My buddy, Henry Coffeen, has always gone first class. That's why I wasn't terribly surprised when he ordered a monogrammed National 425 parachute a couple of years ago. Color coordinated with his red and white airplane, and bearing his name, the rig had just the right "hot" factor. After all, aside from comfort, the most important thing about a parachute is how it looks while you're strapping in, because bailing wouldn't work. Nobody would ever be able to actually get out at high speed and low altitude. How many times have your read aircraft accident reports where investigators found the occupants in the wreckage, not belted in. Getting the seatbelts off is one thing. Exiting an out-of-control aircraft is another.
Without a high tech, and expensive ejection seat, parachute specifications (canopy loading, exit speeds, etc.) were wasted on me. So were FAR mandated repacks, although I half-heartedly complied with the law.
Then came that outside half loop on November 24th. Henry pushing his monoplane to 5 negative, when suddenly he was bathed in avgas, then deafened by the WHOOSHING report of fire in the cockpit. Canopy release. Belts. A combustible instant later, pilot and plane separate. Henry, at a scant 400 feet, watches the fireball, still in a negative G tuck, pass beneath him. Now the ground rush. The "D" ring has been burned from protective Velcro webbing. Where is it??!! Pull. Pull harder. A sharp pop as the canopy explodes in the plunging descent, and a single swing in the harness before the feather-soft arrival. Standing.
Henry had proven that escape from a disabled aircraft is possible at low altitude and high speed. Forward trim kept the plane in tuck that literally threw him clear. Lying in field next to Henry, singed, partially melted, was one parachute that had a lot more to offer than its 'hot' factor, personalized monogram not withstanding. Henry's hurried escape from his now-destroyed plane was only the first of his challenges. He suffered full thickness, third degree burns over a quarter of his body. Mostly his hands, arms, neck and chest. Seeing him in the hospital was powerful motivation for me to re-evaluate my view of the practical usefulness of emergency parachutes - beyond looks. I knew nothing of the integrity of a borrowed chairpack I had been using, save it was past repack, and was the only rig that fit in my cramped cockpit.
I called the people at National Parachutes a few days later. Their rig, after all, saved Henry's life. Their sales representative, while cordial, seemed unresponsive to my main concerns about fit, and comfort. I had worn Henry's chute, both in his plane and mine, and found it to be cruelly uncomfortable to my lower back and kidneys and too big for my cockpit. Expressing that experience to the salesperson elicited an apathetic response. Something to the effect: if you wore a 425, that's what it is, and that's how it fits. When asked if there was a dealer where I might 'test-drive' one, there was an indifferent effort toward a referral, but with the expressed warning that if I did anything more than try it on, if I got it dirty in anyway, the sale would be final. Further, I would bear all overnight shipping charges, estimated at $30-40 each way. National, an industry leader had saved Henry's life, but they were doing little to recruit me as a customer. And at 14-hundred dollars ( I honestly can't remember the exact price quoted) the prospective relationship seemed a little cockeyed, if not expressly backward.
My next call was to Butler Parachute Company. Their full color ad in Sport Aerobatic Magazine, illustrating high speed canopy specs of various designs, caught my attention, especially since twenty percent of my advance category practice sessions are at speeds in excess of 170 miles an hour. They boast a design that can withstand air loads of more than 200 miles an hour. Many of Butlers competitors haven't even tested their rigs at those speeds. But it is capability that doesn't come cheaply.
I just about gagged when sales rep Tom Fowler laid the price on me. He was quick to add that Butler is a custom outfit, promising whatever they build will fit correctly, and comfortably. Period. He sent me a list of measurements to provide. This chute would be built for me specifically, not generically. Then he sent me a test rig. I flew with it several flights. It gave Tom some hints as to how he could improve the fit on my body and in the cockpit. Because I am fairly shoehorned into my Laser even without a chute, it was imperative that a backpack be designed that had little or no material under my butt, and very little near the small of the back. Tom designed a wedge that is an inch and a half deep at the shoulder blades, tapering to nothing at the seat pan. It is hard to believe the riggers were able to cram into such a small package a canopy capable of safely recovering a 180 pound pilot (hopefully not me) in a 200+ mph dive. With this chute, for the first time I know have full range of motion on all controls, and am as comfortable as anyone can be sitting on a bare metal seat pan. I have received several follow up calls and faxes from Butler, including owner Manley Butler, indicating their continued support.
So like Henry (and because of Henry) I went first class. Unlike him, I passed on National and the monogram.