Stories: Learning to Skydive

Back in 2008, Having watched my friend Cal do a BASE jump, I knew I wanted to become a BASE jumper too. But in order for this to happen, I needed to learn to skydive and gain lots of experience. Over the next two years, I did exactly that. This is the story of how I learned.

The rain came down in spades and coupled with the wind it lashed with such force against the metal-sided hanger building that it roared and we had to raise our voices to talk. I was working through the 8-hour long ground school section of the RAPS* course. The course was split between a warm classroom built into an old shipping container, where we learned the theory of parachuting. The second part of the course took place in a much colder, outside area, where we learned about the equipment and practised drills such as canopy handling and landings.

(*RAPS – Ram Air Progression System. The more traditional, military influenced method of learning to skydive. Nowadays being superseded by the more modern, civilian system called AFF – Accelerated FreeFall. RAPS begins with a couple of static-line jumps – this is where the parachute is deployed automatically as the jumper exits the aircraft. As the student skydiver gains experience, they move onto solo freefall jumps – they will now be in charge of deploying their own parachute. With each successive jump, the amount of time spent in freefall increases, as does the altitude from which they jump from.)

It would be several weeks before jump day itself due to the great British weather playing her games, and so a few weekends were spent sitting in the windswept hanger reading old copies of ‘Skydive Magazine’ and drinking lots of tea. The owner of the DZ (DropZone – AKA Skydiving Centre) would usually sit it out until 10am before announcing that the sun was unlikely to show for at least another 2-hours. We would then all jump into our cars and drive over to have breakfast at a local cafe. Stuffing our faces with fried food and yet more tea.

Finally, several weeks late, jump day arrived. The aircraft bounced down the grass runway, and we climbed our way to 3500′ above the ground which as far as modern skydiving goes is actually very low – but to me, it felt very high. The majority of skydives are conducted from above 10,000 feet, and funnily enough, many skydivers who trained in the alternative system to RAPS, (AFF*) hate jumping from such low altitude believing it to be too scary!

(*AFF – For the majority of people learning to skydive outside of the military, AFF will be the system used to learn to skydive. Unlike RAPS, there are no static-line jumps. The student skydivers will go straight up to high-altitude, typically 10,000′ or more. They will exit the aircraft with instructors holding onto them for the freefall portion of the jump. With each successive jump, the students will be given more and more freedom to practise in-air skills and drills. Typically this system is now believed to produce better skydivers, and more quickly too.)

The usual aircraft was not available meaning we were using a rental one, a plane called a Britton-Norman Islander. Designed for exactly what its name implies; island hopping in places such as the Caribbean and the South Pacific – it excels at short take-offs and landings on bumpy landing strips. It is a twin-engine aircraft with the engines and undercarriage (wheels) mounted to the wing. So, by design, the wheels themselves sit right outside the side door.

When we arrived at 3500′ the door was opened by the Jumpmaster, and the wind rushed inside buffeting our jumpsuits, and suddenly it all felt so real. The roar of the engines right outside added to the intensity. The wheel now looked perilously close, and I began having visions of hitting it as I jumped out. Luckily, I then recalled a conversation in the pub a few nights previously. A few of the more experienced jumpers were discussing their various strategies on how they might be able to punch the wheel with their hand upon exit. However, one of the instructors then chimed in to say that the wheel actually sits further away from the door than it looks, making it very difficult to do. There were disappointed faces all round!

The Jumpmaster leant out the doorway and spotted*. The rest of us sat there dealing with our fears and focusing on our training and the task ahead with bated breath and elevated pulse rates.

(*Spotting primarily involves working out where the landing area (DZ) is, and then considering wind speed and direction. They then use this information to give instructions to the pilot before deciding when the jumpers will exit the aircraft. For example, the higher the wind speed, the further upwind of the drop zone the jumpers will exit.)

Some of the other newbies would be exiting before me, so I had the pleasure of watching each one go. We were seated on the floor, facing towards the rear of the aircraft. Considering the exit-door was situated at the back of the cabin meant I had a wonderfully clear view of each of the jumpers’ terrified expressions as they dropped away out of sight. This look of sheer terror on their faces, the accompanying rush of wind and the lurch of the aircraft as the pilot compensated for the sudden drop in weight created a stomach-churning experience for those still awaiting their turn.

