It takes approximately ten seconds of freefall to reach 200km/hr, or terminal velocity. At this point you stop accellerating and the Earth settles on drawing you closer at a rate of 200ft/second. The falling sensation is replaced by a significant sense of speed. Then you gasp and realise you’ve been holding your breath for a few moments, even though you’ve never been surrounded by more air in your life.
At 14,000 feet, all you have is air.
Have you ever held your hand out of a moving car and let if float and glide on the cushion of air? That’s the best analogy I can offer. Others compare skydiving to lying on a half inflated air mattress, but I think the car comparison is closer, even if you’re body alignment is different.
My journey from ground to sky and back to ground, safely, began about 10 years ago, when my mother planned to buy me a tandem skydive as a gift for my 21st birthday. My interest in skydiving existed before then because I had to politely decline the present – it wasn’t how I had planned it in my head. I knew in myself that the first time I jumped from an aircraft I would not have anyone strapped to me, doing the hard work. My life and the experience would be in my control. Mum was disappointed and returned the gift, but she understood.
Fast forward to late 2006, where I declared quite publicly that 2007 would be The Year of the Challenge. I reached a lot of goals in that year, but skydiving still eluded me. Fast forward again to January 2012, where I walked into Skydive Express’ offices in Leederville, and after much convincing, was allowed to sign up for their Accelerated Freefall Stage 1 (AFF 1) course.
I say convincing, because the person I met with gave me all the reasons under the sun for why I shouldn’t partake in the AFF 1; it’s dangerous, it’s expensive, it’s for people who want to become skydivers, not those seeking a once-off thrill. His expectation was that a guy in jeans and a t-shirt, wandering into their office during the day might not have the capacity to afford skydiving lessons. I see what he means, but it was also a little presumptuous.
The course was spread over three distinct training sessions – 3 hours on Wednesday after work, 3 hours on Thursday after work and a few hours on Saturday, the morning of the jump. We learnt about safe aircraft exit procedures, basic aerodynamics, emergency procedures and when to engage them, flying the canopy and most importantly, how to land the parachute. There was a good mix between theory and practical lessons, and every step along the way our actions were refined or corrected. Getting on the aircraft I knew that even if I suffered from sensory overload I’d be able to simply rely on my training and go through the motions. I was confident.
On Saturday morning I arrived at the dropzone in York at about 7:45AM. We were strapped into harnesses suspended from the ceiling of the large hanger-like space that serves as the preparation area and club house. One of the difficulties we were trained to expect are line twists, where the canopy deploys fine but the parachute lines are twisted underneath. This is not a malfunction, but you do need to clear the lines before you can remove the brake toggles and fly your parachute. You do this by spreading the riser straps (the seatbelt material that connects your harness to the lines) and scissor-kicking your legs. It’s easier than it sounds, when you’re a few feet above the ground. After this training we went through our exit procedures on the mock aircraft shell a few more times and learnt how to perform a Parachute Landing Roll (PLR). We were ready for the exam.
In order to pass the course and jump a single rig we would need to answer a 65 question exam. I got all the questions right except for the question about how much time you need to leave between drinking alcohol and jumping – I said twelve hours and it’s only eight. I also told the instructor I hadn’t had a drink for a month and currently considered myself s non drinker; he didn’t care and pointed out that if I left a 12 hour window he’d be happy. A flick of his pen and I was cleared to jump.
If I hadn’t shown control and understanding I may have been cleared for a tandem first jump, which still qualifies as AFF 1, but that wasn’t ever going to be OK with me.
There were three other guys doing the course with me at the same time: Vernon, the 39yr old painter/plaster who works off shore on an oil and gas rig, Jesse, the 18yr old locksmith who had those Locks from Romford and who was one of the best locksmith was a little shy and reserved, but keen to jump, and Robert, who (I think) was in his late 20s, works in a law firm and was born in Vienna. We all got on fine, but as the course progressed, Robert seemed to have more trouble than the rest of us. Don, our instructor, rode us all pretty hard. He was like a drill sergeant, which is exactly what you want if you’re heading into battle with gravity. I personally liked his teaching style, but I was on his good side because I was paying full attention, doing all my homework and asking for clarifications where I needed them. I wasn’t late to all the sessions, playing on my phone and saying I understood when I clearly didn’t.
As it happened, we all passed our exams and Don cleared us to jump AFF 1 solo. It was about 2PM on Saturday and Vernon and myself hopped into jump suits, were given helmets and altimeters, and told to get ready. Jesse and Robert were going to be on the next load.
… and then the wind changed. As a student I can only fly in 15 knot winds. The parachutes we jump travel with 15 knots forward velocity, so if we’re landing into the wind (as you always should) in theory the parachute’s forward velocity would be cancelled by the wind, and the parachute would descend on the spot with zero forward ground speed. If the wind is 10 knots, then the parachute lands at 5 knots ground speed (which is about 10km/hr). Those who have completed the AFF programme and have an A class license can jump in 20 knot winds, and those with B and above can jump in 25 knot winds. All it takes is a little gust and our plans are put on hold.
The wind didn’t clear for the rest of the afternoon, so Vernon and I removed our flight suits and the four of us agreed to jump at another time. Jesse, Vernon and myself were keen to come back the next day, but Robert couldn’t make it. Don said that if there was three of us, we could all load into the Caravan with two instructors each and jump on the one load. This sounded perfect.
