my good side while bailing out over my campsite in the Mojave
This photo never ceases to get my attention
because it looks like I'm skydiving at a really low altitude. It's
only an optical illusion created by the out-of-focus ground features.
I exited at 3,500 feet on this jump.
How high do skydivers usually exit?
The standard sport skydiving altitude is
12,500 feet AGL (Above Ground Level), sometimes up to 18,000 feet
depending on the altitude of the drop zone, type of aircraft and
type of jump. From these 12,500 feet at a typical belly-to-earth
fall rate of around 115 mph, a skydiver can enjoy a freefall of
up to and slightly over one minute until he or she reaches pull
altitude. This time frame shrinks considerably if the skydiver
falls in a vertical head-down position (a form of freefall called
"Freeflying"), or expands to around double that number
if the skydiver is wearing, and properly using, a "wing suit"
which can nearly halve freefall speeds.
Some exceptions to these maximum exit altitudes:
- Large freefall formations (say, around
100 or more skydivers) require more time to build (form-up in
freefall), thus such jumps start at higher altitudes and often
require that jumpers breathe bottled oxygen during the climb
to the higher altitudes (around 18,000 feet is typical).
- High altitude jumps made for the sake
of making a high altitude jump. Some skydive centers offer
high altitude jump training for experienced jumpers. Such
jumps can approach 30,000 feet. During such jumps, skydivers
must carry & use bottled oxygen ("bailout bottle")
in freefall. Basically, a high altitude jump is
a feather some skydivers want in their cap.
What's the highest parachute jump
As of October 14, 2012 the record for the
highest parachute jump is 127,852.4 feet (38,969.4 meters), a
little more than 24 miles up over the desert near Roswell New
The record was set by Austrian skydiver
Felix Baumgartner and the international Red Bull Stratos team
using a complex helium balloon and pressurized gondola system
designed just for the jump. The flight also set a record for the
highest manned balloon flight.
The extreme altitude of the jump required
that Felix wear a specially designed, fully pressurized astronaut-type
pressure suit, or space suit. Without it, his blood would have
boiled within seconds of exposure to the near airless atmospheric
conditions at 127,852.4 feet.
Felix also broke the freefall speed record
by reaching 843.6 miles an hour, mach 1.25, becoming the first
person to break the sound barrier without the use of a vehicle.
After falling 119,431.1 feet, Felix
deployed his parachute.
A total of 9:18 min/seconds elapsed from
jump to landing, 4:20 of which Felix was in freefall.
For more data on Felix's jump, visit: http://www.redbullstratos.com/science/scientific-data-review/
stratos fact sheet
At 4:36 min/seconds, the record for longest freefall
remains with Major Joe Kittinger, USAF, the previous record holder
for highest parachute jump, and consultant to the Red Bull Stratos
On August 16, 1960 Major Kittinger's successful
102,800 foot U.S. Air Force Project Excelsior test jump, also
from a helium balloon, set a record that stood 52 years until
Felix's October 14, 2012 jump.
Keep in mind: when Joe made his 1960 test
jump, the world's first human astronaut, Yuri Gargarin, had not
yet flown into space. Only military test pilots had exceeded 100,000
feet of altitude in experimental rocket aircraft.
Joe was clocked falling at 614 miles an hour.
He approached the speed of sound in freefall, but did not exceed
the speed of sound. He deployed his parachute at 18,000 feet (5,500
Many sources on the internet wrongly state
Joe's maximum freefall speed was 714 mph, not the correct 614
mph. Many sources on the internet also wrongly state that Joe
Kittinger did exceed the speed of sound during his freefall from
102,800 feet. He did not. In January 2010 while working with Felix
Baumgartner and Red Bull to break his altitude record, Joe gave
this interview to BBC and himself denied going supersonic:
Joe Kittinger: "...in my case I was very
close to supersonic, in Felix's jump he's going to-- he will be
supersonic, which will be a very unique experience. That four
miles higher that he is going to be, will give him the lack of
(air) density that will allow him to go faster than we could on
Video of Joe saying this was originally at:
Joe Kittinger later worked as an advisor
to Red Bull's Stratosphere project to help Felix Baumgartner smash
his old record. If data existed to support the claim that Joe
was the first person to free fall at supersonic speeds, I'm sure
Joe would be at the forefront of getting that data out there,
not flatly denying it on international TV.
