going too fast when they deploy, it makes the hard opening that much harder.”
After you’ve slowed your fall in the run-up to deployment, there’s another adjustment you can make to dial it in even further: Without doing anything gymnastic or forced, work with the parachute to help seat yourself in the harness. LeBlanc insists that it’s a subtle, mindful, intuitive movement.
“It’s a flow through the deployment system,” he explained, “of being generally in a shape where your belly is presented to the relative wind, so when the parachute is ready to sit you up, you help it tilt you in that direction. It’s not a gymnastic movement where you get into a sit-flying position when the canopy reaches line stretch.”
Per LeBlanc, there’s a happy middle ground between an aerial sit-up and the mindless, totally reactive deployment of a new AFF student. In this optimal scenario, intermediate or advanced jumpers know the point in the sequence when their parachutes want to sit them up, and they help their parachutes on their mission just a little bit by dropping their knees into a sitting position. The effect of that little adjustment is to lower the snatch force at precisely the right time. The pack job will be more intact when it comes out of the bag, rather than exploding out of the bag in a chaotic mess … which can make a big difference in the comfort and quality of an opening. However, it does have to be done just right.
“It has to be very uniform,” LeBlanc noted. “Some people tend to not drop both knees into the sitting position as the parachute tries to sit them up, but they do one before the other, almost like cartwheeling into the sitting position. That’s a big problem that leads to off-heading openings and line twists, but it’s pretty subtle in practice. For example: Most people tend to go into that sitting position with their left knee slightly before the right. That weights the left side of the harness during that point, and it starts a lot of weird things happening.”
Curious to know if you’re even? Check outside video for dipping in your knees or shoulders. Look for slack in one side of the harness. Watch that you’re nice and square in the harness for the entire opening sequence, all the way into full flight, with your gaze easy on the horizon. (It’ll be easy to tell.)
All of this takes time to perfect, of course. But, as you set about the highly procedural task of dialing in your body position for nicer openings, you might also enjoy an off-label benefit of the effort: a more open conversation on your drop zone about this all-too-important part of our skill set. “It has been a very long haul to get to the point where people are willing to listen to people on the art of parachute flying and landing,” LeBlanc noted. “People generally aren’t willing to take responsibility for the parachute opening. Once you do, everything just gets better.”
About the Author
Annette O’Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.