Sunday, April 09, 2006


First Skydive

I'm still alive. I don't usually need to note that fact, but it seems to be what everyone wants to know.

On the Ground

I took the Accelerated Freefall (AFF) Level 1 class last week, but didn't get to jump due to weather. I called the dropzone manager yesterday to see whether today would be a good day. She told me that several other people had taken the class last week, and everyone was trying to get a jump today, so the schedule was a bit crowded but she could probably squeeze me in. I called this morning, and she suggested I show up around 1:30 or 2:00.

I arrived at the dropzone at around 2:00, and discovered I had already been scheduled for the next planeload. However, the jumpmasters and instructors were already in the air, so the schedule was changed so that I could get my prejump briefing while the next load was going, and then I'd be in the load after that one.

I met one of the instructors, John D., who conducted the prejump briefing. This was a review of the most important stuff that I learned last weekend, concentrating on the situations in which I would deploy my reserve chute, and how I would handle other emergencies. We also practiced the exit from the plane a few times.

I also met the other instructor, Woody, who gave me a few other pointers, then he helped me get suited up. The equipment consists of a jumpsuit, a wrist-mounted altimeter, a helmet, a radio, and the pack containing the main and reserve parachutes. He checked all my equipment, and then had me watch him check his own.

We boarded the plane. Since I'd be getting out last (after all the real skydivers), I got in first. I sat with the pilots' seats at my back, with my instructors at each side, and then about ten more people packed in with us.

As the plane taxied toward the runway, I felt a surge of anxiety. I wasn't afraid of death or injury. It was more like the kind of "fear" one has when standing in line for a rollercoaster. It's not a fear of getting hurt; it's anticipation of upcoming moments of unpleasantness when the big drop starts. I was also worried about doing something stupid that would get me yelled at.

The Climb Up

As the plane climbed, the anxiety went away as I focused on what I had to do. The instructors had me describe the events of the upcoming jump. A guy seated in front of me was about to make his 25th jump, which would make him eligible for his skydiving license, so we chatted and wished one another good luck. I watched my wrist altimeter as we climbed. At around 9,000 feet, the instructors helped me turn on and test the radio, then did a final check of my equipment.

There was some discussion among the jumpers of which direction the landing pattern would be. As in an airplane, you want to land going into the wind, to minimize groundspeed on touchdown. The wind had been blowing out of the north most of the day, but during the last load, it had unexpectedly shifted to the south, causing many of the last load's jumpers to make a downwind landing. They decided to assume the wind would still be from the south, and planned the pattern accordingly.

The Descent

At 13,500 feet, the door opened, and the people in front of me started jumping out. The instructors directed me toward the door. One instructor stood in the doorway, and then I stood next to him. I turned my head into the below-freezing 100-mile-per-hour wind, and took a quick glance down. I did the "hotel check" (check-in, check-out), shouted the count, and then let go.

Then I was floating in the air, head down, with the instructors holding on at each side. The feeling was very peaceful, except for the wind. I got into the arch position, and got stabilized with my belly pointing toward the ground. I did the "Circle of Awareness" check: looking at my heading, checking the altimeter, looking to the instructor at my left, and to the instructor at my right. One of them gave me the hand signal to straighten my legs (your legs tend to fold up behind you due to the wind).

An instructor signaled me to do three practice pulls. (I should have remembered to do this myself, but my brain wasn't working very well.) I reached back and felt where the main parachute handle was. I did it two more times. I got a couple more signals to straighten my legs during this exercise.

Then I did my Circle of Awareness again, and noticed we were at around 8,000 feet. You fall 1,000 feet in about six seconds when in freefall. So I had about twelve seconds to enjoy the view before we got down to 6,000 feet. I don't remember any of those twelve seconds.

At 6,000 feet, I locked my gaze on to my altimeter as I'd been trained. At 5,000 feet, I waved my arms (which signals that I'm about to pull the chute), and then said "arch, reach, pull" to myself as I reached back and pulled out the chute.

The opening of the chute was very gentle. I just felt myself gradually being pulled from the belly-down position to a feet-down position, and the pressure of the pack's straps transferred from my shoulders to my legs. I was supposed to count "1-one-thousand, 2-one-thousand, 3-one-thousand, 4-one-thousand" to myself to give the chute adequate time to open, but I forgot that. Instead, I just looked up and saw a nice big square, stable, bright yellow parachute with no holes or tangled lines. Everything was perfect.

