Jumping out of an aircraft is one thing; doing it with an unproven parachute is something else entirely.

But for sport canopy companies such as Performance Designs, in DeLand, Florida, someone has to go first – which is where Rickster Powell comes in. The 41-year-old has 20 000 jumps under his belt, and of the 50 chutes he’s tested, nine – like the steep-turning Velocity and speedy Stiletto – reached production.

Most tests are safe, he says, even when a new design leads to unstable flight. Still, Powell once got tangled in a fellow tester’s canopy when it deployed too close to him. “Luckily, he released the chute,” Powell says. “But the scars from the nylon burns remind me to be careful.”

1. Head camera
Testers often jump in tandem, using up to 7 kg of headmounted cameras to capture the unique deployment characteristics of the 20 prototypes Performance Designs tests each year. Powell uses a tinted sight (2) to accurately direct the lens.

3. Parachute rig
Powell wears three chutes during a jump: a prototype on his stomach and a main canopy plus a reserve on his back. A standard sport chute fully opens 150 to 200 m after pulling the cord; reserve chutes open 90 m, or 3 seconds, after deployment.

4. Belly camera
A bodymounted Sony DCR-PC1000 MiniDV aims upward to capture Powell’s chute in action. A camera logs about 3 000 jumps in its one-year life span.

5. Altimeter and sensors
An Alti-2 digital altimeter lets jumpers accurately gauge deployment levels, while a wireless data logger records harness strain, barometric pressure and other data when the test chute opens. Powell deploys at 760 m when he jumps for fun, but he tests prototypes as high as 4 000 m – just to be safe.