Early Canopy Modification

by Bernard Green

Bernard Green, one of the British Parachute Association’s founders and its first Secretary in 1961, recalls early experiments in canopy modification from the halcyon days of British Skydiving Ltd. (The first commercial parachute school not today’s governing body).

“By this time we were using American surplus military parachutes which we modified ourselves simply with the use of a razor blade. The parachutes were in pristine condition because they had never been used. It was an established rule of law in the American military establishment to discard or sell off parachutes after ten years whether they had been used or had remained in sealed metal drums.

On a trip to London’s East End rag trade warehouses to purchase rolls of high quality cotton cloth, I asked if they ever got parachutes. The chap opened a green steel drum and there was a most wonderful sight; an olive green American back pack parachute. I knew from magazines that it was a B4 back pack with a C9 orange and white 28 foot Ripstop nylon canopy inside the pack. ‘How much?’ I asked while thinking that on 15th May 1959, my own British parachute had cost me over £200. ‘How about £8?’ he said. I kicked the parachute over with my boot to show that I did not think much of it and offered £5. ‘Okay’, he said and asked how many I wanted to take. ‘You might as well fill the van’, I told him.

My van was a brand new Volkswagen with a 1,600cc engine. I drove home so blinking fast over that 45 miles that I blew up one of the four cylinders. Undeterred I drove straight back to London for a second load with the engine firing on three cylinders; an amazing engine. These parachutes were the basis and backbone of the British Skydiving Ltd School.

The parachutes were cheap enough to experiment on, so with a razor blade I cut out four panels down the angled seams. It looked like two figure L’s at the rear of the chutes. This produced two effects; it gave the parachute a forward speed which a standard chute did not have. Secondly, by tying handles and cords to the outside suspension lines of the outer openings it enabled the parachutist to rotate the parachute. This was a most desirable modification for the parachutist; for then he could see where he was going, enjoy a view of 360 degrees, fly the chute away from trees and power lines and, best of all, turn into the wind to reduce the landing speed. I fixed D ring shackles to the harness to fit the reserve and I retailed these modified parachutes at £53 each and hired them out to Club Members at £1 per jump with the Packers getting ten shillings.”

The overriding core value of the BPA is safety. Today, this is achieved by the rigorous application of comprehensive training, well maintained equipment and carefully developed procedures coupled with personal awareness when we jump. Fifty years ago things were a lot different. The early pioneers of sport parachuting in the UK managed to get in a number of scrapes. Fortunately, most of these episodes had a happy outcome resulting in stories that have passed into legend. Bernard Green, joint founder of the BPA and its first Secretary, remembers one such occasion.

Falling out over shoes

“It was in the Autumn of 1959 that Mike Reilly, Martin Griffiths and myself travelled to Sywell Aerodrome in Northamptonshire in order to Skydive. On arrival at Sywell, we hired a Cessna 170. This aircraft had a single-engine, a metal fuselage with high fabric wings that were supported by a “V” strut that attached forward and level with the door. It was a four-seater but we removed the two rear seats and the door on the port side. We asked the pilot to fly as high as he could in one hour, this Aircraft was produced between 1948 and 1956 and the climb rate was supposed to be 690 ft per minute with a cruising speed of 121 mph and a ceiling of 15,500 ft. The sky was clear but there was a chill in the air but we had thin RAF flying suits on over our normal clothes.

We sat on the Aluminium floor behind the pilot, Mike got in first, I think he knew it was going to be draughty, I sat in the middle and Martin sat at the door to do the spotting and direct the plot to the required exit point over the airfield. I felt quite cosy sitting in between them. We sat in silence because of the engine noise and wind howling round the cabin, it was getting really cold and the plane was not climbing very well with the pilot and three kitted skydivers on board. It was taking a long time to get the height. Martin kept poking his head out the door to check on the wind direction by looking at clues like the airfield windsock and smoke from chimneys. I expect he was also looking at the views.

Suddenly without a word or gesture he rolled out the door, I’d had had this done to me before as a strange joke, the joker leaving the others in the plane causing them to miss the DZ. I was not going to fall for that and I quickly rolled out the door after him. This caused me to tumble and I found myself on my back looking up at the plane. At that moment Mike’s hands, then head and shoulders, came diving out the doorway. To my amazement his right hand then shot out and grabbed the wing strut and he hung on like a trapeze artist. I was not surprised at his speed of movement or agility because he was a superb athlete. I saw the plane veer violently to the left in a semi- circle before the pilot recovered and flew off with Mike still hanging on below the wing, what puzzled me was why he did it.

I had to turn my attention to watch what I was doing so I rolled over, below me Martin was freefalling still and to my horror below him was a bloody great town, almost a city, it was Northampton. There were no open spaces to head for, it was pointless to open high and hope to drift away from the housing estates and huge factories that appeared to be everywhere below us. I opened my chute as I saw Martin going for his ripcord, thankfully the wind was light and we both had steerable 7TU chutes. (We had cut out five narrow panels at the back of the chutes and at each end a large cut which enabled us to turn the Parachute around in order to see where we were going).

I saw Martin land successfully on a road in a housing estate as I was over an enormous factory with a glass roof. I had heard that shoe factories in Northampton had glass roofs but it has a different effect on the mind when you think you might be visiting them through the roof. I managed to land in the front executive car park but left part of my parachute on the roof, (the sleeve that encased the canopy to reduce the opening shock.) I did not bother to retrieve it for I could not imagine anyone climbing forty feet up over glass to get it for me.

I walked over the road to Martin who explained that he got so cold and stiff he fell out the door of the plane. I replied that we were both lucky that we did not go through one of those glass factory roofs and end up as stiffs. We got a taxi back to the airfield where Mike was waiting for us and over a cup of coffee explained that as his head cleared the door he saw the town and grabbed the strut. Then he held on for over two minutes while the pilot flew back to Sywell. That was nearly five miles at 120 mph, then he dropped off. I believe that the area that Martin and I landed in was Moulton Park.”