My lifelong friend Jim dragged me out to the DZ this past summer. My first jump was in late August. I did a tandem. I have to say I was calm on the plane ride up to 13,500 feet. The plane caries 22 skydivers at a time. Just about everyone else was experienced and had hundreds to thousands of jumps. Except me and Jim. He was on his second true solo jump after finishing AFF. The experienced guys all went out the door in groups or one at a time and then Jim got in position in the door. He looked over at me and smiled and then just fell out the door. Well if Jim can do it so can I! The instructor that was strapped to my back slid me over to the door. Oh my FUCKING GOD IS IT A LONG WAY DOWN! My heart started racing and I started having second thoughts. What the hell was I thinking? The only people left in the plane were the instructor, a video guy who was going to jump with us and take pictures and video of the jump and me. As I was staring out the open door of the plane trying to figure out a way to tell them there was NO FUCKING WAY I was going out the door, they started telling me they used to share a prison cell together and were debating which one got to rape me first! This got my attention. Just about then they both leaned over and kissed me on a cheek and then pushed me out the door. I was screaming like a baby! AHHHHHHHH!!!!!!
Well the free fall is about 60 seconds so after about 15 seconds of screaming you just accept it. I was so tense however, that I thought I was going to have an aneurysm. 60 seconds is a long time…. I had plenty of time to think that I could die in the next minute by smashing my body against the ground at 120 mph! Then the parachute opened up and yanked me silly. Yeah! We were at about 5,000 feet. I thought I would be nervous hanging by a harness a mile in the air but after the sheer terror of free fall the utter tranquility of the parachute ride was the most calming thing in the world. The instructor then proceeded to take the parachute into spiraling turns that threw my legs out almost perpendicular to the ground! Then he stalled the parachute and then a series of sharp turns and other stunts! We landed and I felt like I had just run a marathon. My heart beat as many times anyway…
I come to find out the Jim had bribed the instructor with a case of beer to give me a hard time. What are friends for!
I really enjoyed the jump but was not sure this was something I wanted to take up. So over the next few weeks I did 3 more tandem jumps. Frankly, the first one was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. The second one was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done by far. By the fourth one I was hooked. It was all I could think about during the week, screw work, screw women I wanted to jump out of a plane!
Doing the tandems was getting kind of gay - having a 200 lb. man strapped to your ass is just not dignified. REAL men jump with their own parachutes! So I signed up for AFF.
AFF II – On this level I have my own parachute but 2 instructors hold on to either side of my harness. They let go for a few seconds at a time during free fall and I have to stay stable. Damn, I would have thought falling was easier. Even just a little tilt of a leg or arm will send you spinning. Damn, I have to remember to watch the altimeter. The priorities are 1. Pull! 2. If you can manage #1 try and do it at the right altitude (always better high than low – low is bad). 3. If you can manage #’s 1 and 2 try and pull “stable” i.e., not spinning around as the parachute might get tangled. But no matter what REMEMBER # 1! All I really have to do is watch my altimeter and pull at 5,000 feet! The canopy ride down was fine, I could steer okay. The landing left a little bit to be desired. In theory you can control the canopy and stall it just inches above the ground and have a nice stand up landing. Well, mine was not quite so smooth. I ended up in a ball on the ground. But hey, any landing you can walk away from is a good one! I jumped, I lived it’s a good start!
AFF III – Again 2 instructors. This time they let go shortly after we get out of the plane. I have to pick a spot on the horizon and use it as a heading. Damn it’s scary to look down at the ground! I have to maintain that heading the whole time. Wow, this is hard. A 120 mph wind does funny things to you. And shit the ground is rushing up at me. Damn, forgot to look at my altimeter. What altitude was I at? When was I supposed to pull? Oh yea, just remember # 1. I pulled at 5,000 feet. And managed a stand up landing! Yea! My heading control left a little to be desired but I passed.
AFF IV – This time there is only 1 instructor, he still holds on during exit. This time the exit is different. I have to grab onto the bar above the door and swing my back out and hang out toward the sky and stand in the door on my tiptoes holding on the bar. So here I am 13,500 feet in the air holding on to a bar with my back out the door. What the hell was I thinking? I could be home watching the Cowboys game! The instructor takes a position beside me in the door holing onto my harness. I have to step back off the door edge and “arch”. I step off but continue holding onto the bar for dear life. The instructor jumps with me and since she was holding onto the harness rips my hands off the bar! She lets go of me during free fall and I have to do 90-degree turns left and right and left and right. Hmm something’s wrong I start spinning like a top. Stop damn it, stop! But I can’t. The instructor comes down and docks on me and rides me down to pull altitude. Well at least I didn’t forget to pull! I failed the level. I had to repeat this one 4 times before a scrape by with a pass! I had 2 cases of uncontrolled spinning and 1 where I could barely keep control. Damn this is hard! I wonder why the instructors don’t ask me not to come back.
