1920s: The Origins of Parachuting/Skydiving Competitions Go Back a Long Way

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By Pat Works

The Origins of Parachuting/Skydiving Competitions Go Back a Long Way

The origins of parachuting and competition go back a long way. The first well-documented parachute jump is considered to have been performed by Frenchman Jacques Garnerin, who jumped from his balloon on October 22 1797 in Paris, from an altitude of some 600 m. Throughout the 19th century, these jumps remained spectacles that fitted perfectly into the programmes of the frequent aerial festivals, at which dare-devil balloonists tried to outdo one another’s stunts, to the great delight of the onlookers. Sometime later, very soon after the advent of the aeroplane, experimental parachute jumps were executed from heavier-than-air machines. Then, after the First World War, the invention of the manual ripcord enabled American Leslie Irvin to make the first freefall jump, on April 28 1919 at McCook Field in Ohio.

The USSR was the leader in the field of parachuting as a sport in its early days. In the 1930s, competitions for landing accuracy were already being organized on Soviet territory, and many training units were being developed. As can be imagined, the War boosted even further the “popularity” of the parachute, which was widely used from 1939 to 1945, both as a safety device and as a military tool. It was no doubt this dimension – anything but sportsmanlike – that incited the FAI to set the discipline aside when it resumed its activities in 1946.

In 1951, the FAI approved its first parachuting records. They were set by a Frenchwoman, Monique Laroche, making the highest jump with “delayed opening” from 4,235 m and a freefall of 3,622 m. By the following year, Soviet parachutist Seliverstova had attained a distance of 8,326 m in freefall, proving that women were in the forefront in this new sport. 1951 also saw the first world parachuting championships taking place in Lesce-Bled, thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Aero-Club of Yugoslavia. Since then, world championships have been organized every year, with the disciplines alternating.

Artistic Events:

In the beginning of the nineties, some skydivers were experimenting with different freefall positions. These were based on maneuvers taken from acrobatics and ice-skating. At approximately the same time, others were trying to jump with surfboards tied to their feet. Both activities captured the attention of the media and local organizations stepped in to organize competitions. The World Freestyle Federation created a set of competition rules and organized championships under their auspices.

In 1994, the FAI Parachuting Commission (IPC) established a working group in order to incorporate freestyle into their activities. This resulted, the following year, in the creation of the IPC committee for freestyle. Another year later, skysurfing was included. Rules were established by the IPC and the 1st World Cup and 1st World Championships of freestyle and skysurfing were held in Efes, Turkey, in 1996 and 1997 respectively.

Freeflying is the latest artistic event and the only one that incorporates all dimensional axes during the freefall part of a parachute jump. First tried by Olav Zipser,  he soon found that many people wanted to do the same he did: to be able to control your body and enjoy the sky in all possible positions. The most popular position though is the so called "head-down" position. Jumpers fall with their head towards the earth, seeing the whole world upside down.

Needless to say, this is more difficult than it sounds as the most relaxed freefall position puts you on your belly. Soon after freeflying was invented, people started to compete. Several formats were tried by various organizers.   After some years freeflying was incorporated into the IPC in the committee which by had now changed its name to "artistic events".  With freeflying on the rise, skysurfing on a competition scale diminished and was retired in 2009.  On the other hand, a World record category for biggest head-down freefall formation had already been established.

Artistic Events consist of a series of compulsory and free routines performed during 7 skydives. Teams consist of 1 or 2 performers and a camera flyer. The freefall images of the camera flyer are used for judging the performances. All two events show a wide variety of skills, using axes in all three dimensions. Judging criteria are separated in technical and presentation items.

Top teams are currently training full time and making more than 1000 jumps a year, plus lots of hours in wind tunnels. This high dedication and quality results in extremely spectacular freefall footage. All this footage is gathered by IPC competitions on hard disk and is available to the media.

Canopy Formations

In the early 1980’s, some skydivers began flying their new generation airfoil designed parachutes in formation with each other, often with one skydiver sitting on top of another’s canopy, using the legs or hands to stay attached. This practice quickly became popular with a number of adventurous skydivers, who worked to develop these skills into a recognized competition discipline.

