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More Than Just a Sport

Written by: on October 7, 2009

Skydiving? You must be joking! Me, jump out of that plane there? No, way. That’s for two types of people; ex-SAS types, and the insane.”

You couldn’t be more wrong.People from all walks of life skydive. In Dan Poynter’s Parachuting: A Skydiver’s Handbook we see that skydivers mostly come from middle management, finance and IT backgrounds – so they’re ordinary people basically! What’s more, a significantly larger percentage of skydivers have gone to university compared to the proportion of the general population. Clearly the skydiving community isn’t filled with a bunch of yahoo’s randomly jumping out of commercial airliners whenever they wish. Skydivers have families, they like tea, they like to party – and they can be quite boring when they start talking about wing loading (the ratio of weight to the area of the surface of the canopy above them *yawn*).

OK, so I’d be lying if I said that skydiving was completely safe. There is an element of risk and that is part of the reason it is so much fun. The important thing to realise is that this risk is manageable. The British Parachute Association (BPA) currently puts the injury rate for experienced skydivers at 0.4 per 1000 jumps and the fatality rate at about 1 in 100,000 jumps. Let’s just think about these figures for a while. An injury can be anything from a scratch or a bruise right the way through to sprains, fractures and breakages. Thankfully the majority of injuries are minor such as a twisted ankle through an awkward landing. So, as an experienced skydiver performing routine jumps, statistically you are likely to injure yourself once every 2500 jumps. I can live with that. Now, what about fatalities? Fatality rate is awkward to compare from year to year since the number is so small compared to the total number of descents made. You must also factor in that there can be underlying reasons for death which are not attributable to skydiving directly — such as heart attacks and other medical problems, and fatalities most often involve very experienced skydivers (I’m talking thousands of jumps here) that push the limits too far. Even taking all of this into account the fatality rate is still one in a hundred thousand or 0.00001%. Pretty low don’t you think?

So what is it that makes the sport relatively safe? The answer is simple. Good instruction, a willingness to learn and excellent equipment. Skydiving has been an international sport since 1951 and since then the equipment has developed enormously. All skydivers are equipped with not one but two parachutes; the main and reserve. The main is used on a day to day basis and is packed by yourself (once you have undertaken packing instruction and a packing test) whilst the reserve is used only in the case of a genuine emergency. This reserve is packed meticulously by a certified rigger, an expert in parachutes and their operation, and must be repacked routinely to be sure that it will be there when you need it. What’s more, all students in the UK are required to jump with an Automatic Activation Device (AAD) so that, in the rare event that you cannot, or do not pull your main parachute, your reserve will fire automatically when you fall below a particular altitude at a particular speed. All of this high-tech equipment is explained to you by expert instructors before you ever see a plane.

So maybe I’ve convinced some of you now? You want to make a jump, so that you can phone home and scare your parents to death. “What have we done, sending our beloved Johnny off to the University of Warwick…he’s going to jump out of a plane!” Yet perhaps you still don’t see how it can be a sport? Well it is.

There are several active disciplines within the sport at the moment. The two most popular ones that occur during freefall (that’s the sixty seconds or so that occurs after you peel off of the side of the plane and before you open your parachute) are ‘formation’ and ‘freefly’. An example of formation would be 4-way. That’s a team of four people who exit the aircraft together and make formations in the sky in a belly to earth position. Scores are awarded based on how many formations or points the team makes, before they separate and deploy their parachutes. A good 4 way team is a joy to watch.

Then there’s ‘freefly’, an artistic discipline. Think Torvill and Dean on crack. There is no restriction on the position of the skydiver in freefall. They may be head down and spinning like a helicopter — their legs acting like blades, or they may be sitting and carving around a central point of reference. The sky is the limit (or the ground is) and all manoeuvres are judged on their difficulty and artistic merit. Both of these disciplines (and many more!) are very competitive in national and international leagues; with UK teams performing exceptionally well in recent years.

People continually ask me “What is it like? Do you feel like you are falling?” The short answer is no. It’s more like floating on a noisy bed of air. Once you have hit your horizontal terminal velocity there is no acceleration. Even as you are accelerating downwards towards your terminal it doesn’t feel like it. “But I’m scared of heights!” – This is unlikely to be a hindrance. Do you feel high when you are in a commercial airliner? If not, you are unlikely to feel that in freefall since your perspective changes so slowly you never really experience the sensation of falling, and you are happily under canopy before the ground ever rushes up to meet you. “What if I don’t like it?” – Well, that’s a possibility but put it this way; I’ve never seen anyone land who isn’t smiling. If you are really nervous you could always come on a taster session to a vertical wind tunnel with us. This simulates the experience of freefall, without the falling! The idea is that a jet of air is blown up to meet you and this suspends you in a vertical column. It’s cheaper than skydiving, less nerve-wracking and gives us the opportunity to try things out on the ground, before putting them into practice in the air.

Hopefully, by now you are desperate to give it a go, and maybe you have a desire to become a qualified skydiver and join us high above Oxfordshire. Well, you’re in luck. Skydive Warwick exists to get you jumping as quickly as possible. Within weeks you could be taking the first steps towards your international skydiving qualification with the Ram Air Progression System (RAPS) or Accelerated Freefall (AFF), both requiring absolutely no experience whatsoever.

RAPS is a scheme which many of our members have embarked on. For your first jump you leave the aircraft at a low altitude (3500ft) and your parachute is automatically deployed by a cord attached to the plane. The initial jumps concentrate on a good exit position and canopy handling (as your canopy will be open as soon as you exit) so you won’t experience freefall until later on in the course. Around twenty to thirty jumps are required to graduate as a solo skydiver (minimum of 18).

AFF is the quickest option, which can get you qualified in just weeks. Although it can be more expensive, you do get to experience freefall immediately. The first jump is from a normal exit altitude (12,500 – 15,000ft) with two instructors holding on to you throughout. After a sequence of eight jumps, each progressively more challenging than the next, you will be qualified to exit alone to perform your ‘consolidation’ jumps. After ten ‘consolidation’ jumps you will receive your international skydiving licence. Off to the bar! While each system has advantages and disadvantages both lead to an FAI ‘A’ licence which is recognised worldwide.

Yet your ‘A’ licence is only the beginning! Skydive Warwick is lucky enough to receive significant funding from Warwick Students Union and external sponsors to allow us to subsidise progression towards further qualifications, to purchase equipment, and to allow the training of teams for the Student, National and European Leagues. Student leagues are hosted by the British Collegiate Parachuting Association (BCPA) which holds six regional events throughout the year, as well as monthly competitions. At the 2009 BCPA Nationals event Skydive Warwick came away with 1st place in the Achievements, Competitions and the Individual Leagues.

So do you think you have what it takes for you and your mates to jump two and a half miles high from a perfectly good aircraft, grinning at each other as you perform acrobatics and try to outdo each other at a vertical speed of 120mph? When you factor in the sun beating down on your neck as you come in to land you’ll realise that this is not just a sport, it’s the only sport.

The Boar
SUHQ, Floor Two
University of Warwick
University Road

The Boar is the University of Warwick’s editorially independent
student newspaper produced entirely by and for students.