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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Skydiver about to land
Skydiver about to land

Parachuting, or skydiving, is an activity involving the breaking of a free-fall from a height using a parachute.

The history of skydiving began with a descent from a balloon by André-Jacques Garnerin in 1797. Skydiving has been used by the military since the early 1900s, including use in World War I and World War II. Early competitions date back to the 1930s, and it became an international sport in 1951.

Today it is performed as a recreational activity and a competitive sport, as well as for the deployment of military personnel and occasionally forest firefighters.


Typically, a trained skydiver (or jumper) and a group of associates meet at an isolated airport. A fixed base operator at that airport usually operates one or more light cargo aircraft, and takes groups of skydivers up for a fee. In the earlier days of the sport, it was common for an individual jumper to go up in a Beech 18 or Douglas DC-3 aircraft for reasons of economy.

Skydiving Beech 18 was once a mainstay at drop zones
Skydiving Beech 18 was once a mainstay at drop zones

A typical jump involves individuals jumping out of aircraft (usually an airplane, but sometimes a helicopter or even the gondola of a balloon), travelling at approximately 4000 metres (around 13,000 feet) altitude, and free-falling for a period of time before activating a parachute to slow the landing down to safe speeds.

Once the parachute is opened, (usually around 2,500 feet.) the jumper can control his or her direction and speed with cords called "steering lines," with hand grips called "toggles" that are attached to the parachute, and so he or she can aim for the landing site and come to a relatively gentle stop in a safe landing environment. Most modern sport parachutes are self-inflating "ram-air" wings that provide control of speed and direction similar to the related paragliders. (Purists in either sport would note that paragliders have much greater lift and range, but that parachutes are designed to absorb the stresses of deployment at terminal velocity.)

4-way formation skydive
4-way formation skydive

Many skydivers skydive because it is the closest one can get to the dream of flying. Skydiving is the only aerial activity where the body is the flying instrument instead of a machine. By manipulating the shape of the body, as a pilot manipulates the shape of his aircraft's wings, turns, forward motion, backwards motion, and even lift can be generated. Experienced skydivers will tell someone that in freefall, one can do anything a bird can do, except go back up.

Skydivers generally do not experience a "falling" sensation due to the fact that they reach terminal velocity (around 120 mph for belly to Earth orientations, 150-200 mph for head down orientations) and are no longer accelerating towards the ground. This lack of "falling" sensation does not exist when they leave the plane either, as their momentum from the plane causes the acceleration forces to be slow as their direction of travel changes from the direction of the airplane's flight to the direction pulled by the force of gravity. Skydivers call this transition period "the hill", and the amount of distance they fly with the plane due to the momentum is called "forward throw". Acceleration is what causes the "stomach in your throat" feeling on a roller-coaster or other amusement park ride.

Most skydivers make their first jump with an experienced and trained instructor (this type of skydive may be in the form of a tandem skydive). During the tandem jump the jumpmaster is responsible for the stable exit, maintaining a proper stable freefall position, and activating and controlling the parachute. With training and experience, the fear of the first few jumps is supplanted by the tact of controlling fear so that one may come to experience the satisfaction of mastering aerial skills and performing increasingly complicated maneuvers in the sky with friends. Other training methods include static line, IAD (Instructor Assisted Deployment), and AFF (Accelerated Free-Fall) aka Progressive Free-Fall (PFF) in Canada. See below.


Skydivers walking to a Cessna 208 on Texel
Skydivers walking to a Cessna 208 on Texel

Parachuting has complex skills that can take thousands of jumps to master, but the basics are often fully understood and useful during the first few jumps. There are four basic areas of skill: basic safety, free fall maneuvers, parachute operation, and landing.

Basic safety includes knowing how and when to: do a gear check, exit normally, react in an emergency, deploy a parachute, handle common malfunctions, pick a landing area, and set up and execute a landing. Most national sport organizations certify instructors, most operators who fly skydivers retain an instructor, and all certified instructors can teach the basics well enough for a student to be licensed by the national sport organization.