The term Canopy Relative Work

Was used to describe this activity in its beginning and this was shortened to CRW (often pronounced Crew) which is still used by many today, although Canopy Formation is the official term. Today there are 3 events in the Canopy Formation Discipline:-

  1. 4 way Rotations
    Teams of 4 skydivers, supported by a skydiving videographer, are allowed up to 30 seconds to build a 4 stack formation. Once the initial formation (worth 1 point) is built, the top jumper rotates to the bottom of the stack to score another point. As soon as the rotating jumper is linked onto the bottom of the stack, the next skydiver on top may commence a rotation to the bottom, thus scoring an additional point. The team has 1½ minutes to score points. The team with the most points wins. The current world record of 21 points is held by Russia.
  2. 4 way Sequential
    Teams of 4 skydivers, supported by a skydiving videographer, have 2 minutes from the time of exit to score points. A point is scored for each formation correctly completed in accordance with a draw made at the start of the event. The pool for the draw contains 14 separate sequences of two points and random formations worth 1 point each. For each competition jump there are either 4 or 5 different formations in the jump sequence, which is repeated during the jump to score as many points as possible. USA holds the world record of 12 points.
  3. 2 way Sequential
    Teams of 2 skydivers, supported by a team videographer, have 1 minute of working time to complete a pre-determined series of formations.  A point is scored for each formation correctly completed in accordance with a draw made at the start of the event.  The pool for the draw contains 12 separate formations.  For each competition jump there are 5 different formations and the team have to complete the series as many times as possible during the working time.  USA holds the world record of 23 points.

In each event, the team’s videographer either transmits the video signal live to judges on the ground or delivers the tape to the judges for scoring immediately after landing. This video footage is used later for judge and team training, as well as media coverage of the sport.


Canopy Piloting involves a series of tasks designed to test a parachutist's ability to control his canopy and fly accurately.  Each test starts with the parachutist navigating through a number of gates which are situated over water.  The parachutist has one of three goals, depending on the task;  complete the course in the shortest time, therefore having the highest speed; complete the water section and then land on a target as accurately as possible;  achieve the longest distance from the entry gate before touching down.

How is the Winner Defined?

To maximize the accuracy, the competitor must successfully navigate the water section before landing as close to the centre of the target as possible.  The maximum score for speed goes to the parachutist flying the course in the shortest time and the best score for distance will go to the parachutist controlling the canopy to fly the maximum distance.

How is it scored?

For accuracy; pass between the course markers and stay within the course to gain points.  Extra 'gate' points are earned when a competitor drags a part of his body (usually his foot) through an imaginary line on the surface of the water between water gates.  Penalties are awarded in the landing phase if the competitor falls over, or is not in the central zone with their first touch.

Speed: pass between the course markers to start the speed run; the times is started by breaking an electronic beam across the course.  The competitor's time is stopped as they break a second beam across the exit gate and their time is measured to the thousandth of a second.

Distance:  pass between the course markets and remain within the boudaries of the course to obtain a score.  The distance is measured from the entry gate to the first point of contact with the ground.

Canopy Piloting is a fairly new sport, made possible by the development of smaller and faster canopies in the mid 1990's.  The discipline was originally called "blade running" but soon evolved into the format used today.  Competitors compete over a stretch of water for safety reasons because of the high speeds involved - at the same time creating spectacular action as the parachutists whizz across the surface of the water, leaving a plume of spray behind them.

This discipline requires a high level of skill and experience with many national federations insisting on a minimum requirement of 500 parachute jumps before allowing a competitor to enter a Canopy Piloting Event.

The first World Championships in Canopy Piloting took place in 2006.

Formation Skydiving

Formation Skydiving is the art of building formations or patterns in freefall. The discipline is executed either in the The Origins of Parachuting Skydiving Competitions Go Back a Long Way 1prone position (with belly to earth) or vertically (with either feet or head towards earth).

A competition team consists of 4 or 8 performers, and one videographer. A competition consists of up to 10 rounds, and each round consists of up to 6 formations. The teams have a certain number of seconds to continually and correctly repeat the sequence of formations in freefall. Each correctly completed formation scores one point.

The formations are drawn from an international pool of random and block formations. The random formations are singular formations with full separation of all grips between the performers both before and after building the formation. The blocks are double formations with a designated movement in between.

VFS - Gold Medalists 2008 USA Arizona Arsenal   (this is the picture caption)

The judging is based on the videographer's material, and is done objectively. Only the technical performance counts.

The winning team will be the team that has collected the most points, by completing the most correct formations within time after the final round is complete. In case of weather or technical problems, or other causes, a competition will be valid as long as all participating teams have completed at least one round.


This unique discipline of the Parachuting competition events combines two sports - Giant Slalom and Accuracy Landings.

Each competitor makes two runs of a Giant Slalom course, designed an controlled by FIS under International Ski Regulations, and then six parachute jumps from a helicopter, exiting at 1000 mts intending to land onto an electronic recording landing pad with a 2 cm disc in the centre.

