Are You Ready To Skydive?
By Todd Supple
June 10 (Part 1)
"Okay, Todd, are you ready to skydive?"
The question comes from Dave, one of my jumpmasters. He and Joe, my other jumpmaster, stand with me on an open ramp at the back of a plane called a Skyvan. Like the old cliche says, it's a perfectly good airplane, and the three of us are preparing to jump out of it.
As wind roars around the plane, I look down at the ground 13500 feet below. Hundreds of farms are little more than green and brown squares, like pieces of a neverending quilt. Houses and buildings look like specks. Roads are merely black lines across the landscape.
Then I look out in front of me. MY GOD, HAS THE SKY ALWAYS BEEN THIS BIG?! Above. Below. From side to side it takes up almost my entire field of vision.
My heart races. I find it hard to breathe. My legs feel like they'll buckle under me. Dave and Joe hold onto handles on either side of my jumpsuit. Maybe they're even supporting me a little. Dave's question remains to be answered. Am I ready to skydive?
My mind flashes through the list of tasks I'm supposed to perform on this, my first jump. Can I do all of them? Or will fear completely blank my mind? What if I get separated from Dave and Joe? Will I be able to deploy my parachute? Could I find my way back to the landing field?
A lot of questions. And, as if they aren't enough, one more comes to mind. How in the world did I get here in the first place?
To completely answer that last question requires going back decades.
I've always wanted to be up in the sky. When I was growing up, my parents knew, if they couldn't find me anyplace else, to look up in the trees in our back yard. I'd probably be reclining on one of the highest branches, reading a book or watching the birds fly or maybe just gazing at the clouds.
I don't generally remember my dreams, but of the ones I do remember my favorites were those involving flying - not flying in an airplane, but out there floating above the clouds and swooping over the ground. In those dreams it seemed so natural and easy. I knew how to fly. Sometimes I believed that if I could still remember how I was doing it when I woke up, that I'd be able to fly for real.
Of course as years pass, dreams fade in the face of reality. School. Work. Responsibilities. Other things take up time and replace dreams. But even faded dreams linger. On more than one occasion I had thought about skydiving. It seemed to be the closest thing to my dreams. But I never really pursued the idea. And to be honest, I always had a little bit of fear of jumping out of a plane.
Then I discovered that Jim, a coworker and friend, had begun skydiving. Over a one-year period, I asked him about it. As he told me about his experiences, the idea grew on me. I went to the website for Skydive Delmarva, www.skydivedelmarva.com. The images and information I saw got me even more interested. Finally I took a few deep breaths, called the people there and signed up for my first AFF (Accelerated Freefall) class. .
The night before that class I didn't get much sleep. And I certainly didn't dream. Doubts weighed on me. Was I really going to do this? Would I be all right? Was I crazy? I guessed I would just have to see.
I pull up to Skydive Delmarva for the first time.
"Trailer Trash Lane," reads the sign for a dirt road in front of a series of trailers near the airport's grass runway. I like this place already. It reminds me of a World-War-I airfield with tin-roof buildings, chairs out in the open, a couple picnic tables, and a few dogs roaming. Not too many people seem to be around. Many are just getting up. It's Sunday morning, and I'll find out later that the people here like their Saturday-night parties.
I meet my AFF classmates, JoAnn and Rusty. We fill out long waiver forms containing such information as, "Skydiving is a risky activity that can lead to serious injury or death." There's a news flash. After we're done with the legalese, we get together with our teacher, Bill, one of the co-owners of Skydive Delmarva. Over a number of hours, we learn the key principles for beginning skydivers. Among them are...
Altitude Awareness. There are no mile markers in the sky. When you first begin to jump, the ground from 10000 feet up looks a lot like the ground from 3000 feet. But at the first elevation you've got the better part of a minute of freefall, while at the latter you've probably got less than ten seconds to deploy your parachute. So students are trained to glance at a wrist altimeter every few seconds as part of a routine called the Circle of Awareness.
Arch. Back arched. Stomach out. Arms bent at 90 degrees to the side with the hands above the head. Legs bent to about a 45-degree angle. In this position, the force of the wind will tend to drive a skydiver into a stable position, belly down and horizontal.
Relax. In freefall, the human body drops at between 100 and 120 mph. That's like walking into a hurricane-force wind. Tense up and that wind will have its way with you, buffeting you and spinning you like a top. But if you relax, much of the buffeting will dissipate within your body, giving you more stability.
Bill also teaches us a series of hand signals that the jumpmasters can use to indicate what we should do to correct problems since it's too noisy to talk in freefall.
We go through the steps for exiting the plane. We practice pulling our pilot chutes, the small parachute that first catches the wind then pulls the main parachute bag from the pack. Then we learn canopy control, and the three legs of a landing approach - the downwind, base and final approach that form a backwards "J".
It's a lot of information, but the real challenge for me comes when Bill tells us what to look for after we've deployed our parachute. Looking up at it, we have three questions to answer:
1) Is it there? Pretty self explanatory.
