Never had so many women jumped from a plane at once

On November 4, 2019, 15 female skydivers threw themselves from an aircraft flying over Jurien Bay, Australia. En route to the ground, the skydivers performed a two-point, 15-way, sequential skydive.

In formation sky-diving, multiple divers attach themselves while in free fall by grabbing each other’s limbs or onto grippers on their suits. “Fifteen-way” refers to the fact that there were 15 members of this team, all women; “two-point” refers to the fact that the group formed two geometric patterns in sequence during the free-fall.

“Missiles go faster than plywood. How much faster? In spread-eagle shape, a diver reaches 120 mph; in head-down shape, a diver reaches 200 mph.”

Record-setting

The stunt was, according to organizer Shirley Cowcher, a record for the largest number of female skydivers to execute a multi-point formation jump in Western Australia.

Cowcher says women only make up 14 percent of skydivers, so all-woman events are rare. To beat the prior national record, Cowcher needed to gather at least 12 women. That’s more than she’d initially intended, but interest and skill exceeded her expectations.

She gathered 15 women and, three tries later, set the record.

“‘The feeling was euphoric,’ she said, ‘and it makes me proud to think what women skydivers can achieve in Australia.'”

The physics of skydiving

Skydivers accelerate downwards after jumping out of a plane due to gravity. At some point, that diver reaches terminal speed. Terminal speed is the point at which the drag from air resistance is balanced precisely by the force of gravity bringing her down. For the mathematically inclined, there are precise formulas for calculating these effects.

Divers can increase speed by re-orienting their bodies so that a smaller cross-section is catching air resistance. Think of the diver’s body being pointed head down missile-style rather than flat plywood-style.

Missiles go faster than plywood. How much faster? In spread-eagle shape, a diver reaches 120 mph; in head-down form, a diver reaches 200 mph. This can allow divers in fifteen-way stunts to catch up to fellow divers.

Beyond just increasing speed, divers can maneuver themselves acrobatically, including spinning, moving forward, and moving backward by changing the shape of their body and the way it meets the wind.

It’s similar to the way that airplane wings can be manipulated to meet the oncoming air in ways that control the plane’s movement. Diver’s acrobatics during free-fall allow them to link up with their teammates in various geometric formations.

The risks and the gear

Dropzone.com has calculated that the likelihood of death per jump is (written as a percentage) 0.00084 per jump. Of course, many skydivers skydive a lot. An active skydiver performing 200 jumps a year has a likelihood of death of 0.168%.

Skydivers who have performed 15,000 jumps have had a likelihood of death of 12.6%. As Dropzone says:

“While skydiving remains a fairly dangerous sport, it is more dangerous due to the aspect of volume than it is in its base value.”

From 2000 to 2016, there were 48,600,000 jumps and 413 fatalities (one every 117,000 jumps). In the United Kingdom from 1994 to 2013, there were 4,860,000 jumps and 41 fatalities (one every 118,000 jumps).

Keeping skydivers safe requires significant skydiving gear. There are several essential pieces: the main parachute, the reserve parachute, the container, the automatic activation device (AAD), the altimeter, wingsuits, helmets, goggles, and jumpsuits.

As a sport, skydiving is less than a century old. Skydiving equipment has evolved over the centuries, but advances have quickened for recreational skydivers in recent decades.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

It’s healthier for men to replace the gym with sports | Living 101

Maybe skydiving isn’t the sport for you. There are options.

How to have a low-stress vacation | Living 101

Skydiving might be something to consider trying on a vacation. It probably wouldn’t count as “stress-free,” though.