A guide to competition skydiving? I thought it was just about making it down alive…. In fact there are many different forms of competitive skydiving and parachuting dating all the way back to 1951 when the first World Championships in accuracy took place in Yugoslavia.
This article is a handy guide to competition skydiving. We’ll cover the many different types of ‘falling with style’ – sorry I watched Toy Story last weekend with the kids – and dispelling some myths about skydive contests.
Before you enter your first competition, you will need to complete your basic training and in the UK, that means doing an accelerated freefall course. This consists of eight jumps where you learn how to control your body, navigate and land your parachute, handle yourself in the case of an emergency and communicate in freefall.
Competition skydiving can be split into two parts – freefall skydiving disciplines, such as formation skydiving, freefly, speed and VFS events. And secondly, non-freefall parachuting disciplines such as canopy formation and canopy piloting.
This is the most popular form of competition skydiving in the UK today. The competition is split into teams of four and eight known as four-way and eight-way, with each team doing a maximum of ten rounds (jumps) at the UK National Championships. In four-way, the team is given 35 seconds from leaving the aircraft to complete a series of formations as many times as possible.
A good team might do over 35 points on a skydive. So for every second, that means all team members must pick up their grips (arms and feet), check everyone is on (i.e. the formation is complete), signal to move to the next formation, let go, move to the next position.
Eight-way is very similar to four-way except that you get 55 seconds from leaving the aircraft to complete all the formations. They jump from a 13,500ft instead of 10,500ft to ensure there is enough altitude at the end of the skydive. For each discipline, there is an extra cameraman who videos everything and afterwards submits the footage to a panel of judges. Their job is an important one because whilst they cannot gain their team any points, they can lose them if they fail to capture the footage from the correct angle or miss a grip.
At the UK National Championships, held at Skydive Hibaldstow last year, they had a record equalling total of 75 teams taking part. Each of those teams will have worked hard over the winter and summer to prepare.
Formation skydiving, mentioned above, is done in a belly-to-earth body position. One of the latest disciplines to appear in recent times is VFS – vertical formation skydiving. This too is a four-man event, but is done in a stand-up or head-down orientation. It takes a long time to master as you need a strong foundation in freefly beforehand. It takes many hours of work practicing set moves in vertical wind tunnels and working with a coach on intensive camps. Furthermore, instead of there just being two grips (hand and arm) like in FS, you have, in fact, six types of grip in VFS. These are classed as arm, leg and foot; which can all be taken in both head-up and head-down orientations.
One of the best teams in the UK at the moment are team QFX and they train almost every week. They will be representing the UK at the World Skydiving Championships, this year to be held in the Czech Republic in August.
In the 1980s freestyle appeared as the first of the ‘artistic’ disciplines. Done well, it is a particularly beautiful event to watch and consists of a performer and videographer who must both work together to get the best angles.
The competition is run over seven jumps with five being ‘free’ and two being ‘compulsory’ rounds. Free rounds are designed by the performers and have no rules set over their content. Higher scores are achieved by doing more difficult manoeuvres across multiple axes. Compulsory rounds are required to display a series of set sequences such as the helicopter, carving, daffy’s, back-loops, etc. Extra points are awarded for stability, smoothness, pointed toes, having the videographer in the correct place and finishing on the correct axis.
A good example of this is called the helicopter where the performer spins on their head upside down with their legs in a split configuration. Speed, finesse and no off-axis wobbles all contribute to a higher score.
The two man freefly event is also popular in the competition skydiving scene and actually consists of three people – two performers and the videographer. They must do a ‘pas de deux’ working closely with each other, changing their axis frequently and practicing set moves together. Like the freestyle event, there are a total of seven rounds – five being free rounds and two being compulsory rounds. Teams train a routine of their own design (free) which demonstrates their technical and artistic skills together. Each judge has the ability to perceive a routine as being better than another; therefore a judging panel must have a minimum of three judges.
Extra points are given for synchronicity (between the performers and the cameraman), outfacing moves and new manoeuvres.
Also know by its abbreviation CRW (canopy relative work), there are several disciplines which all relate to linking parachutes together. The most popular discipline is canopy rotations where teams of four try to rotate as many time as possible through a vertical stack of parachutes. A stack is where the legs of a competitor are hooked into the central front lines of another competitor’s canopy. The current record is an amazing 21 points in 90 seconds of working time all filmed by a fifth cameraman and is held by the Russian national team.