2) Is it square? A ram-air parachute is not your daddy's old circular parachute. In fact it is constructed much like an airplane wing. Open slots in the front of the parachute allow air into the space between its upper and lower layers to fill its cells. Like an air mattress, the parachute then inflates into a rectangular wing.
3) Is it controllable? A parachutist uses the left and right brakes that connect to the parachute's trailing edge to control direction and, to a degree, forward speed and rate of descent. Much like a pilot.
After walking us through what should happen when our parachute deploys, Bill then shows us pictures of the bad things that may happen. "This is a line twist," he says, holding up a picture in which all of the lines going to the parachute are twisted up just like when kids spin up a swing's chains so they can spin around as the twist comes undone. Another picture shows a parachute that is only partially inflated. Another one shows the bag that holds the parachute floating up above, unopened. Each time Bill tells us what we can do to correct the problem. Sometimes that answer, especially with the parachute not coming out of the bag, is to get rid of that parachute, an action known as a cutaway. To do that we'll have to pull the red handle on our right chest strap, then deploy the reserve chute by pulling on a silver handle on the left chest strap.
The classroom is air conditioned, so I know it's not heat that's making me sweat. I start hearing an inner voice. "Todd, your car's right out in the parking lot."
What if I look up on my first skydive and see one of the problems Bill has shown us? Will I be able to respond correctly? Cutaway? Reserve? Will I be able to do it in time?
"It's a nice day. It'll be a pleasant drive."
Or will I freeze in panic? I know myself. I know I'm not the bravest person on the planet. When I hear the saying, "All we have to fear is fear itself." all I can think is, 'Yeah, but isn't that enough?'
"In two hours, you can be safe at home."
The voice gets louder and more insistent the more pictures Bill shows us, and it sure seems like there are a lot of them.
But I stay, possibly more from the potential embarrassment of getting up and leaving. Talking with my classmates afterwards, I find out they'd fought down similar feelings. Finally at the end of the class we have a written test on the material we've gone over. Like JoAnn and Rusty, I pass. But to be honest, I don't necessarily know if that's a good thing.
Only one task left, putting all of that knowledge into action. The first skydive.
But it's not going to happen that day. The winds are blowing too hard for AFF students to go up, too much risk of a bad landing under canopy. I drive home, relieved. I won't skydive today, but I will on another day... maybe.
June 10 (Part 2) Getting up to 13500 feet... and Coming Back Down
Maybe it's that I've already spent the money. Maybe it's that I'll never forgive myself if I don't try. Maybe it's that I really want to know what it's like to have taken a skydive. Maybe it's simply that I want my dream. Whatever the reason, I'm back at Skydive Delmarva. But once again winds threaten to keep me from going up. Staff members explain that those winds tend to die down as sunset approaches. I've made the 2-hour drive out for the second time, so I decide to wait.
Yet as a couple hours pass, the winds still keep us on hold. Staff members decide to get one last load up, and they think about bumping me off of it.
"Yeah, take me off the load!," I think. "I can come back. Maybe in a week. Or two. Or a month. No need to rush things."
But the winds die down as expected. I'm cleared to jump.
After sitting around for hours, everything then happens in a rush. I stand still as my jumpmasters check out my equipment and dress me in a jumpsuit, parachute pack, helmet, altimeter, radio receiver and goggles like I'm some sort of Skydiving-Ken doll.
Then we get on the plane with about fifteen other jumpers. There is only one other AFF student who is doing his Level-6 jump along with his jumpmaster. The rest are fun jumpers. Fun jumping? The concept seems foreign to me.
The plane's ramp closes, we taxi on the runway, then take off. No graceful way out now.
All too quickly we're up at jump elevation. Most of the others jump out first, in groups or alone. Then I'm standing on the open ramp, contemplating Dave's question. "Okay, Todd, are you ready to skydive?"
So that's how I got here. The question remains - What do I do now?
"Say no! Just say no!" that inner voice says. Somehow I managed once again not to give in to it. I doubt that a more testosterone-challenged word has ever been uttered by a man than the "Yes." I managed to force out. But I did get it out. I'm actually going to jump.
So I begin the procedure for the skydive. I look at Joe and say, "Check in."
Joe gives me a thumbs up, then takes a handle on my suit.
I turn to Dave. "Check out."
Dave nods and smiles, holding my suit as well.
I rise up on my feet. "Up!" I hunch down a little. "Down!" I jump forward. "Out!"
And suddenly we're tumbling over in the wind. As Bill told us during class, there's none of the stomach-wrenching sensation of falling. Instead it feels more like riding on the top of a car going a hundred mph. Or as I imagine it would feel anyway. Dave and Joe are still holding onto the handles on my suit, but we continue to flip over. That wasn't supposed to happen, I think, but fortunately my training comes back to me.
Arch. That's what I do. With that, I settle into a steady falling position, chest to Earth, eyes out on the horizon, as I'd been told would happen. Yes! This stuff actually works!
Relax. I try, but I am plummeting earthward at about 110 mph.
Circle of Awareness. I check the horizon in front of me. I check the altimeter on my left wrist, then I check with Joe, still holding me on my left. He gives me a thumbs up. I turn my head to check with Dave, holding me on my right. He gives a thumbs up as well.
