The blast of slipstream air on your face as you lean out the aircraft door, the giddy plunge into space, the forces tearing at your suit and goggles as you free-fall at around 200 kilometres an hour, and then the sense of relief and awe as the parachute jerks open and you see the world in miniature beneath you as you descend – these are some of the sensations that skydivers experience.
Early days in New Zealand
New Zealand parachuting dates back to the late 1800s when balloonists would incorporate a jump in their aerial displays. In February 1922 Australian Albert Eastwood made the first jump in New Zealand from an aeroplane, and the 1930s saw a succession of parachutists who performed for money at air pageants. But parachuting did not develop as a sport for another two decades: the Auckland Parachute Club led the way from 1953, and in 1955 the New Zealand Parachute Federation was formed.
Ups and downs
During the economic depression of the early 1930s, some men made parachute jumps in a desperate effort to earn money. A display jump by George Sellars at Palmerston North in 1936 was described as follows:
‘Drifting like mad, he’d thumped onto the tarmac … to fall on his side and then, like a child’s spent top, to roll over and over until his billowing chute fouled something and stopped dragging him along. Dazed, cut and bruised, Sellars had later gone along the fenceline with a tin to beg a handout from the crowd of at least five hundred. He’d collected exactly 6/10d [about 70 cents]’. 1
The sport today
Skydiving often involves performing acrobatics in free fall, before releasing the parachute. It became established in the 1960s and 1970s. New altitude records were set, and groups would make descents in a cluster or in star formation. For the first time New Zealanders took part in international competitions.
The New Zealand Parachute Federation remains the governing body for the sport, setting rules and overseeing training and safety standards. Learners work towards obtaining an ‘A’ licence in skydiving. They can then jump solo from altitudes of 2,700–4,500 metres into defined ‘drop zones’. The biggest skydive event in New Zealand is the annual Good Vibes Boogie held at Motueka, usually in August.
Skydiving companies belonging to the New Zealand Parachute Industry Association offer skydiving for tourists, film-makers and photographers, companies on team-building exercises, and adventurous individuals. Novices can experience the adrenaline rush of free fall by tandem jumping – harnessed to an instructor. Such companies also provide training towards skydiving qualifications. The Diploma in Commercial Skydiving opens up opportunities for employment as a parachute packer, free-fall camera operator, jumpmaster or instructor, or tandem master.