Jumping out of a perfectly working, moving, aircraft has always held a curious, perhaps even morbid, attraction for me. Skydiving, more than any other ‘thrill sport’ such as bungee jumping, luge, or curling after 14 beers, promised an almost out-of-body experience. It provided an opportunity to put my thrill seeking alter-ego to the maximum challenge. A chance to put my life squarely in the hands of other thrill seekers who carefully packaged my parachute while reminiscing gleefully of their near misses while consistently using words like ‘man’, and ‘dude’.
For my first skydiving experience I chose to attempt a solo tethered dive. This means that I would be jumping from the plane totally on my own accord with a line attaching my parachute to the plane. This line would essentially pull my pilot chute immediately after jumping, eliminating any free fall, and deploying my main chute. Many first timers opt instead for a tandem dive. I am sure you have seen pictures of these folks strapped securely to an experienced diver. The great thing about a tandem dive is that you actually experience a significant free fall before the chute deploys. I had considered this method though I figured I could use some privacy in the case that my bodily functions had a mind of their own while tumbling through the wild blue yonder.
Now, you cannot just simply sign a short waiver and proceed to jump out of a plane. That would be stupid. Instead you sign a massive waiver that basically gives up any and all rights you may have thought you had. Simply put, even with OJ Simpson’s chief lawyer in your back pocket there is no amount of negligence, or malfeasance, on behalf of the skydiving company that would find them guilty in the case something goes wrong. I believe the writers of this waiver may also have written my car insurance policy.
In addition to the rights disclaimer waiver there is an intensely focussed training session designed to instil proper skydiving procedures designed to get you out of any and all mishaps you may encounter on your first dive. Our lead instructor, Johnny, informed us that approximately half of the people taking this course would encounter issues during our inaugural jump and he was going to show us how to resolve almost all of them. Many students asked what types of issues we would encounter while my brother astutely asked which half of the class would encounter problems. We were perfectly willingly to switch sides if need be. This training session began mid-morning and was fully complete by about 3PM. The first half of the day was dedicated to what a perfect jump would entail while the second half of the day was committed to adjusting to imperfections in the jump. Seems to me that we could have spent more time on the correcting things going wrong section.
As it turns out, the problems you may encounter are numerous. Most of them have something to do with releasing the parachute then adjusting for the many ways in which the parachute does not open fully. For example, sometimes the chute twists. Other times it does not deploy fully. Some other times it twists the other way. Sometimes it twists one way then back the other. That is really all I remember. Thankfully, during my dive, I experienced all of these problems and none of the problems of which I don’t remember answers to.
I did a bunch of things wrong before, during, and after my first jump. The first mistake I made was not knowing where I was jumping to. This is a key piece of information and something you should really know before climbing on outside the aircraft. After ascending 5,000 feet inside of a plane the size and comfort level of a tin of sardines I asked our experienced guide “Where am I jumping too?”. I assumed he would point me toward a safe landing spot. He answered with one word: “Down”. Comforting.
We jumped in order with my brother Dave going first (Note: it is a disconcerting feeling seeing a loved one jump out of a moving plane from safely inside). Next up was me. I shuffled out on the wing before leaving my feet to dangle over the edge. At this point I am 5,000 feet above the earth, hanging on to the top wing by my fingertips. This may seem difficult though, I assure you, there is something about the wind velocity (and perhaps adrenaline) that allows you to do this easily. In fact, another friend of mine jumped earlier and, I am not making this up, he had to be FORCIBLY REMOVED from the wing. Taking no such chance I jumped way too soon and toppled head over heels nothing like they showed us during training. That was my second mistake and can be seen clearly on the Youtube video which accompanies this blog.
My third, and scariest, mistake was not counting until 5 before checking on the chute deployment. In the training session they make it clear that you are to count: 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi, 4 Mississippi, 5 Mississippi, before looking to see what state your parachute is in. The idea is that by counting slowly you give the chute enough time to deploy, and inflate, while also providing plenty of time to make corrections should they be needed. Let me tell you this. Counting to ONLY 1 Mississippi allows the shoot to deploy to the size of a crumpled garbage bag that has been rolled up in the kitchen drawer for 3 months. You cannot descend gracefully with this garbage bag. Panic IMMEDIATELY set in.
Rest assured my intense 3 hours of training paid off. According to procedure, I closed my eyes and hastily counted to 5 before peering at the chute again. While still looking like a crumpled garbage bag it was now a larger crumpled bag and soon deployed (nearly) fully. The lines twisted though I was able to rotate my body eventually untangling them. What followed was a most pleasant and peaceful descent from the heavens. As the plane pulled further away from my ‘drop site’ silence set in, interrupted only by intermittent instructions through the 2-way radio strapped to my chest.
I relish talking about this experience. It is easily one of the coolest things I have ever attempted and I am willing, and eager, to do it again. It is not nearly as scary as is it may seem, nor was it the life altering event as I thought it may be. Many people I talk to about this insist they would love to try but cannot. Nonsense. If this is something you want to try, and you can spare a couple of hundred bucks and a day of training, you can do it.
So, If you are intrigued at all I would encourage you embrace the fear and give it a try and jump out of a perfectly functioning plane. Even I did it. Who knows, I might live on the edge and try drinking and curling this year.