Skydiving or Parachuting is a sport in which you exit a plane from altitude, freefall for a while and then deploy a parachute to fly safely to the ground. This page doesn't describe activities such as parascending down a mountainside or on tow behind a motorboat, where you have an open parachute right from the start; nor the hazardous sport of BASE jumping (eg from buildings and bridges).
Skydiving doesn't really work as a spectator sport because the action is too far from the ground. Occasionally professional skydivers may parachute into an event, but this is usually just a five minute part of a longer spectacle. If you want to experience it, you have to buckle on a kit and get in that plane.
There are 3 main ways to get started in parachuting.
- Tandem is where you jump buckled to an instructor, who does all the work. The pair of you freefall for about a minute, perhaps also with an in-air cameraman to record your horrified expression, then spend a couple of minutes under parachute. So it's more like a white-knuckle fairground ride than a sport, with minimum fitness and training needed. This is the commonest way to get started; many people only ever do one jump, as a charity challenge or bucket-list experience.
- Accelerated Freefall (AFF) is usually a follow-on from an initial tandem, but you can start straight in. You freefall independently from high altitude from your very first jump. An instructor jumps with you, giving signals to correct your body position, to check your awareness of your height, and eventually to cue your parachute opening. (The wind is too loud to talk in freefall, so you need to watch and act upon those signals.) Early jumps are just about maintaining basic stability, then you learn turns and other manoeuvres. It's an intense, immersive approach that's not for everyone, and it's more expensive; but you're a true skydiver right from the get-go.
- Static line is the old-school method; it's no longer the standard training approach but is still widely available. You're clipped to the plane by a stout lanyard, the "static-line" or "dope-rope". You exit the plane at intermediate altitude, say 4000 feet; the line almost immediately rips your parachute out to deploy then a break-tie snaps and away you float under canopy. There's no freefall so you're not yet a skydiver, but you're certainly a parachutist as you steer and land yourself. This method is relatively inexpensive and you will learn good canopy control, in-air awareness, parachute packing and other excellent stuff before progressing to freefall. You then jump freefall from higher and higher, until you come on a par with the AFF trainees.
The kit is expensive. For early jumps you hire the centre's kit, then seek advice from the instructors on what sort of kit you should look to buy, given your body size and how rapidly you're progressing. A modern parachute is a "ram air", with multiple cells that are open at the front so they inflate into a square, corrugated canopy. Your early chute will be large and docile. You'll graduate onto smaller, faster, dynamic canopies, but not too soon, as these are dangerous if mishandled. You always have a reserve, stowed on top of the main canopy in the same container. Plus it's virtually mandatory nowadays to have an AAD - automatic activation device - which is your last chance if you brain-lock and fail to open. Add helmet, altimeter, goggles, and a few other bits and bobs, and you're good to go.
Jump at an approved centre, affiliated to the relevant national governing body. These bodies hold the definitive list of approved centres for their country, and enforce standards around planes, pilots, instructors, training methods and parachuting procedures, kit packing and maintenance, and airfield facilities and location (eg not next to a fast busy highway or heavy industry). They also set out key regulations eg the minimum age for training or your maximum weight, and whether you need a medical certificate - these rules vary country by country. In countries with only one or two centres, realistically there may not be a national body, and the centres set their own rules. Below are listed a handful of centres that are popular, but it's only a sample, and doesn't imply endorsement of these over others. (They may also be listed under their nearest city, but they're often a long way out in the country. You generally need your own transport to reach any of them.) Check whether your health insurance covers this activity.
Next steps: after falling for 13 secs, you're going as fast as you will, a terminal velocity of 120 mph in a "flat-fly" or belly-to-earth position. It doesn't feel like falling, because you're always flying in the onrush of air, as if balancing atop a fountain. Use small movements of your body to turn, shift forward etc, in a controlled manner. From there you learn to link with others in "formation skydiving" - and to separate safely before it's time to open. Four is the basic formation team, then eight, and bigger. "Freestyle" means falling in other positions such as head-down, which are much faster and dynamically unstable. Other disciplines include wing-suiting, gradient flying, parachute landing accuracy, surfing ie steering your canopy through a slalom course, and CRW where open canopies are linked. You'll also start to train others, and might work to become an instructor or parachute rigger. All this involves a major commitment of time and money.
How high you go varies between centres, but 15,000 feet is the ceiling. That's because you climb rapidly from near sea level in an unpressurised aircraft without acclimatisation, so you can't safely go higher without oxygen. That height allows you 70 secs of freefall before opening at 3000-4000 feet. Although some radical sports go lower: they use wind tunnels as training grounds. These have developed to the stage where four-way wind tunnel competitions are held, but they've not yet become a free-standing sport or alternate training pathway into skydiving.