Building Better Canopy Control with Four Basic Tools
  1. First-Time & Student Skydivers
  2. Experienced Skydivers
  3. Rating Holders and S&TAs
  4. Drop Zone Management
  5. About USPA
Sunday, June 16, 2024
Building Better Canopy Control with Four Basic Tools

Building Better Canopy Control with Four Basic Tools

Safety & Training
Friday, May 17, 2024

If you ask a skydiver what controls they use to fly their parachute, 99% of the time they’ll answer “brakes.” However, there are four tools—brakes, front risers, rear risers and body/harness— that jumpers have at their disposal to improve their canopy flight. With only four controls, it should be easy for us to learn about each of them and to use them throughout our skydiving careers, right? Yet most of us simply hold onto our toggles and move our brake lines up and down, sometimes even without even realizing it.

Brakes: Friend and Nemesis

     Reasons to Use Brakes:

  • Steer the parachute
  • Change airspeed/glide/rate of descent
  • Flare for a soft and safe landing

Jumpers are experienced and comfortable with using their brakes, because they do so for most of every canopy flight. But relying only on brakes can lead to bad habits and even stop the exploration of the wide range of other tools available. Many just hold on to the toggles and move them when they need to turn. Sometimes, jumpers will even unconsciously “milk the cow” (make slight up-down toggle movements, mechanically, for no reason). You’ll often see this in newer jumpers who think they need to change controls but are unsure which to use or who are nervous during their final approach to land.

Brakes have a lot of range, from light adjustments that preserve altitude while changing heading to strong inputs that increase vertical descent. Brakes can control how much a canopy dives and can stop a dive completely. Flying in deeper brakes keeps a canopy flat to conserve altitude (“floating”), a huge advantage in heavy traffic. And when there is no ground wind or the winds are light and variable, floating allows observation above others’ descents to determine the landing pattern.

Brakes also power the flare—a wonderful opportunity for soft landings! Finding the so-called “sweet spot” in the flare arrests vertical descent and provides a sweet horizontal flight. There is always room to perfect the technique or modify it when using an unfamiliar canopy or when weather conditions change.

Front Risers: Ahh, the Powerful Fronts!

     Reasons to Use Front Risers:

  • Increase rate of descent
  • Change airspeed
  • Steer

What a powerful tool front risers are! Novices on larger canopies may find them too heavy to pull (they support the lines attached to the whole pressurized front of the canopy), but once their power is unlocked they bring greater speed and greater altitude loss. Handling this power responsibly means exercising caution, especially close to the ground. All front-riser training should occur above the decision altitude and never at traffic-pattern altitudes. When practicing using fronts, you can get a solid feeling of your speed by listening to the wind in your ears and noting the changes in the dive and its recovery.

Your training for using front risers includes methods of holding the risers, how long to hold them and how to release them slowly or quickly (abruptly) to stop a dive. You will learn how to steer with your front risers and also how to keep a steady heading. Finally, you’ll learn how and when to transform dive into lift. It all takes practice to master.

Remember that you should perform all riser maneuvers with toggles in hand!

Many skydivers know this simple formula: doubling your speed produces four times the energy (lift) for your flare. But this is also where the danger lies: If you do not have your parachute under 100% control, adding this speed increases your risk of injury or worse.

Rear Risers: Finesse-Flying Mode

     Reasons to Use Rear Risers:

  • Decrease the rate of descent
  • Extend the glide distance
  • Steer
  • Avoid a collision during the deployment sequence

 If you are grabbing your rear risers, you are probably looking to extend your glide. Maybe your exit point was too far from the drop zone or you tracked too far or you need to catch up to the canopy flock you are chasing. Skydivers who are new to this technique tend to over-control (use too great of an input), which sinks their canopies down instead of allowing them to achieve a greater distance. Remember to be gentle on all of your controls, especially with the rear risers. Smooth, symmetrical, minimal input (one or two inches only) does the perfect job. In addition, making your body as small as possible will decrease drag, and your parachute will fly farther than you’d think it could.

Remember that you should perform all riser maneuvers with toggles in hand!


Rear risers should be the first controls you grab after the canopy opening to avoid another canopy coming toward you. Practicing these avoidance techniques and learning to make quick and efficient moves will help you steer clear of collisions and preserve your altitude without degrading your canopy’s performance.

Harness/Body: Are You Comfortable?

     Reasons to Use Harness/Body Inputs

  • Steer
  • Change airspeed
  • Maintain stability
  • Increase/decrease drag
  • Add finesse and fine-tune canopy control

The Skydiver’s Information Manual defines full-flight as “The stabilized state of hands-off canopy flight under an open and fully functioning parachute.” Your body is a mass under the center of your parachute, and it acts like a pendulum. You want to keep it stable and centered. You are suspended in the harness, basically making the harness the primary and simplest means to control your parachute. Every canopy is responsive to harness input, and although some canopies will be more responsive than others, skydivers of every experience level should learn how to use this tool. Good body control provides balanced flying and eliminates unnecessary toggle inputs that affect the canopy and its flight cycle.

You should use your body as much as possible to correct or improve your heading or to turn. The more you use your body to make harness inputs, the more your canopy stays above your head. Using your body improves the quality of your turns, and if you need to make only a small heading correction (think landing pattern), you’ll improve your canopy’s attitude and performance. 

Canopy courses give a lot of attention to an “active pilot” body position. Master it to become an intuitive flyer. Your harness should become a primary control.

The Best Way to Learn: Take a Canopy Course

It’s a fact: there is no better way to learn than under a watchful eye of an experienced instructor. You’ll get exercises to do in the air, learn what to pay attention to, get video debriefs, receive answers to all your questions, understand your options moving forward and learn how to reach your goals. Good canopy courses are relatively inexpensive and will provide you an enormous return on investment. You’ll learn effective landing techniques, and the personal attention will allow you to fix your little mistakes and drastically improve your performance and confidence. 

Flocking or proximity-flying courses will teach you how to use the four canopy controls. One-on-one proximity flights with an instructor can help you see and understand every flight control and the characteristics of your own canopy. You’ll learn to fly precisely, gently and predictably. When you understand your own canopy, you’ll increase safety for yourself and for others. Many skydivers like sunset flocking dives ... well, after a flocking course, the expanded knowledge will make these jumps safer and more fun!

Canopy flying is not boring. Unlock your potential by gaining an understanding of your current canopy, and make your canopy flights fun and joyful.


About the Author

With 20 years in the sport and 8,500-plus jumps under her belt, Yuliya Pangburn, D-29142, has a passion for coaching canopy formation skydiving and close-proximity flying. She has been a member of the U.S. Parachute Team since 2010, and is a member of the professional demonstration team Fastrax.

Categories: Features, Safety & Training   |   Rate this article:
No rating
  |  Number of views: 1325   |  Comments: 0
Please login or register to post comments.

USPA      5401 Southpoint Centre Blvd., Fredericksburg, VA, 22407     (540) 604-9740    M-F 9am-5pm Eastern    (540) 604-9741

Terms Of UsePrivacy StatementCopyright 2024 by United States Parachute Association
Your Source for all things Skydiving in the U.S.
Back To Top