Skydived that is!!

What to give the man who has everything for his 30th birthday?

Skydiving of course!!

I tried to make it a surprise …. but when you’ve got to be there at 8:00 am, go through an intensive 6 hours of training, and then make your first jump from 2 1/2 miles up (12,500ft.)……partying the night before is definitely out of the question. So I had to spill the beans which left only one sleepless night beforehand, or so we thought.

In considering this birthday “gift”, vague memories of him saying “I’ve always wanted to skydive” and even vaguer memories if me saying “I’ve always wanted to skydive, but I think I’ve grown out of it” came to mind. _NOT, because when I went to sign him up, so did I. And not just for a tandem jump, where you experience freefall on someone’s back and don’t have to do any work (like remembering to pull your chute); nor a static jump from a sensible 3,000 ft, where you still don’t have to worry about pulli ng your chute because you’re connected to the plane which pulls it automatically and then releases you; but we went for the ever loving Advance Free Fall (AFF) course where in one day, you too, can learn enough to have a really good time in the sky….al l by yourself (well, OK, two instructors hold onto you until you open your chute, or at least that’s what’s supposed to happen).

So at 8:00 we watch a lawyer on video announcing the high risk involved in skydiving and then you sign something absolving the drop zone of any liabilities. Surprised? (a drop zone, or DZ, is the skydiving center. There’s so many cool terms and acronyms in skydiving). Then we get trained in a group of 4 involving instruction with a training manual, with a lot on emergency procedures and the flight landing pattern to follow when you fly yourself in for a landing. Then it’s outdoors for exercises like a PLF (parachute landing fall) roll, and drills such as the “pull” and “hotel check” drills.

Yes the “pull” drill is what you have to remember to do at 5,000, which means you have to remember to take your eyes off the ever enlarging earth and look at your altimeter whilst falling 120 mph. It goes something like this: look [at the rip cord handle by your hip], reach [for it], pull [it], arch [your back], count for 3 seconds, check [overhead for a good parachute], bad chute?, if yes, look [for cutaway handle on your chest], grab [it], look [for reserve handle on other side of chest] , grab [it], cutaway [ the bad parachute], pull [your reserve chute], arch [and thank goodness you had 2 parachutes].

The “hotel check” is after the door of the airplane, which you’re sitting next to, has just been opened. You’re instantly surprised because you didn’t get sucked out like in the movies. The instructor (they’re called jumpmasters) sticks his/her goggled f ace in yours and screams “ARE YOU READY TO SKYDIVE?”. You reply “YES”, and they reply “CLIMB OUT”. Assuming all goes well and you actually end up standing under the wing of the plane on a 8×3″ step while it’s going 80 mph, holding onto the wing strut you ‘re ready for the hotel check. check in [look toward primary jumpmaster], wait [for their OK], check out [look toward secondary jumpmaster], wait [for their OK], prop[look at it, yes the propeller], ready, set, let go and arch [your back]! There ya are.. fallin’.

When we finished instruction around 3:00 and queued up for an airplane (that’s called manifesting) the DZ had gotten pretty full and the winds had picked up. Students, and most skydivers, don’t jump over 12mph winds. So we ended up having to wait for the next day. Now it’s my husband’s 30th birthday and we don’t have even a celebratory beer for fear of killing those very brain cells we just stuffed all this new skydiving info into!! Another sleepless night. Was this gift really a good idea?

We slept in a little the next morning and arrived at 10:00. Refreshed our lessons and drills, manifested, and waited for the jumpmasters to free up and the winds to dye down. Hanging around drop zones and watching the planes unload ants, which turn into people at about 5,000 ft, is an event in itself. Just bring a blanket, sun glasses, binoculars, and lunch. It’s a blast. Around 2:00 clouds began rolling in just as we suited up and prepared for our first jump. A first AFF jump gets it’s own plane (alb eit a little one) because it takes 4-5 people (yourself, 2 jumpmasters, a pilot, and yes, video!). So John and I went up in separate planes. His was to unload first. As we climbed the clouds got thicker and we had to circle around for about half an hour to find suitable holes with which to jump through. Falling through clouds is unwise because of visibility, but personally it was the best skydiving experience I’ve had. But not on your first jump.

Well, it appeared that John got out successfully so now it was my turn. When the door first opened, that was the scariest part. Something unnatural about opening the door of a plan and climbing out of it in midflight. Once out there however, it was kind of nice and I went through the hotel check maneuvers. My senses were in such overload I did’t remember the details, like deathgripping my jumpmaster’s arm after letting go! I do remember that my mouth was wide open with my cheeks just flapping in the w ind and spit spilling out all over my face. Freefall for about 60 seconds, it was too incredible to describe. I fell stable with the jumpmasters at my side, did my required look-reach-pull drills in the air and at 5,500 began the real “pull”. They teach you pull priorities. “Pull” is primary, “Pull at the proper altitude” is second, and “Pull when falling stable” is the third, but you’ve gotta pull that rip cord of your own wits. Mine went fine, with a good parachute overhead and all alone in the sky no w with just a one-way radio strapped to my chest. The jumpmasters had pulled later then me but were already making their way across the sky and down to the DZ for their next students.

I reached up and unsecured the toggles [steering lines] from the velcro holders and noticed that YES, the rip cord was still in my hand. Looks like I wouldn’t be the student chump who dropped their rip cord and bought beer for everyone tonight! Since I’ m light, and was under a huge student parachute on a hot day with a thermal over the airport, I stayed afloat for about 6 minutes just taking in the sights. It was a beautiful and peaceful balance to the insane speed and exhilaration of free fall. Then t he radio beamed out, “Terry or John, we’re not sure which, take a right turn.” Well that sounded a little strange but I took a right turn and followed the inflight tutoring to get me into the proper landing pattern. Upon approach I saw the plane land b elow me, I land on the grass, it on the runway. Although I have a story about landing on the runway once…. Anyway, as instructed I “flared” at about 15 ft, by pulling down on both toggles, which stalled the parachute and literally placed me on the gro und, on my feet, with only a couple of steps. Cheers and claps from my new skydiving companions.

Cool, but where’s my husband? Um, um, well, he uh….”What! Where is my husband!!” as the bliss and beauty of my first skydive quickly shrank away to fear and concern I was told that he had landed a couple of miles away and they had sent someone out fo r him. That was the scariest couple of minutes of my life. Waiting for him to be “retrieved”. Well he came back in one piece, but had landed in a tree and had twisted his ankle. Furthermore he had tumbled in freefall, taking two jumpmasters with him, an d one had broken her wrist. He had stabilized and pulled his own chute and had a good opening, but the tumbling had them all off course. The only radio msg he heard was “”Terry or John, we’re not sure which, take a right turn”, which he did. He went qui ckly out of radio contact, and had to land himself which is no small feat.

Although John says he’d like to jump again, I haven’t been able to get him out there. However, we have this 30th birthday adventure on video and although most of our friends are sick of it, we love to watch it now and again. I completed the AFF course through 8 more jumps and have jumped 25 times over the past 2 years. Its a time consuming sport however and I don’t have the time to invest to be a serious skydiver. I’m considering being a recreational skydiver, if there is such a thing, who jumps only a couple of times a year. Obviously this isn’t the safest strategy to take, but I just love the thrill of it, even if only occasionally.

Blue Skies!!

Submitted by Terry Connolly

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