Skydiving Then and Now—50 Years of Change
Features | Jul 01, 2019
Skydiving Then and Now—50 Years of Change

Paul Sitter

When Leslie Irvin made the first freefall jump using gear designed for that purpose more than 100 years ago, no one really foresaw parachuting becoming a sport. At the time, barnstormers like Tiny Broadwick (who made the first unintentional freefall jump at an air show when her static line failed) and Joe Crane (who was to become USPA’s first president) parachuted as a stunt to thrill crowds, but it wasn’t until the end of World War II that jumping as a hobby came into its own.

During that war, thousands of soldiers and airmen in the U.S. and around the world experienced stepping (or diving or jumping) out of airplanes. A small portion of them found that they enjoyed the experience, and after the war ended, some of them kept jumping. That led to National Parachute Jumpers and Riggers (later, the Parachute Club of America and then USPA) getting off the ground in 1947. By that time, parachuting was becoming an international sport.

By 1969, after 50 years of freefall parachuting, skydiving had come into its own. Now, 50 years after that, the changes have been equally pronounced. Those who began skydiving in the 2010s would have severe culture shock if transported back to the late ‘60s or the early ‘70s. The differences in skydiving’s demographics, levels of participation, equipment, cost, competition and safety are vast.

 

Demographics

Around 1970, you didn’t see many skydivers on the DZ in their late 50s, much less in their 60s and above. The old men on the drop zone were typically in their 40s. It was a young person’s sport. In 1967, USPA Executive Director Norm Heaton wrote, “The average age for all jumpers … is 24.86 years.” Contrast that with the average age of USPA members in 2018: a little over 40 years old. The average age of USPA members is now a decade and a half older than it was in the 1960s. If age truly brings wisdom, then it’s no surprise that skydiving is safer than ever.

Since returning World War II paratroopers—all men—made up a large percentage of early sport parachutists, it’s no surprise that the sport skewed heavily male from the beginning. What is surprising is that it continues to be predominantly male, although women have made some strides. In 1974, females accounted for 9.5 percent of a USPA membership of 16,511. In 2018, women accounted for only about 13 percent of a total membership of 39,762.

 

Level of Participation

From the late ‘60s, when USPA’s home was on the West Coast (Cannery Row in Monterey, California), membership hovered around 10,000 to 15,000. Then, in the ‘90s, it began a rapid acceleration to 20,000 and above. The causes for this growth were numerous, but probably the most significant change was the advent of tandem skydiving.

In the ‘60s, the only way to legally introduce a would-be skydiver to the sport was by way of a static-line jump, a method adapted directly from the world of paratroopers. In the early ‘80s, accelerated freefall training gained acceptance, allowing instructors to accompany students in freefall. However, both methods required students to handle canopy emergencies by themselves. That, in turn, meant that students spent about six to eight hours in ground school to gain the knowledge and skills to jump on their own. That was a significant time investment for students, drop zones and instructors. For many students, it was one jump, a check on the bucket list and done. 

With the popular acceptance of drogue-equipped tandem skydives, that changed. Students could receive a thorough briefing on their responsibilities on the jump, make their tandems and be off the DZ in an hour or two. In some cases, that meant the bucket list was checked and they were gone from the DZ forever (but with a positive impression of skydiving). For other students, the fire was lit. They came back for more tandems or a traditional entry into skydiving training with an idea of what freefall was about and with experience in canopy control and landing. Once tandem equipment matured and the training of tandem instructors standardized, there was a process to get people into the sport safely and efficiently. Consequently, USPA membership grew to what it is today—more than 40,000.

Equipment

There was a reason parachuting was a sport for the young in the ‘60s. Canopies came down quickly—about 18 feet per second—at a typical six- to eight-mph forward speed. If you were interested in accuracy competition, your approach to the target under a round parachute was downwind and, especially on a windy day, really exciting. Pea-gravel targets helped make landings softer, but even with pea gravel, hard landings were the norm for every jump.

Because of hard landings, first-jump students practiced parachute landing falls extensively. Even with lots of practice, landing injuries were common although mostly minor (sprains or perhaps a broken bone). Due to the parachutes’ lack of forward speed and maneuverability, determining where to exit the aircraft for a desired landing location was critical. Off-DZ landings occurred routinely, and not just for students. There wasn’t a jumper in the round-parachute days who didn’t land out on occasion. Although these off landings sometimes resulted in serious or fatal injuries, a fatal landing under an open canopy generally happened only once every other year.

Landing fatalities are far more common today—more than 60 U.S. skydivers have died landing under open canopies in the past 10 years. With their greater forward speed and turn rates, today’s canopies take care to operate safely. The encouraging news is that the number of fatalities under open canopies is decreasing. In 2018, only two jumpers died landing their canopies.

Reserve parachutes have changed, as well. In the late ‘60s, the most common reserve was a military surplus 24- or 26-foot round canopy. Some nicknamed the 24-foot flat circular canopy “the descender” for its high rate of descent and its tendency to oscillate. It was truly a parachute for emergencies only. It was most often unmodified and meant to supplement a partially open main parachute. In the early ‘60s, many considered cutting away a radical response to a main-parachute emergency. By the late ‘60s, cutaways became more common but generally required using two hands to operate the emergency releases.

Executing emergency procedures today using a 3-ring release system is much simpler and more streamlined. The decision-making and execution processes are straightforward, and landing a ram-air reserve is as easy as landing a main parachute.

Harness-and-container systems have also evolved to a high degree. In the ‘60s, modified military surplus harness-and-container systems were almost universal for student jumps and extremely common for advanced jumpers, as well. Chest-mounted reserve parachutes were standard. Piggyback systems like the Crossbow emerged in the early ‘60s, but adoption of the new technology was slow. 

The proliferation of experimentation over the years has led to safety challenges. The evolution of ripcords, cutaway systems, deployment devices, canopies and harness-and-container systems had its ups and downs, but unsuccessful concepts quickly fell by the wayside. The successes led to the lightweight, efficient and reliable systems we have today.

 

Cost

The development of modern, sophisticated, highly reliable and highly capable equipment has led to simplified operation and safety. It does come with a price—literally.

In the late ‘60s, when a novice skydiver got off student status and needed their own equipment, a used harness and container with canopies would be about $110 (the equivalent of $762 in 2019 dollars) if there wasn’t a better deal to be had. When that same jumper was ready to purchase a “high-performance” canopy like a Para-Commander and maybe advanced gear like a piggyback system, they could expect to shell out about $500 (about $3,465 in today’s dollars). A round canopy jumper of the ‘60s would choke if they saw the price of equipment today!

Although equipment was less sophisticated and therefore somewhat cheaper than today’s, getting to altitude in the late ‘60s cost about $1 per 1,000 feet. A jump from 10,500 feet (about as high as jump planes went in those days) would therefore cost about $10.50, which is around $73 in today’s dollars. That makes paying under $30 to jump from a $1.7 million turbo-prop jump plane at 12,500 feet seem like a bargain!

 

Competition

In the ‘60s, style and accuracy competitions ruled the day. Drop zones with access to only a Cessna 182 could manage flying large numbers of competitors to 6,500 feet for a style run or 2,000 feet for an accuracy jump. Although formation skydiving (then called relative work) was beginning to develop, it required a lot more lift capacity than most drop zones could manage for competitions, especially since the jumpers needed to get to 10,500 or 12,500 feet. Few DZs had a Twin Beech or a DC-3 that could accommodate large-formations jumps, so as FS gained in popularity, 4-way became the norm because the Cessna 182—the most common jump plane in the country—could hold four jumpers.

The only two events at the 1969 National Parachuting Championships (held at Marana Air Park in Arizona) were freefall style and accuracy landing. A total of 158 competitors participated that year, and it was a record turnout.

In comparison, approximately 700 competitors participated in 13 disciplines (accuracy landing; freefly; freestyle; 4-way, 8-way, 10-way speed, 16-way, 2-way mixed and vertical formation skydiving; speed; wingsuit flying; canopy formation and canopy piloting) at the 2018 USPA Nationals at Chicagoland Skydiving Center in Rochelle, Illinois, and Skydive Sebastian in Florida. Freefall style is no longer a national championships event, and accuracy landing saw only 17 competitors. Four-way FS is now the dominant competitive event, with more than 325 competitors participating in 2018.

Safety

Probably the most important way the sport has changed is in its relative safety for both experienced participants and students. The trip has been painful and long, but what a trip it’s been! Look at 1969: USPA was an organization of about 10,000 members and there were 37 fatalities in the U.S. that year, with about a third of those students. Compare that to 2018, when USPA was an organization of about 40,000 and there were a total of 13 deaths in the U.S., with two of those being students.

What made the difference? There is no question that the equipment is better. While improvements in parachuting systems themselves have been truly remarkable, perhaps the single most significant change has been the development and then widespread acceptance and use of automatic activation devices and reserve static lines (including main-assisted-reserve-deployment devices). It was nearly unheard of for jumpers off student status to use either of these two devices in the ‘60s, and this mindset continued well into the ‘90s.

The critical importance of the AAD in lowering the fatality rate is obvious when comparing two three-year periods. From 1995 through 1997, 21 skydivers died when they did not start a parachute deployment in time. Twenty years later, in 2015 through 2017, with AAD use now common, two jumpers died in that category. While RSL use still isn’t as common as AAD use, far more jumpers use them than 20 years ago, and the fatality rate from cutting away and failing to deploy a reserve has dropped proportionally. No system is foolproof, but these devices have proven their worth.

In addition, student skydiver training has vastly improved from the ‘60s. This is directly tied to the improvement in instructor training and the development of the USPA Integrated Student Program, which provides a structured curriculum for aspiring jumpers. In 1969, the C license (which then required 100 jumps) carried with it the label “jumpmaster” and allowed the holder—with no additional experience or training—to work with students. Along with having a set experience level, today’s skydiving instructors must also complete a formal rating certification and prove that they have the knowledge, flying skills and teaching skills to work with students. And where once static line was the only way to learn skydiving, students can now choose between static-line, instructor-assisted deployment, AFF or tandem training when making their first jumps, confident in the knowledge that their instructor is competent and qualified in that method.

 

Skydiving easily could be a case study in successful risk management and organizational evolution. As the sport matured, drop zones, jumpers and USPA gained a history from which they could learn. Leadership at every level—the USPA Board of Directors, individual skydivers, drop zone operators, Safety and Training Advisors, instructors, gear manufacturers—has moved the sport forward. Looking at only a few key indicators—demographics, participation, equipment, costs, competition and safety—it is clear that skydiving is bigger and better in almost every way.


About the Author

Paul Sitter, D-2714, started jumping in 1969 and has made more than 5,000 skydives. Despite having been a Nationals competitor, member of the U.S. Army Golden Knights and USPA Board member, his most consistent contribution to the sport has been in Safety and Training, where he was active as an instructor examiner, was one of the first AFF Certification Course Directors and wrote Parachutist’s Annual Fatality Summary for 35 years. He is a recipient of the USPA Lifetime Achievement Award. He is currently semi-retired and lives in Napa, California.

 

 

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2 comments on article "Skydiving Then and Now—50 Years of Change"

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Robert H Hayden

7/4/2019 10:03 PM

Thanks Paul. Using shot and a half cape wells and deploying a 24 foot flat gut mount on a high speed malfunction was an adventure at the Antioch DZ in 1980.

Rob Hayden

D-7654


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Michael

8/19/2019 9:37 AM

Great read, Paul

A thing to add to this wonderful history might be that the first major meet to be judged in it's entirety using air to air videoing was at Zephyrhills in 1987 before this judging was performed using the ground to air telemeters. The following year USPA followed suit and used the same system to judge the Nationals

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