I look back to the horizon... Sunlight... Sky... Ground far below, still looking surreal... Wind... The sensations are almost too much.
There are moments in a person's life that stand out. Often they are firsts. Sometimes they mark transitions. This is one of those moments. I've actually done it! I'm skydiving. Now there is life before I skydived, and life after... at least that's what I hope. But I only have a few seconds for such thoughts. There's a lot still to do, starting with...
Practice Touches. While I bend my left arm and swing it over my head, I reach back with my right hand to the handle for the pilot chute, out of sight on the back of the parachute pack. I feel nothing except pack. The handle's not where I expect it to be.
Of all the important things I have to complete during this jump, I would rate pulling my pilot chute WAY up there. No pilot chute - no main chute. No main chute... Well, you figure it out. At that moment it doesn't matter that Dave is there to pull the pilot chute if necessary. It doesn't matter that even if everything else goes wrong, and my main chute never opens, there is an automatic activation device in my pack that will open my reserve chute. At 11,000 feet and falling approximately 1000 feet every six seconds, I'm not in the most rational state of mind. I feel around more and more desperately. Finally Dave takes my wrist to put my hand on the handle. In panic mode, it takes me a moment to relax enough for him to do so. I feel the handle. That's where it is! Dave lets go, and I pull both my arms back out to the 90-degree position. I do my second practice touch. This time I find the handle on my own. The same on my third practice touch, then I go back to my arched position.
Circle of awareness again. 9000 feet. Time's running out so I go on to the next task.
Toe taps. I bring my legs together twice, tapping my feet against each other. This is a way of making sure the legs are at the same level and symmetrical. If one is higher than the other or less bent, it can start a spin.
Circle of awareness again. 7000 feet.
At 6000 feet, I lock my eyes on my altimeter.
5500 feet. I wave my hands above my head, the universal sign to any other skydivers that I'm about to deploy my chute. I reach back for the pilot-chute handle. I miss it again, but only by a little. Dave takes my wrist and gets my hand to the handle. I pull it and hurl it to my side.
Dave and Joe drop away from me as I look up over my right shoulder for my main chute. Something happens here that I won't be aware of until I land. But right now, I watch the chute open.
It's there! At first it looks like a ball of fabric scraps. Sheets flap around in the wind as I begin to feel a tug upward and am pulled into a vertical orientation. Then the chute expands outward, taking shape until...
It's square! I never knew a rectangle could look so beautiful.
I unstow my brakes. I look left and pull the left one. I turn left. I let up on the left one, look right and pull the right one. The parachute turns right. I let up on the right one then pull both of the brakes down together, a move known as a flare which converts the forward speed of the parachute into lift. I swing forward as the trailing edge of the parachute pulls down, cupping the wind and slowing.
I look for the dropzone, a trapezoidal field with a small circle of pea gravel in the center. 4000 feet below and to the north. The winds have died down at surface level, but noticing how the ground seems to be moving below me, I realize that up here they're still blowing from the south at a pretty good clip. I turn my parachute into them to keep from overshooting the landing area. Most of the way down, I fly backward. As minutes pass, I regularly check my altitude and my progress over the ground, making sure I'm still headed back toward the landing area.
Next I hear a long interval of static on my radio, "Krrrrrrr..... Todd. Krrrrr......"
Okay, was that - "You're doing great, Todd." or "Oh my God, Todd, TURN, TURN!" Since I don't hear anything else for a while, I assume I'm doing okay, or more accurately, I hope it. With nothing else to go on, I keep my heading, sinking backward toward the dropzone. More static follows on the radio, but none of the instructions I'd really like to have now. Modern technology - sometimes it just doesn't work, especially when you really fricking want it to. But Bill had warned us that sometimes this happens, and trained us for what to do in such a case. I keep looking at my altimeter, then back at the dropzone, making sure I'm headed there.
At 1000 feet, I'm just about over the landing area, still a little upwind. I turn the parachute and head in on the downwind leg of my approach. I just hope I'm doing it right. At about 400 feet, I've reached the northeast end of the landing area and turn into the base leg, going west. At 200 feet, I turn south into the final approach and prepare for landing, brakes all the way up, feet and knees together.
Nice ground! Soft ground! Be gentle!
At about 15 feet I flare my parachute too early and begin to swing forward and backward as I descend. I land on hands and knees, easier than I had feared, a little harder than I had hoped. But the ground has never looked so good.
Dave and Joe come up to congratulate me on my first jump, then Joe pulls open my jumpsuit collar. "How long do you wait after pulling your pilot before looking up at your main chute?" he asks.
To be honest I can't remember. Five or six seconds is the correct answer. I hadn't even waited one second. As I think about it later, I figure it was probably one of those things that Bill taught us around the time we were learning about parachute malfunctions. Strange how thoughts of death can crowd out other information. Anyway there is a nice scrape where a strap slid across my neck while the main parachute opened. Until that moment I hadn't even felt it. While it starts to sting, I consider it a small price to pay for what I've just experienced.