In freefall most skydivers start by learning to maintain a stable belly to earth "box" position. In this position the average fallrate is around 120 mph. Learning a stable box position is a basic skill essential for a reliable parachute deployment. Next, jumpers learn to move or turn in any direction while remaining belly to earth. Using these skills a group of jumpers can create sequences of formations on a single jump, a discipline known as relative work (RW). In the late 1980s more experienced jumpers started experimenting with freeflying, falling in any orientation other than belly to earth. Today many jumpers start freeflying soon after they earn their license, bypassing the RW stepping stone.

Choosing when to deploy the parachute is a matter of safety. A parachute should be deployed high enough to give the parachutist time to handle a malfunction should one occur. Two thousand feet is the practical minimum for advanced skydivers. In freefall, skydivers monitor their altitude meters to decide when to break off from the formation (if applicable) and when to open their parachutes. Many skydivers open higher to practice flying their parachute. On a "hop-and-pop," a jump in which the parachute is immediately deployed upon exiting the aircraft, it is not uncommon for a skydiver to be under canopy as high as 4000 or 5000 feet.

Flying the parachute has two basic challenges: to land where planned, often on a target; and to avoid injury. On a more advanced note, some skydivers enjoy performing aerobatic maneuvers with parachutes. An example of this would be the "Swoop", an extremely exciting, but dangerous skill which entails a fast speed approach towards the ground, and then levelling off a couple of feet above the ground to cover as much distance as possible (as much as 600 feet), in a fast horizontal swoop.

White sand circular target at a drop zone
White sand circular target at a drop zone

A modern parachute or canopy "wing" can glide substantial distances. Elliptical canopies go faster and farther, and some small, highly loaded canopies glide faster than a man can run, which can make them very challenging to land. A highly experienced skydiver using a very small canopy can achieve over 60 mph horizontal speeds in landing.

A good landing will not have any discomfort at all, and will land the skydiver within a few feet of his intended location. In competitions, champion accuracy skydivers routinely land less than two inches from the center of a target.

Nowadays, most of the skydiving related injuries happen under a fully opened and functioning parachute, the most common reasons for these injuries are badly-executed, radical maneuvers near to the ground, like hook turns, or too-low or too-high landing flares.


Despite the seeming danger of the leap, fatalities are rare. However, each year a number of people are hurt or killed parachuting world-wide.[1][2] About 30 skydivers are killed each year in the US, which works out roughly to one death out of every 166,000 jumps.[3]

In the US and in most of the western world skydivers are required to carry a second, reserve parachute which has been inspected and packed by a certified parachute rigger (in the US, an FAA certified parachute rigger), and many now use an altitude-sensitive automatic activation device (AAD) that activates the reserve parachute at a safe altitude if the skydiver somehow fails to activate the main canopy on their own. They also routinely carry both visual and audible altimeters to help maintain altitude awareness.

Inexperienced skydivers are a substantial hazard in the air. Even newly-licensed skydivers sometimes are shunned by groups until they've completed fifty to a hundred jumps, and their experience is personally known to a number of people on the field. For many skydivers this is not nastiness, or elitism, but a simple desire not to have anything broken.

The most dangerous period for a skydiver used to be between 100 and 500 jumps (known as hundred jump wonders), where the jumper has jumped enough to get over the initial fear factor, but has not yet learned all the skills for handling bad situations. Often jumpers with jump numbers in this range are over-confident and somewhat gung-ho.

But in recent years, one of the most common sources of injury is the (mis)use of high-performance parachutes. Since these parachutes are generally used by more experienced jumpers, the average number of jumps for those who die while skydiving has increased. Experienced skydivers may perform dangerous maneuvers at high speeds and low altitudes, resulting in increased risk and subsequently thrill.

Changing wind conditions are another risk factor. In strong wind conditions and hot days with turbulence the parachutist can be caught in downdrafts near the ground. Shifting winds causing a crosswind or downwind landing which have a high potential for injury due to the air speed and wind speed adding to give the landing speed.

Equipment failure only very rarely causes fatalities and injuries. While approximately one in 400 jumps results in a primary parachute malfunction and cut away, reserve chutes are professionally packed and are designed to be highly reliable, and while a reserve ride is a rather unnerving experience, it does not cause injury.

Some skydiving disciplines are notably more dangerous than others. BASE jumping has many times a greater risk than high altitude jumps. Skydive disciplines involving equipment such as wing suit flying and sky surfing have a higher risk factor due to the lower mobility of the jumper and the greater risk of entanglement. For this reason these disciplines are generally restricted to experienced jumpers.

