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A parachute is a device used to slow the descent of a falling body or load. The word parachute comes from the French words para, protect or shield, and chute, to fall. Therefore parachute actually means to protect from a fall. Parachutes were once made from silk but these days are almost always constructed from more durable woven nylon fabrics

Parachute history

Parachutes have long been used by military and space programs around the world. The first parachute jumps were from hot air balloons in the early 1800s. The very first parachute was linen, but silk was soon adopted because of its strength and light weight. On March 1, 1912, US Army Captain Albert Berry made the first parachute jump from a moving airplane over Missouri.

The first ideas of a parachute-like device were envisioned by inventors like Leonardo da Vinci from Italy (1452-1519) and Faust Vrančić from Croatia (1551-1617), who tested it in 1617 in Venice. Gleb Kotelnikov from Russia made his first knapsack parachute in 1911 and Štefan Banič from Slovakia registered the first modern parachute patent in 1913.

Parachute uses

Paratroopers are soldiers who arrive in enemy territory by parachutes.

Smokejumpers are firefighters who parachute into remote areas to build firebreaks.

Most space vehicles descend to Earth using several parachutes. The pair of reusable solid-fuel rocket boosters (SRB) of the Space Shuttle have parachutes; they are recovered after falling to the ocean. Exploration rovers (such as NASA's Spirit and ESA's Beagle 2) descend to their target destination with parachutes.

Some bombs are equipped with a parachute, for example some daisy cutters and the bomblets of some cluster bombs.

Food aid packages are sometimes delivered by parachute.

Parachutes can also be deployed from a jet aircraft horizontally from the tail cone at the point of touchdown or shortly afterwards to shorten its landing run, for example if landing on an aircraft carrier or with a tailwind, or on a relatively short runway. The parachute will normally be jettisoned after the aircraft has slowed to taxiing speed and then retrieved by ground crew. This technique reduces the chance of it becoming entangled with the airframe once it has ceased to be deployed in its functional, hemispherical shape. A similar parachute is used to slow drag racers, and the Space Shuttle after its runway touchdown.

Jet fighter ejector seats are equipped with automatically deployed parachutes.

Parachuting is a hobby and sport based on human parachute jumps. Paragliding instead uses a parachute as a form of glider.

Paraplane is motorized parachute.

Parachute design

A parachute is made from thin, lightweight fabric, support tapes and lines. The lines are usually gathered through loops or rings at several strong straps called "risers." The risers directly strap the item or person being supported, called the "load." Parachutes are pulled out of their packages by a smaller parachute called a "pilot 'chute." Pilot chutes usually have a large spring that pushes them into the air-stream, or forces them open. The pilot 'chute is released by a cable called a "rip cord." Usually the rip cord pulls a metal pin that releases fabric flaps that hold the pilot 'chute in a compact package. Pilot 'chutes may be released by a "static line." The static line is a length of string clipped to the airplane. In some sport parachutes and some emergency parachutes, the rip cord is a manual device (a "T" (pronounced "tee") handle attached to the chest straps. Emergency parachutes have the "T" handle when the designer cannot know when to release the parachute. Cargo parachutes are always released by static lines. Paratroop chutes are also usually released by static lines.

Paratroopers and sport skydivers carry two parachutes. The primary parachute is larger, with a lower landing speed or a gliding parasail. The second, "reserve parachute" is smaller, and quicker-opening with a manual rip cord. The jumper uses the emergency chute if the primary parachute fails to open. Reserve parachutes were introduced in World War II by the US Airborne Unit, and are now universal.

There are several types of parachutes in common use. Ribbon and ring parachutes can be designed to open at speeds as high as Mach 2 (two times the speed of sound). These have a ring-shaped canopy, often with a large hole in the center to release the pressure. Sometimes the ring is broken into ribbons connected by ropes to leak air even more. The large leaks lower the stress on the parachute so it does not burst when it opens.

Often a high speed parachute slows a load down and then pulls out a lower speed parachute. The mechanism to sequence the parachutes is called a "delayed release" or "pressure detent release" depending on whether it releases based on time, or the reduction in pressure as the load slows down.

Emergency parachutes and cargo parachutes designed to go straight down are pure drag devices. These have large dome-shaped canopies made from a single layer of cloth. Some skydivers call them "jellyfish 'chutes" because they look like dome-shaped jellyfish. Some dome parachutes can be steered by flaps. They usually have a small hole the center of the dome to spill air, so that the parachute does not have to swing to spill air from its edges.

Parasails are parachutes that are like inflatable wings. They have two layers of fabric, connected by shaped fabric gores. The space between the two fabric layers fills with high pressure air from vents that face forward. The gores are cut in the cross-section of a wing, so that they pull the ballooning fabric into an inflated wing-shape.

Parasails divide into two further types. High speed parasails are shaped like an ellipse. Usually their vents are small tringular scoops on the underside, pulled open by lines. Low-speed parasails look much like square inflatable air-mattresses with open front ends. Ellipticals move faster, but this is not always an advantage, because it makes the parachute harder to fly, and more dangerous to land. In the early days, some ellipticals opened and inflated less reliably than low-speed parasails, but reliable makes of parachute have resolved these problems.

Powered parachutes are a form of ultralight aircraft, generally employing rectangular dual surface parafoil wings with open cells on the leading edge of the wing. A go-cart like frame is used to mount the pilot seat and engine, creating a stable flying platform that is very easy to fly in calm weather conditions.

Sport parachutes used by skydivers today are designed to open softly. Modern sport parachutes rarely create strap bruises from the opening shock. Emergency parachutes almost always do.

Parachute safety

A parachute is carefully folded, or "packed" to assure that it will open reliably. In the U.S. and many developed countries, emergency parachutes are packed by "riggers" who must be trained and certified according to legal standards. Paratroops and sport skydivers are always trained to pack their own primary parachutes.

Parachutes can malfunction in several ways. Malfuntions can range from minor problems that can be corrected in-flight and still landed to catastrophic malfunctions that require the main parachute to be released and a second parachute called a reserve to be deployed. Some skydivers are also equipped with small barometric computers that can deploy the reserve parachute if the skydiver himself is unable or has not done so at a preset altitude and decent rate.

About 1 in 1000 hundred main parachute openings malfunction. Reserve parachutes are designed and packed differently and are therefore far more reliable. In the U.S. the average fatality rate is considered to be about 1 in 80,000 jumps, but this ratio would be the same whether the skydiver is making his first or 30,000th jump. Most skydivers lose interest in the sport long before they reach any statistical likelihood of a fatality. The average skydiver in the U.S. makes about 200 jumps per year and will leave the sport before his 5th year.

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