A feeling of peace settles over me. Actually more than peace. This must be what it's like to be on drugs, I think.
With the parachute piled in my lap and over my legs, I get a ride back off the landing area in a golf cart. Then Dave and Joe debrief me, talking about what went right and what went wrong during the jump. Obviously the practice touches are high on the list of wrongs. "Relax," they tell me. It's a word I'm destined to hear numerous times as I progress through the AFF program. Unfortunately it will take me quite a while to heed the advice.
As for the flipping that took place when we exited the plane, maybe I jumped out a little early, but Dave and Joe tell me I did what I was supposed to in throwing the arch. Dave writes up comments about the jump in a log book they provide. And at the end of the debrief, they tell me a little about what I will do in my AFF Level-Two jump.
Level Two? You mean... go up there again?
I'm glad they don't tell me to consider bowling as a hobby instead of skydiving, but... again? As I leave, I'm thinking it's fifty-fifty that I'll return to Skydive Delmarva. Later I hear from Dave and Joe what they thought the odds were of me coming back. One vote - Maybe. One vote - No. I guess I was pretty obvious.
It ought to be illegal to drive oneself home after that first jump. My eyes may have been on the road, but my mind was still up in the sky. The aftereffects of that jump were probably more powerful than any intoxicant. I have to admit that there was at least one time when I almost wrecked. Ironically I had to go through a sobriety checkpoint. As my best friend would later say, it was a good thing they weren't testing for adrenaline.
But then comes the really dangerous part - telling my mother. Actually it goes easier than I thought. She says one thing. "Make sure your will is ready."
This starts a theme. It seems everybody I tell about my skydiving has a story about some friend of a friend of a friend who jumped for the first time and... well... they didn't meet the ground again on the best of terms. I see it in the eyes of these storytellers - they're writing me off or contemplating how to get me admitted to a psychiatric ward. Later one friend even gives me a belated birthday card, obviously written as a gag card for an older person. On the front it says, "Inside this birthday card is a special message from God..." And inside it reads, "See you soon."
All of this judgement from others weighs on me. Was I reckless? After all, if Man were meant to fly...
On the other hand, in the days that follow that first dive, I find myself staring up at the sky. It doesn't look the same. I've been there. Not inside an airplane. Not standing on a mountaintop. I've been through that sky and felt its power. And I survived. Despite all of the nervousness and fear, I realize one thing above all others. I loved being up there. Soaring. Floating. Like my dreams.
So I call and schedule my second jump... and I get my will ready.
This time there is little wind, so there's no long wait. My jumpmasters are Dave and Kathy. Instead of a long class, as was required for the first skydive, Dave gives me the instructions for the AFF-Level-2 jump in about half an hour.
So after enduring the Skydiving-Ken routine again, I'm suited up and headed to 12,500 feet. This time I'm in a different plane, a Caravan, which has a side exit door.
I've done this before, I think. I know what it feels like. No reason to be nervous. Yet I feel even more fear than on the first dive, and I wonder if I'm tempting fate too many times. I have done this already! What am I doing up here again? I've already got the bragging rights! Maybe it's not that I loved being up in the sky. Maybe it's that I love knowing I've been up there.
Jump time. Dave climbs out onto a step on the side of the plane, holding my suit with one hand and a bar above the door with the other. I stand at the door, with Kathy to my right.
Once again I get the question, this time from Kathy. "Okay, Todd, are you ready to skydive?"
I think I nod. Fear makes the moment hazy. I rush through the Check-In, Check-Out routine, more focused on my fear than on what I'm supposed to be doing. Not good. With my signals a little off, Dave jumps, pulling me out before I'm quite there, a last-second hesitation on my part probably. Kathy comes out after me, holding on. We tumble a little before I get into a stable arch.
The fear goes away as we fall. Decision time is over. Now it's time for action.
Circle of Awareness first, then a couple practice touches. The first touch is a little off. Kathy adjusts my hand quickly to the handle. The second touch I accomplish on my own. My confidence builds. I finish the other preliminaries.
Next I look to the left and drop my left shoulder a few inches to initiate a left turn. It works. After 90 degrees, I bring my left shoulder back up, then look right and drop my right shoulder. I turn to the right, but I pull up a little too late, going perhaps 180 degrees.
The final maneuver is forward motion. I pull my arms back from their 90-degree-bend position until my hands are about at my shoulders. At the same time I straighten out my legs. This causes my lower body to get more of the force from the air I'm falling through, tilting it upward and causing my upper body to dip down. The wind then hits my slanted body and deflects out behind me, thrusting all three of us forward. Of course I'm too high to actually see any forward motion relative to the ground, but the sound of the wind changes in my ears. Maybe it's just imagination, but it does feel like I'm moving forward. Cool!
After a few seconds I go back into my original position, arms at 90, legs at 45.
Circle of Awareness. 8000 feet. Plenty of time still to go.
