Display parachuting is one of the most difficult types of parachuting and requires hard work, a high level of skill and, most importantly, trust in other team members and their equipment. This is why the RAF Falcons are Britain's premier Parachute Display Team.
The RAF Falcons parachute display is both unique and flexible. This is necessary due to weather conditions that will dictate which of the three types of show the team may be asked to perform at very late notice.
Each display consists of the following:
- A variety of movements across the sky in freefall using coloured smokes to illustrate an aerial pattern.
- Demonstration of close proximity flying under canopy which includes the famous Falcons’ non-contact canopy stack.
- Controlled and accurate landings into small confined areas, often near buildings or water.
Approximately 2 hours before display, a detailed brief is given by the Team Coach on the type of display the Team are going to undertake.
Many factors are taken into consideration such as the weather, wind direction and hazards on the drop zone. The weather plays an important factor as this can determine which one of the shows will take place.
The Team will then perform whole demonstration on the ground from exit, freefall and canopy control to the landing pattern; a mental rehearsal of the whole display known as the 'Dirt Dive'.
Ten minutes before the jump, either the ramp at the rear of the aircraft or the side para doors of the C-130 are opened so the Team Coach can visually locate the drop zone, orientate himself and calculate the release point of the Team.
If the cloud is particularly low, then the team will exit from the side para doors individually, but if the cloud base is high, the Team will exit off the ramp as a group or in pairs.
Two minutes before exit, the Team will practice their emergency drills in the unlikely event that they encounter any problems. The team then position themselves on the very edge of the ramp and await the light signals from the aircraft Captain. Red On, Green On, Go...
Once the parachutists leave the aircraft they immediately begin the freefall phase of the display and within seconds they reach 'terminal velocity' - that's 120 mph, straight down!
Simply by altering their body position against the airflow, they can move around the sky with precision enabling them to group together and create formations.
At a predetermined height and following a signal by the Team Coach, all the Team members make their way to the set up area and deploy their parachutes.
Each member is responsible for deploying their own parachute by throwing a small drogue parachute into the air stream and this, in turn, pulls their main parachute out of its container.
Once all the canopies are fully open, which normally takes about 4 seconds, the Team Coach will start to build the canopy stack from the bottom man upwards.
The Team use square parachutes which have the potential forward speed of 25 mph and are steered using steering toggles - hence making them very manoeuvrable.
All 9 parachutists then form their trademark 'non-contact' canopy stack approximately 15 feet above the man below. The Team use a technique called 'risering' to maintain the correct distance between each other and follow the low man and the rest of the Team into the Drop Zone.
For safety and visual effect during displays, each man will wear smoke canisters attached to their ankles which they operate manually on a radio call from the Team Coach. The bottom man on the stack is always the very experienced Team Coach who trails white smoke and the 8 men above him trail orange smoke.
Final Approach and Landing
The approach into a small landing area is difficult enough for one parachutist so with the addition of 8 others, all trying to land in quick succession, this proves to be the most challenging part of the display.
In order not to compromise safety, the parachutists stay directly above each other until it is their turn to land. Turns are fast and furious and, working as a team, the RAF Falcons are renowned for their ability to land in confined spaces under immense pressure.
Once all the team members are down safely they will then work quickly to take off all their ancillary equipment and put on their berets.
On a signal from the Drop Zone Safety Officer, the Team Coach will call for the RAF Falcons to form up.
Once the team has formed up, the Drop Zone Safety Officer will march out to the front, salute, and then present the RAF Falcons to dignitaries and spectators.
High show: 9000 ft - 12,000 ft above ground level
The high show is initiated by exiting the aircraft at an altitude between 9,000 - 12,000 ft. The team coach and three other members will launch a 4-man exit presenting a ‘base’ that falls vertically to create a strong smoke column. The remaining team members exit individually in an echelon formation at staggered heights, falling at speeds of up to 120 mph. This free fall display requires precision flying and good timing to ensure everyone is in the optimal position for the formation of the canopy stack.
Mid show: 5000 ft - 9000 ft above ground level
The team will exit the aircraft individually between 5,000 - 9,000 ft. Once in free fall, the team will create an echelon formation, falling at speeds of up to 120 mph before deploying their parachutes on a signal from the team coach.
Low show: 2500 ft - 5000 ft above ground level
Occasionally, the weather and in particular the cloud base will necessitate a much lower show which does not give them scope to perform their free fall movements. They are still able to offer a display that fully demonstrates their accomplished canopy skills. After the exit, six of the team members have only a few seconds to deploy their canopy, whereas the remaining jumpers pull their parachutes immediately on exit. Once the canopies have opened safely, each team member will position himself above the person below to form the famous Falcons canopy stack.
The life of an RAF Falcon on a display day:
The Team Coach gives a detailed brief to all other team members covering weather conditions, Drop Zone hazards and the type of display that will be conducted.
All team members practice on the ground exactly what is expected of them in the air.
Once the Team take off, they start preparing for the display; this includes the fitting of smoke brackets and checking each other ensuring all parachute equipment that is required is worn and fitted correctly.
When the aircraft is approximately 2 minutes from the Drop Zone the Team Coach will request directional control of the aircraft to ensure the Team exit at exactly the correct position.
Exit and Freefall
Depending on the weather conditions and type of aircraft, the Team either begin their display from the ramp or side doors.
The Team exits the aircraft in a predetermined pattern to ensure the correct set up for the canopy stack; this is all done at speeds of up to 120 mph.
Once under canopy each team member manoeuvres into their position in the Falcons Stack, aiming to position themselves approximately 15 ft above the canopy below them.
The Team will aim to land on the 2 crosses placed on the Drop Zone. The Drop Zone can be as small as 75 x 75 yards although the team members are skilled enough to land in a much more confined area.
As soon as the Falcons land they divest themselves of their equipment and run to the line up. As the Team Leader takes the salute, the display aircraft does its flypast with impeccable timing.
Public relations are of paramount importance to the Team and, after each display, they will meet the public, sign autographs and answer any questions they might have.