It’s cold outside. I’m sweating and my stomach is churning. I’ve just driven two and a half hours and am watching the sunrise from an old couch that’s seen better days. My friend and I are waiting for The Parachute Center in Lodi California to open so we can start our first day of learning to skydive. I’ve jumped tandem a handful of times and so has he, but we’re both inexplicably nervous about our first solo jumps today. It may have been from studying the training material over the past few days. It may have been watching all those Youtube videos the night before of jumpers dying at the very place we were standing.
The doors open and we head in, pay the remaining balance of our $1,000 per person that the course costs, and head into the back of the building. Our instructor introduces himself to us, hands us a couple of waivers, and turns on the old projection TV. We’ll be watching a series of videos, then seeing the instructor model the actions, then performing them ourselves. We simulate checking a pack before putting it on and what needs to be looked for, the proper way of arching our bodies in air, and how to cut away our chute in case of a malfunction and pull our reserve. We go over hand signals and what they mean, how often to read our altimeters to know how high we are in the air, and when to pull our chutes.
After three and a half hours of class work, dirt dives, which are when you practice jumping out of a fake plane and simulate your dive laying on rolling boards in the dirt, we were told it was time. We donned our old canvas jumpsuits, bright yellow helmets so everyone knew we were beginners, goggles, checked our packs, and headed outside to wait for our plane. The day was in full swing by now and we would be going up with other jumpers, from tandems going for their first times to wingsuiters that had hundreds, if not thousands of jumps under their belts.
The 15 minute flight up was pretty nerve racking. Being attached to an instructor and not needing to think about anything while being thrown out of a plane is one thing, this was completely different. There would be an instructor holding on to my side through the freefall, so not a whole lot was likely to go wrong, but after that I was on my own to pilot safely to the landing zone. I checked my pack again from the seated position, smashed between about 30 other jumpers. A bumper sticker slapped on the inside of the plane read, “Why would you jump out of a perfectly good airplane? Until you’ve done it you’ll never know.” I checked my altimeter against another jumper’s to make sure it was reading right. The plane leveled off, the door was wide open now, and the wind was blowing a few feet away as jumpers threw themselves out and toward the earth below.
My instructor and I moved to the doorway, pulled ourselves through and faced the plane. We’d be doing a backward exit as it’s easier to learn, so just a three count and a big backward step into nothingness. The wind while holding onto the side of that plane was incredibly strong. Seeing an engine attached to a wing a few feet to my left was an odd sight at the time. My instructor yelled, “Okay, ready, set…” I echoed his words and we both yelled, “Go”, and took a giant step backward into the air.
When you jump out of a plane you fall down a path that often has you looking up at the plane as you fall. It’s an arc that’s referred to as “riding the slide”. This is why every person who’s jumped tandem will tell you they’ve flipped while skydiving, although they really just ended up jumping, looking at the plane, then leveling out. I rode the slide down, leveled out, and began taking signals from my instructor. He signaled to improve the arch in my body, to check my altimeter, which would need to be checked every few seconds, to reach back and touch my chute release, and some other commands. I needed to yell what I was doing each time he gave a command to ensure I was as focused as needed to jump with no one else in the air with me after the course was over.
The feeling of being in midair with no one attached was terrifying and thrilling at the same time. My instructor did a good job at keeping me busy and focused, but the overwhelming intensity of the situation stayed with me. Seeing the world while falling toward it at 120 miles per hour is a unique feeling, one that I think every person should experience. A slight turn of your head or hand will put you into a spin, straightening your legs a bit will rocket you forward in the air. The sensation is more like floating than that falling feeling you get on roller coasters. It was the ultimate feeling of freedom for me.
At 5,500 feet I gave him the signal I was going to pull my chute, arched my body hard, and pulled the release, sending me to a dead stop while he continued downward. The loud rush of air by my ears stopped, the stinging in my face subdued, and I was floating. The first order of business was checking to ensure my chute was fully inflated, which it wasn’t. These chutes are made up of cells filled with air, and I had a collapsed end cell on either side. This is really common, however I didn’t know that at the time. I pulled the toggles (hand controls for the chute) down, which stalled the chute, allowing the cells to fill with air. Piloting to the ground was very serene as you don’t really feel the wind or hear much beyond the birds chirping, but being my first time, it was also very stressful ensuring I was at the right altitude at the proper landmarks. If I was too high or low I could end up off in a field somewhere outside of the landing zone, leading to a long walk back as long as you landed somewhere safe.
Sailing over each landmark, checking my altitude, I started to see the others from the plane floating nearby. I looked down at the windsock on the ground to see which way the wind was blowing, as I’d need to land into the wind to slow me down. We started lining up in the air to make our landings, as I saw the earth getting larger and larger I kept my eye on my altimeter to see when I’d have to prepare to land. It was hard for me to gauge my altitude by eye, and when I was about 10 feet off the ground I pulled my toggles down slowly to stall my chute so I didn’t plow into the earth at 25 miles per hour. It turns out my 10 feet in the air was more like 25 feet in the air, so the chute stalled, and I fell from the sky into the ground with a hard thud. This would be the first of many grass stains on my well worn jumpsuit and the first of many bruises over the following months.
I had survived my first skydive in one grass stained, bruised up piece! I ran inside to check out the video, which showed lots of room for improvement, and went to find my friend and to see his video. As I asked how his jump went, his response was less than ideal. He had loved the jump, but unfortunately had frozen in mid air, which was one of the things we had been warned could happen. Watching the video, as commands were given, they were not followed, and the deer in the headlights look was plastered on his face. As the instructor moved in to deploy his chute for him, he ended up pulling it and found his way to the ground safely. That was the end of his course. He was given the option to study up, do some simulated jumps indoors, and come back to finish the course, however that would not end up happening. The course does not issue refunds, and he would end up forfeiting his money instead of finishing later.
I had one jump down, 6 left to go. The following jumps were much easier mentally, which made them way more fun as we progressed. I learned to control my spins, do a front flip, and do a terrible excuse for a backflip, which you can see in this video:
Tracking became my favorite maneuver, which is when you straighten your legs and pull your arms back to your sides, almost like a bird diving would. You gain a lot of speed and start getting as close to flying as you can get without any special equipment attached. If you did it for long enough you would end up flying far enough from your drop zone to be in trouble, so I learned to track for a short amount of time in one direction, then turn 180 degrees and track back the equal amount of time. The seven training jumps were split up over the course of two days, and when my last jump was done, I was officially AFF certified and could jump completely solo. My instructor was adamant that I immediately go on another jump without him, so even though I was physically exhausted, I paid my $35, which bought me a ride up in the plane and my rental gear, and was out in the sky completely alone 15 minutes later.
People talk a lot about the time they went skydiving, and how terrifying it was. I’m not an expert by any means when it comes to jumping, however I can say that until you’ve jumped on your own, you have no idea what you’re missing. When asked the common question, “Why would you ever jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” now, I only respond with, “Until you’ve done it you’ll never know.”