Leaving in the early morning with camping gear packed in the SUV, I arrived in time for Ground School at 8:00 a.m. Ground School was a six-hour reassessment of the ideas and concepts of skydiving; everything from rate-of-fall, weight and mass to position and aerodynamics, how to properly open and navigate a parachute, and how to properly land it – which is arguably the most dangerous part of skydiving. Theory was followed by practical, as we familiarized ourselves with a standard parachute rig, learning the little details on which life depends in the sky.
We also ran through a series of exercises involving correct body posture in free-fall and the all-important PLF, or Parachute Landing Fall. There is actually a “better” way to fall when your parachute is coming in hard – although in this case “better” ranks far below “good.” The focus was on doing things right the first time. Skydivers have lots of options when it comes to getting back on the ground in one piece. Trouble is, there isn’t much time to make these choices, so they have to know these things cold and be able to execute smoothly under pressure.
This was all prior to my first jump, but I was beginning to appreciate what it would take to become a good skydiver, and the small margin for training mistakes. Sure, my first jump I would have two instructors hanging onto me in free-fall, and they would make sure my parachute deployed. But once the ‘chute was out, the only support I’d have would be the instructor’s voice over the radio. From the get-go I would be navigating and landing on my own. Fun thought.
After lunch, having suited up, checked my rig and strapped it on, I was ready to go up with two instructors – only to be called back. There was one last Ground School lesson: practicing the proper exit routine. Wearing a full-sized pack, clearance was lower than I’d expected, and it took a few tries to get familiar with the position in which I would exit the plane.
Finally the time came to go up, and it was very different from my first tandem jump, when I had been strapped to someone else who actually executed the dive. This time, I was the one skydiving, with a precise jump plan and instructors alongside grading it. During the final gear-check at 13,500 feet, I kissed the 3-ring “snowman” linking harness to parachute after checking it, out of pure jest. My instructors found that both amusing and slightly disturbing. Then the moment came and I jumped.
Procedure took over. I caught only brief snatches of scenery, between the pre-arranged parts of the jump routine and checking my sinking altimeter, while counting seconds in my head to focus on my rate-of-fall (approximately 1000 feet every five seconds) and executing hand-signals to correct my balance and posture. Before I knew it my altimeter was down to 5000 feet and I pulled the 'chute.
The parachute ride was the best part of the jump. The feeling of soaring high above the landscape under an oversized canopy was spectacular. Five minutes later, I landed at the Drop Zone in a more or less workmanlike fashion. If my first tandem jump had failed to leave me completely addicted to skydiving, this jump had done the job. Six more training sessions and jumps remained to finish my AFF training, and be eligible for my first solo skydive.
To be continued in the next edition of the Tampa Bay Informer.