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.
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.