CRW can also be competed in a discipline known as sequentials and, like formation skydiving, they must rotate through a series of different formations as quickly as possible. The existing dive pool contains 28 separately recognisable canopy formations.
In the UK, competitions additionally exist for both events above with only two competitors (plus cameraman). The challenge to being a successful team is learning to communicate well with team mates and being able to handle your canopy efficiently.
Next up is the difficult and dangerous discipline of canopy piloting, also known as swooping. This is a high-octane adrenaline filled sport where the idea is to fly high-performance parachutes in three disciplines – speed, distance and accuracy. Competitors typically exit the aircraft, open their parachute immediately and then set up above a long, shallow stretch of water know as a swoop pond. The pond also offers a modicum of safety should the pilot crash during the swoop. A series of soft vertical gates (made of cone-shaped airbags or foam posts) are placed at the edges of the water, between which the competitor must fly.
This is a popular sport and in some competitions, there can be over 100 swoopers taking part. In the speed rounds, competitors can go well over 100mph and in the distance discipline, the current record is 166 meters horizontally at ground level. Arguably this discipline is one of the more spectator friendly events as they see all the action happening live in front of them. It is not without its risks though, as executing high speed descents has lead to many bone-breaking accidents in the past. This really is a discipline for those who can consistently and accurately handle swooping manoeuvres safely.
Parachute accuracy is one of the oldest disciplines in the world of competition skydiving, although there is very little freefall of which to speak. Jumpers typically do a freefall before deploying. This event is still very popular, especially with the east European countries. The idea is simple – land as close as you can to a target.
Targets are measured in centimetres using a sensitive electronic pad. Some of the top competitors can score 0cm across 10 rounds consecutively which takes amazing skills and foot-to-eye coordination. The first body part in contact with the ground is used for the measurement which is normally a foot.
In February 2014, the sport of speed skydiving was officially recognised as a new world class discipline. The idea is to go as fast as you can over a vertical measured kilometre and is done as a solo sport. Doing a solo discipline might sound a little bit boring at first, however, it requires high levels of concentration to perform well. And at over 250mph, it is quite an adrenaline rush. A normal formation skydiver does 120mph to give you some perspective.
A competition is run over six rounds with the best three jumps going forward to give your final average. The two measuring devices are made by Laars and Brusgaard. Competitors exit one at a time from a height of 13,000ft and aim to point their head to the ground in a streamlined head-down body position. Tight fitting clothes are worn to reduce drag. The faster you go, the harder it is to control your body and the smaller inputs needed to keep you vertical. The current world record is an average of over 330mph set by Marco Wiederkehr from Austria.
Full-time or part-time
The vast majority of skydivers are part-time and compete as a hobby. However, many will commit to long hours of training, expensive jump bills and equipment, hiring coaches and travelling abroad for training camps. Participants come from all walks of life, different jobs, different backgrounds, and this is what makes this sport such a great leveller. It binds people together for a common cause into a wonderful community. It is common to see life-long friendships develop and even marriages.
Making the decision to go full-time is not an easy one as the sport does not command the same levels of sponsorship as mainstream ones such as football or golf, for example. Competitors must earn their money through sponsorship deals with dropzones, equipment manufacturers and running corporate events. In addition, most full-time skydivers will also be coaches themselves. Getting a balance right between the need to coach for money and the need to train is not easy.
At some competitions, it is possible to earn significant amounts of money, but this has only be a maximum of five figures. Nonetheless, full time competing can be a very fulfilling way to live from sport and has provided for some amazing experiences and life-adventures.
There are many facets to competition skydiving and parachuting which have been around for a long time. Once you have completed your basic AFF training, there are many avenues available and most competitors find a discipline which matches their personality. On occasion, some new skydivers get so involved in the sport that they end up competing in their national championships within a year of starting.
Competition skydiving is not for everyone, some simply love to jump for the fun of it and have no competitive streak. But for others, it is a way of life, a chance to achieve something unusual and maybe even an opportunity to represent your country at world level. The sky really is the limit.