My Mom and my brother Andy had decided to come and watch this one. My appointment was at 9:00, and I was about 10 minutes late. They put me on the schedule board right away. There was a little wind and I was nervous of getting bumped again, especially with an audience there to watch. At least having familiar people there made the waiting more tolerable. Finally, around 11:00 I went through my drills and suited up for the jump. My brother was watching while operating a video camera, and looked up to say that the gear looked “really cool”. The gear is bulky, and the leg straps are constricting and hurt when you walk, especially in the groin, but I didn’t care. I looked cool!
The first thing that made it real for me was hearing the sound of the Twin Otter as it taxied up the runway to the loading area. I was really going to do this! Roger and Mike, my two JMs, hustled me to the plane and we boarded first. After us was Mike C, my video man. There were about 18 other people getting on the plane after him. We all packed in, they shut the door, and the plane began to taxi down the runway. I was relatively calm, but my heart began to beat a bit faster. Mike asked me to read off my altimeter every once in a while as an exercise in altitude awareness, and that kept my mind occupied. At 6,000 feet they opened the door for a low altitude dive, nicknamed a “hop and pop”, and one of the jumpers went out. Watching this intensified my feelings a little more. As we got up to 13,500 feet they opened the door again, and one by one the advanced jumpers all left the plane. I lost sight of the video man, but wasn’t thinking about him as I stepped up to the door. “This is it”, I thought to myself. “Have to remember my training, have to try to do this right!” On command, I took my position at the door, checked in, checked out, looked forward to prop, thought, “I’m going to leap out!”, rocked out, rocked in, ignored my mind’s fight against it, and away we went!
The best way I can describe the feeling is to say that it was like looking into the dazzlingly bright sun. Temporarily my awareness was all taken up by it, and then it began to clear. Within a second or two I noticed that I was falling. The shock of that wore off just as quickly and I realized that I had a lot to do in the air. Feeling a little euphoric, I began my first circle of awareness, looking at the horizon, then my altimeter, then to the left JM, then the right JM. The left JM gave me a “legs out” signal (first and second fingers out). I tried to adjust, but couldn’t seem to get control of my body. I looked again and got a “pelvis down” (thumbs down) signal. After trying to adjust a little I looked right and got the same signal. I decided to do my PRCTs, but forgot to move my left arm on the first two touches, remembering only on the third. During my second circle of awareness I kept getting pelvis and leg adjustment signals. I moved my body around but I couldn’t seem to get the arch position. It just didn’t feel the same as being on the table; nothing was pushing my middle the way the table did and my body felt all loose and out of control. It was about then that I noticed the wind, which was shooting up my nose and blowing my cheeks a bit. I knew I was unstable, bucking in the wind and being held tightly by the JMs. With several thousand feet of freefall to go, the JMs gave up trying to correct my arch. I didn’t have it right, and they weren’t sending any more signals, so I knew I wasn’t going to get it. I decided to concentrate on altitude awareness and did my 5500 feet signal at the proper time, clenching and unclenching my fists twice to say “fifty-five!” I noticed that my hands had been closed the whole time, which was wrong. I tensed up a bit because I knew that I was going to be pulling my chute within a second or two and I had no idea what the pull’s “kick” would be like.
At 4,500 feet I pulled my chute. The proper procedure is to look at the ripcord, reach and grab it, pull it, tilt your head back to check and to send a gust back to deploy the pilot chute, count to three, and then check that the canopy has deployed properly. I pulled the ripcord, didn’t do the first check, and let go of my ripcord, which is a real no-no because it will fall to the ground from the pull altitude. As it turns out, Roger had anticipated that I’d let go of the ripcord and held onto it when I pulled. Since I wasn’t arched properly the chute deployed immediately even without the initial check. There wasn’t anything more than a gentle tug when the chute deployed. Suddenly, everything just went quiet, and I looked up to check my chute. It was fully deployed. By now I had forgotten about the ripcord. I reached up and grabbed the steering toggles and did my first flare, pulling both down to my waist. This was about when I noticed that the radio on my chest was making some unintelligible sounds.
I swallowed hard, and my ears popped loudly. I could now hear the radio. The radio man told me to do my left turn, so I pulled the left steering toggle down and turned left ninety degrees. He told me to stop the turn and I did, then he had me turn right until I faced the airport. I looked down at the ground to see houses and trees from 2,500 feet, and they looked surprisingly large. The radio telling me what to do made me feel calmer and safer, since I wasn’t at all confident about making my own landing. I played around for a while, doing gentle turns and s-bends, riding the wind and slowly making my way towards the airport. Around 1,200 feet the radio man took over again and had me begin my base leg, the downwind run to the airport.
At 400 feet, the radio man told me to turn right for my crosswind run. I was getting a little nervous now, not knowing how I’d be on the landing. When I was told to turn for the final leg, upwind, it seemed as though I was nearly on the ground, even though I was still 200 feet in the air. Finally I heard the command, “flare!” and I pulled both toggles down hard. I came down fairly gently but there was enough force that I couldn’t land standing. I decided to go with the flow and sat down quickly. When I had settled down, I got up, grabbed my right riser and pulled hard to collapse the chute, then ran around to the other side of the chute to begin wadding it up. The video man walked over to shoot my comments on landing, and we walked to the hangar. I had done it!
As I walked back to the hangar, doubts began to creep in about my performance in the skydive. I knew I hadn’t arched too well, and I was afraid of being asked to repeat level 1. After I dumped my parachute in the corner of the hangar, I asked Roger how I’d done in the dive. He didn’t show a particularly happy expression and told me to go sit down and think about it for a while, and that he’d get back to me. Sitting on the stairs was a long wait for me. At that point I wasn’t all that happy about it, thinking I had performed terribly. I decided that if I had to repeat level 1 then I probably wouldn’t dive again. The video man came over with my video, and Roger asked to have a look at it before I did, presumably to judge my performance in the skydive. I realized then that I might clear for level 2, but it was going to be very close. Finally Roger came over and asked me to come to the debriefing room.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the main objectives of a level 1 skydive are to remember the jump, to be altitude aware, and to pay attention to the JM’s commands. Although I hadn’t arched well, I had done these things. The first thing Roger did in the debriefing was to ask me to describe the entire jump. I did that fairly well, with a small blank spot near the beginning, and he seemed to feel better about it. He explained his concern, which was that I was severely de-arched, and extremely unstable. We went back and watched some of the video so that he could point it out. I tried to explain my difficulty, that it was just very different in the air than on the ground, but had trouble expressing this concept. He did clear me for level 2, but made it clear that I was to practice my arch or I would repeat level 2.
I left feeling slightly elated but also a little depressed. I had done it, but I hadn’t done very well. At least I would have another shot at it in a couple of weeks, and the fact remained that I did have a video to show off that I had had the guts to jump out of a plane. Later that evening, watching my video, I realized that that blank spot in the beginning of the jump really was a blank spot — I had had some sensory deprivation and don’t remember that part of the jump at all. This must have led to that slightly euphoric feeling that made it even harder to arch correctly. The video was excellent, though, and made me feel a lot better. I resolved to do better the next time.