Parachute comes from the French word meaning, "to guard against falling." A parachute slows an object's fall from a great height. Two forces affect this device: gravity pulling it down toward the center of the Earth and air resisting that movement. Ultimately, the pull of gravity is greater than air resistance so the parachute is slowed down but not stopped. The larger the parachute's surface or canopy, the slower the fall. A person with a parachute falls at about 5.5 m per second. Older parachutes had a round shaped canopy, but now they are more like arches or boxes. They have fabric compartments called cells in which the air can be trapped. These new parachute designs can descend more slowly than the older designs. Modern parachutes can be steered by pulling on guidelines. Whereas older parachutes were made of silk, today most parachutes are made of nylon because it is stronger and cheaper.

Parachutes are a vital technology for getting warfighters and ammunition to the battlefield. Dependable parachutes, used for numerous purposes, are a vital element of military hardware. Personel parachutes are life support items for paratroopers or part of the ejection seat of aircraft for the pilot. Cargo or extraction parachutes are used to drop or extract military equipment from aircraft, including tanks and other vehicles, as well as other supplies. Deceleration parachutes are devices to slow down various military aircraft. Parachutes are the lifesaving equipment of aircrewmen when they have to bail out. In time of disaster, a parachute may also be the only means of delivering badly needed medicines, goods and other supplies to isolated victims.

The design technology for defense parachutes has advanced slowly from the 1940s through the mid-1990s. Designs for many currently-deployed systems are mature and have not changed because of their history of success. Cargo parachutes are a prime example of this. Their mission requirement is to deliver a variety of objects within certain performance parameters, e.g., load specification and rate of descent. With few exceptions, cargo parachutes function as designed. Thus, there has been little need to change their designs radically. SBCCOM Natick reports that some cargo parachutes that were manufactured in the 1950s and 1960s are still in depots awaiting requisitions. The same stability in design parameters is true for personnel parachutes such as the T-10, which uses a design that has been in service with few alternations since the 1950s.

The T-10-series and MC1-series parachutes are used during static line airborne operations. The T-10-series is a nonsteerable canopy and the MC1-series is a steerable canopy. The main parachute consists of five major components-the harness assembly, the riser assembly, the deployment bag, the pack tray, and the canopy assembly. A reserve-either the modified improved reserve parachute system (MIRPS) or the T-10 troop chest reserve parachute-is used in conjunction with the main parachute.

Changes in requirements, however, are forcing the redesign of some parachute systems. Since the deployment of the T-10, the weight of the U.S. soldier has increased as the amount of equipment carried has grown. This increased weight translates into higher descent speeds, which in turn increases the likelihood of landing injuries. To address this problem, the U.S. Army is developing a new personnel parachute called the Advanced Tactical Parachute System which will lower the paratrooper's descent speed and lessen injury rates.

Several cargo parachute development programs also are underway that could change how cargo parachutes are produced and used. The aim of one program is to design a lower-cost, one-timeuse cargo parachute and container system that utilizes different materials and construction techniques. Another research and development program is designing precision-guided parachutes that can deliver cargo to a specific location.

Different factors - mission requirements, safety standards, durability, and environmental factors - influence the draw-down of standing inventory and need for cargo versus personnel parachutes. Cargo parachutes play critical roles in many military and humanitarian missions. They are used to airdrop food, ammunition, heavy equipment, and other supplies into remote regions where no significant logistical network exists to support military missions or relief efforts.

World events such as the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Afghanistan can place the US military in a situation where local infrastructure has been destroyed or is nonexistent, so support for ground forces must be dropped from aircraft. By the nature of the reusable design and intermittent use of cargo parachutes, consumption of such parachutes is relatively low during peacetime, when they principally are used in training exercises. Cargo parachute use can soar, however, in times of conflict or when they are needed to support materiel deliveries for humanitarian assistance.

Predicting DOD needs for new cargo parachute inventory is difficult. The devices have an indefinite shelf life, and once used, may be retrieved and repaired where necessary until the cost of repair is more than the replacement cost.15 There are cargo parachutes in depots today that were manufactured in the 1950s and 1960s. Parachutes of this vintage and younger are returned to depots when military units no longer require them or when units are disbanded. Depots manage their parachutes based on a first-in-first-out (FIFO) inventory policy.

The standing inventory of cargo parachutes is by no means static given the turn-in practices employed by DOD. Not only does "wear and tear" ultimately require purchases of new cargo parachutes, but military and humanitarian campaigns also deplete inventory levels. U.S. military units do not retrieve parachutes that are used in hostile territory and thus these parachutes are lost. In the case of humanitarian operations, food or supplies are dropped in areas that may not be controlled by U.S. forces and therefore are considered hostile. In such instances, there can be high losses of cargo parachutes - more so than for any other type of supply mission.

