The small white car appeared in front of her apartment building. It was 5:30 AM on a September Saturday that’s threatening to storm. An acquaintance from a literature group had asked her if she were interested in skydiving. She couldn’t think of why not, so said “yes.” They had to arrive in Pennsylvania by 7AM for their first-dive class.
They arrive, and are handed paperwork first thing. Seventeen pages of waivers, with spaces to initial every paragraph, full signatures required on about every third page. She signs, not thinking much about them. It would be impossible to proceed if one really imagined all the possible outcomes. They refuse to sign any of the four pages indicating “I affirm I have received instruction in…” since the class hadn’t even started yet. She wanders over and reads the comics clipped to a tackboard, to kill time until the instructor arrives.
As she pays for the dive, she considers buying a roadsign-yellow T-shirt with a slogan from the waivers: Skydiving is extremely hazardous and may result in death or serious injury. She decides not to tempt fate, and instead purchases the photography option. A cameraman with a videocamera strapped to his head will accompany her on the dive. She also has to pay a deposit on the rip cord, as an incentive to return it.
They enter the classroom, and meet the instructor. She tells us she’s had over 3,000 dives, everything will be fine, pops a video into the VCR, and then leaves the room for more coffee.
The video is a reiteration of the waivers just signed. There is nothing about the joy of flight or loss of fear. It’s the antithesis of the ads. Fortunately, none of the accidents are shown, but some possible dangers are listed. Death, dismemberment, paralysis, broken bones, sprained ankles. We and our heirs have given up all right to sue, even if accidents were caused due to gross negligence on the part of the staff. The instructor re-enters.
She opens a rig, or parachute backpack in one corner of the room. The first thing to come out is a little kite-like balloon. This is all the pull-cord activates. It catches the wind and generates the force to drag the rest of the canopy out of the rig. The canopy itself is two rectangles, sewn together at one end, and with sheets in between forming pockets. Attached to the rear corners are extra lines terminating in yellow cords that allow the diver to steer. The other lines are supposed to stay straight when flying. The yellow steering cords are velcroed up, and have to be grabbed after the chute opens to bring them down to a more manageable level.
The rig itself has straps like a backpack, plus a chest strap and leg straps. On the right side of the backpack, around waist level, is the main rip cord. It’s a bright orange cylinder. On the left side, just under shoulder level is a lime green pouch. It’s to be pulled only if you decide you need to use your reserve chute, because it cuts away the main chute. A silver ring is on the left, at waist level. This activates the reserve chute, which is smaller, but still steerable by amateurs. It is supposed to be very hard to activate, and requires two hands to pull.
The instructor has the class strap on cords simulating a rig. with velcroed rip cords, cut-away pouches, and reserve rip cords. The students put their arms over their heads in a “W.” They look at their altimeter like checking the time. They reach over to touch and pull their rip cords like doing waist exercise in a calisthenics class. Close enough, the instructor decides.
The next drill is a bit more graphic to test their reactions once they’ve pulled the main cord, and look up at the chute, and see how well and quickly can they assess the situations.
The instructor first goes through a series of photographs about the size of a good computer monitor. Each one depicts a jumper’s-eye view (looking upward) of various chutes. The first is a perfect rectangle, all the cords unfurled and straight. Others have tangled cords, just the leader chute, both the main and reserve chute out and tangled. The student doesn’t remember them all.
The drill involves pulling the main cord, and looking up. The instructor holds a picture over her head, and students have to assess and react. If they mess up, they’re informed they’ve died. The student “dies” frequently. She often stops and says things like “Oh, wait, I’m sorry, I know what I didn’t do…let’s see now…” The instructor informs her in the sky there are no dress rehearsals, one can’t roll it back and try again. Eventually, the student “survives” enough drills to be excused for lunch.
The instructor takes the class out to look at a grounded plane. The engine is disassembled, and she removes a toolkit from the cockpit. She explains the process.
The student jumper sits next to the pilot, as far back as possible, facing the back of the plane. The instructors and videographers are towards the back of the plane. Helmets only need to be worn during takeoff and in preparation for the dive.
