Wanna know all about research and development and tales from our NZA Test Jumpers, aka the Testies? Then carry on reading. ‘Cos we’ve gone all technical and asked our Testies to answer questions about test jumping and R&D. We’ve even got our illustrious General Manager, Attila, to tell us his Testie stories. Yeah, it wasn’t always a prerequisite to be called Chris to get on the NZA Testie team… But it probably helps #chrisgalvin.
Introduction to our NZA Testies
Chris, Chris and Attila. Three NZA Testies from different walks of life.
We’ve got Attila who is our General Manager. He came over from Hungary many moons ago and happened to get caught up in the whirlwind that was Jyro. Our GM wasn’t always the Big Boss – he started NZA life in production, then as a jack of all trades. Sales, shipping, sewing, test jumping. You name it, Attila has probably done it! His test jumping days were pretty wild and scary. Definitely not for the faint of heart.
These days, Attila spends as much of his free time with his wife and three boys. Camping, hiking, cycling, and any other outdoor pursuit is his activity of choice. And yep, he’s one of those that enjoys marathon running and Iron Mans. The dedication that he has put into NZ Aerosports and making it the best company in the skydiving world is second to none – Legend!
Chris Stewart and Chris Snell, our current Testies, should be well familiar to you by now. In case you missed it (or have been living in a very dark hole devoid of the NZ Aerosports light), they are our ‘go-tos’ for educational videos, livestreams, diary entries, helpers and webinars. One is a lover of tea, the other is a #veganathlete. Both Chris’s enjoy tearing up the mountain bike tracks when they aren’t helping Julien with research and development.
Wanna know more about our NZA Testies? Have a read of our blog NZ Aerosports Test Jumpers: An Introduction
We reckon that’s enough introduction for now, let’s get into our questions and answers.
How did you become an NZA Testie?
It was before I started working for NZA. They sponsored me at the time, and Tony, the manager at the time, asked me if I could try a few different sliders they were working on for the JVX.
When I started working for NZA, we had long talks (all night) with Jyro about some great and crazy ideas. I would usually try them.
Right place at the right time! After starting with NZA working in Quality Control, I was able to offer help and insight into the new prototypes we were building. This led to being asked to help out with a few jumps here and there. I was asked to give some technical insight and I guess it snowballed from there…. it was either that or I just happened to be called Chris.
After having helped NZA with a couple of small video edits in early 2016, Chris Brook (original Head Testie) asked me if I’d be interested in helping out. They were needing help with some test jumping and more video edits for the 2017 summer. When I arrived, Attila had a chat with me and said he wasn’t sure how much work there would be. It was likely to be part-time and it might just be for the one summer.
At the end of the summer season, I was set to head back to Europe for the next summer. I wasn’t sure what my future with NZA was going to be at that point. However, a few weeks before leaving, Attila had a brief informal chat with me that went something like “You’re coming back next summer right?”
Five years on and you can see my part time gig became a little more than that.
What was your scariest test jump and why?
It was a prototype called Ilona. (Named after a Hungarian porn star Cicciolina)
We put everything we learned during the Summer of Love into one canopy. We took it a bit too far. It was a very fast and very unstable canopy. I ended up with the lines wrapped around my ankle under a spinning, collapsing and inflating canopy. I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it. I walked away from it shaken and with some bruises. It was still valuable learning as Petra (P1) was the next high performance prototype we built.
In the plane, I feel like every test jump I go up for is the scariest. Purely because you don’t know what might happen! BUT, looking back, I’d have to say watching a wingtip tuck on a high performance canopy in my shadow on landing was a little unnerving!
I’ll start by saying I wouldn’t do a test jump if I was scared of the canopy. That’s not to say I’m not nervous. However, being scared and being nervous are two very different things. In my experience anyway.
When you jump something for the very first time that is the only one of its kind there are definitely some butterflies fluttering around. In a weird way, I enjoy this feeling. It helps me to switch on and embrace and enjoy what I’m about to do.
My scariest test jump however was on a Petra 2 prototype. I had completed all of my control checks up high and decided that the canopy was safe to land. As I got lower and flew through some thermal turbulence it soon became clear the canopy wasn’t as stable as it appeared to be a few thousand feet higher. Because of this and now being too low to cutaway I decided to do a simple straight in approach. Clearly this is very ideal and exactly what you want on a 66 square foot prototype no one had flown or landed before. Obviously…
So what happened Stewy?!
I started my landing pattern and felt the canopy bump around a little. Just after I turned onto my Base leg, the canopy had a partial collapse followed quickly by a full collapse. Out of instinct, I engaged the brakes and the canopy returned to regular flight. I turned onto Final leg and had a safe sit-down landing. All of this happened quickly and around 900 feet.