AFF V – Okay, I’ve got the kinks worked out now! This time I have 1 instructor and he does NOT hold on to me on exit. He just jumps out right after me. It had gotten cold and I was wearing a few layers of clothes under my jump suit and gloves. I felt like a marshmallow man. I try swinging into the door with my back out holding onto the bar. I can barely feel what I’m doing. I look over at the instructor in the doorway and he points to my feet (you can’t really talk hanging out the door of a plane the wind is kind of loud). Hmm, I shuffle my feet around a little. Okay, I’m ready. I give the signal and jump. Shit, something is wrong I should be looking up at the sky but instead I’m flipping around head over heals. This is not right – earth, sky, earth, sky – hmm is that my instructor laughing at me, earth, sky…okay I know what to do I just have to arch hard and I should right myself. ARCH! Bang, I’m face to the ground and stable. Hey, this stuff actually works. I have to do two 360 turns, one each way. I get one done and then it’s pull time. Damn. On the ground the instructor tells me my feet were way too far in the door and when I let go with my hands my feet were still well inside the doorway which is what caused me to flip. And it turns out he WAS laughing at me! Failed level. Getting frustrated.
It was Sunday night and the instructors invited me to “White Trash Chicken Night”. This involves them buying the local fried chicken place out of their half day old inventory and taking it up to the local bar the Dusty Saddle (in Whiteright Texas- scary). So there I am getting drunk with the instructors eating stale fried chicken. They start telling me about all of their really bad students over the years. I thought I was a particularly bad student but after listening to them I turn out to be run of the mill. So this gives me some encouragement. I guess skydiving is hard after all. One of the instructors tells me that I have 10 minutes of free fall time, and says, “how many things have you done for 10 minutes that you are good at?” Good point. He tells me that if I want to fly like a bird I should go to the vertical wind tunnel in Orlando. I’ll put it on my “To do” list.
AFF V again. Okay, I’m gonna nail this sucker. Out the door I go! Oh shit I start spinning again! Damn, I can’t stop it. Damn, damn, damn. The instructor flies down and grabs a hold of me and stabilizes me. Okay she lets go. Damn, I start spinning again! I CAN’T stop! She docks on to me and rides me down to pull altitude. Nothing hurt but my pride.
Get drunk at White Trash Chicken night with “the guys”. They laugh at me. One of the instructors tells me he redid his AFF V a number of times and look where he ended up. Somehow I just think he is lying to me to make me feel better. They just say to preserver.
I have to say that skydiving is the most fun and exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life but if I don’t get the skills down I might end up killing myself or at least bankrupting myself paying instructors to jump with me. Hmm, what to do? 12 jumps in and loving it but need to improve my skills.
So I go to Orlando and buy an hour of wind tunnel time. Wow, what a great experience! The instructors were great and taught me to fly like a bird. The 360’s that were taking me 8 second before in the air, I could do in about 2 seconds now and stop them on a dime! Up, down, side to side, barrel rolls, you name it I can do it! It was also nice to be able to practice without the impending fear of death!
On the airplane ride back to Dallas I sit down between a couple of guys and pull out one of my skydiving books. One of the guys asks me if I’m a skydiver. I tell him that is a VERY generous description of what I’m doing but I’m trying to be a skydiver. It turns out that the two guys beside me and the three in front of me were the Air Force Academy “Winds of Blue” team and their video guy. They had just won a competition in Florida and were flying back to Colorado. So we got drunk together and they showed me videotapes of their jumps that weekend. They laughed when I told them why I was in Florida. They said they train in the wind tunnel at least twice a year and that I should be able to wiz through my student jumps now. They tell me that 2 of them got the “bowling lecture” when they were student skydivers. I asked what that was. They told me that their instructor said that maybe they should consider taking up bowling instead of skydiving. As it turns out several of them had the exact same problems I did. Hmm, and these guys just won a national competition that weekend. They all tell me to keep at it and that it is NOT natural to be able to fly and that it takes practice. A cool bunch of guys.
