A Moment of Science

The Physics Of Skydiving

Every skydiver experiences two different forces: the tug of gravity and the upward push of air resistance.

Two men skydiving

Photo: Boofalo Blues (flickr)

Skydiving has increased in popularity.

Why would you want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?

Well, you get to the ground much faster, and the trip down is a whole lot more interesting. Skydiving has become an increasingly popular sport, although most of us haven’t yet taken the plunge and only enjoy it from the sidelines.

If you’ve seen video of skydivers in action, especially skydiving teams that link up to create formations, you might wonder how they do it. It’s a matter of elementary physics.

Two Downward Forces

Any falling object experiences basically two forces: The downward tug of gravity, and the upward push of air resistance.

When a skydiver first leaps out of a plane, she begins accelerating rapidly downward, tugged down by gravity. If you or I fell out of a tree, we would experience the same thing–this is the usual experience of falling. After about ten seconds though, she stops accelerating downward.

She’s still falling of course, usually at around a hundred and fifteen to a hundred and thirty miles per hour, but her downward speed is no longer increasing.

What Is Terminal Velocity?

Why not? She has reached what’s known as “terminal velocity.” This is when the upward push of air resistance–or the friction she experiences as she falls through the air–is enough to exactly counterbalance the force of gravity.

When she first jumped out of the plane, this upward push was negligible. At over a hundred miles per hour, it’s pretty strong. She’ll continue downward at a steady velocity, until she opens her chute.

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