Most experienced skydivers are familiar with the instructional ratings process (and virtually all skydivers have interacted with those who hold such ratings), but many are not familiar with judge ratings. For jumpers, earning a judge rating can be another means of progress and personal development within the sport.
Photo by David Cherry.
Judges are necessary for running competitions and also for certifying records. The ratings are specific to competition disciplines and also have multiple tiers—regional, national and international. Just as USPA-rated instructors offer their services to drop zones or other customers, USPA-rated judges work for competition hosts or customers such as organizers of record attempts. In most major competitions, judges typically serve under a chief judge, but the host pays them.
Judges do much more than press buttons, give a thumbs up or blow a whistle: They must provide fair and consistent application of the rules. It is each judge’s duty to keep abreast of frequent rule changes—especially in the less-mature events. Learning what the rules mean is sometimes a nontrivial task! Judges of video-based events also must frequently practice watching videos on their own time to stay sharp.
Here’s a simplified overview of the competition disciplines in which someone can earn a judge rating:
Accuracy Landing (AL)—Accuracy competitors strive to receive the lowest score by landing as close as possible to the dead-center point of the automatic measurement device (i.e., the score pad). AL judges are primarily responsible for deciding whether the competitor’s first point of contact was on the score pad or elsewhere, as the pad itself measures the distance from center. They must also monitor winds, make determinations as to whether rejumps are warranted and decide whether interference between teams or teammates occurred on descent.
Canopy Piloting (CP)—CP has four events—speed, distance and zone accuracy (under one umbrella) and the separate event of CP freestyle—in which jumpers fly through a course over water and land at speeds upwards of 100 mph. With the jumpers coming through the course at what can be 20-second intervals, CP judges must be quick, accurate and communicate well. CP also has high staffing requirements: Zone accuracy, for example, requires a judge at each of the four water gates, as well as other judges who determine in which of the 17 scoring zones the competitor made contact and whether the landing was a stand-up.
AL and CP are disciplines in which judges observe a live event once and make competition-related decisions immediately. There are few or no opportunities for video review.
Canopy Formation (CF)—In CF, team members build sequences of canopy formations by docking on each other’s canopies or suspension lines using either their hands or their feet. A random draw determines the required formations. Working time is limited, and the score is the total number of correct formations built minus penalties.
Formation Skydiving (FS)—In the FS events—vertical, mixed and traditional belly—teams build formations in freefall by taking grips on each other’s’ arms, legs, feet and sometimes even heads! As in CF, working time is limited, a random draw determines the required formations and the score is the total number of correct formations built minus penalties (except in the case of 10-way speed, which is a timed event). FS is one of the oldest disciplines in the U.S. and it sees more participation than any other discipline. It typically takes 12 nationally rated FS judges to work through just the 4-way FS event at the USPA National Skydiving Championships.
In both CF and FS, a camera flyer who is part of the team records the performance, and the team presents the recording for judging. This allows the judges to review the video multiple times, and it shifts the burden of proving performance to the teams. Teams that perform well and present that performance clearly receive better scores.
Speed Skydiving (SP)—Speed competitors fall as quickly as they can through a designated range of altitudes. The fastest faller wins! This discipline uses GPS technology, which means that gadgets and computers do all the scoring … there is no real judging that occurs when everything runs smoothly. Judges are primarily responsible for ensuring the measurement equipment is attached to skydiving equipment properly and recovered immediately after each jump.
Artistic Events (AE)—In the artistic events, a team camera flyer records either one performer (freestyle) or two (freefly) as they perform multi-dimensional gymnastics-like routines in freefall. There are a mix of compulsory and free rounds. Although there is a subjective element to judging these disciplines, AE judges strive to be as objective as possible and use clear criteria for scoring.
Wingsuit Flying (WS)—This discipline includes a solo event (WS performance) and an artistic event (WS acrobatic). The performance event uses GPS technology that presents purely objective performance criteria. Judging is comparable to that of speed skydiving, but the performance requirements are more detailed. As far as judging is concerned, the acrobatic event is similar to the AE freefly event.
Another responsibility of the judge rating is witnessing and certifying performances that break records. Records fall into two categories, competition and performance. Competition records occur at sanctioned events (in the U.S., this is often the USPA National Championships or Collegiate Championships) and include records such as best performance in a single round or highest average score for an entire meet. The attending judges—the ones already there to judge the meet—certify the performance. Performance records, the most common of which are large-formation records, can take place at any location. However, the record organizer must arrange for the required judges or other certifying officials to attend.
USPA maintains a public database of state and national records, and the Féderátion Aéronautique Internationale (World Airports Federation) maintains a database of international records.
Those wishing to become a judge must take a Judge Training Course conducted by a judge examiner (or an appointee) in the appropriate discipline, pass written and practical tests and, in some cases, assist in a competition. For disciplines like AL and CP, it’s nearly impossible to teach a judging course in any setting other than a competition due to the live nature of the judging and the equipment requirement. For FS and CF, since the judges’ work generally involves watching videos, the specific setting for a training course is less critical. However, no matter what the discipline, assisting at an actual meet provides the rating candidate with invaluable experience.
While competition experience in a discipline is often very helpful for new judges (familiarity with dive pools, for example), it is by no means a prerequisite. Very often a judge with little or no competition experience has the clearest understanding of arcane rules.
Earning a judge rating is a path many in our sport never consider, but it can be immensely satisfying. More information about how to earn a judge rating is available in Chapter 2 of the USPA Skydiver’s Competition Manual, available as a download under the Competition tab at uspa.org.
Jim Rees | D-13359
FAI FS Judge Examiner; National AL, CP and CF Judge; Regional SP Judge