They come falling out of the summer sky, their chutes floating down like bright flowers that wilt upon touching the ground. To an innocent below—neck craned painfully and eyes watering—sport parachuting looks like the easiest of foolhardy endeavors, merely a case of descending from a great height while dangling from what seems to be a none-too-secure umbrella. Anybody who makes it back to solid ground without suffering physical or emotional bumps deserves acclaim as a returning hero. But competitive jumping is considerably more stimulating, exacting and even heroic than it appears. In some competitions there are tricky maneuvers to perform before reaching for the ripcord, in others there is a 10-centimeter target to hit inside a circle somewhere down below. Photographer Jerry Irwin, who relishes leaping out into space with camera in hand or on helmet, accompanied (and preceded) the jumpers in their world championships at Tahlequah, Okla. last year. His pictures on the following pages display the zest of the descent in this fast-rising game.
A lofty view of the sport is one thing, but while the jumpers are concerned more with precision than the scenery, observers below can look skyward into blossoming bursts of color. U.S. team member Charlie Hall (left) and the other incoming chutists are aimed at a target; the adventurer at right is packing up to join a team of demonstrators for an aerial show.
In control—and on target—Tim Saltonstall (U.S.), Helena Tomsikova (Czechoslovakia) and Bill Hayes (U.S.) strain for accuracy.