For some reason at around 7000 feet, I lock my eyes on my altimeter, earlier than I'm supposed to, perhaps because the dive seems to have gone relatively well and I'm done with all of the tasks. But seconds later, out of the corner of my eye, I see Kathy's right hand, with her fingers in the position a kid uses for a fake gun. The signal means 'Pull your pilot chute.'
My response should have been to remain calm, reach back and pull my pilot. Is that what I did? Of course not. I panic. We're still above pull altitude! Did I do something wrong?! Did I lose altitude awareness?! I whip my right hand back, missing my handle. Then I feel another hand nearby, followed by a tug. As I watch Dave and Kathy drop away, I realize that Kathy pulled my pilot chute.
I spend much of the time under canopy wondering what I did wrong. Fortunately my radio works this time, so with Dave's guidance I make it back to the landing area fine despite the distraction. That distraction is something I will chide myself for later. After the rush of freefall, the canopy ride feels very calm, safe. But that's just a feeling. There are still risks. I need to keep my mind on what I'm doing and wait until I get to the ground before contemplating any mistakes I've already made.
In the debrief afterward, I find out that because I locked my eyes on my altimeter early, Kathy apparently thought I had waited too long and dropped below pull elevation. And even in panicking, I nearly got my hand to the handle for the pilot chute. I would have done so given a couple seconds more. Not a perfect dive, but Kathy and Dave clear me to advance to Level 3.
For several days afterward, I repeatedly look at my watch and count out the seconds of freefall that I still theoretically had when Kathy gave me the pull signal. 30 seconds at least. "Plenty of time," I tell myself. "Calm down on the next dive." The next dive. This time I know. Though my schedule will keep me from going back for three weeks, there will be a next dive.
There's less of the Skydiving-Ken routine this time, and more instruction on how to check out my own equipment. Kathy, one of my jumpmasters again, takes me through the inspection. I still have several dives before this will be my sole responsibility, but it's never too early to start learning such things.
This is my third dive, and my third plane, a Cessna, the smallest plane I've gone out of. There are only four or five of us on this load, including my other jumpmaster, Tom, and Jim, my coworker. The Cessna is a relatively slow plane, so we'll probably be less stable on exit, Tom explains. I can tell Tom doesn't care much for jumping from such a small plane with so little power. The way he talks about it, I feel like I could pull up the floor plates and see the rubber band powering the plane.
In addition we'll only be jumping from around 11000 feet which means a lot less freefall time. Being an engineer, I naturally start to extrapolate. 13500 feet on my first dive. 12500 feet on my second. Now 11000. Nine or ten more dives and I figure I'll be jumping off a ladder.
But extrapolation aside, this is a critical jump. For the first time, both jumpmasters will release me in freefall. My job is to get stable.
I don't feel the terror I experienced on the second dive, but I'm still nervous on the ride up. Jim exits the plane first. Then Kathy, Tom and I. After I go through the preliminaries, Kathy and Tom release me in freefall, but remain close. For the first time, I'm falling on my own. I begin to spin slowly, but by dropping a shoulder, I'm able to stop the spin. I'm stable. Incredible. I wish I could fall like this for hours. But all too soon, I have to pull my pilot.
Once again, my radio doesn't work under canopy, so I do my best to make it back to the landing area. I get close, but on my final approach I drift over into a neighboring farmer's field. Bunching up my canopy and slinging it over my shoulder, I try to step carefully through the plants, feeling awful about each one I inadvertently crush under my shoes. It takes a few minutes and a stumble or two before I realize that these 'crops' I'm trying so hard to avoid stepping on are just weeds. What a city boy! Picking up the pace, I make it back to the dropzone.
Even with the off landing, Kathy and Tom clear me for Level 4.
In the two-week break between jumps, I apply for my membership in the United States Parachute Association, a requirement before going on to Level 4. I also spend time on line learning more about the skydiving community.
The skydiving community. My first clue that there was such a thing came back before my first dive when Dave left a message on my answering machine and ended it with the words "Blue Skies."
When I heard it, I thought of Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. "Hey, Dudes, surf's up! Let's party."
But the more I'm around other skydivers, the more "Blue Skies" makes sense. Few other sports are as dependent on weather as skydiving. Winds (both their intensity and their direction), rain, clouds, and temperature all can turn a pleasant skydive into an uncomfortable one, or even a hazardous one. So, part greeting, part wish, "Blue Skies", says it succinctly.
But a community isn't just a saying or two. The more skydivers I meet, the more I realize how close a bond they have. We are all doing something that more than 99 percent of the people on the planet will never attempt. And everyone wishes the best for each other. With few exceptions, I find that any skydiver is willing to take the time to answer my questions, from the person who has taken one more jump than me to some who have taken thousands. Yeah, there's the occasional egomaniac, but most everyone at the dropzone will tell you that they are still learning as well.
Sometimes I wonder if I would have made it through the AFF program if the people weren't so friendly and supportive. I don't know. I'm just glad I didn't need to find out.
Three dives, three levels. Mistakes, but no serious problems. That's about to change.
It feels like the hottest day of the summer, at least 100 degrees. Because of mechanical problems with the plane, the Caravan again, we all have to wait.
