Sky diving is a quick thrill in a rapid descent from a high place -- how high depends on your purpose for jumping out of a plane and your documented experience and training. The novice or weekend sky diver can expect a jump from a fairly low altitude, compared to a trained military specialist or an extreme sports daredevil. If "fly like a bird" is on your bucket list, sky-diving training will get you there.
Student Sky Divers
The sport of sky diving admits beginners who go through training before they are OK'd to jump. Static line jumps, a first step in sky-dive training, are generally about 3,000 feet AGL, above ground level. Another method for breaking in a new diver is tandem training. The student's harness is attached to the instructor's 'chute, which the instructor deploys at about 4,000 feet after a brief tandem free fall. The whole ride takes about five minutes. For accelerated free fall training, AFF, the student jumps at 10,000 feet, held by two instructors until about 4,500 feet, when the student deploys his or her parachute. The free fall lasts less than a minute and the parachute ride takes about four minutes to the landing zone. U.S. Army Airborne School jump training exit AGLs are about 1,200 feet for repeat jumps to practice exits, 'chute deployment and landing form.
Novice and Hobby Divers
A Saturday morning -- or any recreational time -- jump is typically made from 10,000 to 15,000 AGL. Parachute opening altitudes are between 4,000 and 2,000 feet AGL, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Under average conditions, the free fall is just over a minute and the parachute ride is about 1,000 feet per minute -- the higher you pull the 'chute, the longer you float. The United States Parachute Association issues certifications for four levels of proficiency. The certifications indicate completed training beyond beginner level and entitle you to enter competitions for such sports as formation jumps, canopy piloting, freestyle and free fall skydiving.
HALO and HAHO Jumps
A HALO or HAHO -- High Altitude Low Opening, High Altitude High Opening -- jump is usually reserved for military maneuvers. The jumps are designed to deliver personnel behind enemy lines or into inaccessible hostile zones, sometimes with needed supplies for ground troops. Troops exit the plane at altitudes between 15,000 to 35,000 feet. HALO dives are free fall until the lowest possible altitude, to avoid detection -- a typical jump might be from 30,000 feet AGL with 'chute opening at 3,500 feet. HAHO dives are usually just a personnel, not a supply, drop and the troopers open their parachutes almost immediately upon exiting the plane.
Extreme sky diver Alan Eustace broke the 2012 world record in October 2014 with a 25-mile high dive, landing safely by parachute in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico. Eustace wore a self-contained space suit as a helium balloon carried him to 135,890 feet, nearly at the top of the earth’s stratosphere. His free fall, lasting more than 4 minutes, broke the sound barrier at 822 mph. This is not generally recommended. Sport sky divers can push the envelope to about 14,000 or 15,000 feet AGL at some sky-diving facilities for regular parachute jumps. Climb much above that altitude and you start needing additional oxygen to breathe comfortably in the thinner air.