Brought to you by Niklas Daniel and Brianne Thompson of AXIS Flight School at Skydive Arizona in Eloy. Images by Bruce Fournier.
After taking a two-year break since the last Foundations of Flight installment, AXIS is excited to announce that it is back with a new focus and look. Past articles (available at axisflightschool.com and parachutist.com) covered a wide range of skills and disciplines, but the new series is focused on specific canopy-piloting concepts. Using illustrations from the AXIS Skydiving app, this column will discuss one aspect—such as construction, a physics concept, a procedure or a flying technique—of a specific piece of equipment. Think of this column as a supplement to professional canopy coaching and a conversation starter rather than a substitute for training.
There is much more to a parachute than just a nylon wing and some strings. Each component—which includes the canopy pilot—contributes to the performance of the parachute. A skydiving parachute is first and foremost a lifesaving device that is intended to be deployed at freefall speeds. Therefore, their design and construction are in many ways limited by their primary function. The canopy ride is not a necessary evil that lets you jump again, but instead completes the skydiving experience with a skill set all jumpers share. Developing skill under a wing that is appropriate for your level of experience and currency is much more rewarding than rapidly downsizing or relying on gimmicks. If you are looking for higher performance, approach the progression as growing out of a wing rather than into one.
Equipment: Ram-Air Parachute
A ram-air parachute is a nonrigid-textile wing with an aerodynamic cell structure. Inflated by the relative wind, a parachute requires constant pressurization to produce an airfoil shape. This is accomplished by using the airflow created as a parachute moves through the air, which gives it the name “ram-air.” Most commonly made out of a ripstop nylon, ram-air parachutes are flexible wings which are capable of much more complex behaviors than a ridged fixed wing found on an airplane. Ram-air parachutes have an arc-anhedral design (curved), which places the wing tips below the level of the center of the wing. The arched wing shape has spanwise (side-to-side) bumps, which are the result of the bulging of each cell as they are inflated with air.
Concept: Canopy Check
To determine whether you have a properly functioning main parachute, ask yourself these three questions after you have thrown the pilot chute:
1| There? Visually confirm that there is parachute fabric over your head.
2| Square? Determine if the shape of the wing is symmetrical.
3| Flare? Ensure you can steer and land the parachute using a controllability check. This entails making left and right turns, as well as a full flare (a simulated landing).
If the answer to any of the above questions is “no,” and you are unable to remedy the situation, proceed with emergency procedures at or above your decision altitude.
Information about AXIS’ coaching and instructional services is available at axisflightschool.com. The authors intend this article to be an educational guideline. It is not a substitute for professional instruction.
More educational skydiving content, as well as this free article, is available by downloading the AXIS Skydiving app on your smart device.
AXIS Skydiving App
In celebration of our ‘tin anniversary‘, we reflect on some of our favorite highlights and exploits over the past decade and give thanks to our Students, Sponsors, Team Mates, and Skydive Arizona. Without you, we would not be living the dream.
We also want to give a special shout out to the various skydiving magazines who have spent many hours editing and publishing our work with the community.
Here is to the next 10 years of Awesomeness!
November 2010 – AXIS Flight School® sets up shop at Skydive Arizona.
April 2011 – AXIS published its first Foundations of Flight article in Parachutist Magazine.
July 2011 – Nik performs his first canopy burn for the music video 4 years by Kid Savant.
September 2011 – AXIS organizes at MOAB.
October 2011 – Nik makes an appearance in the ESPN Body issue with his team mates on Arizona Arsenal.
March 2012 – Nik wins the 10th Annual Freefly Money Meet.
April 2012 – AXIS coaches and organizes at the Skydive Expo in Deland Florida.
May 2012 – AXIS offers canopy flocking courses at Skydive Arizona.
August 2012 – AXIS coaches and organizes in Europe during the summer. Several more trips follow in the future.
June 2013 – AXIS trains the first Operation Enduring Warrior AFF student Todd Love. Many more wounded veterans join the program to receive their USPA A-License and go beyond.
September 2013 – AXIS Flight School’s swoop and slide footage airs on VH1’s 40 greatest viral videos.
September 2013 – Nik wins his first US National title in 4-way VFS while on Arizona Arsenal.
