Selecting a Reserve

I recently had an excellent experience at an SIV course, (thank you Dilan Benedetti at Let Fly Paragliding), and I came away with a number of impressions and skills that will benefit me as a pilot and instructor.  In specific, I observed many reserve deployments.  I had the opportunity to discuss with peer instructors, acro pilots and experienced pilots reserve selection and experiences.   It made for a solid set of evidence for determining reserve selection.

How to Size your Reserve:

We often think of ‘more is better’ when it comes to reserves but this may not always be the case.  For example, if you are using a reserve that is too large, you suffer from two conditions; slow deploy and drift.  The time to deploy may be slowed given a low weight (shake the bridle if this happens to you) when thrown and you are far more apt to drift and pendulum in wind.  Both of these conditions may prove dangerous.

The recommendation to size your reserve is to design the system so that your total weight produces a fall rate near 5 meters/second.  Reserves have tables to determine this that look like the following:

Given this information, grab your gear just like you’d be flying and stand on the scale.  Or do it the old fashioned way.  175 lbs pilot + 25 lbs gear + 5 lbs water & clothes = 205 lbs / 2.2 (convert to kg) = 93.18kg.  This places me solidly in the 100 (M) category.  It supports 80-100kg and the anticipated fall rate is 4.8 m/sec.  Easy!!

Round, Square or Steerable?

I am going to add some opinion here and it stands that no reserve is a bad reserve.  If you’re flying high enough to deploy one, you should have it onboard.  That said, my experience is as follows with the three main types:

Round reserves are fine, they have been out for many years and are a very reliable standard.  The valid criticism is that you can pendulum under a round which means at the moment of impact with the ground, it is possible you will swing in not necessarily land on your feet.  A round also cannot be steered meaning you drift in the wind direction.  Remember that any glider or reserve has a 10 year life so if your reserve is practically new and 11 years old, you need a new one.

Square reserves (I like the Niviuk Octagon) reduce the pendulum to practically nil and have the reliability of a round and the reduced movement.  This is also not steerable.  Regardless, in my opinion, are the best reserves you can buy.  The ease of deployment, eradication of pendulum, reduction of complexity, lower pack volume, and slow descent rate make them the perfect balance.  I add to this equation the fact that when I explain to a student reserve deployment and we do it on the simulator, I want them to have simple instructions to inspire confidence.

Steerable reserves can be guided in a direction after deployment and disabling of the main.  This is a benefit and they also defeat the pendulum effect.  However, out of a dozen reserve deployments, (conceded as a small sample set), I only saw 1 deployment where the pilot was able to deploy, shake the bridle to get the reserve out of the bag, disable the glider and be anywhere near the ability to steer a reserve.  That said, the complexity of the deployment and condition left the pilot in riser twists so there was no steering to be done.  They were still kicking out of twists when they hit the water.  Steerable reserves are a great idea.  I think as harnesses change to accommodate the dual riser system, they will come to be more practical.  Presently, I’m not sure you’re getting much extra for the additional cost.  They are also not recommended for beginner plots and steerable reserves do not flare. There’s a great section about them in the JustAcro videos.  I recommend you watch this if you’re considering one.

Deploying your Reserve:

Always remember that when we discuss this on the ground we are cool headed and thinking through it as a spectator.  When you deploy in the sky, it’s an ‘oh shit’ moment where you are low and in trouble.  Set a hard deck.  If you’re under 1000′ without a wing inflated.  Throw.  Deployment looks like this:

…in one motion…

Step 1:  Grab the handle

Step 2: Pull the reserve out

Step 3: Throw the reserve toward blue sky

Remember to shake the bridle if it doesn’t deploy right away and disable your main glider.   Get ready to PLF when you land!

Practice makes Perfect:

Occasionally when you are flying on good clean air, take the toggles in one hand, reach down and simply locate the reserve handle.  Don’t pull it, just know where it is.  Muscle memory will help you when you really need it.  Remember that it will not help you to throw your reserve into your non-flyable glider.  You must maintain the presence of mind to get the reserve into clean air. during a deployment, you’re usually not spinning at terminal velocity so most deployments are happening at a lower speed which helps us achieve this.  Once the reserve is out, you need to disable your main glider to prevent a down plane.  This is a condition where both the glider and reserve are inflated and take opposing positions to each other, with you in the middle, and fly quickly toward the ground.  You will impact much faster than if you were under the reserve alone.  For this reason, disabling the glider is important.


All of these add up to an exercise in safety and simplicity.  I want my students to know that if the situation goes poorly, there’s a fallback and the instructions for operation are simple.  As a pilot, I want that process to be seamless, reliable and easy to use.  Now go practice your PLF!!

Randall Shane, PhD

USHPA Advanced Instructor