Thoughts pestered me as I drove to the dropzone. Parachuting class? You? This is the stupidest thing you've ever done! You're clumsy! You're a slow learner! Dropping out of a plane freaks you. You'll break your legs! You'll get killed! Why are you doing this?
Why was I doing this?. I wasn't a thrill seeker. It scared the @#$* out of me. It was something I'd watch from afar. That's cool, I'd tell myself, but I could never do it. This seemed reasonable. Then again, really something I could never do? What would happen if I tried?
A level 1 AFF class is the first of many required to earn a parachuting license. You spend several hours learning the basics, then jump out of a plane (with instructors.) This promotional video shows a jump similar to the one I did*
I looked forward to meeting my fellow students. Would they be nervous too? At least we'd have that in common.
Then I met my classmate. He was my age. He was also a war veteran who knew no fear. He wasn't nervous, he told me.
That's who's supposed to be a skydiver, I thought. This guy has dodged bullets and bombs! What the hell have I dodged? Telemarketers? The meter maid? I so don't belong here!
The skills I needed to demonstrate were easy... ...on the ground. What would happen in the sky? What if I freaked out? I practiced over and over. Out loud, in my head, in the door of a mockup plane, and on the ground. Thoughts like "you'll get killed," and "you'll be sorry" tried to butt in...
Then I was in the plane.
The engine roared like a lawnmower as I watched my altimeter slowly dial up to 12,000 feet. Other passengers began dropping out, each with an alarming whoosh.
What was I doing here? I was off my rocker to try this.
Jumping out of a plane is about as counter-intuitive as jumping into meat grinder. It didn't matter that I had a parachute. My instincts said "Get the away from that door!"
Then it was my turn. To exit, I was supposed to crouch in the doorway. Instructor 1 poised to my right, Instructor 2 hanging out to my left. To make sure we jumped together, I was supposed to lean forward; "Ready!" lean back, "Set!" and step out "Arch."
The "Ready" and "Set" went as practiced, but the arch was more like this:
Holy $#!+;!! I'd jumped out of a #!(*ing plane!
The initial drop is very different than any plunge I've felt on land. It's like being sucked into a roaring vortex of wind mixed with being shot downward from a cannon. This lasts a few seconds and is replaced by a "head out the sunroof at high speed" sensation.
It was time to demonstrate my skills.
The "circle of awareness" was easy: Check the altimeter (left wrist), check the horizon, check your right instructor, then your left. Got it.
Now for three "practice touches." This reaching back to tap the pilot chute** handle while counterbalancing with the other hand. Touch one went perfect. I reached back again.... ...where was it? The instructor nudged my hand in place. I missed it completely on the third try
Oh no! I'd blown it. Now what? Should I try again? No! Time's running out. Next task! I changed position to fly forward for four seconds. Okay, time to check that altimeter again. Should be 6000 and almost time to-
-Whoa! It was already 5500 feet. Time to wave off, reach back and-
I jerked upright. The chute rose over my head like a smoke cloud. Huh? How? As it settled into place I figured it out: an instructor had pulled my chute for me before he let go. I'd botched it! My inner critic let me have it:
Seriously, I wanted to focus on what I was doing. I could scold myself later.
I grabbed the steering toggles and did some turns. This is pretty cool, I thought.. The landing area floated below. Okay, I'm facing it, I'm heading toward it...
"Turn left," an instructor's voice crackled through the walkie talkie, "Now right..." Later I learned that, while I was looking at the landing area, I wasn't heading towards it. For all I know I might have landed in the next time zone if I hadn't gotten directions.
Then came landing time. You're supposed to land standing up, but even after flaring my chute (pulling the steering toggles all the way down to slow forward motion), I was still zipping along, so I did a PLF. (That's the army style landing where you roll to distribute the impact.)
I did it! I was on the ground without a scratch! Whoohoo!
No, wait. I didn't do it. The instructor had pulled the chute. I'd failed. I was a bad student. A bad parachuter.
I gathered the chute and headed for the instructors, I was sure I'd be scolded. Surly I'd get a "You know pulling your parachute is important, right?" lecture.
But the instructors seemed glad to see me. They went over the details of my jump, focusing on what went wrong and what I did well. I paid attention, figuring I'd still be learning stuff even if I flunked the thing.
Then the surprise came:
I hadn't failed. I passed! Sure I lost points for the pull-the-pilot-chute fumble, but the instructor said that he saw me wave off and reach immediately after he'd deployed it (it takes a few seconds after the pull to feel the parachute take effect). My body position (in freefall) was good they said, and my PLF landing was "perfect." I suspect they go easy on first timers so not to discourage them, but still, I passed! I couldn't believe it.
I could throw in a smug ending like "Don't tell yourself you could never do something," but there are many more classes to take, each with increasingly complex and scary (to me) tricks that I could never do. Or could I? Maybe....
To find out how my AFF level two class went, click here.
*I could have filmed my jump, but I was nervous enough without having a camera pointed at me. This was made at the same place I had my class, but the gal in the video is way more poised than I was!
**A pilot chute is a mini parachute attached to the main. Instead of pulling a ripcord, you grab the pilot chute by the handle and toss it. It inflates and pulls out the main chute.