An automated camera in the balloon's gondola
took movies of Joe falling away. One of those frames made
the cover of Life magazine.
The USAF never submitted the jump to the
FAI, and the FAI rules likely preclude the use of the stabilizing
drogue. So for years the former USSR held the official FAI world
altitude record in this category-- a jump made by from 83,500
feet by Maj. Yevgeny Andreyev in November 1962. But good luck
finding anybody who recognized Andreyev over Kittinger.
During most of the freefall descent, a
small drogue chute stabilized Joe's freefall and slowed him down
a bit. Many purist sport skydivers appropriately call his
freefall "drogue fall" since it wasn't truly free of
a decelerator device.
How low do skydivers deploy their
The United States Parachute Association
sets minimum pack opening altitude at 2,000 feet AGL(Above Ground
Level as opposed to MSL -- Mean Sea Level) for experienced skydivers,
2,500 feet for slightly less experienced skydivers, and up to
5,500 feet for certain training jumps. These recommended
pull altitudes are largely respected and observed in the skydiving
community. An exception to this rule are properly trained
& equipped BASE jumpers, as described in the last paragraph
How fast do parachutes open?
A properly packed and deployed skydiving
"ram-air" reserve parachute can open within 200 feet.
Primary, or main, parachutes are often packed (some even designed)
in a manner that actually slows their opening by as much as several
hundred feet, sometimes more. This is desirable in a main
parachute because fast openings usually mean hard openings.
Hard openings can be painful and unnecessarily hard on equipment
& jumper. This isn't conducive to a long skydiving career.
Reserve parachutes are built to take it,
and the sometimes painfully quick reserve parachute openings are
the price you pay for super fast emergency parachute openings
-- which, thankfully, aren't very frequent.
Do skydivers use their reserve
Your chances of seeing an emergency reserve
parachute deployment at a busy skydive center ("drop zone")
during the course of one weekend are fairly good. However,
this has more to do with statistical odds piling up. During the
course of two or three days at a busy skydive center, many hundreds
of jumps may take place. It's not uncommon to meet skydivers
with thousands of jumps, and only a handful of reserve parachute
deployments to their credit.
Also, many reserve deployments aren't dire
emergencies where the reserve meant life or death to a jumper.
As the axiom says "if in doubt, whip it out."
Many jumpers faced with minor problems such as a broken line,
or minor canopy damage choose to jettison the questionable, but
apparently functioning, parachute and go to their more reliable
So long as the jettison and reserve
activation are initiated at a safe altitude (minimum 1,600 feet
as per USPA recommendations), this is actually considered to be
a very conservative practice with benefits ranging from peace
of mind, to avoiding sprains broken bones (incurred when a damaged
canopy lands you too fast or too hard), to saving your life (when
a damaged canopy lands you way too fast or too hard).
Because of the extremely high reliability
of modern reserve parachute systems, many skydivers take it for
granted that their reserve parachute will open properly when properly
activated. Accordingly, depending on the nature of the emergency,
many skydivers regard having to use their reserve parachute as
more of a nuisance than a milestone. After landing from
an uneventful "reserve ride", some skydivers quickly
downplay the event, and instead focus on the hassle it has caused
What hassle, you ask?
For one, when you jettison your main parachute
(a necessary procedure in most emergency situations), you risk
losing it (jettisoning it -- via a procedure known as a "break-away"
or "cut-away" -- causes it no damage, and it can be
instantly reattached later). Most jettisoned canopies are
recovered, but with prices for new canopies starting at around
$1,500.00, one lost canopy can be quite a setback.
Two, when a reserve parachute is deployed
a fairly expensive component of the reserve deployment system
detaches in freefall (as it is supposed to) and can easily be
Three, once the reserve has been deployed
an FAA certified parachute rigger must inspect and re-pack it.
