Skydiving has been around since the late 18th century, and a lot has changed since that first hair-raising drop from a balloon (in a basket, no less). Using high tech fabrics, computer modeled chutes, and advanced weather forecasting, skydivers are now able to jump higher, faster, and more precisely than ever before. The ultimate test of their abilities will be on display June 15-21 in Raeford N.C., at the U.S. Parachuting Association’s National Parachuting Championships. Over 200 of the top aerial athletes (men and women compete on equal footing) from across the country will be competing for one of twelve-spots on the U.S. Team that will compete at the World Cup in Canada this August. Only the most elite divers compete here. “You are required to have 1,000 jumps before competing but most have between 2,000-15,000,” says SGT Joe Abeln, a member of the U.S. Army’s Parachute Team, The Golden Knights. It’s one epic, gravity-defying event. Here is a breakdown of the six separate events that will unfold over seven-days.
This is the James Bond event — something you have seen only in one of his movies. Jumpers exit the plane at 7,000 feet and immediately get themselves into a head down streamlined position to gain as much speed as possible. They then will perform a set series of predetermined maneuvers all while in freefall. They are being judged on degree of rotation, keeping the same heading, and overall time to get through the set. Once they hit a predetermined distance from the ground they deploy their chutes to land. They are scored off of five total jumps over two days.
This event involves jumping from over 7,000 feet up and piloting your chute to the ground while battling wind, updrafts, and downdrafts, all while trying to land in the center of a large target, the center of which is the size a dime. The competitors take on ten jumps spread over three days, the first eight count for their team and individual scores, and last two for individual only. The championship is determined by an overall composite of the jumps.
Skydivers compete in teams of two, four, or eight with a videographer filming the entire jump. Immediately upon exiting the plane, chutes are deployed and the team goes through a series of predetermined formations, all while making watching not to cross their chutes. As they rotate through the fast-paced series of complex movements, they must constantly monitor the slightest changes in weather to ensure formation integrity. One of the craziest is the 4-Way Team Rotation, where each member stacks vertically on top of the other’s chute, resting their feet on top their teammate’s parachute. They then rotate the top skydiver to the bottom in a continual rotation until the finish. There are a total of eight jumps. “It is a violent, fast paced event where the jumpers need to be constantly alert,” says James Hayhurst, for Director of Competition for the USPA.
Canopy Piloting Speed, Distance, and Accuracy
These are by far the most spectator-friendly events at Nationals with skydivers whizzing by spectators less than five feet off the deck often in speeds in excess of 90 MPH. Jumping with a much smaller high-performance chute (75 sq ft compared to 300 sq ft for normal chute) competitors exit the planes in groups of five 7,000 feet above the earth’s surface. The nine jumps in this competition are broken into three jumps per discipline (Speed, Distance, and Accuracy)
In Speed the jumpers come in hot, shooting for as much horsepower as possible. As they pass through the first of five gates that are only five feet tall they trigger a laser timer. Over the next 2.5 seconds they will cover 220 feet of distance all while executing a 70-degree carve to the left or right. “Halfway through the course we have to start leaning a little, your feet are right above the ground and your are trying not to hit the deck,” says SGT Joe Abeln, a member of the U.S. Army’s Parachute Team, The Golden Eagles. “It’s a challenge to stay inside the course.”
Distance is one of the more enjoyable events to watch. The jumpers come in with as much speed as possible over a small pond. They then trip a sensor at the first gate and then must stay low on the deck just over the water as they fly through three more gates, if their feet rise above the five-foot gate at the end, they are disqualified. As they skim over the water they are required to dip their foot in it to slow them down. “It’s crucial to have correct placement in the water, not enough to slow you down much,” says Abeln. “You want a very light skimming like a rock skipping across the water.” Then they soar as far as possible before crashing into the earth.
The last is arguably the most difficult of the three events, Accuracy. Competitors soar in over a pond tripping four gates all while dragging a foot across the water. Then they attempt to land in the middle of a scoring grid while maintaining their balance. The top score is 100 points and often quite hard to achieve. Think of it as aeronautic shuffleboard. “It’s the great equalizer of the sport, anyone can be fast,” says Abeln. “You have to be very technical and precise to succeed.”