In honor of Felix Baumgartner's historic attempt at a world-record high-altitude jump that breaks the sound barrier, we're highlighting the top ten skydiving scenes on film.
Physicist, blogger and avid skydiver Greg Gbur (a.k.a. Dr. Skyskull of Skulls in the Stars) also lent his expertise, although he pointed out that the number of realistic skydiving feats depicted on film are rare, "simply because of the time limit. The highest oxygen supply unnecessary altitude is around 16,000 feet," translating into a meager one and a half minutes of freefall - "Not much time to build dramatic tension!"
That doesn't stop Hollywood from trying, though, resulting in some pretty entertaining skydiving stunts. (NB: Some scenes contain "NSFW language.")
1. Practically Every Bond Film Ever. There are so many to choose from, including that classic scene in Goldeneye where Bond rides a motorcycle off a cliff into freefall, and manages not only to catch hold of an airplane, but maneuver himself inside so he can land the plane safely. But for this list, we give you the highly unrealistic mid-air fight scene from Moonraker, wherein the intrepid super spy successfully battles not one, but two, villains while in freefall.
Still, it does showcase the basic physics of skydiving: the combined effects of Earth's gravity and air friction, or drag, countering the freefall. At the start of the dive, gravity exerts the stronger force, so the skydiver accelerates. But the faster s/he travels, the more the air resistance increases, until it exactly counters the pull of gravity. This is called "terminal velocity": the point at which a skydiver stops accelerating.
2. The Gypsy Moths. The Gypsy Moths of the title are a group of skydivers who raise a ruckus in a small Kansas town one Fourth of July weekend, culminating in a climactic skydiving show. At the time it was made (1969), skydiving was a fairly new sport, and the film helped popularize wingsuit jumping. As the behind-the-scenes clip below shows, director John Frankenheimer brought in experts to handle the skydiving stunts, specifically Todd Higley, who invented wingsuit BASE jumping.
3. Charlie's Angels. We'll ignore the fact that this skydive commences from a commercial airplane - the emergency door is opened mid-flight, presumably at an altitude of around 30,000 feet, yet the mad bomber and his nemesis don't have oxygen masks. Nor do we see how the remaining passengers and crew deal with the sudden rapid depressurization of the cabin that would result. (Everyone would have less than five minutes to get their emergency oxygen masks on, just in time to freeze to death because the cabin temperature would drop precipitously as well.)
But hey, Lucy Liu gets to show her daredevil side with a daring "rescue" of the foiled bomber who has been summarily ejected mid-flight. Technically, it's entirely possible to catch up with a fellow skydiver in freefall by orienting one's body into a head-first dive instead of assuming the traditional spread-eagled position, thereby reducing your body's surface area and hence the drag from air friction. Skydivers can increase their terminal velocity from 120 MPH in a spreadeagled position to 200 MPH by doing so.
4. Drop Zone. I actually love this film, despite its cheese factor, because Yancy Butler is da bomb as a tough, fearless jump instructor. This scene is notable for depicting large formation skydiving - when a group of jumpers manipulate their bodies during freefall to create patterns, kind of like marching band formations at high altitudes. Someone skilled at freefalling would be able to control the orientation of his or her body in the air: spinning, moving forward or backward, "sitting," or falling on one's back, in addition to the usual "belly to earth" position.
It's also a great example of what to do when your chute doesn't open, or becomes entangled. "Cutaway!" the poor dude's colleagues scream, meaning he should jettison his main chute, and he does so, but can't get his reserve chute to open. This necessitates another mid-air rescue, which seems to be a popular trope in Hollywood skydiving films.
5. Point Break. (relevant scene starts around 2:40 mark) This is the scene serious skydivers most love to mock. The two main characters (Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, respectively) "are in freefall together for several minutes, although they clearly jumped from somewhere less than 10,000 feet," Gbur explains. "This means they should have had an impact somewhere around the 45-second mark."
6. Terminal Velocity. Okay, there are two classic scenes that serious skydivers like to mock. This one features Charlie "Winning!" Sheen skydiving in a convertible. Somehow he manages to fight off the bad guy, get his kidnapped girlfriend out of the trunk, and jump from the car all in mid-air. Bonus: he ends up having to use his reserve chute, and coasts dangerously close to some treacherous wind turbines, because apparently he hasn't learned how to steer his chute. (Standard gear includes toggles so skydivers can steer to a safe landing site.)
7. The Incredibles. Bailing out of a plane mid-flight and rescuing two children during freefall is a snap if you're ElastiGirl. The rest of us? We'd be toast.
8. Cutaway. This is a cheesy action-packed scene from a justifiably obscure film (featuring one of the Baldwin brothers, Stephen). Unrealistic though it might be to the trained skydiving eye, it does showcase how things can go horribly wrong during freefall should the skydiver not manage to hold dynamic stability. That's the reason the spreadeagle belly-to-earth position is so common: skydivers aren't afraid of high speed during the fall, they just don't want to be tumbling out of control on the way down. So they use their arms and legs as counterbalances, much like the fletching on an arrow helps it fly straight.
9. The Dark Knight. Sure, Heath Ledger's Joker stole this movie, but among the more spectacular stunts was the daring extradition of a Chinese gangster from his high-security high-rise. Remember the mention of wingsuit jumping in The Gypsy Moths (#2)? That's pretty similar to what Batman does with his spiffy batwing suit in this scene.
10. Armour of God. Finally, it's not technically a skydive, or even wingsuit BASE jumping, but the great Jackie Chan is famous for doing his own stunts, including this daring jump off a cliff into freefall, landing on a hot-air balloon. Chan isn't Batman or Bond; he actually did the stunt in two parts, because it wasn't possible to fly the balloon close enough to the cliffs safely. So Chan did the first part of the jump using a wire, and then jumped from a plane onto the hot-air balloon in mid-air for the second part.
Ironically, this is the film that nearly killed the seemingly indestructible action star. As he was executing a relatively mundane stunt, jumping from a wall onto a tree, the branch broke and he fell to the ground, suffering serious head injuries from the rocks he landed on.
Just missing the list: Tom Cruise's dive from a high rise in Mission Impossible 2. Gbur also mentioned "an appallingly bad" 1963 film called The Skydivers that received the Mystery Science 3000 satirical treatment, as well as a laughable scene featuring "a very sketchy drop zone" from 1985's Fandango. There is a handy Website with a comprehensive list of other great and not-so-great skydiving scenes. Feel free to weigh in with your own in the comments.
Image: Pilot Felix Baumgartner of Austria performs during the high altitude test jumps for the Red Bull Stratos mission in Taft, California, USA on June 21, 2012. Credit: Luke Aikins/Red Bull Content Pool