Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's me!!!

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What a day - I successfully completed my very first skydiving experience; a solo jump, nonetheless. It was so incredibly awesome - words cannot do this story justice, but I'll do my best to explain.

A few months ago, the MidTown Pub folks decided to get a group of people together and go skydiving. They had found approximately 20 employees and "regulars" that were interested in trying it; I was one of the 20, and the only one who wanted to do a solo jump (everyone else wanted to tandem jump, meaning that you jump while tethered to an instructor).

The differences? A solo jump is like driving a car; a tandem jump is like riding in a car. A solo jump requires that you take a 6+ hour class; a tandem jump requires about 30 minutes of instruction. And, with the tandem jump, you can free-fall for up to 30 seconds; with the solo jump it's limited to about 5-7 seconds. A solo jump also counts as a jump toward earning your skydiving license.

So, I paid the fee for my solo class, and arrived to the Seven Hills jump school at 7:45am sharp. The weather looked gloomy, to say the least.

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Our class began right on time; we started with the legal stuff (aka, "you could die during this and you choose to take the risk on your own."). From there, we learned about the components of a parachute "rig" (pilot chute, bridal, bag, canopy, lines, slider, risers, harness, reserve chute, etc), and how each component functioned.

We then went to a simulator to learn how to enter and exit the airplane.

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Believe it or not, when you exit the airplane, you step onto that small metal ledge above the wheel, while hanging onto the red/white strut. You then slide your hands into the white section of the strut, step completely off of the platform, and then "check-in" with your instructor as you hang from the strut by your arms. The instructor will yell "Skydive!" at which point you let go and arch your body backwards as much as possible, while yelling "arch-thousand," "two-thousand," (etc) and waiting for your canopy to deploy.

We practiced this several times, and were quizzed about it over-and-over. The arch is extremely important.

We then went back into the classroom and spent a tremendous amount of time learning about malfunctions and problems, and what to do in the event of either taking place.

A malfunction cannot be fixed; the solution? Release your primary canopy and pull the reserve. A problem can usually be corrected (twisted lines, stuck slider, deflated end tubes) - your goal is to fix it before you hit 2500 feet; if you can't, then you go into emergency procedures (release chute, pull reserve).

This part of the classroom took a really long time, and included a lot of repetitive drilling to help commit it to muscle memory.

From there, we learned about maneuvering during your ride; how to pull on the toggles, use the brake, flare the canopy, and how to approach the landing zone.

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By now, it was time for a lunch break; I had a nutrition bar while the rest of my class (about 12 people) had pizza. After lunch, we briefly reviewed a few items from earlier, and then practiced the "PLF" (Parachute Landing Fall). This was the hardest and most painful part for me...

They really want you to try to land-and-roll onto your shoulder, rather than try to perform a standing/running landing. Try as I might, I couldn't keep my head from slamming into the mat when I jumped from a small platform and attempted to roll. I actually tweaked my neck/shoulder after the second sample/training PFL. I was nervous about the landing... There was no way I could do a good PFL without hitting my head on the ground. I was also nervous about landing on my feet - the last thing I needed to do was injure my knee, ankle, hip, or foot...

We were then quizzed and tested in 1-on-1 sessions with jump masters; they gave us all sorts of scenarios with malfunctions and problems, while drilling the processes and reactions into our brains. We learned about obstacle avoidance, emergency landing, approach angles, and so on.

After the class was over, I received my jump ticket - this red ticket gave you access to the airplane; lose it, and it was game over.

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By now, it was after 2:00pm, and we were ready to jump. I got put into the last group of jumpers (there were four groups of us, 3 per group), which meant I'd be jumping at around 5:30pm... argh. Three-plus hours of waiting wasn't going to make me feel any better, but it did give me a chance to practice a bunch of things and to watch people as they jumped.

And then the weather stopped cooperating... the wind speed went above 14-mph, which is the limit for solo jumping as a student. And, worse yet, when the speed goes above 14-mph, there's a 1-hour waiting period before you can attempt to go out again. If the wind speed stays below 14-mph for the entire hour, you're good to go. If it exceeds 14-mph, it's time to wait again. We waited until about 4:30pm before the first group could go out...

Each group of 3-people requires about 1-hour to 1.25-hours to complete their jump. With any luck, I'd be jumping by 7:30-8:00pm. At least I had plenty of time to find my gear and get all set...

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I needed a size "Medium" jump rig and a "Large-Tall" jump suit. The medium rigs were popular, so I had to wait to get one until some of the first jumpers landed. And, as luck would have it, they began to land at about 5:00 - here's one of the first folks coming in for a landing:

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Long story made shorter, the three groups all went out - one of the people had a problem during his jump and ended-up in a cornfield about 2-miles from the landing zone... he was OK, but it didn't do anything to make me feel confident! I talked to folks about the landing and got some good hints/tips, so I felt better about the landing.