So, I sit at the DZ for three weekends waiting for a clear day. The instructors think I’m a bit crazy siting up there during thunderstorms, gale force winds, etc. I just want one clear day! Finally after getting my “D License” in hanger time (lots of waiting around) I get a clear but cold, cold day.
AFF V – We get in the plane. I get the same instructor that I had on my last disastrous jump. Cool I WANT to show how much better I am after the tunnel time. We jump and I do my required 360 L and 360 R and am done at 10k feet. I look at her and shake my head that I’m done. Hey, I did the minimum no point in screwing it up, right? She scowls at me and signals me to keep doing turns. Okay, I’ll do ONE more 360. Done! I shake my head to signal I’m done. Hmm, she points at me to do another one. Okay, I’ll give in. One more the other way. Now, I’m really done. She points to herself and does a really fast 360 and then points to me. Hmm, I don’t guess I’m getting out of this so I do one more perfectly. I stop and shake my head and I mean it this time. Still at 6,500 feet. I pull at 4,500 and have a stand up landing. Yeah for me! The instructor was very happy for me and passed me.
AFF VI – they get me on another plane 20 minutes after I land. I have to do a rear-floating exit this time. I’ve never been in the back before. I have a little trouble getting the instructor’s count down and end up jumping a tad late. I go to do a barrel roll right. I pull an arm in don’t roll over. Okay, I try it again and hit it hard rolling a shoulder over; I made it. Now I do one left; no problem. Now a back flip. This I’ve been waiting to do for some time – legs up, hands down and head back. A successful flip! Damn this is fun! I go to pull at 4,500 and when I reach back I get a drift right in my heading of about 270 degrees. Damn, I just know I’m going to get some line twists even before the canopy opens. Sure enough I have 3 lines twists. No problem I reach up and pull them out. Another stand up landing! I passed!
AFF VII – I get a lunch break and the instructors put me on the sunset load. They had to juggle the schedule a little bit but given how good I was doing they helped me out and got me on. I was a bit unsure of the diving exit and since we were flying the Caravan today instead of the Otter the door seems very small. I practiced on the ground but a diving exit can’t be simulated very well with concrete 4 inches below you. Oh, well I’ll figure it out. We hit 13,500 feet, the door opens and the experienced jumpers exit. I crawl over to the door. I crouch in the door on my feet. I’m siting on my heals. I put one hand out the door and try to figure out how I’m going to do this without hitting my rig on the top of the door. I start my count and then stop. This just isn’t going to work as planned. I think about it for a second and then look over at my instructor and the other students and instructors behind me. They must wonder what the hell I’m doing. Oh, screw it. I look out the door and just kind of tumble out. I’m not facing the relative wind like I’m supposed to and start spinning a little. Miracle of miracles (after my spinning problems on earlier levels) without consciously thinking about it I stop my turn and pick a heading. Cool! I go to do a front flip. I put my head down and expect to turn over. Instead all I’m doing is staring at my crotch. This is not right. Okay, I arch back and try again hitting it hard! I flip right over. Hmm, this horizon is a little different than before but that’s okay. I do another front flip. Neither of them was very graceful nor exactly on heading, but I flipped over and got stable 2 times. Now it’s time to track. I told the instructor I would track into the setting sun, which would keep me from tracking under another group of skydivers (In needed to go either East or West). I am facing directly away from the sun. Well, I still won’t track under anyone (like that was going to happen anyway) and decide that time was short so I would track East not West. I sweep my arms back and try to cup my chest. After a couple of seconds I feel my speed picking up. Hey, this is cool! My 5 count is over so I arch. I just ride this baby out and pull at 4,000. I have another stand up landing. Hmm, this one I think I passed but unlike the other two today I needed to ask. I talk to the instructor and she asks me how I think I did. I tell her it was not the best skydive I’ve ever done but I think it was passable. She said I was right, it wasn’t the best skydive I had ever done but it was far from the worst too. :) I passed!
Since this was the sunset load the celebratory beers were broken out and everyone rejoiced! I paid my beer dues promptly the next morning.
I love this sport and am aiming to get my A license ASAP. All of my friends except Jim (who got me started) think I’m nuts babbling about it all the time. Even though I had a bit of a rocky start the instructors were kind, generous and as supportive as could be. In fact everyone I talked to from the instructors to the Wings of Blue guys, to the regulars at the DZ were all great to me and encouraged me to succeed. Now all I need to do is quit my job, sell all my belongings and start sleeping in a van down by the drop zone!
Ron "We've been looking for the enemy for some time now. We've finally found him. We're surrounded. That simplifies things." CP