Reserve repacking time

With the flying season drawing to a close, you may find yourself thinking about next year’s adventures, after winter has passed and welcome warmth returns. But it’s also that time of year to spare a thought for your reserve: is it up to the job that it might just be asked to do?

For most of us, our reserve will never get its fifteen minutes of fame. Condemned to a life of solitary confinement, squashed and cramped in the dark, the best it can hope for is a breath of fresh air once a year. Maybe now is the time to think about making that happen.

There are lots of club repack events taking place all over the country, scheduled during the first couple of months of the year. These are a great opportunity to become more familiar with your equipment, as they allow you to take responsibility for repacking your own reserve. There will be BHPA licenced packers on hand to consult if anything seems unclear. All manufacturers publish detailed manuals showing how to repack their reserves, so with patience and space, it’s something that many pilots choose to do themselves. Check out the diary toward the back of SkyWings to see what dates have already been fixed, and more will appear over the next couple of issues.

Not everyone will want to repack their own reserve, of course. Given that your life might depend on your reserve being properly packed, it’s understandable that many people decide that doing something only once a year isn’t frequent enough to get as familiar as they would like for such a vital task. As an alternative, there are lots of options like Aerofix to get professional assistance.

Whether you decide to do it yourself or ask someone else to repack your reserve, please do think about getting it done at least once a year. That’s what all manufacturers recommend, some even advising a repack every six month. Should you ever need to use it, in the worst scenario you may have very little time for your reserve to deploy. One of the situations of greatest risk is getting a major collapse shortly after take off in strongly thermic conditions: you’re not yet high enough to have much time, and although you may well have carefully observed what has been happening over previous cycles, conditions have changed quickly. If things go wrong close to the ground, you need to act quickly, and your reserve just has to work. After all those months of waiting in the wings, there may only be a couple of seconds available for your reserve to perform correctly.

You may well know how old your reserve is, but in many cases, it’s only during the repack that it becomes apparent that a reserve is beyond the end of its service life. Over time the fabric and lines degrade through exposure to varying temperature and humidy or damp, dirt and potentially other contaminants. Whether that degradation would result in the failure of the reserve, or delay in the deployment process, is not something that can be established through non-destructive testing. The reserve might look good, but simple appearance isn’t adequate evidence to establish after many years whether or not a reserve will still, for example, operate at the maximum certified deployment speed of 115kmph.

Two years ago the BHPA issued guidance to pilots that they should observe the manufacturers’ recommended service life, and I wrote about the background to this advice in the January 2017 issue of SkyWings. I wish that there was some way of assessing reserves in the same way as we can determine the airworthiness of paragliders, but there isn’t. Users of large numbers of reserves, like the military, will submit a small number that have been subjected to the same conditions for destructive testing, but that’s clearly not an option for an individual pilot. Ten years is a typical service life, with a few models having up to 14 years from the date of first installation.

If you do find yourself in need of a new reserve, you may well find the replacement is significantly lighter and packs smaller than the one you’re replacing. The most common type of reserve is the round design, with the central point pulled down (PDA stands for pulled-down apex). More recently, square, or square-round reserves have become more common. Their different shape, flatter and shallower, offers two advantages over the PDA. Firstly, because the volume of air they contain is smaller, they inflate a bit faster. And secondly, their shape means they damp out any sideways oscillation more quickly: you may no longer be descending vertically at a fatal speed, but if you swing violently back towards a mountainside, it can be the horizontal speed that is the danger.

Squares do have one downside compared to PDA: the PDA descends vertically through the airmass, but the square will track in one direction or another. Although EN12491 limits lateral speed for non-streerable reserves to no more than the vertical descent speed (and for many squares it is much less than this), it will just be a matter of luck whether that direction happens to be against or with the prevailing wind.

Of course there are also steerable reserves. The rogallo design has been around many years, and the current lightweight versions are comparable to PDAs in size and weight when packed. They should open quickly and achieve a good descent rate. And once the brake toggles are activated, control over the direction of travel should be possible. A potential drawback is their greater complexity, which gives rise to an increased risk of problems in deployment. That’s one of the reasons some pilots choose a rogallo as their second reserve, also carrying a PDA or square. And getting to the point of being able to activate the steering toggles first requires the paraglider canopy to have been pulled in and stowed, which may not prove possible in the limited time available.

So whether it’s a simple matter of remembering to repack your reserve, or the potentially more complex issue of deciding what replacement to get, please do take a few minutes to think about your reserve.

If you want to chat anything through, we’re always happy to offer help and advice over the phone (01433 627195) or by email (