A rig became available, and I suited-up. After being outfitted and checked for safety/rigging/etc., I had to go through a simulator test where you're hanging about 2-3 feet off the ground and the instructor tells you your primary canopy has failed; the simulator allows you to feel what it's like to cut away your primary canopy and deploy your reserve. Here I am after getting out of the simulator (my helmet was a touch too small, hence the scrunched looking face):

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I received 2 additional safety checks from separate instructors, and then got the "OK" to proceed. A quick radio check (you can hear your ground spotter via a small 2-way radio that is secured to your arm), and we were making our way to the airplane... no turning back!

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We left tera-firma at approximately 7:00 on the dot. The plane took us to just under 4,000 feet, and the first person in our group exited the aircraft. He had some trouble with the platform, and hung-on to the strut for too long. The instructor had to push him out and away from the platform/strut. The plane circled around to approach the drop zone and I was up.

I was surprisingly calm and at ease. I didn't feel queezy, or anxious, or nothing. It was surreal - I was confident and excited. I asked my jump master, "Do you have my pilot chute?" He confirmed that he did. He then opened the door to the aircraft, and held one hand on my rig. He instructed me to "Standby," which means "step out onto the ledge and slide your hands out to the white zone.

The shock of the 100-mph wind was amazing. I was also too tall for the platform/wing, and my rig got hung for a bit on the wing. I had to crouch down super far to begin my slide out to the white zone; it was a little unnerving, but I was ready. Once in the white zone, I stepped completely away from the platform, hung for a second, looked at my instructor and shouted, "CHECK-IN!" (meaning I was ready) Here I am, hanging on the wing strut after shouting the check-in.

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He replied with "SKYDIVE!" at which point, I released my grip from the strut and tried to arch my back while yelling "ARCH-THOUSAND!" I say try, because I didn't do a very good job of arching... here you can see me yelling the "ARCH-THOUSAND!" but not arching... :-) It looks as if I'm screaming, and I am, but I'm screaming what I'm supposed to be screaming - the "arch-thousand!" count.

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And here I am, about 2-seconds into the free fall, failing to arch; you can see I'm more or less on my back at this point...

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So, because I didn't arch, I went onto my back, which is bad - it makes for a more pronounced "opening shock" (which is when your canopy catches the wind and opens). I also only got to about "three-thousand" on my count by the time my pilot chute pulled open my canopy. Here I am in the middle "opening shock" - the primary canopy is just beginning to open/deploy; the lines are tight, and the pilot chute is above me, pulling everything out of the rig so that it can deploy.

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The opening shock was extremely anti-climatic. The chute opened, and I immediately checked for shape and control; I had both, so then I checked for twisted lines and to make sure my slider was in the correct position. Everything was OK, so I released my toggles and gave a pull on both toggles to flare the canopy - this helps fill the tubes with air so that you can turn and brake, and also tells the ground spotter that you're OK. Here I am (way in the distance), making a slight right turn at about 3,500 feet.

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I drifted my way down from 3,500 feet, practicing turns, S-bends, and flares per my ground spotter's directions. The fall was so serene, peaceful, beautiful, and fun. It was dead silent - no noise, no wind noise, nothing, just pure bliss; save for the crackle of my spotter on the radio. At 1,000 feet, I began my approach to the landing zone; at 500 feet, I went perpendicular to the landing zone per instruction, and at 250 feet, I faced into the wind for maximum lift. I applied a little bit of brakes, steered my last little bit toward the landing zone, and then at 50-feet, put my knees and feet together and prepared to flare (stall) the canopy.

As you're falling, you're doing two things - falling "down" via gravity at about 16-18 feet per second, and "moving" into the wind at about 15 miles per hour. The goal is to keep that momentum steady until the last 8-12 feet, at which point you flare the canopy, which stops your forward motion and you drop straight to the ground from about 3-feet.

It worked perfectly, but I forgot to bend my knees, so I ended-up sliding a bit on my butt - at least I didn't have to do my dreaded PLF! And, the landing was super smooth/soft. Success!!

I gathered my canopy and lines, and made the short walk back to the classroom; I had nailed my landing position within about 10 feet of where I was supposed to be - winning!! Here I am, all smiles, with my canopy bunched-up and in hand.

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I waited for the last jumper and our jump master to land, took off my rig, and then debriefed with the jump master. I immediately knew what I had done wrong - rig got held-up on the wing/door and I didn't arch enough. Other than that, a great jump. I got my first jump certificate:

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I hung around for a bit to get my pictures from the plane, and then headed back to the house, where some hungry cats were waiting for me. I fed them, fed myself, and then made this entry. :-) I can't wait to do it again - it was so many things all at once - peaceful, calming, fun, liberating, and beautiful. After 25 instructor assisted jumps, you can earn your A-license, which allows you to do your own free-falls rather than using the pilot chute to automatically open your canopy. 1 down, 24 to go!

If you've ever considered going skydiving - DO IT. It's so incredible. It's nothing like I had imagined (I thought it would be like falling from a high-dive or riding a roller coaster) - it's not like anything I ever expected. My stomach didn't go into my throat or into knots - it was so relaxing. Sounds odd, but it's true. Blue skies, my friends!

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This page contains a single entry by Steve published on July 23, 2011 10:20 PM.

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