Eventually, it was my turn, the plane started to bank around and begin its long loop to start a new jump run. I was called forward to wait, now sitting sideways with my back to the wall of the cabin and with the door now directly in front of me. This position wasn’t so bad in itself but was considerably intensified when you consider the aircraft was banking to the left, meaning I was looking straight down and out of the open door directly to the ground. The English countryside was flying past, and I felt the strange sensation that I was sliding down the floor towards the door. I distinctly remember seeing the shadow of the aircraft cast upon a wispy cloud as we flew over the top of it, which, being such a close reference point, made me realise how fast we were flying.

Finally, we levelled out, and I was called forward. I swung my legs out and adopted the exit position. The exit position involved a contorted sitting position in which both legs are hanging outside the door with just my right buttock on the floor. My left arm was braced against the rear upright of the door frame, and my right hand gripped the lower edge of the doorway in front of me. I took a second and looked back inside to the faces of those still awaiting their turn. I realised that they were displaying precisely the same wide-eyed expression as those jumping – and no doubt the same look as I was now showing.

As instructed, I pushed my chest forward and looked up towards the ceiling of the aircraft cabin in preparation to adopt an arched banana shape with my body upon exiting to allow my body to fall away in a safe and controlled manner.

“GO!” – shouts my instructor. I pushed myself away from the aircraft into the slipstream, and I felt the violent rush of wind and a momentary sensation of weightlessness for just a few seconds. The static line worked as it always does, and in short order I found myself hanging by the shoulders 3000′ above the English countryside. The loud droning of the aircraft’s engine and the rush of wind against my ears was no longer there, and the silence struck me – just the gentle whisper of the air flowing through the parachute lines and the gentle flap of the material above my head.

One thing I noticed, was that all sensation of fear evaporated the moment I left the aircraft. This would become a phenomenon that would continue throughout my life of doing adventurous things, that unexpected loss of anxiety once the point of no return has been passed and the mind effectively surrenders – choosing to focus instead on the moment, instead of dwelling on fear.

The town of Swindon extended before me, looking decidedly greener and prettier than the concrete jungle for which it is known. The sunlight gleams in the windows of the thousands of houses and commercial buildings that make up the town. As I look down between my battered and muddy shoes, fields of green grass and the loose network of hedgerows that separate the farmers’ fields and pastures stretch like a network of veins as far as the eye can see.

“Good job number 6” – A voice crackles over my helmet radio. Each of us had a one-way radio in our helmets and the instructor standing on the ground gave us instructions on flying the parachute safely and in the correct direction.

“I’ll talk you down from here, reach above your head for the yellow toggles and do a control and canopy check for me.” – He continued.

Satisfied that my parachute had indeed opened correctly, the instructor’s voice continues the talk-down, advising me what to do and when to do it and eventually brings me down to a soft landing in the middle of the landing area. I gathered up all the material and lines and made my way back to the hanger and placed the parachute down on the floor.

****

Over the following weeks, I continued to progress through the RAPS course on my way to becoming a fully-fledged skydiver. The initial qualification is called an A-Licence and once achieved, a new skydiver is qualified to skydive without instructor supervision. To be able to skydive in-formation with others, as well as to be able to learn new and exciting things, a skydiver has to progress through various courses tailored to particular skills. I will write about this in another post. For now, I just want to focus on the journey to A-licence.

Having completed a couple of successful jumps, I then moved onto ‘dummy-pulls’. I would still be exiting the aircraft on a static-line, so my parachute would open automatically, but now I had to prove that I could deploy a parachute myself before my instructor would allow me to progress onto a freefall jump. To do this, in place of a deployment handle, I had a fake handle which had attached to it a bright orange piece of material. Upon exiting the aircraft, I needed to pull this and return to the exit position – the instructor watching from the aircraft door would see the bright orange and know that I had pulled the handle successfully. Three successful and consecutive pulls would unlock the door to real freefall! But…

…I sucked at this! Don’t get me wrong – I deployed the handle every single time. But I always rushed to get it and in turn compromised my exit position. When skydiving, the fast wind pushing against your body effectively turns your body into a rudder, or a wing, or whatever other analogy works for you. Having a good, symmetrical body position leads to stable freefall, an asymmetrical body position in freefall can result in your body turning, spinning or worse – tumbling.

