“I’ve always wanted to go skydiving.”
I heard someone say this across a crowded dinner table, and I said, “Oh, me too!” Another person said “Well, you should do it.”
It was a challenge that I accepted first in 1994 and 5 times since then.
I didn’t expect to do it more than once, but the thrill is just too hard to resist. I have no desire to become a solo skydiver, but I love tandem skydiving — where the professional skydiver does all the work and I just hang along for the ride!
For my first jump, I really had no idea what to expect. This was pre-YouTube days, so I had only seen skydiving on TV (and nothing specifically about tandem jumping). I knew I would be connected to a professional skydiver, and I now describe the tandem attachment as “you’re wearing the instructor like a backpack.”
Here are a few things that will help prepare you for your first tandem skydive…
Tandem Skydiving Facts
At most places you must be at least 18 years old (take a valid photo ID), with a weight limit of 225 lbs.
Loose-fitting clothes are definitely a good idea, as are comfortable, sturdy, fully-attached shoes. No flip flops!
I recommend choosing a drop zone that supports the United States Parachute Association rules and regulations. You can use their Drop Zone Locator to find locations near you.
Call ahead for a reservation, if you can. However, larger drop zones try to accommodate walk-ins. Prepare to spend several hours at the drop zone — sometimes up to half a day, depending on the weather and the staffing situation at that site. Feel free to take snacks and bottled drinks (no alcohol), in case vending machines are not available.
Leave all valuables locked inside your car or with a friend on the ground. There may be lockers for your things, but probably not. There will be a place to leave your car keys.
If you wear glasses or contacts, talk to the staff at the jump site to make sure their goggles will protect your eyewear.
A couple of jumps ago, I discovered I am becoming more sensitive to motion sickness. For my recent jump, I took a non-drowsy Dramamine and that did the trick.
You will watch a video about tandem skydiving that describes the process you will soon participate in. I have seen several versions of this video. Some of them will be similar to the video you might choose to buy of your own jump.
While watching the video (or perhaps after), you will review and sign several pages of waivers — including liability and photograph/video releases. The skydiving liability waivers are pretty serious, holding harmless the obvious suspects (your tandem instructor, plane pilot, owner of drop zone, etc.) as well as some unexpected others (people who made and designed the airplane parts and the farmer who owns the field next to the landing site, in case you land in his field. Seriously!!). Read it as thoroughly as you would any legal document that says you are about to participate in a death-defying jump from an airplane.
Of course there are risks. Use the Internet to search for skydiving statistics, if that’s what you’re into. Be warned that many statistic sites start off with scary things like skydiving fatalities per year. I know it’s risky, but I have never been overly concerned about it. I guess I buy into the theory that I am more likely to be injured while driving my car to the drop zone than during the actual skydive.
Once the paperwork is complete, it will be time to pay the piper. Plan to pay around $200 for a tandem skydive, and up to $100 more for extras like video and pictures. Most places will accept payment by cash, check, or credit card, but ask in advance so you don’t show up unable to pay.
Q: What if you change your mind?
A: You’ll need to ask the drop zone’s policy on this. One place I went allowed you to change your mind until you stepped in the plane. Another place gave no refunds after you made the payment. Keep in mind that they can’t make you jump out of the plane. You can get all the way to the open door of the plane and decide you don’t want to do it. In that case, enjoy the rest of your expensive plane ride back to the airport!
Next, it’s probably time to meet your “jump master” — your very own professional tandem skydiving instructor. All of mine have been guys, so I will refer to the jump master as “he”. He will start to explain the process and your gear. For the record, a tandem jump master has made at least 500 jumps before (and in many cases, several thousand!) and has gone through a rigorous training program.
The gear you use will depend on your drop zone, but one thing is universal and that’s your harness & nbsp ; I will tell you right now it is uncomfortable. It’s similar to a rock climbing or rappelling harness and is specifically designed to connect you to your skydiving instructor. Just plan on having a wedgie and a tough time breathing. Remember, you want the harness to be tight and secure! It will connect to your instructor in 4 places: 2 at shoulders and 2 at hips, but you won’t “hook up” until right before you jump out of the plane.
