On Skydiving

Moving this blog to a non-academic server has made its subject matter slightly more manoeuvrable. As a result, this is a post about one of the things that bring me joy – skydiving. It is dedicated to the memory of my first instructor Matthew Sarsfield (5 Oct 1977 – 27 May 2011). Matt was the kind of person who was naturally in tune with how each of his students experienced his beloved sport. He was a great teacher.

These are some very informal impressions of a day in autumn 2009. I pulled them together in an email to a friend back then. Now, they are a reminder of things that make sense to me on a deep, fundamental level – the pure joy of flight, and the internal victories it entails.




… There’s a class you need to take before you can skydive solo, i.e. under your own canopy. It’s called ground school, and you can’t progress from tandem to solo practice before you’ve taken it (and then passed an exam).

So, I drove out to my dropzone in New Jersey for ground school on Saturday, and got there just around sunset. The orange disk hung right over the landing field, and I pulled into the parking lot just as the final jumpers of the day (those with B-licenses and higher, which enables flying in low-light conditions) came floating down under their canopies. It was beautiful. Then the dropzone folks pulled out beers, made a campfire, and sat around for a while. A whole bunch of trailers hide in the woods nearby, and some instructors live there in order to save on rent, so it’s a perfect area for just hanging around and talking to them. The place is also populated by strange characters that go about their business, emerging and then vanishing again, – mostly the partners of all these adrenaline addicts, I think.

Ground school started at 9 am the following morning. It was taught by a young woman who looked entirely unexcited (and possibly even slightly sedated) by the load of numerical safety information we were drowning in. I’ve noticed this about people who jump professionally – because so few things can compare to falling out of the sky on a daily basis, some of them can be rather unruffled (while others may become perpetually enthused).

Conclusion of the day? Do not attempt jumps right after ground school! We finished at about 2 pm, and all those hours were spent examining malfunctions – things that can go wrong. Until then, I didn’t even realize the multitude of various ways a parachute can fail. We learned how to cut away the main canopy and pull the reserve, and then we practiced judging whether these emergency procedures should be carried out in a given situation. This was based on giant photographs that the impassive instructor held over our heads while we hung strapped into harnesses attached to the classroom ceiling. It went like this: PULL (to deploy), count to five, then look slightly over your right shoulder and evaluate how your canopy is doing. By that time the instructor would be perched up behind us, holding a picture of some possible malfunction. During a real jump, of course, these pictures would be replaced by reality.


Remember to PULL! Source: Skydive Cross Keys


To sum things up: there are situations, like twisted lines, which you can kick out of (literally – with your legs, like a kid on a swing), and then there are others where you need to cut away the failing canopy and deploy the reserve. Shoot me if I feel that I’ve learned the difference! Conditions called high-speed malfunctions seem easier to identify – you fail to slow down, keep heading towards the ground at 120 mph (195 km/hr), and might be spinning in the air as well. So you take the hint: you have to cut. But there are also low-speed malfunctions, which sound a lot more confusing, because you have more time to try and fix things – and you have more chances of indeed fixing them – but it’s still a matter of seconds. The simple fact is: if you are in freefall and you pull the cord at 5 000 ft (1.5 km) – which is the standard height for pulling, as far as beginners are concerned – you’re about 25 seconds away from the ground if your plunge is not discontinued. It’s the math: the average is roughly 5 seconds of flight for every 1 000 ft. And then, of course, there are additional details, like the minimum altitude at which you’ll have to decide to keep the parachute or to cut it (2 500 ft), the altitude at which you need to be directly over the landing zone (1 000 ft), and a hundred other facts that were on the test at the end of class.

We also learned to jump out of an airplane on our own – without a tandem master. That must have looked particularly charming – a set of focused idiots with a sleepy instructor bouncing out of a fake plane door (just a door; no plane) in an otherwise still sunlit meadow. The correct count goes: prop, up, down, arch arch arch. Prop is for propeller (you want to see it to ensure that you’re facing the relative wind) and up/down seems to be simply a doorway adjustment. Arch, of course, is the mantra for assuming a stable body position. I must have done that drill dozens of times. So why does this sort of stuff tend to air out of your head at around 13 500 ft, en route to your 14 000 ft destination?

To make the long story short, it was a lot of information for one day. Then, when I went to register for a skydive (it was to be my last tandem prior to progressing to solo training), all instructors were booked for the day, and I just lucked out on one who happened to have a space – the last free spot of that whole weekend. Later I realized it’s this mega-experienced guru named Mark. So my final tandem was with him. Did I mention that jumping right after ground school is a bad idea?