The electronics radiate outwards in rings of 1 cm incriments to a maximum of 16 cm;  being measured beyond by tape-measure to a default of 50 cm.  If the disc is the first point of contact with the ground by the jumper the score is 0.00: 0.01 is added for each centimetre from the centre.  At the end of the 6 rounds there is a cut-off for the semi-final and final rounds which only count for the individual event.

The individual accuracy winner is the person with the lowest cumulative score over 8 rounds, and the team with the lowest cumulative score over 6 rounds.  However this is only one element to determine the overall winner.

To reflect the origins of this discipline, the landing pad must be located on a slope of between 25 and 35 degrees.

For the skiing part, the fastest time on the course is awarded 0 points - each competitor's time is then converted to points; a point is scored for each 0.32 seconds slower than the fastest time.  After the two runs the competitor with the lowest number of points is the winner of that element.

Freefall Style and Accuracy Landings

Freefall Style and Accuracy Landings are the two oldest competitive disciplines in the IPC calendar; and are known colloquially as « the Classics ».

The first World Championships in Accuracy Landings (then simply called Accuracy), were held in Bled, Yugoslavia in 1951.  This was a competition to see who could land closest to the target over a number of competitive rounds.  The competitor who scored the lowest number of points/measurement was the winner.

The essential principle remains, although there have been many changes over the years to the type of parachute used and the recording of the landing and subsequent measurement.

In the early days, simple modified military parachutes were used, which were difficult to steer despite a variety of modifications to the basic round canopy.  In 1962 the American designed Para-Commander ascending parachute was introduced and by 1966 all serious competitors were using a PC or a similar parachute produced by different manufacturers around the world.

By the mid 1970's the « square » or modern parachute had been launched into the sport.  The « Cloud » becoming the favorite of Accuracy jumpers, with its ability to fly precisely and slowly, giving the competitor maximum control onto the landing zone.

As the ability of the competitors improved, with the developments in the parachutes and experience of competition, the landing zone became more defined.  From a 25 meter area around a central cross, as the competitors took more risks to reach the target, a zone was designated with a pit dug and filled with pea gravel measuring 25m in diameter.  At the centre was a disc – usually of day-glow orange, 10cm in diameter.  A competitor whose first point of contact with the ground was on the disc scored 0.00.  4 judges surrounded the disc to record the first point of contact, and if it was not on the disc then the competitor was scored the number of centimetres from the disc to the landing point – to a maximum of 25 meters.

As skills and equipment improved, the maximum measurement decreased and today we use 16 cms.  Also the Dead Centre Disc went from 10cms, to 5cms, then 3cms to today’s 2 cms yellow on a black background disc.  We also have an electronic recording pad which measures in 1 cm increments up to 16cms.  This sits in the middle of a « tuffet » .  A tuffet can either be a deep foam mattress or an air-filled landing pad - similar to that used in pole-vaulting, or high jump.

Competitors jump in teams of 5, exiting the aircraft at 1000 meters and opening their parachutes sequentially to allow each competitor a clear approach to the target.  Their individual scores count for both the individual competition and for the team competition, the best of 4 is used.  For the team event the maximum number of rounds is 8, with a minimum number of 5 required to qualify for an event.

In the individual competition, after 8 rounds the top 25% jump a semi-final round, and the top 50% the final round.

Freefall Style was introduced into the competition calendar in 1962, at the World Championships in Orange, USA. Style jumper

Style demonstrates freefall control on the part of the competitor and the ability to perform a gymnastic pre-determined series of back-loops and turns as fast and cleanly as possible.  This is judged today, from a video recording, using a ground based camera with an exceptional lens to record the performance.

Over the years the equipment used by the competitors has improved to increase their aerodynamic shape and maximize their speed.

The competitor exits the aircraft at 2200 m and gathers speed in their fall position before starting the pre-designated series of maneuvers.  They are timed from the start of the maneuver until its completion.  The maximum time scored is 16 seconds.  The score is the time in seconds and hundredths of a second to complete the series plus penalty times awarded for incorrect performance of the maneuvers.

For the first 2 rounds (competitive jumps) competitors who have scored above the default time for that round are eliminated from the competition.  At the end of the 3rd round there is a 50% cut for the 4th round and again only 50% qualify for the 5th and final round.  The competitor with the lowest cumulative time is declared the winner.

World Champions are declared in each event, with a combined « Overall » Champion declared of that competitor The Origins of Parachuting Skydiving Competitions Go Back a Long Way 2and team who displays exceptional abilities in the two aspects of the sport – precision canopy handling and freefall maneuvers.

The competition is divided into events to determine the best Male and Female competitor and the best Teams.  There is also a Junior category as well, for competitors under the age of 25.