Skydive City, which is home to about 75,000 skydives a year, will host the 2013 National Championships of Canopy Piloting from May 8 through May 10.
It’s a relatively new event in the skydiving world, one that David “TK” Hayes hopes will kick-start a niche market.
“Really it’s all about the last 10 seconds of the skydive,” Hayes said. “It’s our only real hope at ever having a spectator sport where all the action is close to the ground. These guys are coming out of the dives and flaming out at upwards of 80 to 100 mph.”
Canopy pilots, commonly referred to as swoopers, typically are dropped from a plane at about 5,000 feet.
They deploy a smaller, more durable parachute, which allows for a high rate of speed. Swoopers go into a spin to gain speed, then just above the ground enter a course over an acre-wide retention pond that is waist-deep.
Then they go through a “gate” to participate in one of three categories: distance, accuracy and speed.
Those in the distance competition go through a gate and attempt to land at the farthest point from the gate. Those in the accuracy competition must navigate the course and land as close to a target as possible.
In the speed category, the skydiver breaks two light beams to determine his speed.
The sport of canopy piloting is in its infancy. Hayes thinks it’s only been in the past two decades that the activity has developed and grown in popularity.
“Most parachutes through the ’70s and ’80s were basically just a machine that brought you down to the ground and landed you,” Hayes said. “In the late ’80s, a development of newer canopies by a company called Performance Designs really broke a lot of barriers.”
The use of newer fabrics, which allowed for smaller canopies and a heavier load, led to different ways of getting from the plane to the ground.
During the days leading up to the swooping competition, pilots from around the country and as far away as Dubai, France and Russia will descend upon Skydive City.
From May 4 to 5, the Florida Canopy Piloting Association will meet, leading into the national event May 8 through 10.
Spectators can watch training sessions for free, but during the competition, admission will be $5 a car.
Winners will qualify to participate in the world meet in Russia at the end of the year.
This is the first time the national competition has been hosted at Skydive City, but it may not be the last. It is scheduled to return next year. The facility has also bid to host the world competition next year.
“We’re a fairly international drop zone, so we’ve always had that going for us,” Hayes said. “What’s come of it is we’ve invested the time and the money and the energy to building a really good, world-class facility here. People want to come and train where there’s the best equipment and the best coaches and the best training and the best facilities.”