December 2013 – Nik is the primary videographer for the Women’s Vertical World Record 63-way over Skydive Arizona.
December 2013 – Nik performs “The Huckleberry”.
February 2014 – AXIS jumps with Cory Remsburg during the Tee it up for the Troops golf outing in Scottsdale, Arizona.
June 2014 – AXIS skydiving video is featured on the TV show Jeopardy.
September 2014 – Nik wins silver at the 21st FAI World Formation Skydiving Championships in 4-way VFS while on Arizona Arsenal.
September 2014 – Nik wins his second US National title in 4-way VFS while on Arizona Arsenal.
September 2014 – Arizona X-FORCE competes at its first USPA Nationals at Skydive Chicago. The team went on to compete and medal (2 silver, 3 bronze) at five consecutive USPA Nationals, in addition to medaling at several indoor skydiving competitions (bronze at USIS). AZ X-FORCE participated in two FAI World Cups, earning bronze in 2019. Peak performances for outdoor included: 17.8 average, 24points single highest scoring round. Peak performances for indoor included: 26.1 average, 46points single highest scoring round.
March 2015 – Brianne receives the Chesley H. Judy USPA Safety Award.
March 2015 – AXIS releases YouTube video “A Case of the Mondays”.
July 2015 – Nik captures epic video footage with a RED camera for Rockhouse Motion.
September 2015 – Ben Lowe joins AXIS Flight School under the label X-Ratings to offer rating courses.
October 2015 – Arizona X-FORCE takes 3rd at the USPA Nationals.
November 2015 – Brianne’s burning parachute jump video goes viral, reaching more than 1M views.
April 2016 – First 3-way XRW night jump over Skydive Arizona.
October 2016 – Arizona X-FORCE takes 3rd at the USPA Nationals.
December 2016 – Skydive Mag publishes Nik’s Body-flight Theory paper in four installments.
February 2017 – Nik’s aerial photography is featured on FOX 10 News.
March 2017 – Nik receives the Chesley H. Judy USPA Safety Award.
April 2017 – AXIS installs a personal weather station as Skydive Arizona and broadcast info online for locals.
April 2017 – AXIS coaches placed 3rd with their player coach team X-Defy at the iFly Virginia Beach Indoor Nationals in 4-way Formation Skydiving.
August 2017 – Arizona X-FORCE takes 4th at the 21st FAI World Cup in Germany.
September 2017 – Arizona X-FORCE takes 2nd at the USPA Nationals.
September 2017 – Brianne sets World Female Performance Record, as well as North American Female Competition and Performance Records in Speed Skydiving.
February 2018 – Brianne and Nik receive their pilots license (ASEL).
March 2018 – AXIS collaborates with the IBA to produce video tutorials.
March 2018 – Nik receives his IBA Trainer Level 4 sign off.
September 2018 – Arizona X-FORCE takes 2nd at the USPA Nationals.
January 2019 – Arizona X-FORCE takes 3rd at the USIS Nationals.
July 2019 – AXIS published its 100th Foundations of Flight in Parachutist Magazine.
August 2019 – AXIS introduces its Merit System.
September 2019 – Arizona X-FORCE takes 2nd at the USPA Nationals.
October 2019 – Brianne is the first American to medal in FS and VFS at the same World level competition.
October 2019 – Arizona X-FORCE takes 3rd at the 22nd FAI World Cup in Eloy.
December 2019 – AXIS collaborates with Good Goblin Games to produce the AXIS Skydiving App.
September 2020 – AXIS hosts its first Crucible Indoor Tournament.
October 2020 – AXIS builds a home studio to produce high quality educational videos.
November 2020 – AXIS continues to support the OEW Skydiving project.
Nik provides an in-depth look at the AXIS ChronoPrism team performance evaluation tool.
Nik provides an in-depth look at the AXIS Draw Generator Training Camp feature.
Nik provides an in-depth look at the AXIS Draw Generator.