It is worth noting that what is depicted in commercial films — notably Hollywood action movies — usually exaggerates the dangers of the sport. Often, the characters in such films are depicted performing feats that are physically impossible without special effects assistance. In other cases, their practices would cause them to be grounded or shunned at any safety-conscious drop zone or club. Drop zones in the US and Canada are required to have an experienced jumper act as a "safety officer" (in Canada DSO - Drop Zone Safety Officer; in the U.S. S&TA - Safety and Training Advisor) who are responsible for dealing with the jumpers who violate rules, regulations, or otherwise act in a fashion deemed unsafe by the appointed individual.

In many countries, either the local regulations or the liability-conscious prudence of the dropzone owners require that parachutists must have attained the age of majority before engaging in the sport.


Once individuals have mastered the basic jump, there are several different disciplines to embrace within parachuting. Each of these is enjoyed by both the recreational (weekend) and the competitive participants. There is even a small group of professionals who earn their living with parachuting. They win competitions having cash prizes or are employed or sponsored by skydiving related manufacturers.

Parachutists can participate both in competitive and in purely recreational skydiving events. World championships are held regularly in locations offering flat terrain and clear skies. An exception is Paraski, where winter weather and ski-hill terrain are required.

Types of parachuting include:

  • Accuracy landing - Landing as close as possible to a target.
  • BASE jumping - From buildings, antennas, bridges (spans) and cliffs (earth).
  • Blade running - A kind of slalom with parachute.
  • Big-ways - Formation skydiving with many people.
  • Canopy formation - Making formations with other parachutists while under canopies. (Known also as canopy relative work or simply CRW)
  • Canopy piloting - Also known as 'swooping'.
  • Formation skydiving - Making formations during freefall. (Known also as relative work or simply RW)
  • Freefall cinematography
  • Freefall style
  • Freeflying
  • Freestyle skydiving
  • Military Parachuting
    • Treejumping
  • Para-ski
  • Skysurfing - Skydiving with a board strapped to your feet.
  • Wingsuit flying - Skydiving with a suit which provides extra lift.


There are ways to practice different aspects of skydiving, without actually jumping. Vertical wind tunnels can be used to practice skills for free fall, while virtual reality parachute simulators can be used to practice parachute control.

Beginning skydivers seeking training have a few different options available to them:

  • Tandem skydiving
  • Static line
  • Instructor Assisted Deployment
  • Accelerated Freefall

A unique program where students accomplish their very first jump as a solo freefall is offered at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The program is called AM490, one in a series of airmanship courses at the school. While typically open only to cadets, Winfield W. Scott Jr. went through this program when he was nearly 60 years old (he was the school's superintendent).

Parachute Deployment

At a skydiver's designated deployment-altitude; the individual throws the pilotchute from a pocket at the bottom of the rig (the backpack-like container holding both parachutes a.k.a., canopies). This is known as a bottom of container (B.O.C.) deployment system. This small parachute is connected to the main parachute by a cord known as the "bridle" which feeds through a grommet on a small black bag which has the carefully folded parachute inside and the lines stowed through rubber bands across the top. At the bottom of the container's tray which holds the main parachute is a loop which, in the closing sequence of the parachute system, is fed through grommets on each of four flaps that closes the container.

Attached to the bridle is a curved pin which is inserted through the closing loop after it has been fed through each of these grommets. When the pilotchute is thrown out, it catches the wind and pulls the pin out of the closing loop, releasing the black bag off the back of the individual (who is in the stable belly-towards-earth arched position). The parachute lines are pulled loose from rubber bands, through which they were stored during packing, and extend as the canopy starts to open. To reduce the risk of injury, A rectangular piece of fabric called the "slider" (which separates the parachute lines into four main groups fed through grommets in the four respective corners of the slider) slows the opening of the parachute and works its way down until the canopy is fully open and the slider is just above the head of the skydiver. During a normal deployment, a skydiver will generally experience a few seconds of intense decelleration, in the realm of 3 to 4 G's, while the parachute slows the descent from 120 mph to approximately 12 mph.

