Piggybacks and Three-Ring Circuses—A Slightly Irreverent Look Back at Skydiving Equipment
Features | Jul 09, 2021
Piggybacks and Three-Ring Circuses—A Slightly Irreverent Look Back at Skydiving Equipment

Kevin Gibson

One night, as you’re reading a bedtime story to your young parachute, it will inevitably want to know the answer to the question, “Where did I come from?” A responsible parachute owner had better be ready with the answers. A good place to find them is 1971’s “The Parachute Manual, Vol. 1” by the late Dan Poynter, the equivalent of Benjamin Spock’s “Baby and Child Care” but for parachute owners. While now as wildly irrelevant as Spock’s book is in today’s environment, Poynter remains a must-read for answering your parachute’s origin questions. You will both delight in its wiggly line drawings and black-and-white photos of dangerous-looking equipment and hair styles.

Today, skydivers slide into custom, form-fitting, lightweight parachute systems that are color matched to their personalities. Each system has been tweaked to a particular style of outside-of-the-aircraft craziness. With standardized operating handles that are pared to a minimum and a steadily increasing number of integrated redundancies, today’s parachute is virtually 100% reliable, save for the human factor. (We’re working on that.) So how did we get here?

Sport Canopies

Canopies evolved in three separate stages:

Stage One: Through the ‘50s, jumpers could buy complete parachute systems from Army surplus stores. But then the military decided to cut the lines of parachutes when they got removed from service, and that option disappeared. Suddenly, and out of necessity, imaginations flew and the sport-canopy industry was born.

Stage Two: Vents and centerlines. Someone discovered that rigging a sturdy limiter line from the apex of a round parachute to the connector links makes it open flatter. That and a series of vents, which made the parachute look like it blew up on opening, gave jumpers a taste of forward speed, control and a greater range of landings from good to bad. (The latter never deterred skydivers from experimenting with equipment and techniques.)

Stage Three: Ram-airs. The opening shock and hard landings of round parachutes limited skydiving to mostly hedonistic masochists throughout its early decades. “Squares” (as they were called despite never being actually square) shoved “rounds” into Neanderthal status within five years of their development around 1971. (A shout-out to the light-footed kite enthusiast Domina Jalbert, who never gained much more from his invention other than recognition.) Still, ram-air parachutes opened hard. So special mention goes to the slider, which solely—so far—survives all the old ideas about how to tame ram-air openings at terminal velocity.

Soon, most of the masochists aged out of the sport by their late 30s, leaving only the hedonists. Skydivers no longer would settle for just falling. They demanded to fly.

In the same way that it’s hard to pinpoint which monkey parents bore the first actual human, it’s not easy to say when parachutes became “modern.” For those who lived through the progression, they just seemed more modern with each price increase. But history marks several essential ideas.

Piggybacks

Well into the 1970s, jumpers equipped themselves with either a “conventional” rig that had a chest-mounted reserve, or a “piggyback” rig that had both parachutes on the back, sometimes mounted separately. (Piggybacks were also called “tandems,” but let’s not confuse the matter.) The Security Crossbow, nicknamed “the refrigerator,” came on the market in 1964, but it took more than 10 years for experienced jumpers to fully migrate. Many resisted the idea because they couldn’t reach the reserve parachute with their hands to solve problems—for example a not-uncommon metal-to-metal friction lock on the container at 1,000 feet. The term “piggyback” eventually faded from the lexicon about the same time as “groovy” and “stewardess.” An entire generation later, by then re-dubbed “fore-and-aft gear,” the conventional rig was effectively retired.

The sexiest piggybacks from the 1970s, still modular in design, appear quaint next to today’s unitized systems with their all-stainless-steel hardware, hidden housings, enclosed risers, articulated harnesses, blended lines, comfort padding, designer patterns, technical fabrics, rare-earth magnets and 1,500% price increase. Despite all the developments that led to 2021’s best designs, when Parachutist publishes an equipment article for USPA’s centennial in 2046, readers will surely still laugh.

Hand Deployment

The early 1960’s TV hit “Ripcord” would have certainly flopped with a name like “Hackey,” “Pud” or “Pilot Chute.” TV titles aside, though, ripcord deployment had a big drawback: pilot-chute hesitation caused by the big internal spring that weakly launched the pilot chute, leaving it to dance around in the jumper’s burble. In 1976, premier skydiving gear inventor Bill Booth gets credit for addressing the nagging problem by removing the spring and designing a system where the jumper extracted the pilot chute from a pocket and threw it into clean air off to the side. Radical. While hand deployment solved a lot of dangerous annoyances, it also brought along an unwelcome stranger to the malfunction family picnic: the pilot chute in tow—and the bastard cousin of the horseshoe, where the container could open before the pilot chute was deployed. 

It took a lot of fatal errors to figure out where to mount the hand-deployed pilot chute and how to keep the rig closed until you were ready to launch it. The first pilot chutes were stuffed into a pouch on a belly band, which the big rigs of the day still mostly required. But you’d also find them packed into a pocket on the front or back of a leg strap, inside the back pad, on the main risers and elsewhere. Velcro abounded.

