Poor Doris Buehrer.
Her worries began when her son Bob was in grade school. That's when he started designing and launching model rockets that sometimes went amok at 60 or 70 m.p.h.; he graduated to go-carts that tended to malfunction at freeway speeds.
"I almost wiped myself out more than once," admits Bob Buehrer, now 31.
Today when friends ask what her boy is up to, Doris Buehrer must explain that he's out in California, test-jumping parachutes.
"I didn't tell my parents in Minnesota that I was doing this for quite awhile, but then my roommate accidentally blabbed that I was testing these things," Bob Buehrer said during an interview in the living room of his Whittier home.
The information leak called for emergency tactics. With video tapes of some of his test jumps in hand, Buehrer made a trip home to St. Paul. He showed his mother and father the films and told them the job is no more risky than his childhood science projects.
"The thing (parachute) may not fly well, but you're going to get it into the air," he said. "Although there is a chance that it could rip or that it could fly poorly enough that I wouldn't want to land it. . . ."
Designers have been making canopies for long enough now that it's rarely a question of "Is it going to work?" Buehrer said; now what they want to know is "How well is it going to work?"
The latter question is what got Buehrer into this business.
He said he had no particular craving for the adrenaline rushes sky diving provided when he got into the sport eight years ago. Nor did he want to prove he was a daredevil. He doesn't quite look the part, anyway. A lanky, genial fellow, he'd more likely be cast as an absent-minded inventor, always lost in some project.
In fact, Buehrer identifies himself as an "inventor-creator type person." He owns a metal fabrication shop in El Monte, where he builds sophisticated devices that solve the problems customers bring to him. For instance, he created a video camera mount that can track sky divers in free-fall competition as far as two miles away.
Buehrer said he took up sky diving because he felt there were too few challenges left in aviation, a hobby he had turned to in the mid-'70s. He saw that no one had a system for scientifically evaluating the performance of canopy designs, and made it his project to create such a method.
Because reserve parachutes, containers and harnesses are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, companies that make those items have generally accepted ways of evaluating their product.
But main parachutes need not be certified by the FAA, so there are no industrywide standards for the design and testing of main canopies, Buehrer said.
The military has its own methods for evaluating parachute performance. A small (14 men) crew of test jumpers at the Naval Parachute Test Range at China Lake uses range-mounted cameras, lasers, radars and other elaborate equipment in their program, according to Master Chief Robert Hudson, who heads the operation. But civilian manufacturers cannot afford to use such technology to obtain performance data, he said.
"It's pretty ingenious what he (Buehrer) is doing," said Hudson. "No one else, to my knowledge, has thought to do that."
Many commercial manufacturers of sports parachutes simply strap their latest designs onto the backs of willing staff members and friends, toss them out of airplanes, and later ask how the ride felt.
"That kind of testing has always been extremely subjective," said Buehrer. "It's influenced by everything from what he (the jumper) ate that morning to how he feels about the guy that made the parachute. The opinion is nice, but it doesn't solve any design problems."
Several years ago, Buehrer's friend, parachute designer Bill Gargano of Quantum Parachutes in Davis, sent Buehrer a new canopy design and asked him to try it out.
Buehrer strapped a video camera to his belly and pointed it at his face and the sky where the canopy would open above him. He taped an altimeter to the top of his helmet so the camera would record a constant altitude read-out as he was descending.
Buehrer was equipped with audio so he could give a running report of the parachute's performance.
Has Edge With System
The system worked so well that Gargano, and then other designers, began using Buehrer regularly as a test jumper.
Dan Poynter, president of the Parachute Industry Assn., said Buehrer is "probably way ahead of everybody else" with the particular system he has devised to test parachutes.
"What's so unusual about what he's done is that he's captured the performance--and sometimes the malperformance--of the parachute on film," said Poynter, author of "The Parachute Manual," considered to be the standard guide to parachuting.
Designer Gargano said: "The work he's done for me has saved me hours and hours (of trial and error). His input is absolutely what makes the final product."