Parachutes: To Wear or not to Wear  


Parachutes: To Wear or not to Wear

by H. Dean Chamberlain

Like personal flotation devices, the government’s term for "life vests," parachutes are not something people stand around talking about. In fact, I think most people don’t want to even think about parachutes, let alone talk about them. For example, how many remember the old joke pilots ask of skydivers, "Why would anyone want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?" And when was the last time you ever saw an advertisement at your local aircraft dealership showing the latest color-coordinated parachutes and hot neon-colored jumpsuits that everyone should buy to wear in their FAA-approved, four-passenger, Mark One sky chariot? To paraphrase one comedian, parachutes just don’t get any respect.

I also don’t think aircraft manufacturers want to remind customers that occasionally aircraft do fail in flight or that sometimes two meet unexpectedly in flight. When that happens, in most cases, the aircraft and passengers fall disastrously to earth. The military learned this lesson early in the development of the airplane, and many of its flight crews have worn or have had access to parachutes in their aircraft since the WW I era. Today, few fighter pilots would dare takeoff with a nonfunctioning ejection seat or parachute. So why am I writing about parachutes? There are several reasons. Once in my life I gave some thought to skydiving. Fortunately, the thought passed before I could embarrass myself. I even did an article about skydiving and skydiving safety which highlighted the important role the United States Parachute Association (USPA) plays in sport parachuting. That article was published in the January-February 1994 issue of FAA Aviation News as part of our special FAA and Industry series.


The article reported how USPA is one of the two widely recognized industry groups involved in parachuting. The other group is the Parachute Industry Association (PIA) which is primarily made up of parachute equipment manufacturers. Both organizations are recognized by FAA as important partners in the development of parachute equipment and safe parachute operating practices for both sport and emergency use. Later, I had to strap into a parachute for a ride in a Pitts acrobatic aircraft. I still remember the safety briefing that included the reminder in case of an emergency to only unfasten the seat belt and shoulder harness and stand up and dive over the side of the aircraft. I was told to keep my hands off the parachute harness connectors. I was also reminded to remember to pull the ripcord.

Needless to say, I was happy to get back on the ground. I had no desire to try and remember which harness I could safely unfasten and which one I couldn’t. I also didn’t like the idea of having to dive over the side of the aircraft. I felt like I was sitting on an armed ejection seat. The thought of having to ever use a parachute sort of takes some of the fun out of flying. The Pitts flight was the only time I have ever worn a parachute while flying. Like most pilots, I always expect to land an aircraft rather than jump out of it. Then, as I have mentioned before, I like to fly gliders whenever I can. Many glider pilots frequently wear parachutes. One reason is parachutes are required in sanctioned Soaring Society of America competitions, so many pilots own them. As one pilot told me once, "The chute came with the glider when the glider was purchased, and it is something soft to sit on."


Some pilots of very high performance gliders wear them just in case something breaks in flight. Others wear them in case of a mid-air collision. And, like in airplanes, aerobatic glider pilots and passengers must wear them when doing aerobatics. For whatever their reasons, I have watched more than one glider pilot strapping on a parachute before a flight. Many were pilots in their later years. So I started to wonder if these experienced pilots knew something I didn’t. Some saying about there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are few old, bold pilots kept floating through my mind. I began to think that just maybe I should consider buying a parachute.

Then the fun began. As I started to research the subject, I discovered a few interesting things. For example, you can’t expect to look in your favorite consumer type magazine and find parachutes rated. Nor does your local FBO normally sell parachutes. Nor does one of the largest pilot supply catalogs list parachutes, although many of the glider supply dealers do. I also talked to several parachute manufacturer’s representatives and master parachute riggers at several aviation events. I even called the owner of my favorite glider port for advice. Finally, I talked to FAA people about parachutes.

The stock answer you will hear from most sales representatives is, "Our parachute meets FAA Technical Standard Order (TSO) C-23 (series)." They will also tell you, you can buy your parachute in your choice of material, size, and style. You can also select the color of your harness and packing container, etc. You can even select your choice of accent colors for your parachute’s container. Some will sew your initials on your gear for a small fee. To gain a competitive edge, some companies will even throw in a protective, color-coordinated carrying bag for your parachute and harness if you buy it at a major aviation event.

Although everyone was very professional and helpful, no one completely answered my basic question of what is the best parachute that I can buy in the expectation that I never want to ever have to use it. Remember, cost is not an issue since the emergency parachute industry seems to be very competitive. Most of the parachutes and accessories I have looked at are within a few dollars of each other depending upon style, type of harness, type of fasteners, and canopy. You can expect to spend about $1,200 give or take a $100 or so dollars for your average emergency parachute. Options and accessories will increase the price.

No, they don’t offer test jumps as part of the sales pitch. But then, you have to remember that emergency parachutes only contain one parachute or canopy. Skydivers jump with two ëchutes. One is their main ëchute that they, themselves, can pack. The second one is an emergency chute that an FAA-certificated parachute rigger must pack within a prescribed number of days based upon the material used to make the parachute. But for an aircraft emergency, pilots and crew only get one chance with their emergency ëchute. That is why you have to make that one jump a good one.

That is why I think parachutes are like PFD’s. You hope never to have to need it in a life-threatening situation, but if you do, you want the best money can buy. When you are falling from the sky or drowning in the ocean, cheap does not cut it. If you can’t afford to buy at least a good or, hopefully, the best survival equipment available, then you surely can’t afford to die. If you haven’t priced the cost of dying recently, it is extremely expensive, plus it can ruin your whole day. So much for morbid humor. I hope I didn’t offend anyone, but good equipment and safety do have their costs. But the cost of safety is less than the cost of dying or suffering a permanent injury.

