ZEPHYRHILLS, Fla. (AP) — Jessica Edgeington became obsessed with skydiving when her parents bought her a jump for her 18th birthday.
Now 32, the Virginia resident has made more than 6,000 jumps and is competing for a spot on the U.S. Parachute Team. This week, she and about 75 others converged at Skydive City — a well-known DZ or "drop zone" about an hour north of downtown Tampa — for the United States Parachuting Association's canopy piloting national championship.
"Canopy piloting is all about fast canopies and drama and high speed action," said James Hayhurst, director of competition for the USPA. "It's an exciting event." Canopy piloting is a subset of the skydiving sport, and those that practice it are called "swoopers."
During competition, swoopers jump from a plane at 5,000 feet. They must maneuver the parachute — sometimes with twists and turns — and then skim the surface of a pond in between a series of buoys. Then the pilots must perform either a 75-degree turn, a precision landing inside a 2-by-2-meter area, or a distance glide.
The swoopers reach speeds of up to 90 miles an hour as they descend. It's all designed to test the parachutist's ability to control the chute — also known as a canopy — and how accurately they can land. The sport canopy parachutes are more rectangular and look different from a rounded top parachute.
"This is on the edge," said Hayhurst. "This is sport. Of all the disciplines in our sport, these guys are closest to the edge. It's completely different than the recreational event that someone might do when they make a tandem jump. That's a different universe, really."
The skydivers look peaceful as they gracefully float in the sky after jumping from the plane. But as they approach the ground, the parachutes make a loud buzzing noise — and it's apparent that they're sailing through the air at a fast clip.
"It's not necessarily scary to jump out of the plane anymore," laughed Edgeington. "I get competition nerves when I'm at something like this. So that's probably the most nerve wracking thing, is getting ready to compete. Trying to perform and do your best. Hopefully not mess up."
This week's contest will crown the national champions and select eight people for the U.S. Parachute Team for the World Championship, which will be held at Skydive City in Zephyrhills in November. Hayhurst said canopy piloting is mostly performed by very fit people in their 20s and 30s. Because of the fast approach speeds, canopy piloting can be riskier than other types of recreational parachuting. Earlier in the week, a competitor received some bumps and bruises after a rough landing; Hayhurst said the swooper was checked out at the hospital and is ok.
"This is a young man and young women's game," said Hayhurst. "It's physical."
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush .