SKYDIVING HISTORY : Round Parachutes Vs. Ram Air Parachutes

Round Parachutes

Round skydiving parachutes are often what come to mind when people think of jumping out of airplanes. The concept behind the round parachute design involves creating enough drag to slow an object’s descent to a “survivable” speed. The round parachute got the job done for a long time but landings could be extremely rough. With almost no steerability, jumpers were at the mercy of the wind. This risk and the unpleasant nature of landing a round parachute kept it from being an appealing activity for civilians. 

Round Skydiving Parachute


Ram-air parachutes became popular in the 1970’s and the sport has not been the same since. A ram-air parachute is rectangular in shape and allows air to flow through openings in the front or “nose” of parachute. This helps the parachute to inflate and become more rigid, much like the wing of an airplane. This wing shape creates an aerodynamic pressure called “lift.” The design allows the pilot to adjust the rate of descent, steer the parachute with an incredible amount of accuracy and demonstrate much softer, more consistent landings. With the invention of the ram-air skydiving parachute came the invention of tandem skydiving and the popularity of the sport has continued to rise.

Ram-Air Skydiving Parachute


The main thing about skydiving parachutes used for tandem skydiving is the size. Tandem parachutes need to suspend the weight of 2 people and still generate enough lift for a slow, soft landing. As a result, most tandem skydiving parachutes are more than 300 square feet of fabric. Because of the size and the wing design, tandem parachutes descend slowly and are much less dynamic when it comes to performance. They are basically the school bus or minivan of skydiving parachutes. Designed to get the job done, but not for any fancy maneuvers.

Skydiving parachutes used for “sport” are designed for a variety of functions. The way these canopies perform depends on a few different factors.

Tandem Skydiving Parachute


The size of a skydiving parachute alone doesn’t determine its performance. Two parachutes that are the exact same size will perform very differently if one is carrying 100 lbs and the other is carrying 300lbs. 

 The size of the skydiving parachute in relation to the amount of weight it’s carrying is a ratio called the wing loading. To calculate wing loading, take the jumper’s exit weight (when fully geared) and divide it by the size (total area) of the parachute. For example: If a skydiver weighs 150lbs, including their gear and their parachute is 150 square feet, their wing loading would be a ratio of 1 to 1. This means they are suspending 1lb of weight for every 1 foot of parachute.


The design of the parachute also impacts performance. Adjustments to the shape of the wing, the trim (or angle of the wing), the type of fabric or lines, the number of cells (openings in the front/nose of the parachute) can all have an impact on performance. Some jumpers are looking for a skydiving parachute that is slow and docile, while others are looking for something fast, responsive, and sporty. It all depends on the skill, experience and needs of the jumper.

The difference in flight characteristics of these parachutes can be likened to the performance and handling of different cars in a range from a Toyota Corolla all the way up to an F1 race car. 

Valkyrie Skydiving Parachute


Modern skydiving parachutes are an absolute marvel of engineering. Tandem skydiving parachutes are expertly designed with safety, consistency, and heavy workloads in mind. They take the slow and steady approach. On the far end of the spectrum, parachutes designed for competitive canopy piloting take things to a whole new level. These parachutes and their pilots can do an absolutely incredible number of unbelievable maneuvers at mind-blowing speeds. In 2022, Skydive Midwest hosted the United States Parachuting Association National Skydiving Championships of Canopy Piloting. Check out what some of these amazing athletes and their “race car” parachutes can do! 

Skydivers throwing parachutes in the air


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