Learning to Skydive


"I've been thinking about learning how to skydive for a long time. Where would I start?"

First, decide how you want to learn. There are four methods of training in widespread use today:

  1. Static-line training is a method in which you wear your own parachute system and exit the airplane by yourself. Your parachute is activated automatically as you fall clear of the airplane. A person on the ground will be in radio contact with you. This person will give you clear directions to guide you safely to the landing area and signal you to execute your flare and parachute landing fall (PLF).

    This is the "original" system of training. Some call it outdated, but it is the way almost all skydivers learned to jump up until the 1980s. It continues to be popular at smaller parachute schools and clubs.

    Click HERE to see pictures of an actual static-line first-jump course, including the jump itself.

    It's relatively inexpensive.
    There is much less to learn prior to your first jump compared to AFF training.
    You get the chance to learn certain basic but necessary skills such as boarding the airplane with your equipment on, riding up to altitude and performing a gear check, climbing out and exiting the aircraft in a controlled manner (which is harder than it sounds), checking your canopy and suspension lines after deployment, steering your parachute to the landing area and landing. Over the course of your first three to six static-line jumps you can get comfortable with all of these things before you have to start worrying about the high-altitude freefall environment, which most students find more intimidating in the beginning. Once you do make your first freefall jump, you will be much more relaxed, confident and ready to learn.

    There is no freefall involved in a static-line jump, so if you just want to try skydiving once and never do it again it is probably not your best choice. Freefall is what this sport is all about!
    There is much more to learn prior to your first jump compared to tandem training.
    You will exit the airplane alone. Even though you will be trained and supervised, you will ultimately be responsible for your own safety. If you freak out, panic and fail to do what you've been trained to do you could get hurt.

  2. Accelerated freefall training is for people who are serious about learning how to skydive. You will exit the airplane at a high altitude (usually 10,500-14,500 feet) wearing your own parachute system with two professional, USPA-rated skydiving instructors physically holding on to you until you pull your ripcord. A person on the ground will be in radio contact with you. This person will give you clear directions to guide you safely to the landing area and signal you to execute your flare and parachute landing fall (PLF).

    AFF training provides the maximum possible amount of high-quality, high-intensity training in the shortest amount of time. Your learning curve will be very steep.
    It is possible to go from zero skydives to graduation in just seven jumps.
    Fast learners who are well prepared psychologically find it fun, challenging and rewarding.

    This is the most expensive training option.
    You will have to spend an entire day in preparation for your first jump. There is a lot to learn.
    Some people find this method overwhelming, especially if they are slower learners or if they are very nervous.
    It may be necessary to repeat certain jumps over and over before progressing to the next level.

  3. Tandem training involves being attached to a highly experienced and specially trained skydiver who wears a parachute system designed for two.

    There is almost no training or preparation involved, just a short briefing. You can drive to the airport and make your jump within minutes.
    This method involves the least stress because there is practically nothing for the student (or "passenger parachutist," to use the FAA's term) to learn or remember.
    If you want to jump once and do not plan to ever do it again, this is the ideal choice. You can get pictures or video (or both) for an extra fee.

    Let's face it, you aren't really skydiving. You're attached to a person who is skydiving! Any idiot could make a tandem jump. A sack of potatoes could make a tandem jump.
    If you want to learn how to skydive, most people would agree that a tandem jump does not have as much training value as the other methods.

  4. Vertical wind tunnel training enables almost anyone to experience the sensation of freefall. Powerful fans pull or push air up through a cylindrical shaft at high speeds, fast enough to support the weight of a human body. By "flying" in this wind column, you can learn all the fundamental (non-equipment-related) skills of skydiving: how to fall faster or slower, how to move left and right and forward and back and how to rotate about your own axis. You can also learn and practice advanced maneuvers such as flying inverted or on your head or doing front loops, back loops and barrel rolls.

    It's cheap . . . much cheaper than any other training method.
    You can learn more in one day of tunnel flying than in weeks of skydiving, because you can spend so much more time in the wind without distractions.
    Instructors can provide intensive one-on-one guidance.
    It can be a valuable supplement to enhance and accelerate your skydiving training.
    You don't have to pack a parachute!

    There aren't that many vertical wind tunnels in the world. (I am lucky enough to have the excellent SkyVenture facility just a few miles from the airport where I work.)
    There is nothing quite like the thrill and joy of skydiving, and tunnel flying, although it's a hell of a lot of fun, is not skydiving.
    There are many things which cannot be taught, learned or practiced in a wind tunnel. There is no substitute for the real thing.

There are hundreds of skydiving facilities (known as "drop zones") in the United States. Most of them have Web sites. Many of them are also listed in the yellow pages. Another good way to find information about drop zones in your area is through the United States Parachute Association. But don't just go to the DZ that's closest. Visit several of them. Talk to the jumpers and the instructors and staff. Some DZs are better than others for making your first jump. I've known students who drove past three or four other DZs just to jump at one that made them feel at home. Do some research.


