Parachuting, or skydiving, is a recreational activity and competitive sport. A jump involves individuals jumping out of aircraft, usually travelling at approximately 4000 metres altitude, and free-falling for a period of time before activating a parachute to slow the landing down to safe speeds.
Sky diver while landing.
Once the parachute is opened, the jumper can control their direction and speed with cords attached to the parachute, and so they 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.)
At a beginning recreational level, many people skydive purely for the adrenaline rush caused by such a seemingly suicidal (this would suggest intent for self-destruction not excitement) plunge, the amazing views possible, and the sense of freedom gained. Most such thrill-seekers initially jump strapped to an experienced skydiver responsible for activating and controlling the parachute. With experience, the fear-related rush fades. It is supplanted by the satisfaction of mastering aerial skills and performing increasingly complicated maneuvers in the sky with friends.
Despite the seeming danger of the leap, fatalities are rare. In the US, skydivers are required to carry a second, reserve parachute which has been inspected and packed by an FAA certified parachute rigger, and many now use a pressure-sensitive automatic activation device (AAD) that activates the reserve parachute at a safe altitude if the skydiver somehow fails to activate the chute on their own. They also routinely carry both visual and audible altimeters to help maintain altitude awareness.
It should be emphasized that many of today's active parachutists have jumped for decades without significant injury. Injuries, when they do occur, are usually caused by inattention or improper action on the part of the parachutist. Some involve the parachute getting tangled up and thus not providing the full deceleration. These are very rare. Others arise from changes in wind forcing hard landings -- again, very rare. In recent years, one of the most common sources of injury is the inexperienced or overconfident (mis)use of perfectly good, high-performance parachutes to effect crowd-pleasing landings. High-speed manouvers performed very close to the ground can be exhilarating to perform, and exciting to watch, but they necessarily increase the risk.
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.
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.
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. 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.
Some of the disciplines include:
- Canopy formation
- Formation skydiving
- Freefall cinematography
- Freestyle skydiving
- Freefall style
- Accuracy landing
- BASE jumping
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.
At larger centers, mostly in "sun-belt" locations, 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.
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. 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.
Each year, a number of people are hurt or killed in parachuting, world-wide. The fundamental nature of the sport might suggest why that is so. On the other hand, statistics suggest that, with due care and attention (not to mention sound training and a good attitude) the more likely outcome is that hundreds of thousands of people make millions of jumps, and go back to do it again. A particularly telling point might be the increasing numbers of sport parachutists who have each logged well over 10,000 jumps in their respective careers.
It is worth noting that what is depicted in commercial films -- notably Hollywood action movies -- usually exaggerates the dangerous-looking aspects 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 dropzone or club.
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.
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.
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, 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.