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Parachutes Or How to Let Yourself Down Gently

by H. Dean Chamberlain
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

Are you parachute smart or parachute legal?

Were you wearing an FAA-approved parachute the last time you executed an intentional maneuver in a civil aircraft that exceeded a bank of 60 degrees relative to the horizon or a nose up or down attitude of 30 degrees relative to the horizon with a passenger onboard?

If not, were you operating under the exclusion of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulation (14 CFR) section 91.307(d)? Maybe your maneuver was unintentional? So, did you violate the regulation?

Do you even know what the two exclusions are? Paragraph (d) of that regulation states 'Paragraph (c) of this section does not apply to'(l) Flight tests for pilot certification or rating; or  (2) Spins and other flight maneuvers required by the regulations for any certificate or rating when given by'(i) A certificated flight instructor; or (ii) An airline transport pilot instructing in accordance with section 61.67 of this chapter.

Then the rule states what an approved parachute is.

In typical regulatory prose, the complete rule states:

(a) No pilot of a civil aircraft may allow a parachute that is available for emergency use to be carried in that aircraft unless it is an approved type and'

(1) If a chair type (canopy in back), it has been packed by a certificated and appropriately rated parachute rigger within the preceding 120 days; or

(2) If any other type, it has been packed by a certificated and appropriately rated parachute rigger:

(i) Within the preceding 120 days, if its canopy, shrouds, and harness are composed exclusively of nylon, rayon, or other similar synthetic fiber or materials that are substantially resistant to damage from mold, mildew, or other fungi and other rotting agents propagated in a moist environment; or

(ii) Within the preceding 60 days, if any part of the parachute is composed of silk, pongee, or other natural fiber, or materials not specified in paragraph (a)(2)(i) of this section.

(b) Except in an emergency, no pilot in command may allow, and no person may conduct, a parachute operation from an aircraft within the United States except in accordance with part 105 of this chapter.

(c) Unless each occupant of the aircraft is wearing an approved parachute, no pilot of a civil aircraft carrying any person (other than a crewmember) may execute any intentional maneuver that exceeds:

(1) A bank of 60 degrees relative to the horizon; or

(2) A nose-up or nose-down attitude of 30 degrees relative to the horizon.

(d) Paragraph (c) of this section does not apply to:

(1) Flight tests for pilot certification or rating; or

(2) Spins and other flight maneuvers required by the regulations for any certificate or rating when given by'

(i) A certificated flight instructor; or

(ii) An airline transport pilot instructing in accordance with section 61.67 of this chapter.

(e) For the purposes of this section, approved parachute means:

(1) A parachute manufactured under a type certificate or a technical standard order (C-23 series); or

(2) A personnel-carrying military parachute identified by an NAF, AAF, or AN drawing number, an AAF order number, or any other military designation or specification number.

The key elements in this rule are civil aircraft, carrying any person (other than a crewmember), approved parachute, inspection dates, and the exclusions for instructional flights. The rule only applies to civil, not military aircraft. A person may be a required crewmember and, therefore, not a 'person' as specified in the rule. And if you are receiving spin training for say a flight instructor rating, the rule does not require you to wear a parachute'although it might be a good idea if you have parachutes available. Years ago, an instructor was killed in a two place training aircraft when the rudder stop plate caught on the stop bolt and effectively locked the rudder hard over. The aircraft spun to the ground. Parachutes might have saved this pair, if they had been worn. But that statement is only speculative. No one will ever know what might have happened.

What brought this review to mind was a discussion at lunch recently about the increased use and availability of surplus military warbirds, such as the L39 jet aircraft, and their ejection seats. Or the fact that some of these aircraft that once had ejection seats now are disarmed and have seats that no longer work. Adding to this confusion is the fact some of these warbirds are still painted with military markings that show ejection seats or rescue information that shows ejection seats as being functional or 'hot.' Although these aircraft may be more 'military authentic' with their military markings, these markings may be confusing to passengers and first responders in the case of an emergency or accident. This is why it is important for passengers in these type aircraft to know and understand the safety features of the aircraft they are flying in and how to operate those safety features.