Sunday morning Vernon, Jesse and I arrived at the dropzone just after 7AM, ready to ‘dive. We were put through the exit drill once more, and loaded into flight suits and given our gear again. I was partnered up with Jonesy and Mark, who were going to be jumping with me and guiding me back to the ground. After a few gear checks, we strolled out to meet the plane. I’ve since learnt that skydivers are called “meat bombs” by the pilot.
On the ascent Jonesy suggested I close my eyes and visualise the jump, from start to finish. I have used a similar technique before stepping on the the mats and competing in jiu-jitsu competitions, and I find it helps to prepare me for what’s about to come.
Vernon was the first to jump, and as he went through his exit procedures and appeared to be sucked from the airplane it finally hit me – shit was about to get real.
Mark told me “move to the door” which was the indicator that it was my turn to jump. I started my exit, placing my left foot on the edge of the open doorway, sticking my head out, then sticking my arms out and checking in with Mark. Jonesy was already outside the plane and both of them had a firm grip on my shoulder and thigh straps.
“OK” said Mark, which meant control was passed back to me. I set the exit cadence with a clear “horizon, out, in, arch.” Then gravity took over and I was freefalling.
I was arching, but not enough according to Jonesy who gave me a shake – the sign that I needed to arch harder. I did just that, and straighed my legs too (he gave me the two-finger sign infront of my face).
Holy shit – I was actually skydiving!
I checked the ground, and checked my altimeter, and saw I was at 12,000 feet. Just as we’d trained for. The first 15 seconds had gone by on a flash. I started my practice pulls, which demonstrate to the instructors that I am capable of depoying my own pilot ‘chute. I reached and held the position, and when Mark tapped my right arm I executed a practice pull. I then reached and practice pulled again. The guys were happy with my practice pulls, which mean the formalities were over and we settled into the part of the dive I had most been looking forward to.
At 5-second intervals I was to trained to check the ground and take a mental image of what it looked like at this height, and check my altimeter to confirm.
“Ground; alti; 9,000.”
I couldn’t actually call the heights out, but that didn’t matter. I just needed to show to my minders that I was going through the motions.
“Ground; alti; 8,000.”
“Ground; alti; 7,000.”
The next check was the most important, and last.
“Ground; alti; 6,200…. 6,000.”
I held my last check for a second longer and watched the needle pass over 6,000 feet exactly. I waved both hands above my head and indicated to the instructors that I was preparing to deploy my pilote ‘chute. I reached, gripped and threw and began my count.
“One thousand… two thousand…”
And with that, the canopy had deployed. There was no need for the rest of the count:
“Three thousand, check, four thousand, five thousand, six thousand, check canopy.”
The “check” part of the count is to prevent pilot ‘chute hesitations, which occur when you don’t deploy the pilot ‘chute far enough away from your body and it is sucked back in the vortex you’re creating. It ends up resting on your back, not doing its job. With the “check” you roll your body, disrupting airflow and dislodging any sneaky pilot ‘chutes. My deployment was fine, and the canopy was “there and square.”
I checked the canopy as I’d been trained – there were no line twists, the slider had fully descended and the end cells were inflated. I was almost a little disappointed that everything went perfectly, and I didn’t need to employ any of my training. Almost.
I released the brake toggles and pumped the brakes twice. The parachute sped to full drive and I started to scan for my Mark’s canopy. It was my job to follow Mark’s blue and dark grey canopy until I saw the white targetting arrow begin to move, at which point I knew Jonesy was on the ground and ready to bring me in.
I couldn’t find Mark at first, so I turned 90 degrees right and spotted him. I then kept pointing my canopy at him. Mark had deployed a second after me, whereas Jonesy deployed really late and had spiraled to the ground, trying to get to the targeting arrow as fast as possible.
Jonesy did a good job, because before I knew it he was at the arrow and guiding me in. The helmet radio crackled but was a huge distraction; I knew Jonesy was talking but didn’t know what he was saying. I stuck to my training and pointed my parachute the way he directed me.
I was getting closer and closer to the ground, and then saw Jonesy leave the arrow and grab the batons. These are used to guide the parachutist in for the final 200 feet. I must have been up too high at this point because I passed over Jonesy’s head! I remembered that the process is come in on half brakes and don’t attempt to flare if you lose your TA, so I did just that.
But in the last second I heard Jonesy in the radio yelling “flare, flare, flare” so I did, and landed safely and softly. Then I fell on my ass.
He came running over to me, checked I was OK, and we threw a few high fives and fist bumps. We’d done it! Jonesy showed me how to gather up a parachute, and I got to take the proud walk back to the club house with my spent ‘chute over my shoulder. At least I looked the part.
On the way, I saw Jesse land and collected Don. We had all landed safely and began to debrief with our instructors. Jesse’s mum was there and captured a few photographs of the team – I’ll post them as soon as I get them.
I went through my debrief with Mark and Jonesy, and they said they wanted me to follow the arrow faster, but other than that, they were happy with the jump and passed me. I was now ready for AFF 2!
Vernon and Jesse have been bitten by the bug too, and the current plan is to do a second (and maybe third) jump in just over a week.
I made some new friends and tested my mettle in extreme conditions, and feel amazing. When people ask me how it was, I say “life-changing.” And that’s downplaying it.