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Emergency Pilot Parachute

With the popularity of aerobatic airplanes and training that has come to our area recently, it is likely that more pilots have worn emergency parachutes lately than pilots who know very much about them. In fact, many pilots seem to regard this lifesaving device as no more than a "black box" which satisfies the FAA's legal requirements when doing certain types of flying. Most pilots have never even imagined using a parachute in an emergency situation and many even suggest that they would probably "go down with the plane" rather than trust it to open properly. Indeed, the likelihood of needing to use an emergency parachute is small, but as in any other piece of safety equipment, the time to learn about its use is BEFORE you need it. Any pilot engaging in a type of flying that requires using a parachute has a RESPONSIBILITY to learn how to use it and to trust it in an emergency, because in the case of a disabled aircraft, any hesitation in getting out might cause a loss of altitude sufficient to make a parachute's use ineffective, or could block the exit path of someone else in the aircraft.

"Parachute" Defined:

When we speak of a parachute as worn by an aerobatic pilot, a glider pilot, or anyone else not intending to jump from an aircraft, we are including not only the parachute canopy itself, but the harness that is worn by the pilot, and the container in which the canopy is packed. Whereas skydivers now use mainly the advanced "square" type parachute as their main canopy, a pilot's emergency canopy will most certainly be the simple "round" type since it is not expected to be used very often and is just providing a safe way down in case of an emergency.

The Legal Requirements:

As specified in FAR 91.307, an "approved parachute" is required by all occupants of the aircraft whenever the expected pitch and bank angles of an airplane will exceed 30 and 60 degrees respectively, except in the case of certain flight tests or spin training and other maneuvers given by certain instructors. Also, certain Supplemental Type Certificates (STC's) may also specify certain parachute requirements when an aircraft is to be flown with a door removed, or open as in the case of skydiving aircraft or aircraft used for photography or dropping cargo. An "approved parachute" refers to an assembly that has been manufactured under certain military specifications or under Technical Standard Order (TSO) C-23. To further define what is required of an emergency parachute, FAR 91.307 specifies that a parachute, in order to be made available for emergency use, must have been inspected and packed within a certain preceding time period by a FAA certificated and appropriately rated Parachute Rigger. This inspection and repack cycle is currently 180 days for parachutes made entirely of synthetic materials, which almost all are (usually nylon). FAR 65 includes parachute riggers and parts 65.11 through 65.133 specify two different parachute rigger certificates and four parachute type ratings. When an emergency parachute is packed by a parachute rigger, the rigger will attach a small thread and crimped lead seal near one of the ripcord pins identifying their work. This was originally designed to insure during an inspection by the FAA that the parachute had not been tampered with or unpacked. The rigger will also sign and date the parachute's "Packing Data Card" which is stored in a pocket somewhere on the parachute. You can determine from this date when the parachute needs to be inspected and repacked again.

Care and Maintenance:

The first step toward making sure your parachute will serve you well when needed is to make sure that you are properly caring for it. Common sense will suffice here, because actually, there are few things that can harm a parachute harness, container, or canopy. Simply keeping it in a cool, dry place and out of the sunlight when not being used is adequate. About the only things that can seriously weaken any of the components to the point of making them unsafe is certain chemicals like acids, or ultraviolet radiation from the sun. If a parachute is exposed to anything else, it should of course be evaluated by a parachute rigger, but common dirt is seldom a problem. Older parachute systems, particularly the military types, may look quite scuffed and dirty, but be completely serviceable.

Inspecting and Donning the Parachute:

Before putting a parachute on a few things should be checked. All flaps should be tucked in with nothing hanging out of the container. The ripcord pins should be seated, and the packing data card should reflect an appropriate date. You can get into the harness either inside or outside of the airplane, but it is harder to get the straps tight when inside. Make sure both leg straps are in place and tight. The chest strap need not be as tight because most of the load on opening is on the legs. An old parachuting saying is appropriate at this point - "Enter the aircraft prepared to jump." This basically means that if you need to get out, there will be no time to make any other connections or adjustments, so make sure they are done right at this point.

Exiting a Disabled Aircraft:

Each time you enter an aerobatic airplane you must learn and mentally rehearse your exit including the procedures for removing the door if it applies. There will be no time to fumble if you need to do it for real, and a spinning and out of control airplane will be difficult enough to get out of if you can do it at all. You somehow need to scramble and pull your way out as fast as possible. Concerning yourself with the person in the seat behind you is a nice thought, but will only serve to slow you both down. Once you are completely clear of the airplane, LOOK directly at the ripcord, REACH for the ripcord until it is firmly in your hand, and PULL hard. If you do not look at it first you may wind up pulling on something other than the ripcord. Hanging on to the ripcord after the canopy opens means you will not have to buy another one.

Steering the Parachute:

Even though nearly all emergency parachutes are of the "round" type and do not have very much forward speed, it is usually still possible for you to control where you are going and where you will land by steering the parachute properly. In the case of windy conditions it may mean that you will be going backwards most of the way down, but even if you think you are backing up into a bad area, you can turn around and run downwind past it and continue backing up into a better area. Avoid power lines at all costs, avoid water if you cannot swim, and if landing in trees is unavoidable, protect your body from the branches and cross your legs before landing.

There are a variety of steering systems on emergency parachutes including no steering whatsoever, and the only way to truly understand how your particular parachute steers is to have your parachute rigger show you and explain it to you when the parachute is open for inspection and repack. Some military type harnesses have canopy release mechanisms to allow you to release the canopy after landing if it is windy and you are being dragged by the still inflated parachute. It is important for you to know the difference between the two systems. Canopies that were designed to be steered have holes cut out of the back and side panels, and sometimes the holes are covered with mesh. These modifications give the parachute forward drive, so do not be alarmed if you look up and see holes in your parachute. Generally, special steering lines will be connected to the lines at the outside of the modifications. Some of the steering lines include steering handles, loops of line to put your fingers through, or colored marks to indicate which lines to pull. Some parachutes that were originally not steerable have a system that allows you to release the four lines in the rear of the parachute so that air will escape in back and give the parachute forward drive

                                         Landing the Parachute:

Just as in an airplane, you should land facing into the wind if possible to reduce your ground speed. The best way to protect yourself from leg and foot injury is to press your feet and knees tightly together and get some tension in your legs with your knees slightly bent to absorb the shock. When you hit the ground, attempt to roll to the side or back and distribute the shock to your legs, thigh, hips, and side. If it is windy and the canopy begins to drag you, pull on one suspension line to collapse the canopy.

                                                                            In conclusion:

Most pilots hope that they will never have to use an emergency parachute, but many have learned as much as possible about their parachutes and have practiced their emergency procedures to make them more comfortable about the possibility. Some pilots have even gone to the point of educating themselves fully on the use of a parachute by being trained and making an intentional jump. But even if you do not want to take your training to that extent, you can still count on your parachute rigger for the necessary information. Most parachute riggers appreciate your questions about your parachute and will gladly help you practice your emergency procedures, especially pulling your ripcord before each inspection


Donald Mayer & Boomer

FAA Master Parachute Rigger 16388837 NYP

Skydiver, Commercial Multi Pilot



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