50 YEARS AGO AND TODAY – A HISTORY OF PARACHUTING
While skydiving and parachute jumps have been around for more than 100 years, nobody really expected it to become a sport. Except for some crowd-pleasing stunts at air shows (look up Tiny Broadwick, who was jumping static line at an air show and unintentionally made the first freefall jump when her static line failed. She’s also attributed as the inventor of the ripcord), parachuting was primarily a military activity. Finally, at the end of World War II, parachute jumping became a hobby in its own right.
In World War II, thousands of soldiers across the globe experienced exiting an aircraft and parachuting to the ground. A few of them discovered that it was enjoyable, and after the war ended they kept jumping. Thus was born the National Parachute Jumpers and Riggers taking off in 1947. This group would later become the Parachute Club of America, and finally its current iteration: the USPA (United States Parachute Association). Parachuting as a sport had begun to permeate the international community.
After 50 years of freefall parachuting, skydiving had become its own beast by 1969. 50 years later, now, the differences in skydiving equipment, cost, and safety have drastically expanded, changed, and grown.
Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick, inventor of the RipCord
In the ‘60s, parachuting was mostly a sport for young men. Canopies came down fast, and hard. Parachute landing falls were a constant and unavoidable practice opportunity, and even with extensive practice landing injuries like sprains or even a broken bone were very common (see this military parachuting publication). Without much forward speed compared to today’s sport canopies (typically 6-8 mph, compared to today’s ram-air canopies at about 20 mph), off-landings were routine occurrences.
In addition to main canopy changes, reserve parachutes have also evolved. Reserve parachutes in the late 1960s were mostly military surplus round canopies designed to supplement a partially open main parachute. Cutting away a main was considered an extreme response, and when cutaways did become more common it still required two hands to operate the emergency releases. Today, emergency procedures are streamlined and much simpler, making snap-decisions straightforward. Landing a ram-air reserve is as simple as landing a main.
Modern equipment is sophisticated and highly reliable, but with the upgrades came a price. In the late 60s, a novice skydiver might purchase a full set of used gear (harness, container, canopies) for $110, which translates roughly to $760 in 2019 currency. When they were ready to upgrade to something with higher performance like a Para-Commander, they could expect a price tag of about $500. Today, the price for a main canopy alone costs at least a couple thousand dollars.
Fun jumpers, pay attention now. Cost to altitude, on the other hand, used to cost about one dollar per thousand feet. For example: most planes went only as high as 10,500 feet, so jump tickets cost $10.50, which translates roughly into $73 today. Does $30 to 13,000 feet in a million-dollar turbine engine sound like a bargain now? It should.
Safety of Skydives
Safety is where parachuting has improved exponentially. In 1969, when UPSA was an organization with 10,000 members there were 37 fatalities in the U.S. Shoot forward to 2018, when USPA had grown to about 40,000 members and there were a total of 13 deaths in the U.S. Much better!
This leap is largely attributed to skydiving equipment, most significantly the development and widespread use of automatic activation devices (AAD). This device automatically deploys your reserve parachute if you reach a certain altitude and have not yet deployed. Far more jumpers use AADs than did 20 years ago, and the fatality rate has dropped to match.
Student skydiver training has also vastly improved. Over the years, structured curriculum and necessary regulations have been developed by USPA, and the implementation of these policies has prepared the skydiver community much more thoroughly than in the past.
Like any other entity that endures over decades, skydiving/sport parachuting has grown and evolved in every way. I’ve covered only a few of the reasons, but even with just those it’s obvious that skydiving, parachuting, and flying are better than ever. The sport won’t be going away anytime soon!