Skydiving: Some Groundwork

Parachuters in hybrid formation. Image sourced at

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As most adrenaline junkies know, hurling yourself out of a light aircraft thousands of feet above the ground will definitely meet your demands for excitement. Truly, there can be very little in life that could compare to the feeling of hurtling towards earth at terminal velocity only to suddenly slow in speed to a gentle descent.

During the slow descent (when your parachute opens to ensure a restive journey towards ground level), one gets an unimpeded view of the landscape below; in other words, suspended high above ground level, one is treated to a veritable visual feast, seeing a view once only reserved for creatures of the sky.

Parachuting and skydiving are more or less synonymous terms, referring to the sport (in a leisure context) of using a high strength and specialised parachute to counter the effects of gravity through the use of air resistance. During the free fall period, occurring before the parachute is opened, a falling body may reach terminal velocity if the original exit from the plane is sufficiently high.

Given the fact that safety regulations clearly indicate a minimum height above ground level for the deployment of a parachute, the amount of free fall time (and therefore the maximum speed reached by the falling body) is determined by the space above the minimum threshold.

For safety reasons, though, most skydivers will deploy the chutes before the minimum threshold is reached, thus ensuring enough time for secondary chute deployment in the unlikely event of the primary chute not deploying properly.

Whereas parachuting is used in Defence Force, fire fighting, and emergency personnel environments, civilian populations engage in the activity as a leisure time sport, and the equipment developed in the commercial environment are of a very high quality, and safety is of great concern.

The history of skydiving dates back to a gentleman named Andre-Jacques Garnerin who made several successful “jumps” by tying a canvas canopy and weaved basket to the bottom side of a hot air balloon. The development of parachuting from engine powered planes starts with static line jumps, and the first intentional ripcord operated parachute deployment is attributed to Leslie Irvin in 1919.

There is, however, an earlier example of ripcord operated deployment, albeit in a more unofficial capacity: Georgina “Tiny” Broadwick (a female stunt jumper) is believed to have cut her static line to length that gave her access to it during free fall, thus severing all ties between the skydiver and the aeroplane.

As is often the case in technological development, military forces made adjustments and advancements to parachutes, thereby allowing the deployment of troops from the air and giving aircrews an emergency exit option should a serious fault in the plane occur.

Competitive diving dates back to the 1930s, and most commentators see the 1950s as the period in which skydiving can be seen to have become an international sport, enjoyed by the brave and thrill seeking from the four corners of the globe.