Skydivers use a dual-parachute system that contains both a main and reserve parachute. Who can pack a parachute is defined by the Federal Aviation Administration. The main parachute may be packed by a certified parachute rigger, a person supervised by a certified parachute rigger, or the person who intends to use the parachute. On the other hand, Only a FAA certified parachute rigger may pack a reserve parachute, and the reserve must be repacked every 180 days, without fail. (If it hasn’t been repacked according to that schedule, it can’t be used until the repack is done.) A good way to think about it is this: the main is the fun part; the reserve is the lifesaving parachute. So, let’s look at who packs the parachute for a skydive.
To understand the serious of the reserve-parachute packing subject, you have to get an idea of the background, qualifications and experience of the FAA rigger who’s legally mandated to do the job. The term originated in the 16th century when it described someone who did the essential job of maintaining the fabric and ropes on sailing ships. The title was passed on down the line to modern parachute riggers in the early 1900s, with the advent of the parachute. It makes sense–like sails, parachutes are made of lifesaving fabric that must be meticulously maintained.
As parachuting evolved, the government stepped in to regulate and license the folks who worked on parachute fabric–after all, ensuring the reliability of parachutes represented a necessary step in protecting the jumpers, the pilots and the public below.
These days, any civilian parachute that’s intended for emergency deployment (specifically, then reserve parachutes) can only be packed, maintained, or altered by a person who holds an appropriate and current Parachute Rigger Certificate. In many cases, these folks are full-time pros who live and work pretty much entirely within the close orbit of the parachute industry.
In the US, there are two distinct levels of Rigger: Senior and Master. The fact that the entry-level version is called “Senior” should already indicate to you how hard it is to get even that designation. To get the Senior certificate, a candidate has to prove that she has packed a minimum of 20 reserve parachutes of just one of the several types, as well as demonstrate her ability to properly conduct maintenance and repair of the parachute. Upon the successful completion of that battery of oral and practical tests, the FAA issues a Temporary Parachute Rigger Certificate and the new rigger’s pride and joy: a seal symbol. The seal symbol–which you can check out if you look beneath the flap at any reserve closing pin–is a little metal tag on a colored thread. It’s stamped with a combination of three letters, numbers or both. The seal symbol serves as the identifying mark for that individual parachute rigger, and it’s used to seal any parachute that he or she packs. It’s a sign of responsibility, honor and pride, as well as the physical proof that an FAA-certified person inspected and repacked the parachute that sits below the tag.
Once the candidate has that elusive rigger’s certificate (and seal) in hand, it’s time for the big challenge: knuckling down and learning through experience. Often, they tackle this through an apprenticeship, so they can watch and be supervised by a Master rigger. Make no mistake: These apprenticeships are not summer programs. It takes a lot of time to get exhaustively familiar with the cornucopia of parachute materials, to gather together the range of necessary tools and to log the required experience to pack each of the myriad of sport parachuting systems. To then move on to the Master designation, the rigger has to prove three years of experience as a Senior parachute rigger and conducted a total of 200 pack jobs. (A Senior rigger is considered a journeyman technician; a Master rigger is considered an expert.)
So: Who packs the parachute for a skydive? A stone-cold pro. Our packers and riggers at Skydive San Marcos take immense pride in their work, which you can feel in every parachute opening. Come and try one for yourself!