After a couple hours sitting in the heat, I'm exhausted. Then after I get dressed in a hot jumpsuit, a problem with the plane's brakes causes another delay.
Finally we get in the air.
On the way up, we take advantage of free air conditioning by opening the exit door. It feels wonderful even as I fight down my fear yet again.
There's a big change with a Level-4 jump. I'll only have one jumpmaster - Dave. The goal of the jump is to demonstrate 90-degree turns left and right, then dock with Dave.
14000 feet. Yes, now we're going back in the right direction. No more thoughts of jumping off ladders.
Dave and I jump. I go through the preliminaries, then Dave uses hand holds on my suit to get around in front of me. With a nod between us, he releases me and backs away.
On my Level 3, I controlled my initial spin pretty quickly. Maybe I was lucky then, because this time I can't get steady. I spin around more than a few times, seeing Dave pass before me, faster each time. In frustration I tense up, exactly the wrong thing to do. Finally I get myself to relax and adjust. Tilting a shoulder down, I slow and then stop the spin, but by that time we're almost at the altitude for me to pull my pilot chute. With no time left to do the turns or the docking, I just stay steady. Finally I pull my chute and ride home under canopy.
On the ground, the debrief is somber. Dave is encouraging to me, noting that I was finally able to stabilize. He thinks perhaps my parachute pack was out of kilter, which might have contributed to the spin. I wonder if the heat had just dulled my senses. Whatever the cause, or combination of causes, I'll have to try Level 4 again. But as drained as I feel, it won't be that day.
Second Try at Level 4
Going up in the plane, I feel as if my stomach is doing gymnastics. So what else is new? But this time I stare down at the handles on my chest straps. Cutaway and reserve. One red handle, one silver. As mentioned already, if a problem with the main chute can't be remedied, those handles are the way to get rid of that chute and deploy the reserve. Pull them in the proper order and I'll have a nice new chute to ride down under. Pull them in the wrong order and there's a good chance I'll be looking up at a tangled mass of spaghetti as I drop like a rock.
Cutaway and reserve. As I stare at them, I come to the panicked realization that I've forgotten which is which. Critical information... but it's just not there.
As scared as I am, I feel embarrassed to ask Joe, my jumpmaster (not so embarrassed that I wouldn't have done so if necessary), but fortunately Jim is seated near me. I lean over and whisper to him, "Red then silver, right?" He looks at me, shocked at first, then grins and nods.
The humor of the moment relaxes me a little.
Unfortunately it isn't enough. Joe and I exit the plane. I'm a little more steady this time, but I still don't have good control of my turns, swinging back and forth as I try to perform them. The more I try, the more tense I get. Again a bad move. Finally I try to float toward Joe in order to dock, but don't realize that in trying to correct my turns I had already lowered my legs, so I can't lower them any more to go forward.
Time runs out. At altitude I pull my pilot chute. Once more I don't need to wonder how I did. I know I failed. But my attention is drawn from that letdown by something more important. Looking up at my parachute, I see a copy of one of those pictures Dave showed us. A line twist. My lines are wrapped around each other about four or five times. My parachute remains partially closed. Line twists are definitely not the most serious of problems one can have with a canopy, but they still are a problem. As long as my lines are twisted, I don't have control of my parachute.
Ever since Level-1 training I have wondered how I would respond to one of these types of problems. Would I freeze? Would I forget what I needed to do? But training takes over. I reach up to the bundles of lines and begin to pull them apart. Very slowly I begin to turn underneath the parachute. The lines untwist and the parachute opens. So even with my second failure in freefall, I've accomplished something.
But I still feel like I've slammed into a wall. Maybe I just don't have what it takes for skydiving. Maybe I should walk away and feel proud of what I managed to do. Maybe bowling wouldn't be such a bad option.
And maybe Joe senses what I'm feeling as we go through the debriefing. I'm sure he's seen it before, and I'm sure he's seen a lot of people leave at such points and never come back. He takes me aside and works with me on basic body position and relaxing. These are things I know I should have down, but he patiently goes through them again. This reminds me of something I've noticed in every jumpmaster I've had. All of them want me, and any other student, to pass. They are enthusiastic about what they do. But they are also cautious. Before they can let someone jump out of a plane on their own, they have to know that the student can take care of themselves.
"Don't leave," Joe says to me after the impromptu refresher course. "Give it another try."
I know I have to make one more attempt. But what if I fail yet again? I try not to think about it too much.
Third Try at Level 4
An hour or so later, I'm up in the air again. Tom is my jumpmaster. Out the door we go, then we get through the preliminaries. Finally Tom releases me. I'm steadier. I do my turns. They're far from perfect, but Joe's training seems to have helped me. When I lower my legs and pull in my arms to dock with Tom, I begin to move forward, but then start rocking from side to side. Despite all the training that tells me otherwise, I tense up, then begin spinning to my left.
Halfway through a 360-degree turn, I shout my first expletive in freefall. Yeah... the big one. But when I come back around, I manage to stop, facing Tom.
