TV Feature:
National Geographic Today Goes Skydiving

July 12, 2001

At 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) off the ground, a small propeller plane flies over an empty field. The door opens and two people jump out, falling at 120 miles per hour (200 kph) towards the ground. They spread their arms and legs in freefall, deploy a parachute about two-thirds of the way down, and land safely on the ground.

Traditionally, skydiving has been considered an "on the edge" sport, attempted only by professionals or people with a death wish. But in recent years, its popularity has begun to increase.

According to statistics published by the United States Parachute Association, about 311,500 people made 3.4 million jumps in 1999. Chris Needles, executive director of the USPA, estimates that there is about a 2 to 3 percent increase a year in the number of people who jump into thin air for fun.

To see what all the fuss is about, National Geographic Today sent correspondent Kristin Whiting to experience it firsthand.

"Im afraid I might die," she said boarding the plane. "I just keep thinking, what if my parachute doesn't open."

The Question of Safety

As skydiving attracts more participants, the number of jumpers injured or killed also rises.

Professional skydivers insist that the latest high-tech equipment greatly reduces the risk. But often, both intuition and news coverage tell us otherwise.

Earlier this month, two experienced skydivers were hospitalized in upstate New York when both their main and backup parachutes malfunctioned during a tandem jump. Two weeks earlier, a skydiver who had completed more than 250 successful jumps was killed in Kansas when he became entangled in the cords of his parachute.

In February, an inquest judge in Canada criticized the authorities for failing to regulate skydiving in that country. If the Canadian government did not want to regulate the sport it should ban it outright, he said after reviewing the case of a person who had jumped to his death.

The USPA says that out of 3.2 million jumps in 2000 there were 30 deaths. While that number is comparable to the rate of fatalities in other adventure sports such as downhill skiing, motorcycle racing, and scuba diving, skydiving presents obvious inherent dangers.

To make sure everyone is ready for that first jump, the USPA requires some basic training before leaving the ground. Then, a novice must jump with an experienced skydiver. To jump solo, a skydiver must complete at least 20 supervised jumps, in addition to other types of training.

Continued on Next Page >>


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