After a quick glance down, I grabbed the steering toggles which were above my head. These are two lines that are attached to the rear corners of the canopy. When you pull them down, they act like flaps on an airplane. I pulled both down, and I slowed down, just like it was supposed to work. Then I did 360-degree turns to the left and right by pulling the toggles one at a time. Everything was still perfect.

At this point, I was a little less than 4,000 feet above ground. I steered toward "the playground," an area just west of the airport where I could do whatever I wanted until I it was time to start the landing pattern. I made a few sharp turns. The chute was very maneuverable and easy to control.

By this time, my instructors had landed, and one of them told me over the radio to perform a practice flare, so I pulled both steering toggles down to my knees, and I felt my body swing forward beneath the canopy.

I had a little more time to play on my own, but upon reaching 1,000 feet I turned toward the airport. The instructor told me which direction to turn, and it confused me a bit, because everybody else seemed to be going the opposite way. The radio was only one-way, so I couldn't ask him if he was sure. I decided to trust him and do what he said. I "flew" a downwind leg, base leg, and then turned onto final, just like in a plane. Upon turning final, I saw the windsock and it showed I was going into the wind. Good.

I steered so that I was parallel to the airport's runway, about 20 yards to my right. There was plenty of open grass in front of me, so I didn't have to worry about hitting anything hard. From my experience in the airplane, and from other parachutists, I knew most people have a tendency to flare a little bit high, so even though I thought I was close to the ground, I waited until the instructor told me to flare. When he did, I pulled both toggle down as far as they would go.

The chute leveled out and started slowing down. It looked to me like I was a little too fast for a stand-up landing, so I pulled my feet up in front of me, and then rolled onto the ground.

I sat up. I heard "Good skydive" over the radio.

On the Ground Again

I gathered up my stuff and walked back to the hanger. It was a long walk, not because it was very far, but because I was carrying all that junk and was careful not to drag the canopy along the ground.

I took all the stuff off in the hanger, and got my debriefing from the instructor. He said I had done pretty well. The mistakes I made are the typical ones that first-time jumpers make. I didn't go into the proper arch position upon exiting the plane, which is why I was upside-down for a few seconds. I didn't keep my legs straight. I twisted my body too much during the practice pulls. He had to prompt me to make the practice pulls. But on the plus side, I had good altitude awareness ("Know thy altitude" is the skydiver's Golden Rule), I responded to all the signals they gave me, and my touchdown was soft.

He filled in my logbook, clearing me to move forward to Level 2 of the AFF program. So if I make another jump, I'll get to learn some other skills, like turning or flying forward during freefall.


I'm not sure I have the patience for skydiving. From hanging around the dropzone a couple of days, it looks like there is an awful lot of sitting around doing nothing between plane loads. If one spends an entire day skydiving, it's really only going to add up to five or ten minutes of freefall. I'm not the kind of social extrovert who would enjoy spending that much time hanging out with strangers in a hangar. The $100/hour airplane rentals seem like a better use of time and money.

The jump itself was a lot more pleasant and relaxing than I had expected. It felt like floating in the air, with a strong arctic wind. I thought the initial exit would cause a dropping-rollercoaster-like feeling until hitting terminal velocity, but I never really felt like I was falling. I've read one explanation of this phenomenon, which said that you don't really feel anything because when you let go of the plane, you are traveling 100 MPH into the wind, and your forward motion decreases as your vertical motion increases, so your speed doesn't change much. I don't really buy this explanation, but maybe there is something to it.

My landing roll didn't hurt at the time, but now, a few hours later, my knee feels a little stiff. I suspect I'll be sore tomorrow.

I don't have any pictures or video of my jump. The dropzone does provide videos for people who pay for them, but I figured I'd only need the video to show off to other people, and that's not why I did this. If anyone wants to know how my jump looked, just grab any of the thousands of other skydive pictures or videos off the web, and you can use Photoshop to paste my picture on top.

Will I jump again? I don't know. If the dropzone was 30-minute drive away, instead of a 90-minute drive, then I definitely would. If I do decide to get more training, I'll probably rent a hotel room near the dropzone for a weekend so that I can do several jumps over the course of a couple of days.

Would I recommend it to others? I'm not comfortable recommending that people do something that might cause them to get hurt, but I'd say that this was a lot of fun, and I never felt like I was in any danger. The amount of training needed for the initial jumps is pretty small, so it doesn't require a big investment in time or money to give it a try.

I don't think I'll be as anxious the next time (if there is a next time). Of course, it is easy to say that now, while sitting at my computer with a glass of beer.

So what's next for Kris? Bungee jumping? Running with the bulls? Russian Roulette? Stay tuned for the next exciting adventure...

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