Parks College Parachute Research Group

History of the PRG


For most skydivers, technical knowledge about how ram-air parachutes work simply means going to the drop zone with enough knowledge to stay safe. But for a team of skydivers in the St. Louis area, that knowledge alone is not enough. Jean Potvin, a physics instructor at St. Louis University-Parks College, and Gary Peek, a computer and electronics consultant, formed the Parks College Parachute Research Group (or PRG) to answer questions about parachute inflation and flight.


Dr. Jean Potvin

Physics Professor
Parks College of Engineering and Aviation
Saint Louis University

Gary Peek

Computer and Electronics Consultant
Industrologic, Inc.

The Group's Beginnings

Jean Potvin first got interested in parachuting as a sport rather than a research project. Being a physicist, he naturally got interested in the theoretical aspects of the physics and aerodynamics of ram-air parachutes and found that the inflation computer models used by researchers lacked the accuracy needed by the designers of our modern gear. (No wonder, since such models had been initially created for the description of the inflation of round parachutes!) In 1994 Potvin began devising a new model more specific to sport ram-air parachutes and, in order to validate this model, began jumping with a helmet-mounted aerobatic aircraft G-meter and belly video camera to record maximum opening force and canopy inflation times.

During this same period, Gary Peek was doing some research in another area of skydiving. In 1990 he became interested in improving formation skydives by learning more about fall rate, and began working on a device that could periodically record the altitude during a jump and calculate freefall speed. Devices like these are called "barographs", and some older style mechanical barographs have been used in aviation altitude record attempts for many years. But by using some of the same technology that has eventually made its way into modern AAD's, Peek has developed a barograph that is small and lightweight, and can be worn on the wrist like an altimeter.

Joining Forces

These two skydivers knew little about each other's work because they normally jumped at two different drop zones in the St. Louis area, and were both quite busy with their individual work. It was not until they participated together in an exhibition jump at Parks College, (which was arranged by a former student of Potvin's that often jumped with Peek), that their conversation turned to their respective research projects. It was then that they finally realized that they had a lot in common, and would benefit greatly by working together.

Almost immediately, their work as a team began. Potvin's mathematical knowledge quickly provided a method for improving Peek's barograph, which continues to be used by the Group to determine airspeeds during parachute deployment. Potvin also told Peek of his interest in using an electronic device that would allow him to record signals from force and pressure sensors mounted on risers as part of his parachute opening force research.

Peek realized that a simple data recording device could be made with the same technology that he had incorporated into his most recent barograph design, so at his suggestion, Potvin purchased the components necessary to build the device. Peek quickly put it all together, and after a small programming modification, they were collecting jump data with the Group's first data acquisition system made specifically for research jumpers.

Since that time, the Group has made hundreds of instrumented test jumps with parachutes used by skydivers as well as by the U.S. government jumpers. Peek has since designed and built a much more sophisticated system that can collect and store data at a faster rate and from more sensors.


The Group has been working on various software development, wind tunnel testing, and flight testing projects, and has developed the world's only public database of sport parachute opening characteristics. Information from this database has been a major part of presentations the Group has given at several Parachute Industry Association International Symposiums.

The Future

As the number of applications for ram-air parachutes increases due to the constantly evolving sport market, and because of increased interest by civilian and military government agencies, there will be an expanding demand for more accurate knowledge about the inner workings of parachutes. The Parks College Parachute Research Group plans to continue to develope new methods of collecting and analyzing data that can help provide some of the knowledge required by these new and novel applications.

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