If a skydiver experiences a malfunction with their main parachute which they cannot correct, they have a "cut-away" handle on the front right-hand side of their container (on the chest) which will release the main canopy from the container. Once free from the malfunctioning main canopy, the reserve canopy can be activated by pulling a second handle on the front left (sometimes triggered by a Reserve Static Line (RSL) which, if present, will deploy the spring loaded Reserve Canopy located in the top of the container immediately after the main is cut away). A new type of RSL has been developed called the Skyhook. This new system uses the "cut-away" canopy to act as a very large pilot chute to more quickly extract the reserve canopy. The Skyhook is an incredibly fast system that has the jumper under the reserve canopy and flying within 2 seconds (compared to the 5-10 seconds of the old system).


In addition to the various "disciplines", for which people actually train and purchase specialized equipment and get coaching, the recreational skydiver finds ways to just have fun.

Hit and Rock

One example of this is "Hit and Rock", which is a variant of Accuracy landing devised to let people of varying skill-levels "compete" for fun, while spoofing the age and abilities of some participants. "Hit and Rock" is originally from POPS (Parachutists Over Phorty Society). See the POPS Main site

The object now becomes: to land as close as possible to the chair, doff the parachute harness, sprint to the chair, sit fully in the chair and rock back and forth at least one time. The contestant is timed from the moment that feet touch the ground until that first rock is completed.

Pond Swooping

Pond swooping is a form of competitive parachuting wherein canopy pilots attempt to touch down at a glide across a small body of water, and onto the shore. Events provide lighthearted competition rating accuracy, speed, distance and style. Points and peer approval are reduced when a participant "chows", or fails to reach shore and sinks into the water.

Swoop and Chug

Very similar to Hit and Rock, except the target is replaced by a case of beer. Jumpers are timed from the moment their feet touch the ground until they chug the can of beer and place the empty can upside-down on their head.

Of course, it must be mentioned that dropzones enforce strict rules prohibiting anyone from jumping any more that day once alcohol has been consumed.


A cross-country jump refers to a skydive where the participants open their parachutes immediately after jumping, with the intention of covering as much ground under canopy as possible. Usual distance from Jump Run to the DZ is 10 miles.

Tracking jump

Tracking is assuming a body position that maximizes horizontal speed while minimising vertical speed. It is most commonly used at the end of freefall to gain enough separation from other skydivers for a safe parachute deployment.

A tracking dive is a skydive where the intention is to track for the entire duration of freefall. One person, usually the most experienced tracker, is designated the leader (or "rabbit"). The rabbit directs the direction of the group and maintains the group's tracking speed. Other participants chase the rabbit and try to maintain a relative position.

Main article: Freeflying/Tracking

Camera Flying

In camera flying, a cameraman (or camerawoman) jumps with other skydivers and films them. The camera flyer often wears specialized equipment, such as a winged jumpsuit to provide a greater range of fallrates, helmet-mounted video and still cameras, mouth operated camera switches, and special optical sights. Some skydivers specialize in camera flying and a few earn significant fees for filming students on coached jumps or tandem-jumpers, or producing professional footage and photographs for the media.

There is always a demand for good camera flyers in the skydiving community, as many of the competitive skydiving disciplines are judged from a video record.

Night Jumps

Skydiving is not always restricted to daytime hours. Experienced skydivers sometimes perform night jumps. For obvious safety reasons, this requires more equipment than a usual daytime jump and in most jurisdictions requires both an advanced skydiving license (at least a B-License in the U.S.) and specialized training (night rating). A lighted altimeter (preferably accompanied with an audible altimeter) is a must. Skydivers performing night jumps often take flashlights up with them so that they can check their canopies once they deploy, so they can be assured that the canopy has opened correctly and is safe to fly and land. Visibility to other skydivers and other aircraft is also a consideration; FAA regulations require skydivers jumping at night to be wearing a light visible for three miles in every direction, and to turn it on once they are under canopy.

