When you want to check out a new main parachute, chances are you’ll make a solo jump, open higher than usual and spend some time flying the new wing to get used to how it handles. Almost everyone who jumps a new main canopy does. After all, it makes sense. It’s a mystery how the new parachute will steer and flare compared to what you are used to, and who wouldn’t want to make a few jumps on it under controlled conditions with plenty of altitude to learn how to fly it?
With that in mind, it seems crazy that the way many of us learn about our reserve parachutes is when we have just 15 seconds of working time to steer to a clear area and land. Right? Your last chance at survival, and yet you probably don’t even know what color your reserve is, much less how it flies and lands. It’s not exactly the best scenario for your introduction to a parachute that flies completely differently than your main. On top of that, if you have just dealt with a spinning malfunction, you are probably also a bit disoriented.
Thankfully, manufacturers design reserve parachutes to be docile and very stable. But many of us totally screw even that up by jumping very small reserves. (Those who jump small main parachutes usually jump small reserves since most containers are built to house similarly sized main and reserve parachutes.) Though a reserve loaded at more than 1.2:1 may still be relatively stable, its high descent rate and forward speed have the potential to kill an unconscious jumper who lands without flaring. The risk of injury or death to a jumper who cannot flare increases with wing loading since the higher it is, the faster the landing will be. And even if you can flare, some models of reserves stall very abruptly and much earlier in the flare than a comparably sized main canopy.
Since there is so much to consider regarding your reserve parachute, it’s a great idea to make a few jumps on it under controlled circumstances. Check with your manufacturer to see if a demo of your size and model of reserve is available to jump in place of your main parachute. Oftentimes, manufacturers will travel to events with various sizes of reserves so jumpers can try them out. A solo hop-and-pop from 5,000 or 6,000 feet will allow you time to fly your demo reserve and learn how it handles while you focus on its flight characteristics.
A series of jumps concentrated on turns, stalls, braked flight and braked turns will provide invaluable feedback. You may even decide that you want a larger reserve parachute based on your test flights.
Becoming familiar with your reserve will greatly help your situation if you do end up using it in an actual emergency. After opening at a low altitude, disoriented from spinning and having to avoid obstacles while landing in a small backyard, you need all the help you can get! If you have a problem with your main parachute or you are unable to deploy your main, your reserve is your last chance for survival. Make sure you are ready for the challenge.
Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training