One more try. I lower my legs and pull my arms back again, but this time I keep them wider for stability. And I relax. I close in on Tom from about 20 feet out... 10 feet... 5 feet... I manage to dock with him just when it's time to wave off and pull my pilot chute.
On the canopy ride down, I spend some of the time wondering whether I passed. I completed the tasks, but did so far from perfectly. Iffy, at best, I think.
Fortunately Tom doesn't keep me in suspense. He walks up right as I land. "Congratulations, my man, you are going on to Level Five!"
Yes! With those words, all doubts vanish. I savor this success more than passing any other level, even Level 1. I am going to get through this after all! Maybe I do have what it takes to skydive.
I go out to the dropzone, hoping to do my Level-5 jump. When I get there I see JoAnn for the first time since our Level-1 class. While I've been coming out mostly on weekdays, she's been out on weekends, going through the AFF levels. I tell her about my setbacks on Level 4, and she lets me know about her problems getting into a stable fall on several attempts at Level 3. She worked through it as well. Now she's ready for her Level-6 jump.
We may be near the same level in the AFF program, but our attitudes about skydiving are very different. "I was hooked from the first jump," she says. She talks about buying her first jumpsuit and parachute. "Color coordinated, of course," she says with a grin.
I, on the other hand, have to admit that I'm still undecided. I'm determined to get through the AFF program, but I'm not sure what I'll do afterward. Whatever I do, I'm certain color coordination isn't going to be a priority.
Since she's been out more on the weekends, JoAnn has gotten to know a lot more of the people. She introduces me around, especially to a fellow AFF student, Tammy, whose husband, Glenn, is one of the jump videographers. As AFF students, JoAnn, Tammy and I develop a friendship. We make plans to go up on a load together when we've all graduated AFF.
But unfortunately we aren't able to jump that day. Weather conditions keep AFF students grounded. Then a thunderstorm comes in. So the waiting continues.
This jump involves two 360-degree turns, left and right, and docking. I joke with Dave, my jumpmaster once again, that with all the 360s I did on my three tries at Level 4, perhaps he could let me skip this one. He smiles... I still have to do the jump. Fortunately all goes well. It's like I've gotten over a hill. The 360s feel natural. Docking still feels a little awkward, but I manage. So it's on to Level 6. And for a change, I'm going to attempt a second level on the same day.
The goals of this jump are to show a back loop (the equivalent of a back flip), a barrel roll and then what's known as tracking. My jumpmaster is Mike, whom I meet about an hour before we get on the plane. This is my eighth jump. Mike is approaching his 8000th. But like every other instructor, he's enthusiastic and encouraging, as if he's still new to the sport. On the way up to altitude, he has me take deep breaths on several occasions to calm me down. I guess my reputation for not being the most calm student has gotten around.
This jump also involves what's called a poised exit. Instead of jumping from the door, I actually climb out, grabbing a bar on the outside of the plane above the door. It turns out to be easier than it sounds. And it's pretty cool looking over the plane's wing. Then I pull in and push away with Mike following me. I don't throw the best arch, so I take a few seconds to get stable, seconds I would've liked to have for the jump's tasks. A little disoriented, I mistakenly try for a front loop, but only get a third of the way through it before the wind seems to bounce me back to my arch.
Coming to my senses, I manage to throw something like a back loop by stretching my arms out and tucking my legs, but the worst flip I've ever done on a trampoline is far better than this loop. So I arch and come back to a stable position.
Next comes the barrel roll. I fold one arm in to my chest, rolling over the other way, then putting that arm back out and tucking the other arm in. Rolling over until I'm falling belly down again, I bring the second arm back out to the 90-degree position. That went well. I wish I could do it again.
But then I start spinning, probably from pulling my legs together. No! I fight to keep from tensing up. I finally manage to get back to a stable fall just before it's time to pull my pilot chute.
The rest of the dive goes uneventfully, but upon landing I hear what Mike has said to the other jumpmasters waiting at the dropzone. "There's nothing wrong with Todd that a Valium wouldn't cure." Truer words...
Mike clears me to go on to Level 7, mainly because I always managed to get stable. He gives me some positions to practice, and that one word of advice I've heard so many times before - Relax!
One level left.
Level 7 and Beyond
Joe is my jumpmaster once again.
This time the exit is a diving or Superman exit, jumping toward the back of the plane. Since it's my first try, I tumble some, but then stabilize.
I get through the skills - loops and tracking - pretty easily. The turns that challenged me so much in previous jumps now seem natural. Instead of thinking about dropping my shoulder, it's as if I want to face in a different direction, and suddenly I am.
Under canopy I have no problem getting back to the dropzone, but misread the wind sock and go into a crosswind landing. Fortunately my mistake doesn't cost me anything except a few aches and pains over the next several days because of how hard I come into the ground.
The debrief seems almost as surreal as the one for my Level-One jump. Joe passes me and presents me with a certificate. The first person I tell is Jim, my friend and the first person who knew about my desire to skydive. He congratulates me. Then Dave takes a picture of Joe and me to post on the dropzone's website.