When the jumpmaster/instructor indicates to the pilot they’re at the right area, one will exit the plane and stand on a narrow pedal attached to the door. The student then moves up to the doorway, puts their left foot on the top of the pedal, near where it joins the door, and their left hand on the strut. Then the right foot goes on the pedal next to the jumpmaster’s, and the right hand on the prop. The left foot goes in the air.
Then the student is to “check in” by looking at the jumpmaster still inside, and wait for an OK. Then he or she will “check out” by looking at the jumpaster already outside. The student signals he is ready to jump by doing to push ups, and on the third, they are to push all the way off, and then finally take the arch position.
A xerox of a xerox of a xerox of a quiz is passed around. The questions are exceedingly simple. “At what altitude does the jumper pull the rip cord? 500 feet? 5,000 feet? 50,000 feet?” (The highest flying planes at this air field only go to 15,000 feet, the automatic deployment system activates at around 750 feet if no rip cord has been pulled.) The instructor apologizes for some of the questions being out of date, but doesn’t explain which ones. The student gets all the questions right. Her memory is fine, as usual, it’s just her muscle memory which needs work. She’s asked to sign the rest of the waivers.
Outside the sky has cleared, and a dive is in progress. The instructor leads the class outside to observe. They see a speck appear in the sky above the hangar. A few seconds later, the blue-and-grey rectangle of a student’s chute can be seen. The diver does a 360-degree turn, first to the right, then the left. Now the jumpmasters’ chutes appear. They aren’t trying for the glitz, they just want to spend maximum time in free-fall, and land quickly to observe their student. The diver glides for several minutes, and approaches the landing field. She touches down perfectly, and lands softly on her feet. Her instructors approach to help her pack up her chute.
Time for the class to practice. The instructor hauls out a device which looks like it’s part of a nautili set. It’s a bench about chest high to the student (though waist high for others), with a flat portion in the middle, and then two flaps at forty-five degree angles. One lies on it with their chest on one elevated portion, their thighs on the other. It’s to duplicate the feeling of being in the arch. A student will get in it, and they are to act as though this is the real dive. An artificial altimeter (driven by a timer, not height) is strapped to one wrist. A fake rip cord is velcroed to the bottom of the bench. The bench is rather long, apparently designed for someone much taller. Her hips are still on the flat portion, not the angled, and her head barely peeks above the other panel. Because she has to force her legs up herself, instead of relying on the incline of the bench, she has a hard time keeping her legs in the air. The fake rip-cord is a few inches below her hips, instead of strapped to her waist. After about 5 practice turns, she feels she has mastered the moves…if she were living in a body about a half foot taller.
Next, the class moves to what looks like a nursery school play fort. It is an airplane mockup. The students attempt to recreate the proper plane exit that the instructor demonstrated on the real plane. The guys in the class exit properly after only one or two tries. But she still does not feel confident with this maneuver, even on the ground.
She decides to try to practice more in front of the mirrors, especially the practice pulls. Other divers are packing rigs though, and she gets in their way. She gives up, and hopes her dive is soon, before she forgets whatever she’s picked up.
Another instructor, this one with a reddish beard only partially hiding his smarmy smile, leads the student to find a jump suit. All the student suits are blue, but the instructors have their own custom ones. This instructor’s is black, the one who lead the class has a hot-pink one. It is impossible to find a suit that is short enough for her without being too tight, or wide enough to accommodate her hips without being too tall. She checks the sizing, and notes they are all marked Men’s. She settles for too tall, and tries to tuck the excess into her hightops.
The goggles all feel too tight, though she is assured that it will prevent wind from ripping them off her face. All the gloves in the box are too big, even the ones marked “XS.” Another female instructor donates her gloves. The helmets are also too large, but by creatively re-arranging her pony-tail, she manages to get one marked small to not slide off and bounce on her goggles.
The instructor presents her with a rig. It’s heavy, as expected, but does not feel excessively large. This is a relief. She was worried that she would not be able to reach the steering straps when the canopy unfurled.
The student, two jumpmasters, and cameraman enter the Cessna. It’s cramped, and vibrates a lot. The student remembers little of the flight up. She’s trying unsuccessfully to get a song in her head to help her focus and calm down. When the jumpmasters ask her if she’s ready to jump, she whispers “yes.”
The clouds roll in. When they reach the proper altitude, opaque white clouds cover the entire target area. The student is glad the goggles hide her expression of relief. It is decided that the plane will fly down, and if there’s a clear patch, one jumpmaster and the cameraman will dive, to tell the others about the weather condition, while the other instructor is to remain behind to accompany the student down. The other students think that she wimped out. She thinks so too.
A King Air will be going up in about half an hour, there might be slots on it. It’s a larger plane, holds about 20 divers. It also can fly higher. The instructor is much more excited than the student. “More time in freefall!” The student thought that the cord would be pulled sooner.
The plane has a different doorway style than the ones they had practiced previously. It’s just like a regular airplane doorway, minus the door. There’s no pedal to stand onto, no strut to hold, no double pushups to signal. It should be an easier exit. Get up when it’s her turn into a crouch, and walk low to the doorway. Reverse so she’s looking at the rear of the plane. Hold on with both hands on the inner part of the doorway. Still crouching, get both feet in a single line at the very edge of the doorway. One instructor will hold onto her grips completely inside the plane, sort of in front of her, the other will be behind her, and a bit out of the plane. After the hotel check, the diver should just launch sideways, then arch and resume the regular training.
In the mock airplane, the student struggles. Crouch, walk, grip-and-turn, align feet, go. It’s not coming yet. It’s announced time to re-suit up, the King Air will be leaving shortly. There is no more time to practice the exit.
They enter the plane. There is one group of five advanced divers who will form positions in the air during free fall before activating their chutes. There is another student, on his 7th dive, only accompanied by one jumpmaster. Another person doing a tandem dive. Tandems only take an hour of instruction, and you are strapped to a jumpmaster, who does all the work. The beginner student, sort of wishing she had known about tandems before signing up for a “solo,” is accompanied by two jump masters and a videographer.
The instructor motions her forward. She crouch/crawls to the entrance. The wind is almost overpowering. Not so much in its force, but in its blaring chill. She hovers at the door, holding onto something, not caring if it’s the right thing or right way. She looks down at her feet to try to align them, but catches one instructor’s eye instead. She decides they must be ok, so she considers that the “check-in.” She looks at the other instructor, and appears to receive an approving sign from him as well. It feels like both are gripping the arm and leg handholds, and she is afraid she’ll never go if she worries excessively about form. So she let’s go, shift her wait to the outside, and is diving.
The student blanks out for a few seconds. She has no memories of she did or did not do for the first thousand or so feet of descent.
She sees the videographer, but the sun is too strong to properly check for the horizon. She looks at each jumpmaster, as instructed, but feels she’s probably doing this all in the wrong order. Each of them is making hand signals towards her, but there’s too much wind and force to attempt to control her form and arch nicely. She looks ahead again at the cameraman. He gives her a thumbs up signal, which is easier to react to. She smiles. She cannot close her mouth afterwards due to the air rushing up at her. Her mouth is very dry, and she worries more about trying to close her lips than straighten her legs.
She checks the altimeter. It’s bulky, but strapped tight enough so that the face stays up in a readable position. It’s now about 12000 feet, still above the height at which most people are actually exiting the plane. Perhaps she can catch up. She looks for her orange rip cord handle. At first, due to all the testing on the rack, she looks at her leg, but then spies it at her hip. She twists brings her left hand closer to her face, her right hand closer to her waist. The resumes her former position. Test pull number one. She glances at the altimeter again. A little under 11000 feet. She does another test, this time actually touching the cord, though no attention is paid to the left hand. 10000 feet. This time she seems to coordinate both the touching hand and the counter-balance one. 9000 feet. She would have preferred to have jumped from the smaller, lower-flying plane. The canopy would probably be opening by now. Things don’t feel fast, just dry.
She keeps checking the altimeter. Will it ever reach 5000? Her mouth is dry, but she still can’t execute enough control to close it. But the instructors keep giving her hand signals to improve her form! Widen the arms? Straighten the legs? Haven’t they noticed the upward pressure of the wind making it just a tad difficult to control these things? Her arms move from a triangle to a “W”, and her legs do straighten somewhat. But only when she pays extremely close attention to the particular muscles involved. The student is not strong, has never been strong. The wind is. Gravitational force is. She checks the altimeter again.
6000 feet. Close enough, she’s tired of freefall. She reaches, just like in the test pulls, but this time takes a few seconds to wrap her hand securely around the rip cord handle. She can’t remember if she bothered to wave off to signal to the instructors she was going to pull, but is pretty sure she did.
The student doesn’t look up to check if the canopy had opened properly until after she feels the switch from falling prone to being in a more upright position. She looks, and sees through the glare the lines aren’t obviously twisted, the canopy is a rectangle, so she’s content.
“Hey there! Congratulations on your first dive! Just to prove the radio’s working, why don’t you do a 180-to your right? Umm, your other right. There we go. Hang tight for a minute, just practice steering now.”
The radio man’s voice in her ear was a relief. Equally comforting was the instructors no longer latched to her side. They continued in freefall for a few thousand feet more. The student saw the instructor in pink open her canopy, then resumed exploring.
Two students had dived at once. Immediately after the new student had dived for her first time, another one from the same plane did his 7th. That day he had already completed his 5th and 6th, and would finish the Accelerated Free Fall Training Course of 8 dives by the end of the evening. There is only one radio channel, so the beginning student heard the radio person address the other diver. He was pointing out landmarks. The student steered her chute so she could see the same ones, carefully reversing all motions so she would be in the same relative position when the radioman addressed her again.
The student does not feel like she is falling, the wind is no longer oppressive. In fact, it’s a lot like swinging on a swing set. The ground comes into marginally better focus, but the steering sensations overwhelm the downward ones. The landing strip is now visible.
There are less than one thousand feet left. The student’s right eye starts watering, and sunscreen runs into it causing it to sting and water even more.
She’s aware landing is coming soon, and reaches for her pull cord, hoping she remembered to stow it as instructed, to get her deposit back. She didn’t, but no one else in her class who had dived so far saved it either.
“Wait for it…when I say flare, and not before, I want you to pull both steering cords all the way down…ok?” She nods, even though she knows the radioman can’t see her. She can barely see the target area on the field. “Ready? Wait…wait…FLARE!”
She pulls on both cords as far as she can. The target circle is coming into sharp focus. For the first time since the chute opened, she feels like she is falling. She lets up a bit on the steering cords, her arms are chest level instead of waist-level, but she doesn’t notice. This allows more wind into the chute than the radioman expected, so instead of landing within the circle, she lands on part of the field just outside. The force of the touchdown is about the same as stepping unexpectedly off the stairs. The last thing the radio man says was “Nice, except for the bunny flare.”
She lands on her knees. The instructors approach, not looking pleased. They help her gather her chute and walk in. Her fellow classmates congratulate her for a relatively clean landing, however. The student is relieved to be able to remove her goggles and finally wipe the sunscreen from her eye.
They watch the video taken of her jump. Everything seems grey and sort of out of focus. The only thing that stands out definitely is when she attempted to smile, and the air puffed up her cheeks for several thousand feet. She was then nicknamed “Rocky the Flying Squirrel.” The cameraman seemed more taken with filming his feet than her dive. His still photos seemed to have the instructor in pink at the center of the pictures, even though the student was in the middle. She’s given a ” First Jump” certificate, and a discount coupon for buying the next two dives together.
The jumpmasters enter the room and critique the student. Her exit was wrong. Her form was poor. She didn’t signal. Didn’t she know better than to open her mouth?
She doesn’t hear this. All she hears is the radio man saying “Hey there! Congratulations on your first dive!” not things like “No, no, your other right.”
The student entered a doorless plane. She exited at 14,500 feet. She pulled a string from a backpack and went from terminal velocity to something which felt motionless. She touched ground without injury. And they dare criticize her?