It was the 1980s, and Helmut Cloth’s skydiving friends were dying.
On a bigway qualifying jump in 1986, his dear friend Freddy Leising went low and couldn’t get his reserve out fast enough. He was pretty sure Freddy’s death–all those deaths, really–were preventable. He had to do something.
He had officially seen enough.
Helmut Cloth is no showboater. He hangs out at the periphery of the boogie campfire–never in the spotlight–and he’s no big talker. In 1986, he was just as busy as he is soft-spoken–a serial entrepreneur and an engineer, as well as a very active skydiver–but the concatenation of fatalities and near-misses that was unfolding in front of him obviated a point of utmost clarity: it was going to be him that fixed the problem. He was the guy who could build the solution. He knew this. Helmut already understood the manufacturing process from his other ventures. And he was starting to see, bubbling out from the aether of his engineer’s mind, the way it might be done.
Back in the 1980s, AADs were not as we know them today. They were comparatively enormous, for one thing, with steampunk dials and a spine-searing 22-caliber firing mechanism. These clunky, main-lift-web-mounted Rube Goldberg machines injured–sometimes, even killed–the people who trusted them. Helmut had even seen several AAD misfires in person, but he was still convinced that the basic idea was a sound one. It just needed a lot of finesse to get to the point of 100% reliability–which, for Helmut, was non-negotiable. It was going to be called the Cybernetic Parachute Release System–more pronouncably, the “CYPRES”–and it was going to change everything.
It started with a list.
Helmut broke down everything that was wrong with the AADs that were currently on the market. He identified thirteen major failure points. With the drawing-up of that list, for Helmut, the starting gun had fired.
There were challenges, of course–hundreds of them, ranging from piddling to apparently insurmountable. The device had to work for every skydiver, from the skies over the swampiest armpit of Florida to the parched Namibian desert. It had to have pinpoint accuracy. It had to be tiny. It had to draw a miniscule amount of power. The device had to reproducible in great volume. And it had to work one hundred percent of the time. Suffice it to say: Loads of people were certain it couldn’t be done.
Luckily, loads of people thought it could.
Specialists came out of the woodwork. Experts in aerodynamics, thermodynamics stepped up. So did machinists, physicists and engineers (both electronic and software). The next four years saw thousands of hours of testing. The team was keenly aware that they were reinventing the wheel–and Helmut was making sure that nobody fell asleep at it.
As engineering tricks go, the accurate measurement of altitude wasn’t a terribly impressive feat even in the late 80s. What was a design coup was in the details: the hyper-precise measurement of altitude by a tiny, low-power mechanism that integrated seamlessly into the protected parts of a skydiving container. Helmut and his team went through a laundry list of multifarious iterations–including radar and sonar–before they designed the world’s very first air-pressure-responsive digital altimeter.
Once that little impossibility was tidied up, there was still no time to rest. Each of the thirteen points was a looming hurdle to clear. The team kept clearing them.
After four years, when the CYPRES team had–miraculously, by all accounts–produced a working device, there was one more requirement to meet. It was, perhaps, the biggest of all: the question of how to produce enough of these tiny, perfect, überprecise lifesavers to outfit every single skydiver in the world. Helmut leapt in, renting half a building in Bad Wünnenberg, Germany. He designed a factory in rise to the creaking burden of challenges: among them, a highly specialized staff and a downright punctilious quality control system.
CYPRES celebrated its first save just weeks after the first device rolled off the assembly line. To this day, Helmut has never forgotten that phone call.
This year, CYPRES celebrates its 25th without a single instance of a failed device. In total, CYPRES has been along on 120 million jumps; in all that time, no CYPRES has ever failed to activate, and no CYPRES has ever failed to sever the reserve loop. Helmut Cloth has received every major award for his technical achievements–and he even personally developed a CYPRES for the Red Bull Stratos jump–but that’s not what he’ll tell you if you have the chance to ask him someday, in the plane on the way to altitude. He’ll tell you that his device has, to date, saved more than 3,000 lives.
Maybe it’ll save yours, one of these days.