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Published: June 22, 2020
When people talk about tandem skydiving and jumping out of an airplane, one number they'll often mention is 120mph. Is this true? The answer is... kind of.
Terminal velocity means the top speed an object can achieve when it falls through the air. While gravity is a constant force, terminal velocity is not - it is created and affected by a few different things.
The weight and density of an object speed it up. The shape of the object, and the drag it creates as it falls, slows it down. And the combined result is the object's terminal velocity.
How this works in tandem skydiving is that people equip themselves correctly and train to manipulate their body position so they can go at the same speed. Skydiving on your own is great, especially at Skydive OC but getting together with you friends in freefall is even better.
Smaller skydivers wear tight fitting suits to create less drag, or even wear extra weight to add speed. Larger skydivers wear baggy suits and fly their bodies in positions to create more drag and go slower. This is where the number 120 mph is used, as it is considered the approximate average terminal velocity of a skydiver.
When you jump out of a skydiving plane, terminal velocity isn't immediately achieved - it takes a little time. At the instant you first jump out you are actually thrown forward on the same trajectory as the plane (that is going forwards at around 100mph). Over the course of the next 10 seconds, this forward momentum is overtaken by the effect of gravity as you travel on a big graceful arc into freefall. This is referred to in skydiving as "going down the hill" as it visualizes a curve.
Skydivers do things in different ways, and depending on this it affects their average terminal velocity. While flying face-down, jumpers indeed have an average terminal velocity of 120 mph, but if they are 'freeflying' - which means adapting your body position to fly in other orientations such as 'head-up' and 'head-down' - the average terminal velocity is more like 160mph. Speed skydiving is where people point their head directly at the ground and streamline their body as much as possible in an attempt to go as fast as they can, which can reach over 370mph!
The current record holder of both the highest jump and fastest freefall speed is Alan Eustace. In 2014 Eustace jumped from a big balloon at 123,414ft and broke the sound barrier on the way down with a top speed of 822mph. He achieved this speed falling on his belly to remain stable, and was able to do so because the higher up you go the thinner the air gets creating less drag.
So terminal velocity is not a single set speed and can be affected by various factors. The speed 120 mph is what you hear most because it is kind of true and is a nice round number that people have a frame of reference for.
The really important thing to understand about jumping from an aircraft and falling towards the earth at terminal velocity is how it feels. There is something particularly exciting about the skydiving sensation of speed created from gravity alone that separates it from other experiences where you go fast for thrills. When you do jump it just feels right, and is the most natural and freeing sensation - like your whole life has been building up to this moment. What are you waiting for? Join us for a jump and find out for yourself!
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