You're off student status, you have your own gear, and you're ready to strike out on your own for a change of scenery. Here's what you can expect to find, and here are some things to know, when you go to a new dropzone. It's worth spending some time to prepare for your adventure.
Before Leaving Town
There are many sources for finding dropzones, online or in print. Before leaving town, look up all of the possible dropzones listed within a reasonable range of where you'll be going. Start be searchng the Dropzone.com Dropzone Database. You can also try the USPA web site or search on Google for the state+skydive. Don't forget to ask other people about places they've been. Also, just because a dropzone doesn't have a turbine-engine plane, don't rule it out of consideration. You often learn more in one day at a small dz, finding out or applying things that aren't emphasized at larger dropzones. Check that your gear is in good condition and that your re-pack and AAD are in-date; more dropzones require and check both of these items. Bring a camera to take pictures with the people you meet. You may also want to bring water and food, because not all dropzones have this on site and may be far from a nearby gas station. If in doubt, call ahead and find out the specifics.
Finding The Dropzone
Mapquest is a great way to find your way to the town where the dz is located, but it's usually up to the dropzone to provide the final details for finding the actual facilities - this is a hit or miss situation, when it comes to how accurate this information is. Some places assume that you live in the region and are familiar with the area - then you find that not all of the road signs are visible or even present. Not all of the local gas station clerks will know of the small airports in the area, much less the dropzone. Be sure to have the dz number handy but don't be surprised if the phone is busy, or if you get diverted to an answering machine during the weekend, so be prepared and have printouts of all possible directions. Look for signs to the airport outside the city, or the large orange balls on power lines - these are dead give aways! However, there are times when two small airports are close together, confusing matters for you. If you time things right, you'll find canopies in the air and loads of cars parked out front, covered with skydiving stickers.
What to do when you arrive at a new DZ
Manifest is the best place to start - and every good dropzone should have someone who's willing to help you get in touch with the right people, for a complete briefing of the landing area and dropzone "rules", as well as hooking you up with some of the local jumpers. Be open and ready to jump with people of all skill levels, plus both styles of jumping (Freeflying and RW) - the more limits you put in place, the more likely you'll be stuck doing solo jumps. Be ready to do some solo jumps, in case you don't get hooked up with other jumpers who are willing to jump with you or when no one else is available to jump that day. You must be the one to ask others to jump with you; after all, you are the new kid on the block.
At manifest, complete their waiver, get a gear check, and find a spot for your gear bag. Depending on the size and location of the dropzone, be prepared for anything, when it comes to the bathroom facilities. Get the scoop on jump tickets - How-much-to-how-much (cost/altitude). Check on the charging and refund policy on jump tickets; often there is a charge-card percentage fee, slightly raising ticket prices. Most will give a full refund of the ticket value, but not the charge-card fee. Some will not refund your jump tickets but they usually don't have and expiration date, so you can use them whenever you happen to return. Buy only what you need, depending on these policies.
Get the lowdown on the manifest procedure for getting on a load. Do you pay in advance, pay as you go, pay at the end of the day? Also, do they use monitors to show the loads, do they announce names for the loads, or do they assume you know the load number you're on when they call it? Is there a separate window for manifesting, or do you go back to the main office?
Get a briefing on the basics:
- The exit-order and separation rules - some places have very specific procedures and rules on these, others leave it up to you and your skills - ask and watch others.
- Landing area obstacles - in addition to buildings, power lines, bodies of water, and the local farmer McNasty, some places have well-known areas of turbulence, small but harmful ditches, hills, or slopes, and hints on landing patterns to avoid them. Most places have several landmarks they use to locate the landing area, like highways, rivers, or lakes that form visual arrows pointing in the direction to look. Ask what is considered a good vs/ bad spot, for that particular dz, and the landmarks used for estimating this from the plane. Always ask where the beer line is located, if they don't mention it to you first.
- Hard Decks - Some dropzones have set a hard deck as high as 3,000 ft AGL, for good reasons. It doesn't hurt to check on this, especially when the landing area is tight and surrounded by trees, lakes, or densely developed land.
- Outs - Most dropzones have a good selection of areas to land out, but it's up to you to always stay aware of your surroundings; look out the plane's windows from time to time, to locate the landing area and the open areas around it - check with others to be sure you're not looking at swamps or thistle fields.
- The prevailing winds - some places have both tetrahedrons and wind socks but not all of them use both or will have rules on when to use which of the two wind indicators. Find out what is most reliable because tetrahedrons tend to rust and stick.
- Landing patterns - these vary as much as the winds - ranging from the first-one-down sets the pattern (and hopefully into the wind), to always using a left or right-hand pattern, or no particular rule except to avoid others. It's best to stay clear of others when possible and land a little further from the main landing area..
