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Essential Equipment

A skydiver's equipment is made up of three main parachute system components and generally a reserve automatic activation device. One main and one reserve parachute are packed into a specialized backpack with a chest strap and leg straps cinched to keep the jumper securely fastened.

Skydiving equipment has advanced considerably over the last several years. Round parachutes are seldom seen these days and have been replaced by modern, rectangular "ram-air" canopies that have better directional control and offer softer landings. Reserve parachutes are typically worn on the back above the main parachute, as opposed to the older front-mount assembly, and parachute fabrics today are more durable. Parachute canopies are usually made of zero-porosity nylon fabric that lasts for thousands of jumps.

No parachute is 100-percent reliable. However, most malfunctions result from human error, not mechanical failure. Main parachute malfunctions can usually be traced to improper packing, poor technique at the time of deployment, or inadequate pre-jump inspection. These errors make it necessary to carry a reserve as well as a main parachute. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that the reserve parachute be inspected and repacked every 180 days (whether it's used or not) by an FAA-certified parachute rigger. In the event of a malfunction, the jumper jettisons the main parachute by pulling the cutaway handle. A second handle activates the reserve parachute.

Skydiving schools provide their students with all the necessary equipment during training. Upon graduating from the school, skydivers may continue to rent equipment, but most purchase their own. A skydiver can outfit himself with airworthy equipment for between $2,000 and $6,000.

How a Parachute Works

Summary - The sequence of a main parachute deployment relies on a series of interrelated parts getting into the airstream in order. There are different systems available that vary slightly, including gear designed for student training.

Activation - Most experienced skydivers use a throw-out pilot chute system for deploying their main parachute. A small, round parachute, called a pilot chute, is packed in an external pouch. To initiate deployment, the skydiver extracts the pilot chute from the pouch and throws it into the surrounding air stream.

Deployment - The pilot chute is attached to the rest of the parachute by a length of fabric webbing or tape, called a bridle. Midway along the bridle is a pin holding the main parachute container closed. When the pilot chute inflates in the air stream, it pulls the pin, thus opening the main parachute container. The pilot chute and bridle then extract an internal deployment bag containing the main parachute.

The fabric portion of the parachute, or canopy, is folded or stuffed into the bag with the lines stowed outside in elastic bands. As the pilot chute and bridle pull the deployment bag out and away from the back pack, the lines release one stow at a time until fully stretched. With the release of the lines from the outside of the bag, the bag is now open, allowing the main parachute to inflate.

Inflation - Ram-air canopies are made of a series of inflatable tubes or "cells," connected side-by-side along their length. Each cell is designed to form the cross section of an airfoil, so when the parachute inflates, it forms a wing-shaped canopy, ready for flight.

The front of each cell is open to the air, and the back is sewn closed. Once inflated, the ram-air canopy is a semi-rigid, rectangular plane, similar to an airplane wing. It is attached to the jumper in a nose-down attitude to keep it inflated and flying forward.

The jumper steers and lands the canopy using two control lines attached along the rear of the wing near each end. When both toggles are depressed, the wing slows, causing the jumper to swing forward, momentarily pitching the flight angle of the wing upward, in the same way an airplane flares for landing.

Other Equipment

Automatic Activation Device (AAD)

  • A self-contained device that calculates rate of descent and altitude and deploys either the main or reserve canopy at a preset altitude.
  • Back-up devices required for student skydivers and worn by most experienced jumpers.

Reserve Static Line (RSL)

  • Attached to the main parachute's risers to activate the reserve parachute if the main parachute is jettisoned during an emergency.


  • Not required, but they have different functions depending on the skydiving discipline. Specialized fabrics and different tailoring help control descent speeds and give the skydiver more freefall control. Tight jumpsuits made of slippery materials allow for a faster fall rate for smaller people, while large, canvas-like jumpsuits provide a slower fall rate for bigger people.


  • Visual altimeters show altitude and are typically worn either on the wrist or front of the torso.
  • Audible altimeters with pre-set alarms are worn near the ears to aid in altitude awareness.


  • Required for student jumpers and worn by most experienced jumpers. For experienced jumpers, they range from leather aviator-style hats to full-coverage motorcycle-like hard helmets, made especially for skydiving.


  • Jumpers wear goggles or sunglasses to protect their eyes from freefall speeds ranging around 150 mph.

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