Do Parachutes Go Up When Opened?

Three skydivers with colorful parachutes are descending towards the ground with a clear blue sky in the background
Skydiving Parachutes Are Designed to Descend

Once skydivers have fallen to 2,500 ft, they usually deploy their parachutes and we have all watched videos where it looks like the skydiver goes up during the deployment process. But is this actually true, do parachutes go up when opened? 

Skydivers do not go up during the opening process of their parachutes. Although opening the parachute feels like an upward acceleration, skydivers still move in a downward direction towards the earth. That being said, there are ways how skydivers can move upward with their parachutes. 

In addition, I have summarized my three most favorite sports in which you can go up with a parachute. 

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Why Parachutes Do Not Go up During the Opening Process

In order to understand why parachutes do not go up upon deployment let us take a closer look at the opening process:

  • Skydivers should deploy their parachute at 2,500 ft in a belly-to-earth position. Depending on his weight and flying position, the skydiver will have a speed of 100 to 120 mph. 
  • Once the skydiver deploys the parachute (by pulling the parachute ripcord), the pilot chute starts catching air and inflates. The pilot chute stabilizes the skydiver and helps him to stay in the right position. 
  • If the skydiver is unable to pull the ripcord, the Automatic Activation Device (AAD) will open his parachute at a preset altitude.
  • The pilot chute starts slowing the skydiver down and pulls the canopy out of its bag. Once the canopy leaves its bag, it starts inflating and decelerates the skydiver even more. 
  • When the canopy is fully open, the speed of the skydiver will be reduced to 17 mp/h (28 km/h). 

Once the canopy is open and has reduced the falling speed of the skydiver, he can start steering it and navigate to the dropzone. Skydiving canopies are designed in such a way that they allow for a slow and comfortable height descent and not for an ascent.

In order for the parachute to go up, the skydiver would either need to steer the parachute in areas of ascending air that will lift him up or create so much speed and air buoyancy that allow him to move upward in a diagonal direction.

The first approach is possible if the skydiver jumps in certain weather conditions. The second approach is impossible because every part of the parachute is designed for speed deceleration and safety maximization. 

If you are curious about how fast a parachute opens and how fast it breaks afterward, feel free to read my post about it. The post also covers how the speed of deceleration differs between jump types.

Why It Feels Like Going up When Opening the Parachute

Nonetheless, the sudden speed reduction from 120 mph to 17 mph can feel like an upward move for the skydiver. This is mostly due to the deceptive feeling of free fall and visual illusion.

Skydivers reach terminal velocity during their freefall when the air resistance is as strong as the gravitational pull from the earth. This air resistance does not only keep skydivers at a constant speed but moreover feels like an air cushion, that stabilizes one in the air. Once terminal velocity is reached, it does not feel like falling anymore, rather like floating in the air. 

The opening maneuver of the parachute only takes three seconds from activating the opening mechanism to fully inflating the parachute. During the inflation process, the skydiver will be decelerated at a fast rate. More specifically, the skydiver feels a strong tug from the harness around his shoulders.

Because it feels like floating beforehand, the tug and sudden speed deceleration can feel like being pulled upward. This impact is even increased because your eyes do not have any fixed points for reference besides other skydivers. 

However, if your eyes use other skydivers as fixed points they will be deceived by a visual illusion – specifically when the other skydivers fall at a similar speed. If you fall together at a similar speed, it looks like you are not moving. This is intensified because the objects on earth are so far away and seem so small that it does not look like moving towards them. 

When the skydiver deploys his parachute before the other skydivers, they will continue to fall. As they used to be the fixed points, it does not look like they are falling but that you are lifted upwards.

It is quite comparable to a train ride. If you are on a train and do not look outside the window, it looks like nothing is moving. However, they are moving – only at the same speed. If you were now to be decelerated suddenly, it would also look like you go backward. 

Why It Looks Like Skydivers Go up When Opening Their Parachute

The effect is quite similar in skydiving videos and movies. The skydiver deploys his parachute first and will start to decelerate while the videographer is still falling down at a faster speed. The videographer will then turn around towards the skydiver and the angle of the shot is now upward which creates an illusion that the diver is moving up because of the opened parachute.

If you want to know more about this effect, you should watch sky surfing videos on YouTube. In addition, to the normal skydiving harness, skysurfers are equipped with a surfboard. The surfboard helps them move around and it really looks like they would surf in the air. 