I'm off student status. But the learning hasn't stopped. In fact it's only beginning. Joe gives me a yellow card that lists skills I'll have to demonstrate and tasks I'll have to complete in order to get my 'A' license.
Now comes the real graduation - jumping out of a plane by myself. My tenth skydive will be my first solo. Nobody will be there to help if I have problems. No more hand signals. No more debriefs. Just me, the sky, and gravity.
So what do I do? Naturally I begin to have doubts. I talk with my former jumpmasters. One of them, and I can't remember which, offers a telling observation. "I've seen a lot worse skydivers out there, Todd." With these confidence-building words ringing in my ears, I wait for the jump.
Over the PA system, I hear the 20-minute call for the load. For my previous nine skydives, the person setting up the manifest for the load would call out something like, "Todd's on an AFF-1 with Dave and Joe." This time the woman running manifest calls out my name by itself. Now I'm one of the "fun jumpers."
Fun jumper. It still seems like a foreign concept to me.
I inspect my gear, then suit up and go out to the waiting area. I think about what I'm going to do on this jump. My goal is simply to do a steady fall, and take in the experience. I'll pull my pilot chute at about 5000 feet. But that still leaves one choice. "Which exit should I use?" I ask Tom who's waiting to do an AFF jump with another student.
I think his response makes me feel more like I've gone off AFF-student status then actually receiving a certificate. "How about just tumbling out in a cannonball and flipping for a couple thousand feet?" That gets me to laugh and relax a little.
But then there's the flight up. Over the past nine jumps, I've slowly gotten more comfortable with the idea of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. Not this time. "Okay, Todd, are you ready to skydive?" I silently ask myself. As we climb to jump altitude, I check my equipment repeatedly. I must reach back to the handle for my pilot chute a dozen times, as if I'm becoming obsessive/compulsive. It's there each time, but a minute later I'm wondering again if maybe it pulled from the pocket in which it's tucked.
At jump altitude I feel strange going up to the open door by myself. I alone will decide when I leave the plane, with the caveat that if I wait one second too long I'll have half a dozen jumpmasters and tandem masters screaming, "Exit! Exit! Exit!" so they can get to the door themselves.
No more "Check In... Check Out...." Instead I simply jump, doing the exit I've practiced most, facing forward, arched. As I drop away from the plane, I check my horizon and altitude, then do a practice touch on my pilot-chute handle. It's still there.
Then... I just fall.
For the first time I really feel the air pressing into me. No tests keep me from savoring the sensation. Maybe I would have felt this if I had taken a tandem dive, with a tandem master taking care of all the procedures. But then again maybe with a tandem I would have felt I'd done enough and never come back for that second dive. All the anguish and doubt I've been through seem to be a pittance in payment for this moment.
I have the sky to myself. A new playground, the biggest I've ever been in. On the spur of the moment, I do some turns to see everything off in the distance. The land below. The Chesapeake Bay. The Atlantic. Clouds in the distance. Incredible.
6000 feet. The memories will last, but the moment must end. Reluctantly I lock my eyes on to my altimeter.
5000 feet. I wave my arms above my head, then pull my pilot chute. A few seconds later, I look up. There. Square. Controllable. Now it's time to get home, unassisted by radio. The dropzone is almost right below me. The winds come from the north so I fly to the northwest end of the field. At 1000 feet I start south into the downwind leg of my landing. At about 400 feet I turn east into the base leg. Finally at 200 feet I turn north into the final approach. The pea-gravel field is right in front of me, a marker that's considered the target in the center of the landing area. I've never even gotten close to it before. Maybe I'm finally mastering canopy control. What if I can land there, standing up? What a way that would be to end my first solo dive!
But I soon realize I'll come down short of the 'peas'. And unfortunately I pull down on my brakes to flare for my landing a little too late, only a few feet above the ground. Pulling my legs up, I butt slide across the grass toward the pea gravel. More aches and pains.
When I finally come to a stop, someone yells from across the landing field, "Safe!"
A few other jumpers share in a laugh. So do I. Yeah, I've definitely still got a lot to learn. And you know what... I like it that way.
So am I ready to skydive?
In the months since going off AFF-Student status, I've taken 18 more skydives. I have jumped with coaches, swooping at them just like in my dreams. As planned I've gone up on a load with JoAnn and Tammy, now that we've all graduated from AFF. I've even gone up on the same load as my father, who took his first dive at 68 years of age. I've caught a thermal updraft and ridden it like an eagle, remaining at the same elevation for several minutes. I've watched birds fly... from above. I've seen the sun start to set from 5000 feet. I've learned how to flare correctly and land standing up, most of the time. I've tracked and turned and looped and tumbled. And I've even learned to relax... somewhat.
But before every jump, I still have a little bit of fear.
I've talked with other skydivers about how they feel. Usually they say the same thing. They may have thousands of jumps, but climbing to altitude and getting to the exit door, they go through a gut check each time. There are always things that can go wrong. But there are so many wonderful things to do out in that miles-high playground.
So am I ready to skydive?
I'll probably always have a moment of wondering at the door. But after that step out into the sky, I know the real answer - Absolutely.
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