A modern parachute is a complex piece of equipment – and lucky for the skydiver that it is, too. All that complexity is there to serve a purpose: to bring skydivers to Earth safely while providing a quality experience in the air.
The most obvious part of a parachute is the canopy, so let’s start there.
Even here there’s more than meets the novice eye. Contemporary canopies are made of nylon in the shape of roughly a large rectangle. That much is obvious. But what the untrained eye may not notice at first glance is that within that large rectangle are many parts.
The entire canopy is made of cells, which are ribbed sections formed by gathering the nylon into long, curved strips with sturdy thread. The outer edges are not simply plain flat cloth, either. They curve inward gently in order to provide two functions.
One is to scoop an ample amount of air into the interior, to provide for good air resistance on the descent. That need is obvious. But it’s also true that too much air, gathered too quickly can be (or rather, used to be) a problem.
That’s why canopies from years ago used to have a hole in the top to let some air escape. Without that, it’s more likely that the lines would get fouled and the canopy collapse. What followed next is easy to predict. With modern materials and geometry that’s now extremely unlikely. Stabilizers at each side left and right, attached to the end cells, add still more safety and function to modern parachutes.
Now, on to the other components.
Nylon lines are attached to the canopy at regular intervals that not only attach the skydiver to the drag-producing canopy, but keep the chute and diver stable. To help keep them from getting tangled when the canopy is deployed a number of techniques and devices are employed.
Packing technique is critical in allowing the lines to draw out and deploy correctly. Certified riggers are well trained in that technique. Their job is made easier by a small device called a slider. The lines are threaded through this rectangular piece of nylon in such a way that as the canopy opens, it opens at the right rate. That prevents the gear from getting torn and the skydiver from being rudely jerked from 120 mph (193 kph) down to 10 mph (16 kph).
In order to deploy that canopy effectively a small pilot chute called a drogue is used. When the skydiver pulls the release, he’s pulling out this drogue. It fills with air and tugs on the lines attached to it and the canopy. That, in turn pulls the main out of something called the D-bag by means of bridle lines.
That D-bag is stuffed inside a larger bag called the container which holds it, the drogue, and all the grommets, straps that are needed to keep the whole assembly together. The container has straps, both leg straps and chest strap, that are attached to the skydiver for a comfortable and safe fit.
Once deployed, the skydiver can make use of front and rear risers and a steering toggle or brake in order to control the direction and, to an extent, the rate of descent.
Safely down, all parts intact. Excellent. Thank you, modern parachute designers.