How Do Skydiving Parachutes Work?

How Do Skydiving Parachutes Work?

Published: October 25, 2016

There's very little chance you've ever seen an image of a skydiver under more than one parachute. By that figuring, it might be easy to assume that there's only one parachute involved on a skydive. Would you be surprised to know that there are two?

To non- (and new) skydivers, the use of (and differences between) the two parachutes might be something of a mystery. We've put this quick FAQ together to help you understand how the two residents of a magical backpack work together to deliver the safest, most-fun skydiving experience you can have.

1. Where Are Those Parachutes Located?

On a normal skydive, which follows USPA guidelines and FAA regulations for gear, each skydiving container (backpack-style harness) holds two parachutes. In fact, we refer to the combination as a "two-parachute system," which sets it apart from the single-parachute systems used by BASE jumpers. (We'll get to that later.) The "main parachute," which the skydiver deploys on every normal skydive, sits in the bottom part of the container. The reserve parachute--which is only deployed in the event of an emergency--sits above it, over the skydiver's shoulder blades.

2. How Often Is It Necessary To Use A Reserve Parachute?

It's rare, these days, that a skydiver sees his/her reserve parachute. Skydiving malfunctions, even in cases where the skydiver makes dozens of jumps every week, are generally pretty rare. After all, skydiving technology has advanced to the point where parachutes deploy well, inflate efficiently, and have a much reduced likelihood of entanglements or compromising damage inflicted during the opening process. Modern skydivers are very lucky, in that regard; jumpers in the earlier years of the sport had to manage ugly malfunctions with startling regularity.

3. How Is A Reserve Parachute Used?

In both sport (solo) and tandem skydiving, the deployment of a reserve is pretty much the same. In the event of a malfunction, the responsible skydiver determines that his/her main parachute is unlandable. Upon that determination, he/she uses a handle on the skydiving rig to detach ("cut away") the malfunctioning main. The cut-away main then comes free of the system and sails off into the sky for later retrieval. The skydiver then uses the handle on the other side to deploy the reserve parachute.

4. How Is The Reserve Parachute Different From The Main?

The main is "a nine-celled ram-air canopy," which means that it is an airfoil designed in nine segments and built to fly with agility, glide far and deliver a fun in-flight experience for the passenger. A reserve is built with the emphasis on one aspect of its performance: a fast, stable, on-heading opening, with the understanding that the canopy pilot's single concern is getting a good parachute overhead for a safe landing. Reserve parachutes do this job very, very well.

5. How Does The Instructor Know When The Main Parachute Is Unlandable?

Competent, licensed, professional instructors--as all of our instructors are, here at Skydive Long Island--are thoroughly trained in the use of reserve parachutes. Your instructor has definitely deployed a reserve, has definitely landed a reserve and is the living proof that reserve parachutes work. If you have questions about the experience, ask! You'll get a thorough (and exciting!) answer, for sure.

Do you have additional questions about how skydiving works? View our Frequently Asked Questions page where we answer top queries on skydiving or check out one of our most popular articles: How Dangerous is Tandem Skydiving.

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