Although aerobatic pilots and some glider pilots routinely wear parachutes, I think the majority of pilots have never worn a parachute. I can say that the new parachute I recently purchased for my glider flights is not something I think about when packing my flight gear. But, since it has a 120-day inspection interval, I now find myself having to have it inspected and repacked before I even think about taking it to the glider field. And, unlike aircraft repairs, one can't routinely go to your local airport and find a certificated parachute rigger qualified to repack an emergency parachute. Unlike a skydiver's main parachute, emergency parachutes worn by pilots and skydivers must be repacked by an FAA appropriately rated parachute rigger.

I don't know how many pilots have ever made an emergency parachute jump, but I would guess the number is relatively few these days. The reliability of modern aircraft engines has removed the necessity to 'hit the silk' like the pilots of yesterday had to do back in the 1920s, for example. So how does someone become proficient in wearing a parachute while not routinely practicing its use? To me, this falls into the same category of why we don't practice falling down stairs. It is just something where the risk doesn't seem worth the effort. So why would I want to practice jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft. It is not something I want to do. So what is someone to do?

According to Alan Silver, a parachute rigger, skydiver, and the person who sold me my parachute at Sun 'n Fun last year, anyone who puts on a parachute must learn a few basic parachuting tips. Tips that he explains to the people who attend his parachute safety seminars.

First, you must make sure the parachute is within its required inspection period. Emergency parachutes, like aircraft, have a logbook or record that shows the date of its last inspection. This small record is stowed in the parachute container for easy inspection.

Then Silver said the wearer must inspect the container for access and functionality to the D-ring or handle used to activate the opening process, as well as the small pins used to secure the container closed. The pins may or may not be protected by some type of closable cover. The pins must be functional, non-binding, and inserted into the appropriate retainer holes far enough to not inadvertently activate, but not binding to the point they can't be removed. The cable connecting the D-ring and the pins must be free and non-binding within its protective sheath.

Once you are satisfied the parachute is within its inspection period and functional, the third tip is to strap it on in accordance with its instructions. He said you want it to be tight. Once you have the parachute on and the chest and leg straps properly connected and adjusted, you then must connect your aircraft's seatbelt and shoulder harness.

He emphasized the importance of knowing the difference between the aircraft's belts and your parachute's straps. You don't want to inadvertently release your parachute connectors when you jump over the side of your aircraft. A parachute doesn't help you, if you fallout of the harness on the way down.

Once you are in the aircraft, you need to simulate the steps you have to follow to exit the aircraft'such as releasing the aircraft seatbelts and shoulder harness, opening the canopy or aircraft door, and best way of exiting the aircraft.

The final tip once you are clear of the aircraft is to look for the D-ring and pull it hard with both hands. If the chute fails to open, continue to pull the D-ring while you attempt to find out why it is not working. As he said, in an emergency, you may have to fight your way out of the aircraft and keep trying to open the parachute all the way to the ground. Never give up is his lifesaving advice to those who attend his parachute classes.

When asked how to practice using a parachute without jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft, he gave the following advice. Each time you get out of your aircraft, you should simulate the steps necessary to exit the aircraft and simulate finding and pulling the D-ring. If you own the parachute and you are ready to send it to a rigger for inspection and repacking, he suggests that you should always practice actually opening the parachute to learn the feel of what it is like pulling the D-ring until the pilot chute ejects. Not only do you get the actual feel of the resistance of the D-ring and its connecting cable and pins, but you also know the rigger has to actually repack the chute. He said some unscrupulous riggers have been known to 'pencil' inspect a parachute by just signing off the inspection record without ever opening the parachute. Sending an open chute to a rigger ensures that at least the rigger has had to put the chute back in its container. When opening your chute before sending it to your rigger, he said you should put down some kind of protective material or covering on the floor to protect your parachute canopy if it falls out of its protective case.

Like any safety device, if you don't know how to operate a parachute offered you for a flight, whether it is in a glider or high performance surplus warbird, you need to ask for instructions in its proper use and under what conditions you might have to exit the aircraft. A parachute is not something you want to learn how to operate by trial and error. The life you have to save just might be your own. Be parachute smart.