Skydiving or Parachuting? A History of Terminology

Skydiving or Parachuting? A History of Terminology

Published: August 28, 2017

Skydiving or Parachuting? A History of Terminology

"Parachuting" and "skydiving" are two terms that, while they may sound pretty darn distinct, are almost interchangeable. Case in point: the sport's biggest oversight organization isn't called the "United States Skydiving Association;" it's called the "United States Parachute Association (and they self-describe like so: "The United States Parachute Association is a voluntary non-profit membership organization of individuals who enjoy and support the sport of skydiving."

If you want to split hairs--and who doesn't, out here on the ol' intertubes--you can massage out some subtle differences in the working definitions of either term. The word "working" comes into strong play here, as a matter of fact: Oftentimes, the word "parachuting" is used to describe jumps done in the line of work and "skydiving" is used when we talk about playtime. So If we're being precise about it, smokejumpers and Navy SEALS "parachute;" while hobbyists and competitors "skydive." If we had to make a guess about it, we'd say that the usage differences here have their roots in the history of the practice. Before the middle of the 20th century, parachutes were only really used for work (military; airshow stunts; etc.) In fact, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word "skydiving" didn't even pop up in parlance until 1956. "Parachuting," on the other hand, made its English-language debut all the way back in 1784.

Here's another hair to split (if you have any left): When a jumper exits an aircraft and deploys a parachute right away without any freefall, it's debatable whether that is technically a skydive. It is, however, definitely a "parachute jump." If there's any freefall involved from an aircraft, it definitely counts as a skydive. (In case you're wondering, this never, ever comes up in casual conversation.)

Other facts about the history of parachuting/skydiving that you might be interested in knowing:

  • In the fall of 1948, the Idaho Fish and Game Department parachuted 76 troublesome beavers into the Chamberlain Basin to keep them from harrassing the good people of McCall, Idaho. There was only one casualty. We have to wonder if, with enough practice, the beavers could have learned to efficiently fly their tails, but they stayed put in their new home: The department rep later reported that "the initially confused beavers managed to set up a successful colony."

  • Fourteen years after the Flight of the Beavers, the Air Force suited up a bear and ejected him in a parachute-fitted escape capsule, at supersonic speed, from a B-58 jet bomber. The poor guy rocketed out at 870 miles an hour at an altitude of 35,000 feet--which must have been miserable--but he landed safely about eight minutes later. We're thinking he ate whoever arrived to pick him up.

  • Georgia "Tiny" Broadwick may have been a whopping four feet tall and 85 pounds, but her weight in parachuting/skydiving history was enormous. In 1913, she became the first woman ever to descend from an airplane to the ground--landing in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, no less. She boasts a pretty darn long list of "firsts" in the sport, but here's the kicker: In 1914, she gave the very first demonstration parachute jumping to the US government. She jumped five times. For the first four, she used a static line setup. Static line--using a connection to the airplane to pull the parachute out--was, at that time, the only deployment method available. On the fourth jump, Tiny's static line tangled dangerously with the aircraft--so, on the fifth jump, she reinvented the wheel. She decided not to use the static line; instead, she jerry-rigged a method of hand-deployment to use after she was clear of the airplane. Dear reader, that little lady invented and performed the first premeditated freefall jump ever done.

So: Do we talk about "parachuting" or "skydiving"? Take your pick! Anybody at any dropzone will understand exactly what you mean no matter which term you use. So what are you waiting for? Come out and enrich your parachuting (or skydiving, as it were) vocab. We're waiting to help!

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