Selecting the Right Pilot Chute for the Job

Ah, the pilot chute. Our beloved little workhorse, it’s the first thing we take out and the last thing we put in. It gets dragged around. It gets abused. For all the obsessive fawning we do over our canopies, our pilot chutes get surprisingly little love.

If you’re looking to change that – and learn a little more about the sizes and styles of pilot chutes that you should invite on your adventures – then here you go… We pinned down the inimitable Todd Shoebotham, President and Owner of Apex BASE, and picked his brain about it in order to share his wisdom.

Keep your fingers out of harm’s way

Is your PC handle a possible finger trap?
Is your PC handle a possible finger trap?

Does your stowed PC have a PVC-style tube handle? The data suggests that fingers have an uncanny tendency to make their way into that little tunnel at pull time, making for some seriously awkward Chinese-finger-trap deployments.

“More than a few people have reported reaching back and going up to the knuckle into the PVC,” Todd says. “Or getting their fingers underneath the handle. When you’re reaching back, that’s not what you’re going for.“

Todd recommends PCs without these handle types, but if you already have a PVC-style handle with a potential finger trap then Todd recommends taping over the ends in order to eliminate this possibility.

Keep a well-curated collection

Now that's a proper quiver of PCs!
Now that's a proper quiver of PCs!

Since pilot chutes are available in everything from little 32-inch versions to behemoth 52-inchers, it can be challenging to determine what you really need to carry in your gear bag as a traveling jumper. Todd suggests that carrying a quiver of three to four will do the trick nicely.

“On the smaller end, we typically set people up with 36-inch pilot chutes for terminal and tracking jumps,” he explains, “But we still stock the 32s. The 32-inch PC is probably the least-popular one in our range because we believe they only belong on the very smallest and lightest parachutes.“

“We used to see 36s on wingsuit-specific rigs,” Todd adds, “But a lot of people with wingsuits are going back to favoring the bigger 38” PCs because of the lower airspeed at deployment.”

From there, Todd suggests having a 42 inch PC – “the workhorse in the middle” – which covers your standard Potato Bridge jumping, and a 46- or 48-incher, depending on the size of your canopy, for objects more along the lines of a low cliff or structure.

If you have a little more room in your luggage Todd suggests a 38. “Most people aren’t going to be using a 36 or a 38 handheld,” he says. “But if you’re in that 3-to-6 second slider-up range, it’s a nice pilot chute to have, the 38. It is a slightly different pilot chute. It's not as strong of a pull as a 42, but you still have plenty of room there. I might even use it slider-off for deeper delays on familiar objects, and it is a little nicer flying your canopy with a slightly smaller pilot chute.”

Take object familiarity into consideration.

Since larger pilot chutes generally provide quicker openings, object familiarity can be a factor in choosing between two pilot chutes.

“If it is your local object and you’ve really got things dialed in, I can see downsizing,” Todd says. “But if you’re a visiting jumper, you’re going to probably need to treat it a little differently. For example: If all the locals are using a 46, I’ll probably be using a 48 if it's appropriate to stack the deck in my favor. If I make enough jumps there to become comfortable with the surroundings, I can see transitioning down to the 46. The really small changes in performance do matter.”

…but don’t overdo it, and make adjustments to compensate.

According to Todd, unnecessarily oversizing is an easy mistake to make–and while it’s not necessarily dangerous, it can negatively affect your jump if you don’t keep your delay relative to your PC choice.

“If you don’t have the appropriate pilot chute for your jump and you don’t adjust your delay accordingly,” Todd says, “You might not like the results. For instance: if you should really be using a 42 but you have a 46, you’d better go a little short on this one and enjoy the view from under canopy a little longer rather than taking the normal delay for that jump. I know you don’t want to, but that’s the pilot chute you’ve got and it's critical to always use these tools only for the job they are intended to do.”

Todd Shoebotham, President of Apex BASE, showing off a 42" PC initiating an on-heading deployment
Todd Shoebotham, President of Apex BASE, showing off a 42" PC initiating an on-heading deployment

Article by Annette O'Neil