Until just recently, parachutists have been using canopies first envisioned by Leonardo da Vinci. But the standard parachute does little more than slow the plummet earthward. Now it is possible to fly as well as fall, thanks to the new "square chutes," which actually are more rectangular than square and more airfoil than parachute. "Bird wings aren't like cups, and that is all conventional parachutes are," says Domina Jalbert, the 72-year-old engineer who created the para-foil. "This design gives a chutist a greater glide ratio, and better directional and lateral stability." The colorful para-foils, which use a ram-air principle to maintain their winglike shape, can be flown at forward speeds up to 30 mph and are so maneuverable that feather-soft pinpoint landings are now the rule rather than the exception. Thus, by modifying da Vinci's concept, Jalbert has realized one of da Vinci's dreams: to allow man to be a pilot as well as a parachutist.
Square chutes are more maneuverable when equipped on either side with "flares," which function much like rudders—if the chutist can keep track of all the lanyards.
The parachutes consist of fabric cells that are open on the leading edge to scoop in air to form and maintain a winglike shape, a design that permits tight formation "flying."