From The Mag

The Nylon Ninjas: Amanda Festi

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Originally printed in issue #97 (January 2018) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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Over the next few months Performance Designs is giving you a closer look into our research and development department by interviewing team members, digging into the history and uncovering some of the magic. Last month we heard from Gilles Dutrisac, R&D team lead, who talked us through his role, favorite projects, working with smokejumpers and how he recently upsized from a Valkyrie 71 to a 79.

Next up: Amanda Festi, R&D project lead, U.S. freestyle champion and self-confessed gear dork. Amanda showed up in DeLand in 2007. Before that she was working at Skydive New England pursuing her rigging ticket and packing. “But mostly I was doing maintenance. I was coming in and picking up around the bonfire in the morning, painting tables and sanding the mock-up. If it got me jump money I would do it.” Amanda then went to Chicagoland Skydiving Center where she worked as a packer and an apprentice in the loft. She came to DeLand in 2007 because it’s the birthplace of freestyle and where all the manufacturers were. “I came here looking to learn as much as I could about my life-saving equipment. Which was the primary reason I wanted my rigger’s ticket. As a student, I always had tons of questions about my gear and no one ever really gave me a satisfactory answer so I set out to learn it for myself.”

Amanda has been at PD for almost 10 years. She started working for DeLand Research Corporation (DRC, the company created by PD to handle all test jumping) as a packer and got her rigger’s ticket so she could help with the equipment maintenance. “At some point it came to light that I had some office skills and it happened that PD needed a temporary clerk upstairs [in R&D]. So I started in the engineering department as a clerk. It was supposed to be a temporary job—six months. I’m still here. Sssh.”

From there Amanda started doing bill-of-materials scrubbing, which is validating part numbers, the quantities of tapes, threads and fabric (“all of the boring but necessary stuff”) for a canopy. Amanda then branched out into line sets. At PD when a prototype is generated, the R&D team has an idea of the trim and that gives them the targets for line sets. “We have several inspection processes that we go through before the lines are on the canopy. I need to apply mathematical formulas to calculate how much the lines are going to shrink when they are finger trapped into itself, how much the bartacks are going to affect it. I create the cutting marking templates to account for that shrinkage so that the final lengths are spot on and create the criteria for the inspections at the same time.”

Amanda Festi at a computer engineering something complex and beautiful. | Blue Skies Magazine i98 | ‎

Amanda applying mathematical formulas to calculate shrinkage, probably.

Amanda started taking on bigger tasks until she ended up with a project of her very own which turned into the Horizon (PD’s wingsuit canopy). Amanda had been assisting another project lead when it was fully handed over to her. “When I got the project we already had prototypes we really liked and we thought we were almost done. But when I started reviewing stuff I was seeing small things that I thought weren’t up to PD standards. These were things that I saw on other canopies that were already on the market that people acknowledged were nuisances.

One of the things that makes me really proud to work here is we do not accept these nuisances. All of a sudden, we went from ‘Amanda here’s this project it’s almost done’ to us almost starting over again. Because PD has been around for such a long time with a successful track record, I feel like people expect more from us … We can’t accept these little nuisances as good enough. We’re Performance Designs; OK doesn’t make it great. Good enough isn’t good enough for PD.”

Taya Weiss flying her Horizon. Photo by Craig O'Brien. | Blue Skies Magazine i98 | ‎

Taya Weiss flying her Horizon. Photo by Craig O’Brien.

Along the way Amanda has been able to do some test jumping. “It was pretty handy when I started that I didn’t have a lot of jumps and I’m a really light person. For the Pulse and the Storm, it was neat to stick me under them with a super light wing loading and give the team the perspective of somebody that is somewhat new to the sport.” Amanda is currently learning a new parachute, the Valkyrie 90. It’s especially cool for Amanda because she assisted with the lines on the project and helped a bit with the product launch. “I feel like there’s a little piece of me in this wing and it’s so neat that I’m finally old enough to try one for myself.”

Taya Weiss flying her Horizon. Photo by Craig O'Brien. | Blue Skies Magazine i98 | ‎

Taya Weiss flying her Horizon. Photo by Craig O’Brien.

When chatting with Amanda about what makes working in the R&D department so great, she said, “Everybody here works together so well and they’re so passionate about what they do and they really love to fly and love the sky and the sport.” However, Amanda did remind me that it’s not always so awesome. “Everyone always goes, ‘Wow your job is so glamorous,’ and I try to remind myself how lucky I am when we’re in the middle of the woods, it’s raining and we have to stand there until we can get someone to retrieve a canopy we went to get and we’re getting eaten by mosquitoes. There’s a lot of work. But when it comes time to do the hard work everybody pulls their weight and we’re happy to do it, because it usually means we’re getting ready for something pretty awesome. Another really cool part for me working here is seeing the history of our R&D.”

Amanda wishes that the community understood a little bit more about the PD process and why we don’t rush to put things on the market. “A canopy is done when it’s done. It’s done when we feel like it’s up to our standards and it’s a great parachute. And our customers are never our test jumpers. Our testing program is part of what makes our R&D so great, we have some of the best canopy pilots in the world flying our stuff.”

Amanda and Brian doing what they do best: kicking ass. Photo by Elliot Byrd. | Blue Skies Magazine i98 | ‎

Amanda and Brian doing what they do best: kicking ass. Photo by Elliot Byrd.

Amanda competes in freestyle and is the current U.S. champion, training for the World Meet in Australia in 2018. “Another reason why I feel super lucky to work here is because of the support I get. If I had any other job where I would say, ‘Hey I need to take two weeks off to go to a world meet so I can fling myself at the planet in the name of my country. And then I’ll be back for a couple of weeks but then I’ll need another week to go to nationals so I can try to hang on to my title so I can earn the right to do it again.’ Most any other job would be unwilling to allow so much time off in one request. Here at PD, it’s not frowned upon for me to be active in the sport of skydiving, coaching and trying to grow my discipline and move it forward. I feel blessed to be able to work at a place where I’m always learning something new and I find support for the two things that I love the most: learning about parachutes and skydiving. But I can also put my job aside and go focus on competition or training when I have to. Freestyle is why I got into the sport and the quest for knowledge on the life-saving equipment that we use every day came secondary. This is my dream job basically.”

 | Blue Skies Magazine i98 | ‎

Amanda and husband/teammate Brian representing the U.S. well! Photo by Matt Davidson.

Keep an eye out for more PD R&D stories next month!

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