Over the past three years, AXIS Flight School has been involved in a joint venture with Good Goblin Games to develop a new kind of skydiving app – AXIS Skydiving, available on Google play and on the Apple App Store. The goal was to create an educational tool/reference manual that covers body-flight and canopy-piloting concepts in a fun and engaging manner. Brianne Thompson and Niklas Daniel are the co-founders of AXIS Flight School and have a history of writing educational articles and creating online video tutorials. Bruce Fournier is a talented animator and app developer and fun jumper at Skydive Arizona. Brianne and Nik are the subject matter experts for the app’s content, providing Bruce with instruction and feedback in creating the animations. The purpose of this app was to develop an innovative way for an audience to visualize movement. From the start, the team wanted to utilize a 3D model. This allows the user to interact with a subject of interest in a way that a picture or video cannot provide. It is important that a user can change viewing angles, time, and use tools that can help visualize the body’s interaction with the relative wind. This led to the creation of Woody, a three-dimensional interactive dummy and AXIS’ new official mascot. Woody offers viewers insight by demonstrating specific maneuvers related to skydiving. In addition, each chapter in the app also comes with a detailed article, photos, and links to tutorial videos. Specific maneuvers are quickly and easily located as they are grouped into categories, such as body-flight orientation and transitions. Brianne puts it simply: “This is the best damn skydiving app in the history of the world.”
Playing with Ideas
Accomplishing this would have been difficult to do with most standard developer tools. In order to jump over this first hurdle, the team was inspired by video games, as they are specifically designed to display and animate 3D graphics. With a background developing games for mobile devices in his past and still creating game prototypes in his spare time, Bruce understands the potential and power of such an approach. We quickly decided to make the app in a video game engine called “Unity”. This game engine has grown rapidly in the past decade and is used by small indie developers to big name game studios. Although video game engines are rarely used for educational apps, Unity provided all the tools and flexibility needed for the AXIS Skydiving app endeavor to take shape.
Woody was created and animated in a 3D animation program called “Maya”, which is
also used by major video game developers and movie studios. Created entirely from scratch, Bruce did not use any downloadable or royalty free elements. This is where the team decided on what Woody was to look like and any other accompanying gear he might use such as a rig, canopy, and more. Creating the correct and engaging visuals proved challenging. The original idea was to have the app feel like a textbook come to life with Woody jumping off every page. However, the first few drafts were aesthetically boring and uninteresting. After multiple redesigns, the team settled on a look that can be described as stylized minimalism. Through the process of trial and error, the team learned that “less is more”. Avoiding elements that can confuse and distract the viewer, AXIS wants you to see only the bare necessities and what is relevant.
Bringing Woody to Life
After Woody took shape and was finalized with Maya, he was then imported into Unity to breathe life into his movements and appearance. There were some unforeseen challenges in the animating process where the team had to think outside the box. Referencing pictures and videos of a particular action is helpful, however the team had to take a different approach when applying standard animation techniques to skydiving. This is because realism and accuracy of execution is the backbone of the app. Animators typically reference the ground and analyze the position of their subject’s feet. Doing this literally grounds the character and guides the animation process. Woody always being in the air however makes the animation process difficult since there is nothing to ground him in reality and is just one of many hurdles we had to overcome. Bruce: “ Animating Woody was a unique challenge compared to the usual way I animate. Most other animations of a humanoid character I can much more easily reference by physically doing silly things myself like jump, run, and crawl around to get the feel of how something is suppose to look. I just hope no one else is around at the time to watch me make a fool of myself. Pictures and videos of someone else performing the action is always very helpful but this also came with its own problems compared to the usual way I animate. When referencing a picture or video, one of the first things I do is look at the ground and see where the person’s feet are positioned. Having this initial point of origin helps guide many things down the line for the whole animation. For skydiving it is literally not grounded. It also doesn’t help that this is an educational app and the animations in particular have to be accurate. Depending on the project you know you can fudge some things and as long as it looks cool and somewhat believable to the average end user it gets a pass. Big name movies and video games do this all the time. We can look at one of our favorite super heroes Iron Man as an example. It may look really cool when he is flying but in reality he would be crashing into the ground if we think about the real physics of how something is flying.”
Though Nik and Brianne help Bruce with the animation of movements, Bruce spends most of his time working on the app by himself. Working on the project part time, around five hours per week over three years, Bruce has spent more than seven hundred hours in front of his laptop!
