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Skydiving & Ballooning

Read about the basics and safety on skydiving & ballooning.

Skydiving & ballooning are considered risky sports. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Skydiving & ballooning are considered risky sports.

Skydiving and ballooning may seem like completely different sports, and in many ways they are. What the two have in common, however, is a sense of adventure -- whether they are hurtling toward the ground or floating high above it, both skydivers and balloonists experience the wonder of flight in ways that are truly unique and invigorating.

Skydiving Basics

The basic principle of skydiving is simple -- participants drop out of an airplane and freefall for a short period of time before deploying a parachute and landing. According to the United States Parachute Association (USPA), jumpers from a height of 10,000 feet can reach speeds over 100 mph during the freefall, which usually lasts about a minute.

Since most jumpers do not own their own planes, they base their jumps out of skydiving centers, known in the industry as "drop zones." Drop zones are essentially one-stop shops for skydivers -- they employ instructors and jump staff, rent out parachutes and other equipment, and operate the aircraft used during dives. Though not required by law, many drop zones also become members of the USPA. In order to keep their membership, they must outfit customers with standard skydiving equipment and can only employ USPA-rated instructors.

Skydiving Safety

Due to the nature of the sport, skydiving is inherently risky. However, as long as certain safety precautions are followed, skydiving is reasonably safe and can be enjoyed by people of almost any age. It is important to remember, though, that before jumpers suit up and take off, drop zones require them to complete a handful of registration forms, including a liability release. This might frighten some jumpers, but it is a good reminder that skydiving is a dangerous sport and should not be undertaken without giving serious thought toward its risks.

Dive instructors use one of three methods to teach new jumpers how to skydive: accelerated freefall (AFF), instructor-assisted deployment (IAD) or tandem freefall. Tandem freefall, in which student jumpers are attached directly to the instructor, is the most common. In the other two methods, students fall alone, although they are not necessarily responsible for opening their own parachutes. Whichever method is used, following a proper training program that culminates in the student's first solo jump is the best way to lower the sport's risks.

The Basics of Ballooning

As a sport, ballooning stands in stark contrast with skydiving -- the sweeping vistas balloonists enjoy all but disappear in a blur during a skydiver's fall. However, ballooning is, in its own way, thrilling and it allows the viewing of landscapes, forests and wildlife from an unbeatable airborne perspective.

Balloons work by filling huge bags of tough fabric (called "envelopes") with hot air. Because the hot air is less dense than the surrounding atmosphere, it pushes the balloon upward, allowing it to stay aloft for long periods of time. The riders, or balloonists, stand in a basket beneath the envelope and control the balloon's elevation using the burner, which produces hot air by igniting flammable gas. Once the balloon rises into the air, the balloon goes in whichever direction the wind blows because the pilot only controls its elevation and the balloon has no way of propelling itself horizontally.

Where and When to Go Ballooning

Commercial balloon pilots operate in many places across the country; Hotairballooning.com maintains a directory of operators in the United States as well as those abroad. The best spots for ballooning, however, are places with relatively calm weather and interesting landscapes or parks. For example, soaring over a national park can give balloonists an excellent opportunity to see endangered wildlife and swamps that are otherwise hard to visit.

Ballooning is generally more comfortable in spring and fall, which have mild temperatures and good visibility. Afternoon thunderstorms can make ballooning during the summer months more hazardous. Ballooning during the winter is also possible and can offer surprisingly good views of landscapes and wildlife that would normally be blocked by dense forest foliage.

Ballooning Safety

According to Skydrifters, balloon pilots must hold a valid pilots' license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in order to give commercial rides and tours. Though it may seem unnecessary for such a simple aircraft, this requirement ensures that people interested in ballooning can feel safe knowing that their pilot has been trained to operate the balloon safely and under varying conditions.

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