What is Skydiving?

What is Skydiving?

Published: November 8, 2016

Those guys that just launched triangular wings from that hill over there--are they skydivers? How about those people in the flying-squirrel suits that you saw on YouTube the other day? Or the folks that star in those videos where they have a wing overhead and skis on their feet and pop straight down a mountain with little glancing touches? Are they skydivers?

They aren't, actually. But y'know what? It's easy to get these airsports mixed up. Here's breakdown of what's what, so you can use the proper terminology to impress your friends at dinner parties.


The United States Parachuting Association (USPA) defines skydiving-the original "extreme sport"-as follows:

1: The descent of a person to the surface from an aircraft in flight when he or she uses or intends to use a parachute during all or part of that descent.

2: To jump from an aircraft with a parachute.

The key elements here are twofold: "aircraft" and "parachute." An "aircraft" has to be just that: a vehicle moving through the air. The aircraft doesn't have to be an airplane - it can be a microlight, a paraglider with a tandem harness to jump from or a big ol' hot-air balloon. The "parachute" must be present, but it doesn't have to be of any particular kind. It can be an old-school round or a modern parachute.

Skydives are almost always performed using a "two-parachute system," which houses both parachutes in a "container" (the backpack into which the fabric is folded) and includes a backup parachute (or "reserve") in case the primary one malfunctions.


BASE jumping is the sport of jumping, while wearing a single-parachute safety system, from non-moving objects.

The term "BASE," in fact, is an acronym that stands for the objects most commonly jumped:

  • Building

  • Antenna

  • Span (bridge)

  • Earth (cliffs)

Other objects (for instance: billboards, wind turbines, ski lifts, cranes, high-altitude cables, etc.) also count as BASE objects if the exit point is static.

Because BASE jumping does not meet the Federal Aviation Administration's definition of its jurisdiction ("the descent of an object to the surface from an aircraft in flight"), it is not overseen by the FAA or any other regulatory body.

BASE jumps are performed with single-parachute systems that are designed to open quickly and in the intended direction. There is no reserve canopy in a BASE-specific container. BASE jumpers almost always have the experience of thousands of skydives and take on extraordinary risk for their hobby.


Unlike the previous two sports, paragliding does not involve jumping at all. Nor does it involve the deployment of a parachute from a container. A paragliding wing is designed not to allow a jumper to descend safely to the ground, but to use lift to draw the pilot and glider upwards, potentially conveying him/her over long distances and extending the airtime for hours (instead of minutes or, in BASE, seconds).

A paraglider is launched, not jumped. To do so, the pilot unfolds and lays the wing out on the ground facing into light wind at the launch site (which is generally a gentle slope at the top of a mountain or tall hill). The pilot puts on a seat-style harness and connects him/herself to the wing. Then, he/she pulls the "risers" to draw the wing into the air overhead and steps smoothly towards the wind until the wing lifts him/her into the air.

From there, a paraglider pilot-unlike a skydiver or BASE jumper, whose main concern would be to find and steer back to a safe landing area in a short period of time-picks a direction and goes on a little (or big) journey. Pilots stay aloft using ridge lift or thermal lift. Skillful paragliding pilots have flown more than 500 kilometers, climbed up to 4526 meters above the ground and been in the air for more than 11 hours.

Tandem paragliding flights are a popular introduction to the sport, and are available at most major paragliding sites worldwide.

It's important to note that paragliding is a totally separate sport from hang gliding, which involves flying with a rigid, triangular wing.

Speed Flying

Conceived as a zippier, more "extreme" version of the ski-driven para-skiing discipline, speedwings are launched much like paragliders. However, speed wings were designed for a very different purpose than a paraglider: to carve down near the ground at a very steep angle of attack and with a small glide ratio.

Speed wings are much smaller wings than standard paragliders, with much higher wing loading and a comparatively small aspect ratio. As paragliding's "hotshot cousin," speed flying is related to paragliding in its basic piloting mechanics, but is highly divergent thereafter. (Quite a few people have found this out the hard way.) It is suggested that speed pilots have a lot of paragliding experience before they get started.

As you can see, we skydivers share our skies with all kinds of other pilots! Of course, the only way to really know what skydiving is like is to experience it for yourself. Come and join us to skydive NY! We'd love to give you a personal tour of our own wild blue yonder.

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