It’s sitting there, waiting for you in Category F of your USPA skydiver training: the hop ‘n’ pop.
It’s no wonder that you’re biting your nails. (We’ve all been there.) It’ll be your first time deploying in soft, subterminal air. It’ll be your first time really trusting your stability out the door. And it’s probably going to be your first time opening that daunting clear plastic thingy. And you’ll be doing all this under the ungoggled gazes of everyone else in the plane -- who, you probably imagine, will have nothing better to do than inspect your technique.
The USPA officially calls it the “clear-and-pull requirement,” in case you’ve been fruitlessly searching for “hop and pop” in the SIM. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (and, y’know, get that solo license) will be to exit from 5,500’ AGL, get stable and deploy within five seconds.
Don’t worry so much. Five seconds is much longer than you think it is. Ask any BASE jumper (or television commercial editor, or rodeo competitor): five seconds is kinda forever. Remember, too: you’re not reinventing the wheel. Your hop ‘n’ pop exit is no different from any other solo exit you’ve ever done, except that you’ll need to be stable and deploying within that aforementioned time constraint. If your licensed instructor didn’t think you ready and reliable, he/she wouldn’t be lining you up for it. So own it. And breathe.
1. Start on the ground. Check out the winds aloft before you start the march to the plane, and review the spot with your instructor while you can both hear each other clearly.
2. Don’t worry too much about the door. Other jumpers are paying less attention to you than you think they are. (Anyway, your instructor is going to be right there to help.)
3. Don’t lose sight of the goal. From your window seat, you’ll be in a prime position to keep an eye on the landing area. Watch it as you climb, picking out the landmarks you usually use to find your way home. Once you have a lock on it, don’t let your nerves jiggle it out of your consciousness.
4. Don’t forget your magical backpack. Get a pin check before that door opens. Check your handles and pilot chute, too.
5. Take a moment to hang out. While the door is open and you’re waiting for that green light, put your goggles on and lean your head out a bit to check out the situation. You’re looking for the airport, of course; since you’ve been keeping an eye on the dropzone from your lofty perch, you’ll know just where to look. You’re also looking for positioning relative to the spot you discussed earlier with your instructor (winds aloft, remember?), and for other air traffic crowding “your” sky.
6. Get ready for different feels. Your instructor will prep you on the ground for the correct hop-n-pop exit to leave this particular plane. When that green light comes on, take a deep, cleansing breath and do your relaxed best to nail it. The air will feel different -- “softer” -- than it usually does, which might catch you off-guard. You can expect to turn a little as you exit. Point your hips levelly at the ground and deploy that nylon within those five weirdly-long seconds.
7. Bollocked it up? Pull anyway. If you don’t get this 5,500’ AGL exit right, you’re going to end up doing it all over again before you move on to its lower-altitude counterpart. It’s not the end of the world: unless, of course, you ride your oops too far down. Don’t launch right into kicking yourself if you fail -- that’s just going to make you more unstable. Accept your lot and pull by 3,500 feet AGL whether you’re stable or not.
8. Expect your parachute to check out the scenery. Your canopy, when deployed subterminally, will open into the relative wind and “seek.” It may not open directly above you, as it usually does. Don’t get spooked and tense up.
9. Give yourself a high five. Cross your fingers against the unlikely event of a low aircraft emergency that would test your newfound skills in the fun-free way. And buy the beer.