It’s quite easily one of the newest sports out there, and something many people have never heard of.
For the second straight year, Skydive City in Zephyrhills will host the U.S. Parachute Association National Skydiving Championships of Canopy Piloting May 22-24. And whenever drop zone owner T.K. Hayes shares that with someone outside of skydiving, he can almost anticipate that first question: What is canopy piloting?
“It’s a fairly new sport that has come around in the last 10 to 12 years, and it’s grown into its own discipline of skydiving,” he said.
Simply, skydivers jump from a plane that’s just 5,000 feet in the air (compared to the normal 12,000 feet for typical skydiving), and instead of slowing down before hitting the ground, these jumpers actually speed up — some as fast as 90 mph — swooping through a ground-level course that’s exciting for spectators, and dangerous for the jumpers.
And Hayes knows all about that danger. He has a spinal fusion to prove it.
“When we built the first swoop pond out here in 2000 or 2001, it wasn’t even a sport then,” Hayes said. “It was a windy day, and I got down too low and caught me knees in the water at 50 to 60 mph. I bounced out of the pond and landed on my head, breaking my neck.”
Luckily Hayes wasn’t paralyzed, but his swooping days are over. Since then, canopy piloting has grown from a hobby to a high-skilled sport where only divers with hundreds if not thousands of jumps to their name can even think about competing in. It’s basically the NASCAR of skydiving.
“There is definitely a lot less margin for error, so people who are competing in this event are extremely experienced and have trained specifically for this,” said Nancy Koreen, director of sport promotion for the U.S. Parachute Association, based in Fredericksburg, Va.
Last year’s national champion, Curt Bartholomew, has been in town already getting set for the national meet. And even someone at his skill level has to work through bumps and bruises.
“He was wearing a knee brace and an ankle brace, and was using ice packs between jumps,” Hayes said. “They are true athletes, and they go through a regimen of training and physical fitness, because you really have to be at the top of your game to compete.”
Zephyrhills has successfully bid for the event the last two years, and the warm reception of the near 70 jumpers last year, along with a solid drop zone complete with a pond, has made Skydive City a premier place for the event. But getting spectators to come out, however, has not been so easy, and Hayes has made some changes for this year’s championship he hopes will be much friendlier for those who want to see the swoopers compete.
“We didn’t get the word out much last year, and it’s happening during the week, so I know that might affect those numbers even more,” Hayes said. “We didn’t have a budget last year, but we were able to get a small one this year. So we’ll have new features, like a color commentator on a sound system, to let people know what’s happening. This should make it a little more exciting, because last year I think too many people were in the dark on what’s happening.”
The event is free for spectators, who will get to see bursts of action as multiple swoopers jump from a plane at once. Canopy piloting, Hayes said, is probably the closest skydiving will ever get to a spectator sport.
And it’s helped Zephyrhills not only reach the national stage, but the global one. Skydive City will be the site of the world championships of canopy piloting in November — the first time the United States has ever hosted it — and that could draw more than 120 jumpers and their entourages from all over the planet.
“We’re becoming experts in hosting these things, and I hope we can build a market for canopy piloting right here,” Hayes said. “It’s just a cool thing, which you don’t even realize until you come out and see it for yourself.”
WHAT: U.S. Parachute Association National Skydiving Championships of Canopy Piloting
WHEN: May 22-24
WHERE: Skydive City, 4241 Sky Dive Lane, Zephyrhills
COST: Free for spectators
Published April 30, 3014
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