The Evolution of Sport Skydiving

Sport Skydiving

The technology of “sport” skydiving has come a long way since it’s beginnings after World War II. After WWII a few intrepid former Army Airborne Soldiers started to jump for fun doing what was then called Sport Parachute Jumping using military surplus gear. Sport Parachute Jumping remained primarily former military personnel into the 1960s when more and more non-military types were getting into the sport.

In the beginning it was enough to jump by yourself, freefalling and deploying your own parachute (no static line). As the sport evolved competition disciplines began to develop, primarily Style and Accuracy. Style is the discipline of completing a “set” of maneuvers such as front loop, figure eight, back loop, figure eight within the fastest time. Accuracy refers to landing accuracy, exiting and landing closest to a designated target.

In the 1950s a few jumpers started experimenting with jumping together and maneuvering their bodies in proximity to each other. The standard flying position was and is belly to earth, this body orientation is the most versatile in its natural stability and maneuverability through all flight axes. The first baton pass between two jumpers in freefall was completed, and the discipline of Relative Work saw its beginning. The predecessor to today’s United States Parachute Association also saw it’s beginnings in the 1950s.

Sport Skydiving

The 1960s saw the beginnings of the first non-military drop zones, and non-military training methods. Lew Sanborn and Jacques Istel started the first commercial drop zone and training center in 1959. They developed a civilian training method with the belief that any intelligent person could be taught the basics of a parachute jump and jump the same day. Style and Accuracy remained the primary discipline throughout the 1960s, and Relative Work continued to develop with the first 6 and 8 man formations being completed.

The decade of the 70s saw a watershed of change for the sport. Military surplus gear lost favor to specifically designed sport equipment, these advancements served to make the sport considerably safer. Specially designed round parachutes were “high performance” at the turn of the decade, however by the end the parafoil or rectangular parachute (invented in the middle 1960’s by Domina Jalbert, a kite maker) had replaced them. Freefall Relative Work as a competitive discipline was gaining prominence with 10 Man Speed Star (exiting solo and timed to complete a 10 way round freefall formation). The modern competition of 4 and 8 way Freefall Relative Work (moving through a set of formations in freefall, and taking different grips on each other within a 30 second time frame) was born. The primary method of skydiving training was through a Static Line Progression, but the development of Accelerated Freefall (AFF) began; the student is taken to standard freefall altitude, two experienced skydivers hold onto the student throughout the freefall, assist him to fall stable, and deploy his parachute if necessary. The Tandem system was also being developed at the end of the decade. This system allows a student with minimal training to go attached with an experienced jumper using a specially designed parachute system built for two.

During the 1980s the Tandem training method received a waiver from the FAA with experimental status, and a growing percentage of first jumps were done through the tandem method. The 80s also saw a movement toward the term Skydiving which was actually coined in the 1950s. During the decade we saw the death of the round main parachute, although rounds were still predominantly used as reserve parachutes. The Automatic Activation Device, a safety device which deploys the reserve parachute at a pre-determined altitude if a set fall rate is exceeded, saw wide spread use and became mandatory on all student equipment. Freefall Relative Work became the predominate discipline during the decade; with 4, 8, and 16 way teams. The 80s also saw the development of the new discipline of Free Flying. Free Flying is a form of relative work flown in a position other than belly to earth, predominantly head down, or in a “sit fly” position. The large RW formation record was pushed to 144 skydivers.

Sport Skydiving

The 1990s saw great leaps in development toward higher performance wing designs, and the round reserve parachute was replaced by the parafoil design. Canopies were almost exclusively designed using Computer-Aided Design and cut using Computer-Aided Manufacturing. Performance canopies came to be elliptical in plan-form, and smaller with higher wing loading and air speeds. Students are trained on non-elliptical canopies with a wing loading generally less than 1 to 1 (more than one square foot of canopy per suspended lb); most experienced jumpers load their canopies in a range of 1.2 to 1, up to 2 to 1. Additional competitive disciplines saw some popularity; “Free Style” which resembles ballet in freefall and “Sky Surfing” where the jumper uses a specially designed “surf board”. Through the 90s and into the 21st century Free Flying has become the discipline of choice for what now is approximately half of the “fun jump” skydivers. The decade also saw the sport gain more mainstream acceptance with televised competitions, the use of aerial photography, and media exposure in commercials and movies. The freefall RW record reached 200 in 1992 and 282 in 1999.

In the 21st Century further advancements in canopy design lead to records that would have been beyond imagination just a few years earlier. Experimental canopy designs have been successfully flown as small as 21 square foot loaded in excess of 8 to 1, and landed with wing loadings of over to 4 to 1 (39 square foot wing). High performance, fast flying canopies lead to the development of the competition discipline of “Canopy Swooping”. The canopy pilot will initiate a speed generating maneuver (diving turn) creating canopy speeds in excess of 70 mph, he will then flare and float across the ground for some distance before touching down. In competition, the canopy pilot is required to cross through a set of “gates” at the start of the course and “swoop” the canopy for distance. The current Canopy Swoop record was recently set at a distance of 438.6 feet. With the introduction of computer based recording altimeters a natural competition to achieve the ultimate free fall speed began. By reducing the surface exposed to the relative wind (standing on your head), the use of tight slick suits, contoured helmets, and a few other “tricks” the current “Speed Skydiving” record is 311.99 mph. One more recently developed discipline is winged freefall. Bird Man Inc. claims that with their latest wing suit under ideal conditions the vertical rate can be as slow as 30 mph, with a horizontal speed of up to 90 mph. Basically if someone can think of it, and figure out a way to measure it, a new competitive discipline is born. More traditional freefall relative work remains popular as well. The RW record reached 300 in 2002, and currently stands at 357 with the record skydive made in Thailand using 4 Thai Military C-130s, jumpers on oxygen and an exit altitude in excess of 20,000 feet.

Sport Skydiving

Skydiving today is safer and easier to experience than ever before. There are hundreds of United States Parachute Association member DZs located throughout the US. In excess of two million jumps are made every year. Tandem skydiving is now the primary method for first jump students, but is not required. Static Line or Accelerated Freefall (AFF) training methods are also offered at virtually all skydiving centers. The first license a student can qualify for is the USPA “A” license and can be achieved with as few as 25 freefall skydives. What began as a few ex-military guys having a little fun is now a sport that has come out of the extreme, into the mainstream, and has been enjoyed at least once literally by millions of adventurous souls.

By Martin Myrtle