This service can cost around $50 to $75, sometimes more, and cannot
always be performed immediately.
It's not uncommon to see a skydiver moping
around the drop zone after a reserve deployment, frustrated because
his "reserve ride" has left him grounded possibly for
the rest of the day while he searches for lost gear, and waits
while his reserve parachute gets its inspection & repack
How much does it cost to skydive?
As of July 2008, experienced jumpers in
Southern California who own their own gear pay $27+ per jump (I
used to pay $18 per jump in the 1990s). For their money,
they receive a jump ticket to 12,500 feet of altitude, sometimes
A first jump course & jump can cost
anywhere from around $220 to over $300 depending on options like
video, photos, and wind tunnel ("indoor skydiving")
Fully training a skydiver at a USPA accredited
drop zone: in the early 1990's I spent about $1,200.00 on a relaxed,
hybrid static line/free fall training program that dragged out
over a leisurely 14 jumps. Most people then and now train through
an accelerated eight jump course for around $2,000. That number
can easily surpass $2,000 depending on variables like wind-tunnel
("indoor skydiving") training, repeat jumps when an
instructor thinks you need to re-do a certain exercise, and freefall
video & photo services, and yes, price of fuel.
Do you need a license to be a skydiver?
No and yes. The Federal Aviation
Administration has no licensing requirements for skydivers.
However, most commercial drop zones in the USA are regulated by
the United States Parachute Association. The USPA is an
organization that oversees sport skydiving in the United States.
Among other things, they require skydiver licensing (through USPA's
own licensing program) at USPA member drop zones.
From how low can you safely jump?
Sport skydives are almost never intentionally
initiated from below 2,000 feet, but it certainly has been done,
usually in emergency situations. The lowest emergency deployment
I've ever seen was around 300 feet; the skydiver had only moments
under his parachute before he landed.
Military parachuting is a whole different
ball of wax. I cannot personally attest to their practices,
but I've spoken with some former special forces jumpers who spoke
of making special static line jumps from well below 2,000 feet.
One area deserving special mention is BASE
BASE jumpers are parachutists
who jump from fixed objects such as skyscrapers and cliffs.
(BASE is an acronym that stands for Buildings, Antenna, Spans
(bridges) and Earth (Cliffs), the four types of objects typically
jumped). Because most BASE jumps take place well below 2000 feet,
BASE jumpers have been forced and inspired to rethink equipment
design and parachute packing & deployment methods.
As a result, BASE jumpers have developed
highly specialized parachute equipment and packing techniques
designed to get a parachute open very fast. In the world
of BASE jumping, successful free-fall parachute jumps from below
200 feet have been achieved. I have personally made freefall
BASE jumps from 350 feet, one static line jump from 145 feet,
and a few "direct bag" (a type of assisted deployment)
jumps from 210 feet.
About me: I was a sport skydiver, on and off, from 1990 to 2004,
making about 300 jumps total during that time including 17 BASE
jumps. Unlike many of my fellow skykdivers of that time, I chose
not to "chase numbers" as it was sometimes called when
skydivers rack up several thousand jumps.
Instead I chose to seek somewhat more diverse experiences such
as outlaw BASE jumps, water jumps, hot air balloon jumps, "bandit"
style desert jumps, and jumps from different aircraft such as:
Beechcraft Bonanza (a very dangerous endeavour in its own right.
I positively don't recommend it!), a restored Lockheed Super Constellation,
even a tiny, old Piper Cub (it was almost impossible to fit in
the seat with a parachute on, and we barely got to minimum jump
I produced two films about BASE jumping, later working closely
with one of the top parachute equipment riggers in the industry.
I started this FAQ around 1999 as a way to answer some of the
many "obvious" questions asked of us former and present
skydivers and BASE jumpers. Feel free to contact me with questions
- John Starr, USPA lic. # C24158, JohnStarr1@aol.com
Me and a very experienced civilian test pilot after my one and
only jump from a Beechcraft Bonanza.