Skysufing Creates a Visual Illusion

How Skydivers Can Go up With Their Parachutes

As mentioned earlier, it is possible for skydivers to go up with their parachutes if they jump in the right (and dangerous) weather conditions. 

During thunderstorms, high winds, and dust devils skydivers encounter very strong and erratic winds that are strong enough to push the parachute to fly backward. This backward lift can push the skydiver up to extreme and dangerous heights which is extremely unsafe.

Being lifted to extreme heights can be dangerous, divers might be blown off course from the drop zone or the parachute might collapse due to the strong force of the wind. In some cases, jumpers can be seriously injured or even result in fatalities if they land on unsafe areas with power lines, trees, infrastructure or near bodies of water. 

Due to these risks, it can also be extremely dangerous to deploy the parachute too early at a high altitude. If you want to know more about the three underestimated risks of early parachute deployment, check this article.

For example, on the 21st of April 2019, Sgt. 1st Class Justin Goff from the US Army died due to a parachuting accident in North Carolina. As per the Police investigation, he was able to deploy his parachute but he ran into high winds which caused him to plummet towards the ground.

As a result, it’s not advisable to jump during inclement weather especially if the winds are more than 30 mph (26 knots). The recommended wind limit for student jumpers is around 18 mph (15 knots) while licensed holders can jump with winds between 20-29 mph (17-20 knots).

Skydivers can also be lifted up by strong winds on the ground. In order to avoid such unplanned take-offs and being dragged around at the dropzone, it is advisable the skydivers fold their canopy immediately after landing.

Did you know that landing is the most important part of skydiving? There’s very little room for error in this part of skydiving, so I wrote an article about the essentials you need to learn to ensure your safe landing.

Sports in Which You Can Go up With a Parachute

As discussed, skydiving parachutes are only used for descending purposes after jumping from an aircraft or other high places. However, small changes to the parachute can allow it to move upward. Here are three examples of aerial sports that allow athletes to move from the ground up.

Parasailing, also known as parakiting or parascending, is a recreational sport wherein you will use a specially designed canopy called parasail while being towed behind a vehicle (usually a motorboat or a truck). The parasailor has zero or no steering control over the parachute since it is attached to the moving vehicle.

You just need to lean back and enjoy the parachute ride while 500 feet above sea level. The parasail canopies also come in different colors and designs since it is usually being offered to tourists on vacation.

Paragliding on the other hand, is also a recreational aerial sport that uses a free-flying, lightweight foot-launched aircraft called paraglider. To launch a paraglider, you can either do a forward launch by running down a slope or reverse launch wherein the pilot is facing the wind then bringing it to a flying position by turning around and running under the wing. The paraglider sits in a harness suspended below a parachute which will allow them to fly for many hours, gain height and cover long distances.

Paramotoring, also known as Powered Paragliding (PPG), uses the same principle of paragliding but way faster since it is powered by a paramotor (which includes an engine, fuel tank and propeller). A powered paraglider can go as fast as 15 to 50 mph (24 to 80 km/h) and can reach an altitude of about 18,000ft or more depending on the engine used. The use of powered paragliders varies from personal or recreational use.

Highest Altitude Reached by an Ascending Parachute

On 23rd July 2016, a French paraglider Antoine Girard ascended from 16,404ft (5,000m) and set the World Record of the highest altitude of a voluntary ascent by a paraglider pilot. He reached the height of 26,762 ft (8,157 m) while flying over the summit of Broad Peak. The Broad Peak is the twelfth highest peak in the world and located between the border of China and Pakistan. 

The entire flight took 7 hours and covered 120 km before safely landing near Skardu City in Pakistan. It also took Antoine Girard a year of planning and preparation. It was also originally planned to be a team expedition rather than a solo adventure. His expedition partner canceled five days before the planned start – which did not stop Girard from completing the project and becoming the world’s record holder for the highest paragliding altitude.

In conclusion, no matter which aerial sport you choose, the main purpose of the parachute is to safely land the wearer to the ground from any given altitude. A skydiver can practice different canopy exercises to help them be prepared for any situation that might arise during the free fall.

Having said that, enjoy your freefall!

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Kai Schmidt

Hi, I'm Kai. The first time I jumped out of an airplane and experienced free fall was one of the most amazing moments of my life. For me, skydiving does not only stand for freedom and independence but being present in the moment and being respectful to others and oneself. Now I want to share what I’ve learned with you.

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