Fortunately, I never tumbled, but I always turned to one side, which meant that as my parachute deployed, inevitably the lines would be twisted and I would have to spend a minute un-twisting them. An action not unlike twisting yourself up in a swing set when you were a kid.

However, over many days, plenty of thoughts of giving up, and then finally – sheer bloody-minded perseverance – I did it. Most people do it in maybe 5 jumps or so. Only took me 19!

As you may have guessed by now, I didn’t take to skydiving as naturally as some others do. Fortunately, by the time I started freefalling, things were beginning to click into place. With static-line jumps, it is all over so quickly – you exit the aircraft, and within a few seconds, your parachute is open. But with freefall, I was in charge! I benefitted from having the freedom to deploy my own parachute, and I quickly moved through the next stage of learning to skydive through the RAPS system – the Delays.

A delay is parachuting talk for the amount of time you wait from exiting the aircraft to deploying your parachute – i.e. the freefall time. Starting at 3 seconds, moving through to 5, then 10, 15 and finally ‘from the top!’ Each increase in delay meant I was jumping from higher altitudes each time. From the top was our slang to say that you simply jumped from the regular height like the rest of the jumpers onboard. Typically the maximum altitude of the given dropzone. In our case, we tended to skydive from a maximum of 10,000′ due to local air traffic control restrictions.

I began to notice that as my delays got longer, I had developed a slow but steady spin to one side every time. Although it wasn’t critical and was not severe enough to create line-twists, it was going to be a problem for the next stage of skydiving – skills in freefall. I freely admit that I wasn’t the most natural skydiver, but I have always wondered if having instructors with me in freefall like in AFF would have helped me at this early stage. AFF is good in that instructors can make corrections on the fly, and students can, therefore, progress much faster.

After a few jumps in a similar vein and not making much progress, I decided to go to an indoor wind-tunnel to correct my body position. Wind-tunnels are fantastic tools for skydivers as it allows you to train freefall skills in a controlled environment, much like a swimming pool is to a SCUBA diver. Basically a vertical tube with a massive fan at the bottom, these tunnels simulate freefall conditions and work out much cheaper by the minute than actual skydiving. I bought a 15-minute slot in the tunnel, which compared to skydiving from 10,000′ (approx 40 seconds freefall), was equivalent to over 20 skydives worth of experience – plus, I had a freefall coach in the tunnel with me to correct my position and give me pointers.

It was exactly what I needed, and I was able to breeze through the next few jumps and move onto the really fun stuff – freefall skills! As well as the ability to simply fall through the atmosphere, a competent and safe skydiver will be able to control themselves in freefall, and my abilities would continue to be honed with the next series of jumps.

Starting with a simple 360-degree turn in each direction, the jumper then progresses onto being able to recover a stable body position having become unstable. Simply put, this involves doing a backflip during freefall – super fun! For me, that jump was the first moment when I felt the true freedom of freefall, falling through the sky and doing a backflip before returning back to stable freefall again. I then developed this further with the jump that everyone looks forward to – the unstable exit.

Instead of sitting in the exit position in the door, I had to curl myself into a ball in the doorway, and my instructor pushed me out! I had to hold the position for 5 seconds tumbling in the sky, before returning to a stable freefall position. There is something unique about getting physically pushed out of an aircraft, and the jump was made even more fun by the sight of my friend Cal who, unbeknownst to me, had jumped out as well, and once I had regained stable freefall, he appeared in front of me smiling and waving.

My final skill was learning to track. Tracking is an integral part of learning to skydive and is essential when jumping with other skydivers. It basically involves adopting a body position in which your legs are straight, and your arms down by your sides, the airflow is then redirected backwards, and you move forwards through the sky. Tracking is used commonly towards the end of freefall, each skydiver will track in different directions away from the group to allow them to open their individual parachutes with plenty of space, thereby reducing the chance of entangling with each other.

My culmination jump took place during a stunning sunset, with the DZ owner jumping with me as the certifying instructor. I had to use the freefall time to do each of the skills I learned in sequence. We fell through the orange skies, and he appeared in front of me in freefall, a grin on his face, and gave me a double thumbs up. I deployed my parachute high as required for student skydivers, and he fell away below me, still travelling at 120mph and quickly becoming just a speck against the dim landscape below.

Finally, I was a certified skydiver!

Over the next 2 years, this sport would take me to several countries all over the world, and I look forward to writing about those stories in future blog posts.


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