In the moment, I wasn’t scared, I didn’t have time to be. I simply reacted to the situation and dealt with it. It wasn’t until after landing and taking in what had happened, I realised how lucky I was and how it could have ended a lot differently.
We found the problem in the design and have added procedures to hopefully avoid this happening again.
Read our blog article: Emergency Procedures and Plan Bs – Staying out of the Danger Zone
What type of canopies do you test jump?
I don’t test jump anymore.
I jump a wide variety of canopies. These will vary from large Student type canopies down to JFX 2 and Leia 79s…. but I’ll leave the Petra type testing to the professionals!
I test everything from large Student canopies to the smallest P2 prototypes. Although I love testing the newest smallest prototypes we have, I also appreciate slowing down and testing those canopies that are a little less intense. It took me a couple of years of jump testing to appreciate the larger prototypes.
Do you use specific skydiving gear for test jumping?
Most of the time just my personal rig. We had a set-up with two mains and a reserve. I think that was half of the problem.
Our main addition gear that I wouldn’t use on a fun jump would be the dick cam (nicknamed for it’s location). It’s basically a belly mounted GoPro on a stick that points up. This is designed to capture the openings of the canopy for analysis during our debrief and cocktails.
We use specific camera setups designed to film the openings for debrief and cocktails, called “Dickcams”. Basically, it’s our way of saying bellycam. Also in the last few years, we have started to incorporate more data gathering tools to get things like G-forces, Acceleration etc. Do I know how to read them? Nope, not at all. That, my friends, is where our French genius, Julien, comes in.
What do you look for when you are test jumping a canopy?
It really depends. Is it the first jump on a prototype exploring a new concept or refining a prototype for release?
Questions we ask are can I land it safely? How do the controls feel? When and how it does it stall (static and dynamic, with brakes and rear risers)? There is lots of front riser input. Then we’ll look at how it compares to other prototypes or existing products in its class. Lots of refining, debugging openings of different sizes, different wing loadings and delays. Plenty of delays.
We like to cover the most fundamental things that anyone looks for on a skydive. Is it square? Is it steerable? And above all, can I land this thing!? If all seems well, there are many elements to look for on a test jump. We look at aspects of flight such as how it turns and how ‘smooth’ it flies. Another important aspect we check is if there is any canopy distortion when pulling on various riser/toggle combinations. As well as how heavy the rear and front risers are. And various other checks!
As well as checking to see how well a prototype flies, I am also on the lookout for things we can make better during production. Is there a crease or bend somewhere we don’t want one and can we tune it out by altering a line length slightly. Because let’s face it, it’s gonna need to be sleek and sexy and not a wrinkly mess!
This really depends on where we’re at with the canopy. When it’s the first jump we go through a range controls and stability checks. After a few jumps and once we’re happy the canopy is stable and safe to land we can begin to push it. That’s when we start focusing on specific details in the canopy’s performance.
As we begin to push towards the canopy’s limits, we first get an overall feel for the wing. Once we have a good feel for the canopy, that’s when we start to focus on individual aspects of the canopy. For example, openings, flare, rear riser performance, harness performance among a few others.
Whenever we make changes it’s only one at a time to see its effect on the rest of the canopy and to understand if there are improvements we can make. Or in some cases, deterioration to the desired performance. With any canopy design, we are looking for and tweaking things that work and those that don’t. And all while making sure the canopy is in line with the performance level for the target market.
Listen to our R&D team chat with Dean Ricci from the Lunatic Fringe Podcast: Lunatic Fringe with the NZ Aero Design Team
What is the process for deciding what works and what doesn’t work? Do you ever give up on a prototype and start fresh?
First we look at data from the simulation (we use CAD for our designs). We only build it if the numbers are backing the idea. Only change one thing at a time to compare the effect of improvements. Regardless of how good or bad the outcome of the prototype we learn something. And yes, sometimes we give up on ideas. You abandon more than you keep, actually. It is a fascinating process.
I think continuous feedback and small iterations is key. Don’t change too many things at once, pick an area, jump it, feedback, fix, rinse and repeat. Trying to fix too much at once makes it hard to know if what we are trying is helping or hindering.
I am sure in the past there have been many projects that have hit the shelf in the canopy graveyard without ever seeing the light of day outside of testing. However, in my time here, I would say we have ‘taken our time’ on a few projects but never really fully given up on an idea. I like to think it’s an evolution into something better rather than giving up.
As above we take a canopy through a range of checks and tests. If there are things that we simply can’t fix after multiple attempts, this can result in the canopy being scrapped. Although this isn’t as common as it once was due to there more often than not being something we can learn from a prototype and modify.
Quite often the reason to scrap a prototype is that it’s been superseded by an improved prototype. Or a modification simply isn’t possible and requires a rebuild. Being completely honest, we’ve had a couple prototypes that get a jump, sometimes a brave second and unfortunately it’s agreed the world isn’t ready for them. Or the Testies.