The largest user of personnel parachutes is the U.S. Army, followed by the Marines, Air Force, and Navy.The parameters governing the manufacture and operational use of personnel parachutes differ from those of cargo parachutes in many ways. Personnel parachutes carry soldiers to the ground and are considered life-support devices, while cargo parachutes do not have the same status. Because of this, requirements for the construction and use of personnel parachutes are different than those for cargo parachutes - and in most cases personnel parachute specifications are more stringent.

As of the Fall of 2002, the Army estimated that it had more than 103,000 cargo parachutes in stock at its depots - inventory worth approximately $231.6 million. The average cost of these parachutes is $2,246. Inventory levels for main personnel parachutes were at or near zero. Approximately 20,750 emergency reserve parachute units were held in depots. These parachutes were valued at $17.6 million and have an average cost of $848 a unit. What is held in storage at Army depots is only a part of the total military parachute inventory, however. Substantial numbers of additional cargo and personnel parachutes are located in the field at military installations in the United States and at U.S. bases around the world. DOD estimates that this "field inventory" may consist of another 175,000 cargo and personnel (includes emergency reserve units) parachutes. Cargo parachute inventories in the field cover more than eight models and are estimated to total around 25,000 parachutes, with as many as 150,000 personnel and reserve parachutes held in field unit inventories at any one time.

Unlike some inventoried cargo parachutes manufactured as early as the 1950s and 1960s, personnel parachutes can have a significantly shorter lifetime. Personnel parachutes have a determined service life (a maximum shelf life) without use of 16.5 years, and every personnel parachute is stamped with a manufacturing date that starts its life-cycle clock. A personnel parachute is also stamped with the date that it is first placed in service (PIS). From that point on, a parachute's service life cannot exceed 12 years. The longer the unit sits on the shelf the less service life it has once placed in service. Every personnel parachute is monitored by field units to track age and level of use. DOD keeps a depot inventory of approximately 20,000 personnel parachutes of various types.

If a parachute is damaged during use, its repair or replacement depends on a combination of repair cost and age factors. A sliding scale (driven by age) determines if it makes financial sense to fix a parachute or to retire the unit and replace it. For example, if a personnel parachute has 10 years remaining on its service life, the cost to repair it cannot exceed 80 percent of the cost to replace it. Generally, the repair cost allowance falls eight percent with every year of service life that is lost.

There is also a commercial side of the market - the civilian sport-parachute market. There are substantial differences between defense - the larger market - and commercial business sectors. Commercial parachute customers demand wide choices of styles and colors. The manufacturers use very small production runs and are adept at making one or very few of a specific item. Military parachute manufacturers, in contrast, typically have larger production runs of several hundred to over a thousand of a particular parachute system.

There are also common elements in the military and commercial parachute industries. The two sectors, for instance, use common raw materials such as the type of nylon (Type 6,6) parachute fabric. Commercial specifications for parachute raw materials were based originally on military specifications. In addition, the general layout and basic components of military and civilian parachutes are similar. Both commercial and military systems combine a canopy, cords, tapes and webbings, and metal parts to form a complete parachute.

Commercial air-delivery system manufacturers cannot easily become suppliers to the military market. Specifications for military production are very strict, and manufacturers must adhere to specific government-owned drawings rather than meet the performance requirements of their commercial customers. Beyond demonstrating a capability to meet DOD specifications, commercial manufacturers that want to enter the defense aerial delivery market also must learn and abide by government solicitation, procurement, inspection, and payment procedures.

Although there are at least 16 manufacturers of parachutes in the United States, five defense-devoted parachute companies produce the majority of completed aerial delivery goods (as measured by gross sales) for the U.S. military, according to BIS survey data. These manufacturers have dominated the defense cargo and personnel markets for years. In 2001, Wardle Storeys Ltd. of the United Kingdom, which owned Para-Flite, Inc., purchased Irvin Aerospace, and the .

The "Big Five" are listed below in alphabetical order:

  • FXC Corporation/Guardian Parachute - Santa Ana, CA
  • Irvin Aerospace - Hope Mills, NC and Santa Ana, CA
  • Mills Manufacturing Corporation - Asheville, NC
  • Para-Flite,8 Inc. - Pennsauken, NJ
  • Pioneer Aerospace Corporation - South Windsor, CT and Columbia, MS

Three of these firms (Irvin, Para-Flite, and Pioneer) operate manufacturing facilities in the United States, but are owned by foreign companies. Wardle Storeys Ltd. of the United Kingdom owns Irvin and Para-Flite, and the Zodiac Group of France owns Pioneer Aerospace.

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