You will also be given a pair of goggles to wear. Other gear may include a jump suit and a helmet. The helmet is soft-cloth and more to keep long hair from flying in your face than for real protection. As Jerry Seinfeld said: “If you jump out of that plane and that chute doesn’t open, the helmet is now wearing you for protection!”
In a tandem skydive, the instructor wears the parachute pack on his back. The large parachute is specifically designed for tandem skydiving and can safely hold 2 people. There is also a drogue chute that is deployed immediately after exiting the plane. The drogue will help slow down the descent of 2 jumpers to the more normal speed of 120 mph — which is necessary for the parachute to open safely. The parachute is usually deployed at 5,500 feet. There is a secondary reserve chute, and an automatic activation device (AAD) that will open the parachute around 2,000 feet, if it has not already been opened.
Once you’re suited up, it’s time to go! I have jumped out of planes about the size of a VW bug and as large as a single-car garage. Smaller planes will require some preparation at the plane, with instruction on how to exit the plane in the air. With a larger plane you’ll walk right in and probably walk right out at 10,000 feet!
Regardless of plane size, the ride up in the plane will take about 15 minutes. Enjoy the ride! You will be sitting in front of your skydiving instructor, probably packed in like a sardine along with other skydivers. Try to catch a glimpse of the instructor’s altimeter on the way up — it’s kinda cool to watch it go from 0 to 10,000 feet! (Or higher. My highest jump was from 13,500 feet!)
On the way up, the skydiving instructor will tell you what you need to do on your skydive. It will go something like this:
• At around 8,000 feet, the instructor will attach himself to your harness.
• At 10,000 feet you and he will waddle your way close to the door. (It is not easy to move with a person on your back!)
• At the door, you will cross your arms over your chest, lift your feet and hang (!) from your instructor, and lay your head back on his shoulder.
• While you are hanging from your instructor, he may lean out of the open doorway several times to view the ground.
• When you are over the drop zone, the skydiving instructor will step (or flip!) out of the plane and YOU ARE NOW IN FREE FALL! Remember, you’re falling at 120 mph.
• Try to catch a glimpse of the plane as you fall away from it. It will be the only thing up there to give you the perspective of falling. It actually feels like flying.
• You will free fall for 45 to 60 seconds. Try to pay attention to every second of it — it goes quickly! The instructor may do some turns left and right. You probably won’t be able to hear the instructor, but he may try to tell you things by speaking directly into your ear.
• During free fall, because of your instructor’s body positioning, your body will be in a back bend (or U-shape) position. Keep your knees bent and your feet up between the legs of your instructor. You will receive a tap on your shoulder, meaning that you can open your arms into a “touch down” position.
• Around 5,500 feet, the skydiving instructor will deploy the parachute. Expect a sudden jerk that will actually stop your fall and lift you up for a couple of seconds. You will be reminded how tight your harness is! I’ve heard this described as the “trap door” effect. It is at this moment your brain will think “Hey, I’m falling!”
• When the parachute is up (or “under canopy”), your instructor will loosen the 2 links at your hips. This will make you much more comfortable. He will be working on all the gear with the parachute. You will be able to easily talk to each other, and at one point he will say, “Hold out your hands and grab these.” Hold on tightly because these will be the parachute toggles! Yep, you’ll be driving the train! He will need both hands free for a very short time while adjusting more gear. Don’t worry, he’ll take them back.
• The ride under canopy will be anywhere from 4 to 8 minutes — depending on the weather, your instructor’s personality and your desire to play around. For me, spinning around up there is the highlight of the ride — almost better than free fall. There’s absolutely nothing you can hit!
• You will soon realize that things on the ground are getting closer, which means it’s time to think about landing. Your job will be to pull your knees up to your chest. Your instructor will tell you when. Right before the landing, it will feel like the ground is rushing up at you — because it is! Keep those knees up until the skydiving instructor’s feet land on the ground and he says, “Now, just stand up. Perfect landing! Time to celebrate!”
Congratulations… You are now a skydiver!
A tandem jump can be a one-time thing, or the first step towards becoming a certified solo skydiver. Most drop zones offer accelerated free fall training, if you’re interested. But if not — and you feel the call to jump out of a perfectly good airplane every now and then — don’t say I didn’t warn you!