Skydiving or parachuting brings to mind familiar images from films and TV commercials. Who hasn’t seen one or a hundred people floating through the air, wind flapping against their jumpsuits, followed by a swoosh and a colorful canopy blooming?
The sport or hobby involves a myriad of skills needed to make that activity as safe as it has become. That skill is acquired slowly or quickly depending on the type of training involved.
Static line training, for example, takes a student through weeks or months of instruction and exercises to reach the point of solo freefalling. AFF (accelerated free falling), on the other hand, may take only days or a little longer to accomplish the same task.
In static line, the student jumps out of the plane with a line pre-attached to the container which, as the name suggests contains the parachute or canopy. Exiting at about 3,500 feet above the ground, the line opens the chute and the student’s rate of descent drops from about 120 mph (193 kph) to around 10 mph (16 kph). They’re often part of a group of a dozen or more students guided by several instructors.
In AFF training, students receive much more one-on-one training. A ground school that takes 6 hours gets them up to speed on the basics of simple physics, equipment and other things they need to know. That happens in Static training too. Then, they will have an instructor accompany them on a jump.
In standard training, a tandem jump may be the first one or two jumps. The student simply holds onto the front of the instructor (though they do have their own pack) and the instructor will deploy his or her canopy, bringing both gently down. In AFF training, the teacher only holds the hand of the student until they are assured the student can safely deploy their chute.
What happens next is very much the same in either case.
At around 2,500-3,000 feet the skydiver pulls a small handle to deploy a drogue chute. This is called a BOC or bottom of container arrangement. The drogue is a small chute to which is attached cords that are in turn connected to the main canopy. Rapidly moving air catches inside the drogue as it exits the container. That pulls the lines out, which pull the main canopy free of the part of the container called the D-bag.
The main canopy begins to fill with air. But it’s important to prevent it from doing so too quickly. That would decelerate the skydiver from 120 mph (193 kph) to 10 mph (16 kph) too quick and possibly tear the gear not to mention injuring the skydiver. So, a small nylon fabric slider gradually slides down the lines, allowing the canopy to open more slowly. That provides a gentler deceleration.
As the skydiver descends to Earth, he or she moves into a horizontal glide and walks along as easily as they would trot across a meadow. Only in special circumstances will they do the pound and roll popular in old war movies.
Getting down safely isn’t guaranteed, but appearances aside, skydiving is one of the safest activities around. At the same time, the adrenaline of flying through the air at 120 mph (193 kph), then gliding gently to the ground, provides the thrill that keeps skydivers coming back for more.