Tracking is a skydiving skill emphasized very early in training. It involves positioning the body to produce horizontal movement.
Usually, a skydiver begins by assuming the classic skydiving position commonly seen in films: face down, belly to Earth, slightly arched, arms and legs spread. That provides a free fall rate of approximately 120 mph (193 kph). To begin tracking, the skydiver changes position. The back is straightened, the arms are drawn in, the legs are brought closer together.
Depending on the air conditions and exact body weight, clothing, position assumed and more a number varies called the glide ratio. That’s the ratio of fall to horizontal drift. Skilled skydivers can achieve close to a 1:1 ratio. They cover a significant horizontal distance as they fall from, say, 10,000 feet (3,050 m) to where the canopy is deployed at about 2,500 feet (762 m).
Once the canopy is deployed, of course, the situation takes on a whole new character. Gliding now takes place.
Because of the type of material, and particularly because of the large surface area, shape and thinness of a modern nylon ram canopy, it’s possible to considerably extend the techniques.
The ram canopy is sewn into cells, strips of material that form individual curved sections across the large rectangle of the chute. With toggles that brake and handles that allow the rear left and right cells to be manipulated, it’s possible to glide for miles, often achieving speeds of 50-100 mph (80-161 kph).
It’s possible in this way to hit a drop zone target miles away. At the same time, gliding and braking can be so precisely done today that expert target jumpers regularly land within two inches of a central point.
Both tracking and gliding, because it can involve high speeds, may be dangerous. Students learn how to perform it safely through classroom instruction and practical experience in the air. Blacking out in the air or becoming disoriented is possible. Hitting the ground even softly at a horizontal speed of 50 mph (80 kph) would be fatal. Even 15 mph (24 kph) is about twice the speed of the fastest sprint.
To avoid injury, it’s important to incorporate in gliding and tracking practice techniques that allow the skydiver to slow his horizontal movement as he nears the ground. That typically starts at about 1,000 feet (305 m). At that level, the skydiver shifts his focus to spotting the dropzone target, reducing horizontal speed, and preparing for landing.
Also, jumpers rarely skydive in an area totally devoid of other jumpers. Part of the sport often involves cooperation with other skydivers. Here, that means practicing tracking and gliding when others are present. Awareness of their position and distance away is important at all times.
In some cases, skydivers will want to hook up. At others, they’ll want to ensure they have plenty of horizontal separation. That’s needed in order to deploy the canopy safely, to avoid one getting entangled with another leading to collapse. The more divers there are in a given area, the more critical that becomes.
Safety and excitement in skydiving are always in a delicate balance. Practicing tracking and gliding the right way can help achieve that proper mix.