Skydivers found all kinds of ways to misroute bridles, twist belly bands and leave things unfastened. Some simply forgot where the handles were. (This was the ’70s.) Not until the late-’80s did most everyone settle on the currently popular bottom-of-container pouch that actually first appeared on tandem rigs. BOCs took a while to catch on because jumpers had a hard time getting used to the idea of not being able to see the deployment handle—similar to the piggyback’s reserve-out-of-sight dilemma.

A lot of ideas for how to keep the container closed also came and went. Booth’s first hand- deployed Wonderhog (Get it? Like, amazing piggyback?) had an elastic bungee closing loop you threaded a small fold in the bridle through. That gave way to series of other non-ideal methods until curved pins became enough of a standard concept that the sport could afford to mint them from forged and polished stainless steel—aided by their popularity as charms on necklaces. In a parallel development, finicky pull-out systems that reorder the container opening sequence from pull-throw-open to pull-open-throw still retain a following of the independent-minded. You can tell them by the straight closing pins on their necklaces, and they pack for themselves.

Because hand deployment adds a lot of complications, we still use good old ripcords on the reserve: Look-reach-pull, and voila! (Oh, yeah—pilot-chute hesitations. Perhaps more parachute technology lies in wait.)

Reserve Static Lines

Nothing starts a good argument like an RSL, nor has ever a less-popular hero existed. Skydivers hate to admit they didn’t open the reserve parachute after a cutaway from a malfunctioning main. And like the priest at confession, the rigger remains silent about the telltale ripcord still in place in its pocket while intaking the reserve back at the loft.

Perry Stevens at Security Parachutes came up with the idea of tying the main risers to the ripcord on chest-mounted reserves and later configured it to the first piggyback. He would hardly recognize the slick RSL applications of 2021—coupled more and more with MARDs (main-assisted-reserve-deployment system), which deploys the entire reserve canopy before separating from the system and floating off into a tree with the cutaway main and freebag all in one tangled clump.

Single-Point Release

Booth again. He introduced the “Three-Ring Circus” in the mid-’70s with a system built largely from items in a telephone booth hardware catalog. It simplified the cutaway—which was then still such a complex and controversial malfunction procedure that some schools wired the canopy releases shut on their student equipment. In part, this was because the Capewell system (named for its manufacturer rather than its superhero-sounding origins) was only ever designed to release a paratrooper from a reinflated canopy that was dragging him across a windy battlefield. Capewells suffered through a number of alterations that promised to streamline cutting away in the air. But Booth’s elegant 3-ring release, inspired by a system used for tethered balloons, required the jumper merely to pull a cutaway handle first, then the reserve ripcord.

Other self-styled engineers (Booth has a master’s degree in music) wanted in on the action. Systems using flapping paddles, wraps of webbing and even cabling from one handle to operate a Capewell adaptation surfaced, but nothing caught hold.

Continued developments from Booth’s Relative Workshop (now United Parachute Technologies) in DeLand, Florida, positioned it at the epicenter of what has become the world’s largest skydiving multiplex, lacking only a big screen and a circular building. Dozens of independent manufacturers of major parachute equipment, accessories and training and support services lie within a square mile of the progressive Skydive DeLand drop zone. Chances are that at least some part of your equipment and training can trace its roots to DeLand.

AADs

Steve Snyder introduced the Sentinel automatic opening device (AOD) in 1959, a clunky unit that paired an altimeter with a charge to fire at 1,000 feet and activate the reserve. You turned it on, jumped, opened your parachute and turned it off before you got to firing altitude … or you forgot and your reserve opened, too. Beer.

Then Snyder brought on the MK 2000 that had to also be traveling quickly at 1,000 feet in order to fire. Meanwhile, the lawyers tongue-twisted the product-class name to “automatic activation device” and jumpers had to learn to say “AAD” instead of “AOD” or suffer the taunts of newer jumpers. The Sentinel’s technology was willing, but the spirit was weak. They proved reliable if they got their annual factory service, but nobody on the load wanted them near the door, below them in freefall or, for that matter, above them if things went wrong.

In 1991, Helmut Cloth of Germany humbly introduced his microprocessor-controlled Cybernetic Parachute Release System (CYPRES) with his vision for all jumpers to have a practical automatic activation device. Early adopters suffered through the macho jokes and snubs until several high-profile no-pull fatalities jolted the in-crowd into no longer laughing. Other capable AAD manufacturers joined the market, also from Europe. (One U.S. model enjoyed a moment in the sun but soon faded into obscurity.) AADs went from being on a near-zero number of rigs to approaching 100 percent in little more than a decade. Cloth’s dream became reality.

The interesting part is—aside from tandem and student training—USPA never had to require AADs to make them happen (or RSLs for that matter). The respectable parachute rig evolved from its crudely mated main canopy and container and FAA-approved harness, reserve canopy and reserve container to an integrated system with the AAD as a de facto fourth component, plus an RSL (often with a MARD to back up the back-up).

Skydiving equipment has followed its users’ zeitgeist. To draw a parallel, take a look at Harley Davidson motorcycles. Try to find one without an electric starter. Times have changed. Bikers have changed. Skydivers have changed. They want safety, simplicity, comfort and style, which wasn’t always the case. And nowadays, they mostly have it.


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.

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