This purpose of this post is primarily documentary. The video was ripped from a VHS tape.
In early 2000 I had had my private pilot’s license for more than a year, was recently discharged from active duty Air Force, and Skye was just a few months old. On my bucket list, near the top, was to skydive.
I had convinced a handful of my buddies to jump with me, but as the day approached they each canceled for various reasons. I scheduled another jump with another group of friends, but that plan also fizzled as the prospect of jumping from a perfectly good airplane settled in. Finally, frustrated, I talked one friend into jumping with me. He was also a pilot, so I figured the likelihood of him following through was better.
Tandem skydiving doesn’t seem to me like skydiving at all, as you’re merely a paying passenger on somebody else’s jump. I wanted to skydive for real, and luckily the local dropzone offered an AFF course. Brian and I showed up early to the dropzone for our eight hour class. We learned about regulations, emergency procedures, flying the canopy, egressing the aircraft, landing, etc. Then we donned very stylish yellow and purple jumpsuits and were strapped to a harness that was suspended from the ceiling. From a mock aircraft step and strut a few feet off the ground, we practiced aircraft egress, flaring and controlled freefall, went through the requirements of AFF Level 1, repeatedly cut away the main and deploying the reserve until it was essentially committed to muscle memory, and performed dozens of safe landings.
After completing the course and the instructors were satisfied we were prepared to jump, they cleared us to fly. I boarded the first plane with my two jumpmasters and the videographer I had hired. It was a perfect day to jump: clear skies with a slight breeze. When we got to our jump altitude of 10,000 feet the drop column wasn’t clear so we continued to climb. By the time we were over the dropzone and got the all-clear we were at 11,500 feet.
First the videographer climbed out of the plane and literally hung with both hands from the right wing strut. Then a jumpmaster exited and held onto the strut and placed one foot on the step. I was third to leave the plane, balancing on one foot next to my jumpmaster on the tiny platform step. Last, my second jumpmaster leaned halfway out the door waiting for my call. I cleared left, cleared right, then called for us to go. On my mark we all let go of the airplane and entered freefall. I flared perfectly, as I had done many times on the ground in the class, while a jumpmaster on either side held on to my suit with both hands. When I was stable I completed all the requirements of AFF Level 1, which included slight adjustments to attitude and simulations of pulling the ripcord.
My jumpmasters each let go of me with one hand after they had determined I was safe, stable, and in control, which allowed the videographer to come in close and take a few still photographs. As you can see in the video, I was having a stupendous experience of a lifetime!
It was very hard to breath during freefall, with air rushing into my face at 120 miles per hour. I learned later that the sensation is an effect of the adrenaline rush and not excess air, which makes sense in retrospect.
During freefall I used the altimeter attached to my left wrist to monitor our height above ground level. At 5,500 feet, I signaled to the jumpmasters that it was nearly time to pull the canopy. A few seconds later, at 5,000 feet altitude, I reached back with my right hand while raising my left hand above my head for flight symmetry, grabbed hold of the ripcord handle, and pulled it loose while making sure not to let it go (Letting go of the ripcord would result in an unsafe dropped object and cost me a case of beer). As my canopy inflated the two jumpmasters let me go, rushing to the ground to assist with the landing. For the first time, I was completely on my own.
Suspended in my harness thousands of feet above the Kansas prairie was an intense and unfamiliar experience of tranquil euphoria. It was as if the world stood still; life’s dramas became instantly and incredibly small and irrelevant. The total silence allowed me the opportunity to take in not only the marvelous view, but to reflect on the adrenaline-inducing prior few seconds.
I had affixed to my chest a radio through which someone on the ground could convey instructions. At the appropriate time they had me make turns to familiarize myself with the flight characteristics of the canopy and to gage wind direction and speed, etc. Skydivers use a flight pattern similar to us airplane pilots: downwind, base, and final approach into the wind. I chose my touchdown point and set up for the downwind. On command, I turned base, then final. The groundrush was intense, as I had been warned. I flared well, and at the right moment, but my fear of injuring my legs caused me to keep them up for too long, which resulted in me instead landing on my ass, a less than ideal alternative. While it wasn’t a pretty landing, it didn’t hurt either. I quickly got up, gathered up the canopy as instructed, and walked to the hangar where Kirsten was waiting with Skye.
After my jump I vowed to jump many more times, even intending to purchase my own gear and complete my AFF levels and become certified. It didn’t happen; I haven’t jumped out of an airplane since. However, it was an exhilarating experience I will never forget.