"Do you need a license to skydive?"

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not license skydivers the way it does pilots, aircraft mechanics and parachute riggers. It does regulate parachute operations, but the only formal licensing process comes from the United States Parachute Association. It is a non-government system that is nonetheless federally and internationally recognized.

The four USPA licenses are:

  1. A (25 jumps / basic)
  2. B (50 jumps / intermediate)
  3. C (200 jumps / advanced)
  4. D (500 jumps / expert)

In order to earn a license, a skydiver must meet certain experience requirements and demonstrate certain skills (such as landing accuracy). This licensing system was developed a long time ago, when 200 jumps was considered a pretty impressive number. If you're not a skydiver, that might sound like a lot of jumps. But trust me -- it isn't. Today, in this age of turbine jump aircraft and professional packers, it's not uncommon for a person to make 1,000 skydives a year. A person with a few hundred jumps is widely considered a beginning or intermediate jumper . . . although some people with 200 jumps skydive better than other people with 2,000 jumps.


"What does freefall feel like?"

It feels like you are floating weightless and motionless in the sky, supported by a powerful blast of air that seems to rise from below. You can't see the ground "rushing up at you" because it is so far away. You don't get that plummeting feeling in the pit of your gut the way you do with a roller coaster (or even a fast elevator) because you aren't accelerating vertically from a standstill when you leave the airplane. Instead, you are making a slow, smooth, curving transition (a parabolic arc) from the forward motion of the airplane to the downward motion of freefall. That transition takes about ten seconds.

It's also very noisy. Ever stick your head out the window of a car going down the highway at 60 MPH? Well, when you skydive you are going about twice that fast. The roar of the wind is quite loud at such speeds.

When you jump with other skydivers, your ability to move in all three dimensions provides the powerful illusion of flying like Superman. It's an awesome, exhiliarating experience! It's like nothing else on (or above) the earth.


"How long do you fall?"

If you leave the airplane at 12,500 feet and open your parachute at 2,500 feet you will have 10,000 feet of freefall. It takes about ten seconds to fall the first 1,000 feet about about five seconds to fall each remaining 1,000 feet. That will give you about 55 seconds of freefall. If that doesn't sound like a lot, try counting slowly to 55. Now imagine that you were plummeting towards the ground that entire time!


"How fast do you fall?"

Remember in physics class when they said that gravity affects all objects equally? That's true -- in a vacuum. Inside the atmosphere, air friction causes objects to fall at very different rates. A rock, for example, will fall faster than a feather.

In a vacuum, the velocity of a falling body is determined by the equation V=GT. Your speed is equal to gravitational acceleration (32 feet per second per second) multiplied by the elapsed time in seconds. Thus, you fall 32 feet in the first second, 64 feet in the second second, 96 feet in the third second, 128 feet in the fourth second and 160 feet in the fifth second -- a total of 480 feet in five seconds.

Inside the atmoshphere, however, an object will accelerate towards the ground only until it reaches terminal velocity, the speed at which weight and air resistance are equal. Terminal velocity varies according to your ratio of mass to surface area. A person with a large mass and a small surface area will fall faster than a person with a small mass and a large surface area. Complicating this mess even further is the fact that altering a person's body position greatly changes this ratio. You will fall much faster in a head-down dive than you will in a flat, relaxed position with your arms and legs stretched out. Other factors come into play, too. A loose, floppy cotton jumpsuit will create more drag than a slick, tight spandex jumpsuit. Humidity, temperature and barometric pressure also affect terminal velocity.

Having said all that, a good overall average terminal velocity for a person of normal dimensions in the standard neutral "arch" freefall position is about 120 MPH, or about 176 feet per second.


"Do you pack your own parachute?"

I do. Not everyone does. You can hire a packer to repack your main parachute after a jump for about $5 at most larger drop zones. It's a good idea to know how to do it yourself, although I know several jumpers with thousands of skydives who haven't packed their own parachutes in years! Packers aren't always available, especially at smaller drop zones. Learning how to pack isn't as hard as it sounds. Modern parachute designs are very advanced. They will work very reliably if you keep your gear in good condition, avoid certain critical packing mistakes and always activate your parachute while in a stable body position.

The backpack you see skydivers wearing (properly called a "container and harness system") actually contains two parachutes: a main and a reserve. Your reserve parachute must be inspected and repacked by an FAA-licensed parachute rigger under controlled conditions every 120 days. You can't do that yourself. It usually costs about $50-100, depending on who does it.


"Is skydiving dangerous?"

Yes. But it's not as dangerous as some other high-risk activities, such as driving, smoking, eating bacon double cheeseburgers or dating.

For more information, go to the Web site of the United States Parachute Association.

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