Skydiving hand signals. Source: dropzone.com

Once we were in freefall, I had to focus on keeping us facing the Philadelphia skyline, while Mark kept turning us away from it (toward Atlantic City, I presume. I remember my original tandem instructor, Matt, encouraging me to enjoy those skylines during my very first freefall. I had just one thought to that: “You’ve gotta be kidding me!”) The task of steering kept me preoccupied until I deployed the canopy, at which point Mark insisted we have to stall the parachute so I’d know what it feels like, and how to fix it. I seriously chimed out something like: “Eh, do we have to?” But he was quite insistent that one must know one’s own limits, so we stalled (braked until the parachute began to fall backwards) and then fixed it by letting go off the brakes (at which point it dives sharply forward and down – that’s why you never want to let go off the brakes too fast, or to stall too close to the ground, since fixing it will slam you in). All this, naturally, with a gorgeous bird’s-eye view of green-and-blue far below us. I was entirely full of adrenaline by the time we landed. Which is the whole point, of course. Then I fetched my personal logbook, and Mark cleared me for Advanced Freefall Progression (AFP). Next jump: on my own!

Actually, this tandem was very different from my earlier ones. Matt was not an AFP instructor, so he was more of a “let me take you for a ride and make it an awesome experience” sort of guy. Jumpmasters who teach AFP are a bit different because they know exactly what they want you to do during tandems, to enable you to work with them solo. Very task-oriented, in other words. In my logbook Mark, unlike Matt, noted what I did wrong, not what I did right. “Stiff turns” – because I didn’t turn us back to Philly as smoothly as I should have. Apparently, instead of turning towards Philly by correctly tilting both arms and upper torso against the oncoming wind, I was somehow “reaching” for it with the arm that was closest to it. Wish I could see it on video! Priceless.

In memory of Matt

As for malfunctions, I’ve experienced a low-speed one called closed end cells. I was with Matt when it happened, and he talked me through fixing it so casually that only later, on the ground, did I realize that it qualified as a minor partial malfunction. We pumped the cells open fairly quickly.

One final thought I wanted to share. It’s amazing how the things they tell you on the ground are actually true up there. Little things, even, which you almost laugh off when you first hear them. When we were practicing airplane exits, for instance, the ground school instructor told us not to touch this nice-looking bar that stretches along the length of the door. She wanted us to grab the rough edges of the doorway instead. She explained it like this: “If you grab that bar, you’ll never let it go.” I thought it was a joke until we were up in the air, and by coincidence, this same instructor was on the same load, jumping with an AFP student, a petite blonde girl. It was the student’s second solo.

When her turn came, the petite girl grabbed that comfy bar. And froze. I mean it – she literally froze in the exit. Mark and I were right behind them, and Mark was yelling to hurry them up because we were already passing the dropzone, and the poor student was clutching on for dear life. So her instructor started peeling her fingers off the bar – one by one. I think that’s when her panic began to influence other students – like if you heard someone scream while waiting in your dentist’s office. You could feel it slowly spread around, hastened by the wild roar of the wind in the open door of that little plane at 14 000 ft. I can imagine that the whole situation only made the petite girl more terrified. Finally she yelled “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!” and they backed away from the exit. We got into that door right away. And I did a quick and perfect “prop, up, down, arch arch arch” exit. It was only quick and perfect because at that point I was terrified that Mark thought we had been delayed long enough. You really want to make sure that the guy you’re strapped to is as happy as possible. :) But that was a different kind of highlight – actually witnessing someone back off and stay in the plane.

Later, near the campfire, another jumpmaster shared that this student had originally worked with him, and her first solo jump was just fine. But since all instructors were booked for the day, she ended up paired with someone unfamiliar. Yet she had been expecting to jump with the person who had taught her all the basics. So I think I can see where the short circuit took place.

Still, above anything else in the world of adrenaline I love that moment at the aircraft door. Before and even after it, you may be anxious (more before than after, though). But when they open the door, it’s just focus, decision and determination. It’s really the only way to take a step. For those of us who are normally overactive thinkers, it’s yoga for the mind.

Maybe that’s why the sport is so addictive? You don’t just become an adrenaline junkie. You are also constantly scoring victories over yourself. That’s what really matters, somehow.

… blue skies to all ☼



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