- Swooping and hook turns - each dropzone owner has the discretion of allowing hook turns and often have an area designated for this and or swooping. If there is no area for this, keep alert while under canopy and ask if the people before you are going to hook turn or not, so you know not to follow their landing pattern (if the first-one-down rules are used).
- Loading the plane - If you're lucky, you can walk to and from the plane and landing areas; everywhere else will require a bus, van, or trailer to one or both of these areas. Find out where you need to go for any of these options and how the loads are announced, so you don't miss your call for boarding the bus to the plane or hold up the trailer back to the packing area.
- Gear Check - few places have a set rule for jumpers to do gear checks for the person sitting next to them. Therefore, it will often be up to you to ask for this.
- Ask a lot of questions. Ultimately, you're responsible for your actions and should know all that's necessary to jump safely.
Your First Jump
You may end up doing a solo "orientation" jump as your first jump. Hopefully that will be the only solo you do and use it to take a good look at what happens on jump run, while others are exiting, and the ground features when in freefall. Have in mind a jump and an exit you'd like to practice. This helps you feel more at ease with what to expect. When jumping with others, this avoids the conversational volley of questions, "Whadaya wanna do? I dunno, whadayou wanna do?" Keep it simple; you're likely to end up working on matching fall rates on your first jump. Be sure to agree on a break-off altitude that's comfortable for you and not the people who have done the last 200+ jumps at their home dropzone. If the plane is different from any one you've been in, ask for suggestions for the exit.
Depending on your home dz location, in some areas it's a good idea to wear gloves, especially for your first jump, so you don't freeze your hands or in the event you land out and your landing isn't so smooth, and your hands run into rocks or "other natural abrasives". Check that your altimeter is zeroed, your dytters are set, and your AAD is activated.
Gear check, gear check, gear check - touch all handles and check all straps, then check those of the people around you and ask for someone else to check yours before exiting. You're taking in a lot of new information, so make sure you don't overlook anything. You wouldn't be the first to mis-route a chest strap but it could be the last time you'd ever jump.
On your way to altitude, remember to look out the windows so you can familiarize yourself with the surroundings and look for the landing area. Have in mind your landing approach. If you're doing a solo, and you're not sure about spotting, don't be afraid to ask the person before or after you to check the spot for you. It's a good idea to pull high, (be sure to let manifest and the jumpmaster and others on the load know) in order to give you enough time to adjust to the area and to have plenty of altitude to make it to the landing area.
Keep your head on a swivel. You're in new territories and you want to make it safely back to the landing area - avoid aggressive canopy pilots, hopefully they'll be on the ground before you land. Elect to land in a distant, wide-open area, which has less traffic; then move in closer on the next jump, if you feel comfortable.
At larger dropzones, there's usually a "packer's area" - ask, so you're not getting in someone's way of making money. Sometimes, if you accidentally set your rig in a packer's area and leave for a drink, you'll come back to find a packed rig and someone asking for payment. Smaller dropzones may not have any packers, so be sure you haven't forgotten how to pack your own rig. Also, at larger dropzones, there are sometimes separate packing areas for belly flyers and free flyers - a strange and unfortunate thing, in most cases.
Your Next Jumps
Some dropzones have landing areas at a different altitude than the packing area, especially when a bus/van/trailer is involved in moving between the landing area and loading area. Make the necessary adjustments to your AAD, hand altimeter, and dytter settings.
When You Leave
If you plan to go to a second dropzone during the same day, turn off your AAD before leaving and turn it back on again at the next location. Also, take pictures with the people you jumped with that day and add them to your logbook. Don't forget to swap e-mail addresses when you can. Find out if the dropzone has a stamp to put in your logbook, almost like a customs stamp for your passport.
Where To Stay
There can be many choices or just your car, so be sure to ask what's available; again, manifest is a good place to start. Many places have something on site, ranging from a couch in the hangar to a full-fledged house with all of the trimmings, and ranging in price from free to something that's usually within the budget of an avid skydiver. If you made friends that day, the local jumpers may offer to let you stay at their homes, another good reason to jump with others and not sticking to solo jumps. If you're not satisfied with these options, then nearby hotels often have discounts for skydivers, be sure to ask before making a reservation.
Going to different dropzones is a wonderful experience and it's even more exciting when you go alone, seeing it through your own eyes and not through someone else's expectations. You see and do things differently than you would in familiar surroundings; this also keeps you from becoming complacent in this unforgiving sport. The people you meet become instant friends, if you let them, given the common bond of skydiving.
Karen Hawes has jumped at dropzones in all 50 US States, 4 Canadian Provinces, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Spain and The Bahamas.