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Skydiving, also called parachuting, use of a parachute—for either recreational or competitive purposes—to slow a diver's descent to the ground after jumping from an airplane or other high place. The sport traces its beginnings to the descents made from a hot-air balloon by the French aeronaut André-Jacques Garnerin in 1797, but modern skydiving is usually performed from a propeller-driven airplane. At events such as the annual World Free Fall Convention in Quincy, Illinois, however, parachutists are afforded the opportunity to jump from such diverse craft as hot-air balloons, helicopters, and a Boeing 727.

Skydiving aerodynamics

Typical jump altitudes in modern times for experienced skydivers range from 7,500 to 15,000 feet (2,300 to 4,600 metres) above ground level, yielding a freefall time of between 40 and 85 seconds. The length of the freefall (the time between exiting the aircraft and deploying the parachute) is dependent upon such factors as exit altitude, opening altitude, and fall rate. The fall rate is determined by the jumpsuit the skydiver wears and the way in which the suit conforms to the body during the freefall (a looser suit offers more resistance to the air and slows the fall) and by the diver's body configuration relative to the ground. Freefall speeds for skydivers falling "belly to earth" (the standard arched position) range from 110 to 130 miles per hour (180 to 210 km per hour). Descent speeds in excess of 330 mph have been recoded for those skydivers in speed skydiving competitions (in which the diver falls headfirst with the body in a streamlined position), and those as slow as 40 mph have been noted for skydivers using extended-wing "birdman" suits. The altitude at which a parachutist opens the canopy varies, but 2,500 feet is usual. With most parachutes, the skydiver initiates deployment by throwing a pilot chute into the airstream (other parachutes have pilot chutes that are automatically released by pulling an attached cord). The pilot chute is a small chute opened by air resistance that acts to pull the main parachute out from the bag in which the parachutes are encased. The main parachute increases the skydiver's air resistance and slows the diver's fall to the ground to a speed of about 10 mph. Modern ram-air parachutes are made of seven to nine nylon cells that inflate and act as a wing, or glider; these canopies allow the parachutist to steer and sail gently to the ground.
To maximize safety, sport skydivers wear two parachutes, one main and one reserve. This is prescribed by law in the U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations and in the aviation regulations of many other countries as well. Additionally, skydivers use a variety of altitude-sensing devices in order to know when to deploy their parachutes.

Competitive skydiving

The first world parachuting championships were held in Yugoslavia in 1951, and later world championships followed under the auspices of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). Since that time, the sport has grown worldwide, and competitive skydiving events now include: classical style, in which the diver completes a series of timed acrobatic maneuvers; accuracy trials, in which the diver has to land on (or as close as possible to) a 5-cm (1.97-inch) target for a number of jumps; relative work in freefall, wherein a number of divers build a prescribed series of formations (see photograph); canopy relative work, in which divers build formations after their chutes have opened; and freestyle, which involves a mixture of free-form acrobatic and gymnastic maneuvers by the diver combined with relative work involving a videographer (another skydiver who jumps with a video camera to document the activity). Recently, competitive events such as skysurfing (the use of a small snowboardlike device to act as a maneuvering platform for freestyle acrobatics during freefall) and blade running (maneuvering a high-performance parachute through a pyloned course of wind flags—known as airblades—mounted about 15 feet above the ground on thin poles) have been added.

Learning to skydive

There are several training programs in skydiving. In the original military training, known as a static-line program, a skydiver exits the aircraft and wears a chute that is deployed by a tether line. With the United States Parachute Association's Accelerated Freefall program, two "jumpmasters" dive with the student—at altitudes usually 10,000 feet or more above ground level—and assist the student in remaining stable while performing a series of tasks designed to train the student to maintain stability in freefall and appropriately deploy the parachute. Finally, in the Tandem training program, a dual parachute harness capable of carrying two skydivers (the student in front of the instructor) is used to introduce students to the sport of skydiving under the direct control of the experienced, specially rated Tandem Instructor.

Other parachute sports

There are other forms of sport parachuting that do not utilize aircraft as a launching platform. One such sport is paragliding, in which a pilot seated in a harness connected to a parachute canopy launches from a high place and glides, using air currents. In parasailing, a parachute is linked by a long line to a boat or land vehicle, and the forward motion of the vehicle tows the parachute and its wearer skyward. Finally, in BASE (an acronym for building, antenna, span, earth) jumping, the parachutist leaps from a very high point, such as a building, bridge, or cliff, rather than an airplane. It should be noted, however, that—owing to the relatively low altitudes from which the jump takes place—BASE jumping has a much higher risk level than other sport uses of a parachute; because of this and the possibility of injuring bystanders below, BASE jumping is usually illegal.

The Evolution of 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.

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.
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 678 feet (Jay Moledzki, Longmont Colorado, September 2006). 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 400 with the record skydive made in Thailand using 5 Thai Military Lockheed C-130 Hercules, jumpers on oxygen in the aircraft and an exit altitude in excess of 20,000 feet.

The next Formation Skydiving World Record attempt is set for 2013. With the support of the Crown Prince of Dubai supplying a fleet of C-130s, exit altitude of 24,000' and all participants wearing individual O2 systems in freefall.
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 jumps. 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.

What makes a World Record "Official?"

The FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) is the international governing body that regulates and homologates space and aviation world records. The FAI's International Parachuting Commission determines the criteria required to set an official FAI World Record involving parachuting and skydiving. In the case of the category for the Largest Freefall Formation, the rules have changed many times since 1973. At times, the burden of proof was upon the beholder; at others, only verified by film; for many years, the formation was required to be 'held' in position for varying specific numbers of seconds.
Currently, all skydivers who exit the aircraft intending to be in the record formation must not only be in the formation with pre-designated 'grips' on their neighbors, but must also be in their pre-designated positions in the formation, as declared before taking off in the aircraft. Video and film are the unforgiving proof, and all positions, grips, and the pre-defined formation are verified by no less than three credentialed FAI Judges.
The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes space and aviation World Records as official if they have been homologated by FAI.