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CNAs Dr. Robyn Lalime ensures parachute safety is top of mind

CNA's Dr. Robyn Lalime ensures parachute safety is top of mind

 September 22, 2022

CNA operates on the principle of conducting honest, accurate, usable research to inform the important work of public policy decision makers, a principle that is never compromised.

Meet CNA Field Representative & Senior Research Scientist, Dr. Robyn Lalime, who uses innovative techniques and is process driven when conducting research. She brings physics and mathematics to bear on the problem of wind speed, ensuring that parachute safety in the wind is top of mind with TOPGUN pilots.

Analysis creating a way to quantify risks

When TOPGUN received more flexible rules on maximum wind speeds for training flights, the CNA Analyst assigned to the command began to hear concerns. Winds often whipped across the Nevada desert at Naval Air Station Fallon, home of TOPGUN and the rest of the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center. Some of the TOPGUN staff knew a fellow pilot who had died when dragged on the ground by a wind-blown parachute after an emergency ejection.

These 2010 instructions eliminated an upper limit on wind gusts. They also gave Commanding Officers leeway to override limits on sustained winds when deciding whether to allow training flights or not. But neither commanders nor pilots had any scientific data on the risks of different windspeeds.

Dr. Robyn Lalime’s analysis would create a way to quantify, and even visualize those risks, and pilots rely on this guidance.

Utilizing physics and mathematics to tackle windspeed problems

The Aeronautical Safety Flight Surgeon on staff, Commander Becky Bates, asked Dr. Lalime to bring physics and mathematics to bear on the problem. The CNA Field Representative worked closely with Naval Engineers on computer models of the performance of three different parachutes in varying winds. She dragged her own weighted flight suit across asphalt and desert sand, measuring newtons of force to establish a coefficient of friction for a Nomex suit.

Strangers would approach, asking, “What the heck are you doing?” But TOPGUN staff, already accustomed to her hands-on approach to research, would just comment, “Oh, I see you’re gathering data.”

Employing memorable images to evoke impact of high winds

Dr. Lalime employed long, complex equations to reach her conclusions, but she and Commander Becky Bates knew that pilots needed simple rules of thumb. One said that for every additional 10 knots of windspeed, a parachutist could expect to be dragged by an extra 250 feet per 10 seconds.

They also used memorable images to evoke the impact of high winds. The CNA Analyst had lived through the experience of being blindfolded and dragged through the water by a parachute harness during her own ejection training, in preparation for flights with TOPGUN pilots. She knew it was an intensely sensory experience.

For example, to illustrate wind’s effect on a lightweight pilot with a parachute from an F/A-18, they converted detailed calculations into colorful comparisons of landings at different windspeeds. In no wind, the landing resembles a jump from a 10-foot platform. In a 20-knot wind, the upper limit for sustained windspeed in the official instructions, it’s like that same leap with a case of beer bottles under each arm. At 30-knots, an ordinary gust in those conditions, it’s like that 10-foot fall with a giant panda clinging to someone's back.

Legacy of Dr. Lalime's work

Dr. Lalime could already see the impact of this work before she departed from TOPGUN, to CNA’s Field Program, billeted to the Naval Information Warfighting Development Center in Norfolk, Virginia, United States. The flight school staff asked for the findings to be widely briefed and published, and her calculations played into decisions about whether to fly on windy days.

Dr. Lalime could not have known the work would endure for more than a decade. Navy physiologist Amanda Lippert reports that she references this study when giving ejection safety briefs to aircrew, in order to convey the importance of obeying wind limits.

With CNA analysis, a pilot or commanding officer can make safety decisions backed by science, and keep the panda off their back.

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