NATICK, Mass. (Feb. 3, 2014) -- Imagine exiting an aircraft at 35,000 feet above sea level, deploying a parachute, and descending for 50 minutes to a drop zone up to 20 miles away, before finally landing safely.
The new RA-1 parachute will make this a reality for the high-altitude parachutist. Product Manager Soldier Clothing and Individual Equipment, or PM SCIE, working with the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, is tackling the capability gaps in oxygen supply, navigation and extreme temperatures associated with such missions.
Currently, missions are limited to parachute openings at a maximum of 25,000 feet, due in part to the existing canopy's ability to withstand the opening shock in the thin air of higher altitudes. PM SCIE and NSRDEC researchers are seeking to raise that ceiling to protect aircraft, aircrews and mission support personnel, and allow undetected infiltrations of airborne troops.
"The increased altitude will result in safer missions, and is going to increase the capabilities of the combat commander," said Nina Shopalovich, senior engineer for the PM SCIE Personnel Airdrop Team.
"This RA-1 canopy is going to be fielded to more conventional units as well as Special Ops units," said Dan Shedd, senior project engineer of the NSRDEC Airdrop Technology Team. "We don't know what their final operational range will be, but the objective requirement for this parachute is 35,000 feet. We don't know if we're going to get there, but we have to plan for that."
The RA-1 parachute is capable of achieving 30,000 feet, and the associated parachutist's equipment must also be functional.
Paratroopers need oxygen, navigation and thermal-protective clothing systems that can operate reliably at minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. To that end, researchers recently engaged the NSRDEC Doriot Climatic Chamber's Arctic Chamber to run tests on the new parachutist oxygen bottle and Android-based navigation system. They suspended two retired military paratroopers from the chamber's ceiling and sat a third paratrooper on a chair, all in combat equipment, breathing from parachutist oxygen equipment. The temperature was set to 20 degrees below zero and the wind speed at 20 knots -- a wind chill of about 50 below zero.
Though the equipment performed well, during the test the engineers observed how inadequate current thermal-protective gear is for the mission.
"It was atrociously cold," Shopalovich said. "It is so cold that any kind of moisture in the air immediately turns into frost. It is scary. It really does give you an idea of the fact that it's very, very dangerous."
As Shedd pointed out, it's not just the cold at altitude that challenges the paratroopers on stand-off, High Altitude High Opening, or HAHO, missions, it's the perspiration generated in the jump preparation that's dangerous.
"We've seen swings in temperature of as much as 140 degrees throughout the mission," said Shedd, adding that paratroopers have boarded planes and jumped into areas in excess of 100 degrees.
"It's not just the cold," said Andy Margules, a mechanical engineer with the NSRDEC Airdrop Technology Team. "We can do cold. It's the hot to cold to hot again that really will just suck the energy out of you.
"Mountain clothing doesn't quite work. Ski clothing doesn't quite work. Arctic clothing doesn't quite work, because it's so bulky, and then you have all this moisture that's in there, " added Margules.
Any moisture will freeze on the parachutist's body or his clothing, and it could possibly hinder the operation of his breathing and navigation equipment. The extreme temperatures, combined with the mismatch of available equipment, often leads to losses in dexterity -- affecting the paratroopers' mission effectiveness upon landing.
According to Shedd, a paratrooper under the RA-1 canopy will descend about 3,000 feet every five minutes as temperatures warm two to three degrees every 1,000 feet. Once he lands, a paratrooper must be ready for combat as quickly as possible.
"We just want the guys to be able to function when they hit the ground," Shedd said. "You don't want them to be stripping stuff off once they hit the ground."
Researchers at Natick hope to help the Army realize the full potential of the RA-1 parachute.
"Let's face it -- if anybody's going to do it, it should be Natick," Shedd said. "We've got the airdrop experience. We've got the clothing experience. Natick is the place that should work these efforts."