Describe a typical cycle of a research and development project from start to finish.
Haha. That’s a separate article itself! But it’s something like this.
It always starts with an idea for improvement. Might be a problem that needs to be fixed, an improvement, new technology or material. We’ll design and validate it by computerised simulation. Then test jump, collect data footage, photos, feedback for debriefing and cocktails. Repeat the process until we have a product that is 90% ready.
At this stage, we have a canopy that is safe to fly and ready to get feedback from people with different packing techniques, flying styles, wing load, weather conditions.
Also, we develop in a bit of a bubble. We talk a lot, sharing our feedback and experiences throughout the project. We get very aligned with our feedback and get emotionally attached to the prototype. So it’s good to get independent and honest feedback. Then more debugging and eventually sign off for release.
I think it all starts with looking at what the customers want and seeing if there is a need to fill a gap in the product range or make improvements to an existing product. The R&D team then decides on what kind of features or ideas that will make the canopy suitable to what it is intended to do.
We build prototypes, test, develop, make awesome and when we are 100% happy that it is going to do what we promise then it’s time to book some tickets somewhere nice to film a release video. For sure this is one of the Testies’ favourite parts!
The simplified version. It starts with the design by Julien, which involves computer simulations and a whole bunch of stuff my brain can’t comprehend. Once we have a model, it will go back and forth between design and production, making any changes required to build the canopy.
With a working prototype, we then test and go through our jumping procedures to tweak and improve the canopy. Usually, this means going back and forth with production and design. After the design has been finalised we look to complete as many jumps in house as we can. Oftentimes, we will send the canopy out to some trusted jumpers for beta testing.
Minor tweaks might be made, but overall we are looking for consistency in the design we are happy with. Finally, when we’re convinced the new canopy is ready for the big wide world it’s time for a release video, marketing campaign and watch the hungry jumpers place their orders, followed by a few celebration/debrief cocktails. EASY AS THAT!
Do you help with the designing of a prototype?
Not with the design. But I feel I had valuable input throughout our projects. Helping to come up with original ideas and good solutions. My feedback helped to create better products. To be honest, I’m very proud of it, and it’s my biggest contribution to skydiving. So far.
Although aerodynamics engineering is not my specialty, I think as an R&D team we all bring something to the table to make our products awesome. Be that in a technical capacity or experience in flying parachutes, all of which help influence the design of a canopy.
Not the initial design, but the job as a Testie is to give feedback on prototypes that help fuel ideas and shape the final product. So in a way you could say so. This can be said for other steps through the process such as production. Together with Snelly, they can look at different ways to put the canopy together and simplify the construction which is all part of the canopy design.
What was your favourite R&D project and why?
When Julien came to NZA in 2010. Summer of Love. To be honest, Jyro was burned out a bit, and we hadn’t had much going on for a while. Julien’s fresh ideas, tools and energy reignited Jyro’s passion for innovating. It was a special time for me at NZA and in life. It was also the time I met my wife, Kinga.
I have been out of action a little this year due to an old injury I had to get fixed up, so I have not been jumping a whole lot lately. However, Anna is a project we have been working on for a while and it has still been my favourite so far. It is a wing that best suits my level of canopy piloting so being a part of developing a canopy to suit is just f%cking awesome. It has been a challenge to come up with something that fits in the window between JFX2 and Leia but all good things come to those that wait… or so I’m told.
I find every project to be different and have its own challenges and enjoyments. The current Anna project is slow going but we have learnt a lot that will help not only for Anna but with other projects to come. My first project with NZA was the Safire 3 and although I do enjoy the smaller prototypes, it was the project that started my Testies’ journey.
Jumping P2 prototypes is amazing because every advancement we make is a step closer to the next generation of super duper hyper wings.
However, if I had to say one project it would have to be the Crossfire 3. We travelled the South Island of New Zealand on an epic road trip with amazing people, jumping in amazing places. One of the most notable was mountain flying over and down the back of Mt Hutt. It was a pretty good 2 weeks in the office. How good.
Why are all the Testies called Chris now? And what’s with ‘Testies’ being spelt wrong?
I don’t know. I’m Hungarian. Have you seen my spelling?
Perhaps I planted the ‘Chris’ seed when I first started to make sure I greatly increased my odds to get onto the Testies team… also Testies isn’t spelt wrong. That’s just how you spell Testies.
It never used to be but it seems the Skygods decided we were the only idiots willing to do the job.
Testies isn’t spelt wrong, at least not for long. We’ve applied for the word to be added to the Oxford Dictionary or at least the Urban Dictionary.
A group of 2 or more people (commonly called Chris) who test prototype designs.
“The Testies were hot and sweaty after a long day jumping prototypes”