Stuff Jumps

A skydiver sits in a rubber raft steadied by three other jumpers
A skydiver sits in a rubber raft steadied by three other jumpers

Skydivers are always looking for something new to do in the air. With the availability of a rear door aircraft and a large, unpopulated space to jump over 'stuff' jumps become possible. In these jumps the skydivers jump out with some object. Rubber raft jumps are popular, where the jumpers sit in a rubber raft. Cars, bikes, motorcycles, water tanks and inflatable companions have also been thrown out the back of an aircraft. At a certain height the jumpers break off from the object and deploy their parachutes, leaving it to crash into the ground at a very high speed.

Parachuting organizations

National parachuting associations exist in many countries (many affiliated with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI)), to promote their sport. In most cases, national representative bodies, as well as prudent local dropzone operators, require that participants carry certification, attesting to their training, their level of experience in the sport, and their proven competence. Anyone who cannot produce such bona-fides is treated as a student, requiring close supervision.

The primary organization in the United States is the United States Parachute Association (USPA)[1]. This organization hands out licenses and ratings for all American skydiving activities. The USPA also publishes the Skydivers Information Manual (SIM) and many other resources.

Within the sport, associations promote safety, technical advances, training-and-certification, competition and other interests of their members. Outside their respective communities, they promote their sport to the public, and often intercede with government regulators.

Competitions are organized at regional, national and international levels in most these disciplines. Some of them offer amateur competition. Many of the more photogenic/videogenic variants also enjoy sponsored events with prize money for the winners.

The majority of jumpers tend to be non-competitive, enjoying the opportunity to "get some air" with their friends on weekends and holidays. The atmosphere of their gatherings is relaxed, sociable and welcoming to newcomers. Party events, called "boogies" are arranged at local, national and international scale, each year, attracting both the enthusiatic young jumpers and many of their elders -- Parachutists Over Phorty (POPs), Skydivers Over Sixty (SOS) and even older groups who have yet to choose a catchy name for themselves. Famous people associated with this sport include Valery Rozov who is a gold medalist from the 1998 X Games, who has had more than 1,500 jumps. Also, the is Georgia Thompson("Tiny") Broadwick who is one of the first American skydivers, and she made the first freefall.

A tandem instructor and a student skydiving together
A tandem instructor and a student skydiving together

Commercial parachuting services vs. parachuting clubs

At larger centers, mostly in the "Sun Belt" region of the United States, training in the sport is often conducted by professional instructors and coaches at commercial establishments. The advantages to the newcomer are year-round availability, larger aircraft (which translates to greater comfort, higher jump altitudes, and more frequent jumping), and staff who are very current in both their sport and their instructional skills. It is also common for instructors and newcomers to jump while strapped together (see picture). For the newcomer, this gives an added measure of safety should something go wrong.

In the other latitudes, where winter (or monsoon) gets in the way of year-round operation, commercial skydiving centers are less prevalent and much of the parachuting activity is carried on by clubs. Most clubs cannot support larger aircraft. Training may be offered (by volunteer instructors who, nevertheless, are rigorously tested and certified) only in occasional classes as demand warrants. These clubs are usually weekend only operations as the volunteers have full-time jobs during the week. The entire experience tends to be informal and surrounded by a lot of socializing.

Some observers have suggested that commercial operations cater to a "fast-food" sensibility that leaves their novice graduates with very compartmentalized skill sets that may be lacking in important peripheral areas. This is countered by the observation that students at busy commercial operations receive concentrated exposure and experience, and are thus able to improve rapidly without backtracking or developing bad habits.

The observation about participants who started learning in the club setting is that their progression can be slower due to smaller aircraft and fewer "good jumping days" (weather). They may experience some backsliding as they need to re-learn some skills after weather-enforced lay-offs. By contrast, the progression of a novice in a club usually involves learning all the ancillary skills out of necessity. Everyone at a club learns all the skills and takes on all the roles.

For example, a large aircraft must be "spotted" (directed to fly over the optimum exit point) by an experienced jumper who is usually a parachute-center staffer. Having experienced staff perform this duty ensures that everybody leaves the aircraft within range of the landing zone. Nobody needs to hike or take a taxi back to the dropzone because their jumprun was spotted by a novice. The downside is that the novices never learn the skill of reading the winds, the terrain and the aircraft movement, and of directing the aircraft where it should go. They remain dependent on the "pro."

