What Skydivers Don’t Know About The Holes in the Sides of Their Heads
There are plenty of things in this life that you don’t want to hear. I know.
Your girlfriend telling you she’s leaving you for her co-worker who buys roses instead of jump tickets. The wind tunnel peanut gallery tittering at your epic layout biff. The dude at the bonfire yammering on about his siiiiiick proxy flight in his brand-new sponsored Air Mattress 4.
But what if you never got to hear anything at all anymore? And what if it was your fault?
If you want to keep the good sounds coming in to your skyward-tilting brain, you’d better take some responsibility. There are probably some things you don’t know about the holes alongside your head, after all.
1. Hearing loss is forever.
Once you’ve damaged the lining of your inner ears, there’s nothing that can be done to bring it back. There’s no medication to bring your old ears back -- nor is there a surgery that sets things straight.
Hearing loss that’s attributable to skydiving happens because of damage to the cilia of the inner ear. (Cilia are the tiny, hair-like cells that vibrate with the pressure of sound waves and tell the brain about it.) Too much exposure to those waves wears them right out. Once they can’t wiggle anymore, it’s over. They don’t bounce back.
2. You might go crazy, too.
Alongside general hearing loss, you might get a bonus symptom: tinnitus. If the cilia are bent or broken due to excessive sound exposure, they can dribble out random electrical impulses to your brain, causing you to hear sound where none exists. Basically, this results in a constant ring/roar/buzz/hiss/squeal that lives inside your head 24/7. If that sounds like hell, you’re absolutely right.
3. It’s louder up there than you think.
Decibel levels are not linear; they’re logarithmic. Linear measures are measured with addition and subtraction (for example: four miles is twice as long as two miles). Logarithmic measures ratchet up by factors of ten. This means that every increase of 10 on the decibel scale represents a 10-fold increase in the intensity of the sound it measures. Noise that clocks in at 20dB is 10 times louder than a sound of 10dB. 30dB? 100 times louder...so look differently at decibel measures than you do at the numbers in your bank account.
The noise we’re subjected to on the ride up hovers over 90dB -- which government standards decree is only healthy for around seven and a half minutes. We’re in the tin can for 20-30. You do the math.
4. Monotony is worse than variety.
I used to produce music videos for a living (which is less fun than you’d think, but that’s another, boozy story). The production team was always required to provide the crew and talent with earplugs; if the production assistant forgot them, it was crucifixion time. That’s because OSHA, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, enforces requirements limiting workers’ exposure to a time-weighted average noise level of anything over 85 dB.
As skydivers, we don’t have to listen to that same damn godawful excuse for a song over and over (thank god), but we’re actually exposed to something that’s actually worse for our health than boy bands: level monotony. A long exposure to a same-pitch drone -- such as engine noise -- is more damaging than sounds that change in pitch, like loud music. The droning sound wears away at the cilia with the same sound waves, like waves crashing on the same part of a beach over and over in the same way.
5. You can plug your holes.
Many skydivers wear earplugs from gear-up to landing. Some take them out for freefall; others take them out for the canopy ride. Figure out what works for you and allows you to reliably receive information from your audible. It takes some discipline (or self-tricksiness) to remember, but it will help you in the long run. Try keeping a pair taped to your altimeter to help you remember to put them in.
Helmets with padding over the ears are less effective than earplugs, but they can still help.
6. You don’t need expensive earplugs to skydive.
The drugstore cheapies will do. When you place them, make sure they’re snug -- but that you can still feel them move around when you slide your jaw around (so you can equalize pressure, if necessary).
7. You can still pretend you can’t hear.
When Siiiiick Wingsuit Proxy Guy looks at you, ever hopeful for adulation, you can still give him back a confused “huh?” and wander off.
Better yet: take your earplugs to the bonfire.