Teaching Woody to Fly
Bruce: “At first I simply tried to read AXIS Flight School’s articles as a guide to the animation and reference pictures as best I could. I am also a novice skydiver compared to someone like Nik and Brianne and figured I could at least have a slight idea in my head how it should look and feel. Long story short, the first batch of animations came out a little sloppy. We later found the best method to make animations is to have Nik and Brianne sit in with me where I do all the technical computer magic and they describe in detail how Woody should look and occasionally Nik or Brianne have to look silly for me to reference from.”
Nik: “It was a fun and challenging process to teach Woody to fly. Since Brianne and I
coach full time, there was no difference in our approach. AXIS is fully aware that there are many ways to perform a particular maneuver. Models and analogies are always limited in their descriptive power. Choosing a method and focusing on tracking the movements of joints is one effective method of getting a concept across. Of course focusing on joint movement alone is not the whole picture. Timing and body tension are impossible to relay in an image and even video, that is why every chapter in the app has an article to help cover these aspects.”
Brianne: “In order to get the most realistic and accurate representation, Nik and I always started at Woody’s core and worked outward. Since we did not have a net or tunnel walls to reference, we needed to keep a close eye not just on Woody’s body movements, but how he moved through space. Without a reference we frequently used masking tape as a place holder on the monitor we were working on.”
In addition to body-flight concepts, the AXIS Skydiving app also features canopy handling drills. As canopy parts and elements are very intricate in nature, AXIS turned to its canopy sponsor Performance Designs. Since accuracy is the backbone of the app, the team wanted to ensure that the depictions and animation of a canopy would be realistic as possible.
PD was able to provide a 3D mesh of one of their products – the Sabre 2. This was instrumentally helpful, but Bruce had to go to work on building a version that could be joined with Woody. Bruce: “Building a functional container with a canopy was one of the most difficult things I ever had to create. There is so many little details and functions that most people don’t realize. There was now three layers of complexity at any given time: 1) Woody by himself, 2) A container that freely moves and morphs accurately on top of Woody along with the function to show if it is open or closed, and 3) Lastly a canopy attached to the container that also functions from real world inputs like pulling your toggles or rear risers. Like the animations before I really couldn’t fudge anything since this was an educational app where accuracy is the most important aspect of the entire project.
The rig I made is a mix of three different rigs. I used several reference pictures of Vectors and Curvs, along with my own Mirage that I closely studied. The first attempt I made at
building a canopy on the other hand wasn’t bad and in most cases I would have been happy with it and moved on, but again this is an educational app and there were too many small mistakes that a real canopy would not have. A lot of 3D animation work is studying the environment around you that most others don’t notice. It can be a scary though if you have a lot of the basics down of how something is supposed to work but it just isn’t quite coming together.
Just because I have an accurate looking canopy now there was still a lot of work to be done in order to make it work in our app. I first had to delete a lot of geometry. This does make the canopy look a little more blocky with jagged edges, but building stuff for a game is a huge tight rope dance between what will look good and what will actually work with no slow down. The computer or in our case limited mobile devices have to process everything in real time. From there I have to texture the canopy so it isn’t just grey. Then I have to rig it. This means I have to build a skeleton for the canopy and lines. This might sound a little strange but you have to think of how the canopy is going to move and bend for our needs. I place several “bones” that have “joints” and this dictates how the canopy can actually move. After making the skeleton I then make special controls so I can more easily create animations instead of moving one bone at a time.”
In addition to featuring top-notch animations, the app also includes some useful tools to jumpers of all kinds. Calculators to determine: exit separation, reserve repack cycle, wing loading, and a canopy size orientation guide. Formation skydiving competitors can benefit from an adjustable count down times with audio cue, access to dive pool images, and a performance analyzer.
The AXIS Flight School team is excited to have launched their innovative new app and is looking forward to watching it grow and evolve. As motion-tracking technology is not available to the team, each maneuver that Woody performs is hand animated and requires many dedicated hours of screen time. There are limited copy and paste features available in this work process. This means each animation is created nearly from scratch even as the app is updated with new content on a monthly basis. Bruce: “From developing other projects over the years I have learned that it is best to try and make everything as modular as possible. That way I can take out and plug in just about anything much more easily instead of redoing everything from scratch.”
“Thank you for downloading and subscribing!” – The AXIS Team
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