As I continue researching how to buy an emergency parachute, I keep thinking if every emergency parachute has to meet the same TSO, does it really matter which parachute one buys. Sort of like trying to decide between a Chevrolet and a Ford. Which one do you buy? Both will get you down the road. Needless to say, I still haven’t bought one yet, parachute or motor vehicle. The search continues.

Adding to my interest was the fact that at this year’s annual Department of Defense open house and airshow commemorating Armed Forces Day at Andrews Air Force Base, MD, I saw elements of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division make a mass parachute jump from a line of C-130 and C-141 aircraft. The Army’s Golden Knights parachute demonstration team also jumped at the open house.

Obviously I was fascinated by the jumpers. The 82nd Airborne Division soldiers and the Golden Knights demonstrated the two common types of parachutes used by most people today. The troopers used the traditional "military-style," round canopy parachute. This is the style used in most "emergency" parachutes. The Golden Knights jumped with the ram-air (square) style of parachute favored by skydivers.

Where flight control, maneuverability, and style are important, such as in skydiving, the square, ram-air type of parachute is the chute of choice. Trained jumpers can fly and land a ram-air chute like pilots fly and land aircraft. Although some parachute companies offer square, ram-air canopies for use in emergency parachutes for expert jumpers, normally square chutes are not used in emergency parachutes.

For skydiving and certain other intentional jumps, FAR Part 105, Parachute Jumping, applies. The rule outlines the regulations for both pilots of aircraft used to make a jump, and those jumping out of the aircraft.

In this brief review of parachutes, we are not going to discuss the rules for making intentional jumps. After all, why would any self-respecting pilot want to jump out of a perfectly good aircraft? We are going to address some of the situations when someone must wear an emergency parachute in an aircraft and review some of the styles of parachutes available.

First the rule. FAR § 91.307, Parachutes and parachuting, details the types of emergency parachutes, required inspections, when parachutes are required to be worn, and when FAR Part 105 governs a parachute jump. For example, FAR § 91.307(a) states in part, "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...." Section 91.307(e) then explains what an approved type is. Approved means a parachute that was manufactured under either an FAA type certificate, an appropriate TSO 23 (series), or is 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. Being an approved parachute is only part of the issue.

Like aircraft, a parachute must be periodically inspected to be airworthy. Section 91.307(a) requires (in part) that a certificated and appropriately rated parachute rigger must have packed the approved parachute within either 60 (for natural fabric which is rarely used today) or 120 days depending upon type of material used in the construction of the parachute or the type or style of parachute it is. A record of that packing is kept with the parachute for inspection by the person planning on using the parachute or by the FAA to ensure it is current and complies with the rule.

Finally, subparagraph (b) of the rule states, "Except in an emergency, no pilot in command may allow, and no person may make, a parachute jump from an aircraft within the United States except in accordance with part 105."

So much for the basic rules about parachutes, their construction, inspection requirements, and the rules for emergency parachutes and parachutes used for intentional jumps.

What does this all mean to the average pilot or flight instructor?

First, FAR § 91.307(c) states, in part, "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 a bank of 60 degrees relative to the horizon, or a nose-up or nose-down attitude of 30 degrees relative to the horizon."

FAR § 91.307(d) then says that subparagraph (c) does not apply to flight tests for pilot certification or rating or spins and other flight maneuvers required by the regulations for any certificate or rating when given by a certificated flight instructor or an airline transport pilot instructing in accordance with FAR § 61.167.

So again, what does this mean to the average pilot or appropriately certificated flight instructor? If you are a student under going training for a rating or certificate with a certificated flight instructor onboard, or if you are an instructor giving that instruction for any level of certification, such as a private pilot working on his or her commercial certificate, or a commercial pilot working on an instructor rating, neither of you must wear a parachute while doing any maneuver that may exceed the above limitations while under going training for a rating or certificate.

Another example is a flight instructor giving spin training. Certificated flight instructor applicants are required to have been given spin training and have an appropriate log book entry as required by FAR § 61.183(i)(1). The section states the applicant must, "receive a logbook endorsement from an authorized instructor indicating that the applicant is competent and possesses instructional proficiency in stall awareness, spin entry, spins, and spin recovery procedures after providing the applicant with flight training in those training areas in an airplane or glider, as appropriate, that is certificated for spins, and ...."

The rule also requires a demonstration of that ability. Because spin training is a certification requirement, instructors giving spin instruction and their students are not required to wear parachutes. This exemption also applies to other students receiving instruction from an appropriately rated flight instructor because other pilot ratings require at least an awareness of spin training and avoidance.

However, an instructor demonstrating a spin for a non-student must wear and the person for whom the spin demonstration is given must wear a parachute as required by regulation.

So the regulations are clear, if you are doing any maneuver that exceeds the limitations listed above or is not necessary for normal flight and the flight is not a certification training flight then everyone on board must wear an approved parachute. However, anyone can wear an approved and a properly inspected parachute at any time. If worn or available in the aircraft the parachute must meet its own rules as outlined above.

Whenever a parachute is worn, the person wearing it must know how to safely exit the aircraft, since most aircraft flying today were not designed for quick emergency egress. For example, most aircraft do not have quick release doors to make it easier for a person to make an emergency exit.

So the key to wearing a parachute or not is knowing when a parachute is required by regulation and when it might be safer to wear a parachute. If the regulation requires it, you wear one. It’s your choice if the flight situation might require one. Then the question becomes one of whether you’re safer with or without a parachute.
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