At clubs, the aircraft are smaller, and everybody is a friend. A bad spot is an excuse for some teasing, but it doesn't interrupt the smooth flow of a moneymaking operation. Therefore, most people who join parachuting clubs are taught spotting skills very early in their careers. Similar contrasts apply to parachute packing, equipment maintenance and other skills of a well-rounded skydiver.

The answer to both sets of critics is that they are correct as far as they go. The perceived shortcomings of each learning environment are ameliorated by the fact that most skydivers eventually partake of both settings. Club members often visit larger centers for holidays and events and for some concentrated exposure to the latest techniques. People who learned at commercial centers often make friends with visiting club jumpers and then visit them at their home dropzones -- or start their own clubs.


Costs in the sport are not trivial. As new technological advances or performance enhancements are introduced, they tend to nudge equipment prices higher. Similarly, the average skydiver carries more equipment than in earlier years, with safety devices (such as an automatic reserve activation device) contributing a significant portion of the cost. A full set of brand-new equipment can easily cost as much as a new motorcycle or half a small car. The market is not large enough to permit the commoditization and price-erosion that is seen in other technologically intensive industries (like the computer industry).

In many countries, the sport supports a substantial used-equipment market. For many beginners, especially those with limited funds, that is the preferred way to acquire "gear", and has two advantages:

  • First, they can try different types of parachutes (there are many) to learn which style they prefer, before paying the price for new equipment.
  • Second, they can acquire a complete system and all the peripheral items in a short time and at reduced cost.

Novices generally start with parachutes that are large and docile relative to the jumper's body-weight. As they improve in skill and confidence, it is customary to graduate to smaller, faster, more responsive parachutes. An active jumper might change parachute canopies several times in the space of a few years, while retaining his or her first harness/container and peripheral equipment.

Older jumpers, especially those who jump only on weekends in summer, sometimes tend in the other direction, selecting slightly larger, more gentle parachutes that do not demand youthful intensity and reflexes on each jump. They may be adhering to the maxim that: "There are old jumpers and there are bold jumpers, but there are no old, and bold jumpers."

Most parachuting equipment is ruggedly designed and is enjoyed by several owners before being retired. Purchasers are always advised to have any potential purchases examined by a qualified parachute rigger. A rigger is trained to spot signs of damage or misuse. Riggers also keep track of industry product and safety bulletins, and can therefore determine if a piece of equipment is up-to-date and serviceable.

Parachuting Records

World's largest freefall formation: 400. This record was set February 8, 2006 in Udon Thani, Thailand.

Don Kellner holds the record for the most parachute jumps, with a total of over 36,000 jumps.[2]

Cheryl Stearns (USA) holds the record for the most parachute descents by a woman, with a total of 15,560 in August 2003.

Capt. Joe W. Kittinger achieved the highest parachute jump in history on August 16, 1960 as part of a United States Air Force program testing high-altitude escape systems. Wearing a pressure suit, Capt. Kittinger ascended for an hour and a half in an open gondola attached to a balloon to an altitude of 102,800 feet, where he then jumped. The fall lasted more than 13 minutes, during which Capt. Kittinger reached speeds exceeding 600 miles per hour.

Jay Stokes holds the record for most parachute descents in a single day at 640. [3]

See also

  • drop zone
  • parachute
  • free-fall

External links

Look up Parachuting in
Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
  • Parachute History Parachute History
  • A popular skydiving discussion forum.
  • Large public skydiving video database, user-uploadable.
  • FAI The Federation Aeronautique Internationale -- The international governing body for all airborne sports, including skydiving.
  • USPA The United States Parachute Association -- The governing body for sport skydiving in the U.S.
  • CSPA The Canadian Sport Parachuting Association -- The governing body for sport skydiving in Canada.
  • BPA The British Parachute Association -- The governing body for sport skydiving in the United Kingdom.
  • Skydiving Guide A reference site for skydivers.
  • Article on A brief website about the history and the etymology of the parachute.
  • Article on History, Design, and Information about parachutes.
  • wannaskydive A detailed dropzone atlas around the world.
  • Skydive Radio The world's first and only podcast dedicated to skydiving.


  • Malone, Jo (June, 2000). Birth of Freefly. Skydive the Mag.
  1. ^ Fatality statistics.
  2. ^ statistics.
  3. ^ How skydiving works.
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