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Why do skydivers use parachutes?

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

Skydivers need to use parachutes because those are the apparatuses that give human beings the ability to reduce their falling speed enough that they are able to land safely on the ground.

That's the short version, so let's look at the physics behind this answer from a scientific position.

Why Skydivers Need To Use Parachutes, According to Sir Isaac Newton

Skydiving & Falling Apples

Sir Isaac Newton [1], well-known for his penchant for apples [2], is better remembered for his formulation of the three Laws of Motion, the basic principles of modern physics.

The first law of motion describes inertia:

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with constant speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. [3]

Inertia is like momentum. The first law basically implies: if a thing isn’t moving, it will not start moving by itself. If a thing is moving, it will not stop or change direction unless some external force acts upon it. [4] A skydiver falling through the air cannot stop or slow down without the intervention of another force, which in this case would be the air resistance caused by a parachute.

The second law of motion addresses the cause and effect portion of falling. It states:

Acceleration of an object is dependent on the forces acting upon the object and the object’s mass. [5]

Keep in mind that acceleration exists whenever speed is changing, up or down. So it does not just mean going faster, it also refers to slowing down. In the case of skydiving, the second law of motion (F=m*a) or, Force = mass x acceleration, refers to the mass of the jumper plus their gear, as well as the forces it takes to speed them up (gravity) as well as the force that slows their descent (drag). We’ll get deeper into that a bit further down. * See illustrations below.

The third law of motion refers to a kind of natural symmetry, or the action/reaction effect.


Whenever one body exerts a force on a second body, the first body experiences a force that is equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to the force that it exerts. [6]

When you stub your toe on the corner of a door, both objects involved (your toe and the door) experience a force. That force translates into movement for the door, and pain for the toe. This applies during skydiving as air resistance acts on our body surface, creating the slowing down effect, or drag that we just mentioned.

Why Skydivers Reach Terminal Velocity

graphic of skydiver exiting plane with very little air resistance

While the skydiver is in the airplane getting ready to jump, she is traveling horizontally through the air in tandem with the airplane. At this moment, gravity is being neutralized by the lift force caused by the air passing through the plane's wings. This is true until she steps out of the aircraft and begins to accelerate on the vertical axis.

graphic depicting air resistance increasing drag on falling skydiver

As the skydiver accelerates she gains momentum, and the air she passes through creates a resistance that pushes back up at her, increasing drag.

graphic depicting how a skydiver achieves terminal velocity

Eventually, the force of the resisting air balances out with the force of gravity, and the skydiver stops speeding up. Once she has reached this balance and is no longer accelerating, she has reached terminal velocity. Which is to say: drag is equal to weight, acceleration is zero, so velocity is constant.

Terminal velocity is a weird term because it sounds scary, but is really quite the opposite. When you are no longer accelerating, you feel almost like you’re floating. On a skydive, everything that happens to your body is according to its natural physical motion. It is nothing like a roller coaster or bungee jumping, because you are not suspended or attached to an object that drags you out of you body natural acceleration range. Skydiving is a magical feeling!

What happens when the parachute is deployed?

When the skydiver reaches “pull altitude” (the height at which she needs to deploy the parachute), she pulls a mini parachute called pilot chute from a special pocket in her parachute container, flinging it into the wind. The wind catches the pilot chute and the drag it creates initiates the parachute opening sequence. Once out of the container, the main canopy is inflated by the wind, causing the amount of air resistance to increase even more, and neutralizing the force of gravity at a much lower velocity.

cartoon graphic illustrating how opening a parachute slows down a person falling

Modern parachute canopy designs are made in a way that after inflated, the parachute becomes a wing. This creates lift as it glides thru the air, and also allows full controllability of the parachute's heading direction as well as control over the glide, which is especially important for the landing.

So there you have it! Real facts for a valid question: why do skydivers use parachutes? You know, this article was almost much shorter. This was the first draft: “Because it saves their lives.”

Ready to feel the physics under your skin?

Go skydiving with Skydive Hollister & Silicon Valley!

Blue skies,

~Jake & Ronaldo


[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Isaac Newton

[2] History.com: Did an apple really fall on Isaac Newton’s Head? By Elizabeth Nix

[3] NASA: Newton’s First Law

[4] NASA: Dynamics of Flight

[5] Simple English Wikipedia: Newton’s Laws of Motion

[6] OpenStax: Newton’s Third Law of Motion - Symmetry in Forces

The Physics Classroom: Newton’s Laws | Skydiving

Definition of Terms:

Here's a handy infographic of skydiving terminal velocity!

four panel terminal velocity infographic

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