Monday, 19 April 2010 16:26

Thrill Seeker Series: Episode 4 - Going Solo

Written by  Sirio Balmelli
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Sirio BalmelliIn earlier issues I reported on my first skydiving adventures out of Vandenberg Airport, now known as Tampa Executive Airport. I felt cocky with the first of my training jumps under my belt, and wasted no time practicing for my second. That too being uneventful, I took no break and rushed to get my third and fourth jumps in before calling it a day. And what a day! There is something to skydiving, maybe the adrenaline,  that by the end of the day has you dropping from exhaustion. I set up my tent and turned in early.

The night did not go as planned. Soon after I made myself as snug as possible over the thin plastic sheet disguising hard earth, I met the first of many ants I would be acquainted with that evening. Eventually my exhaustion surpassed the discomfort at their harassment and I drifted into a half-sleep. But soon the wind began to blow the thermometer into submission. I had forgotten to bring an extra blanket.

There is one definite benefit to camping in a collapsible emergency tent: you will not sleep in. The first ray of sun cleared the top of the trees on the other side of the landing zone (LZ) at about 7:30 and I was up. It was no warmer than 40 degrees, and I felt like a true Swiss as I flip-flopped my way to the outhouse coin showers with a towel around my waist. The wind had blown all trace of clouds right out of the sky. Despite the chill I could not repress a smile of excitement. There was a “blue sky,” which was also the famous skydiver saying: a motto, greeting, and good-luck all rolled into one.

I arrived at the manifest office (a manifest is the list of who is going up on a load) in time to wait. And wait. It appears that someone had completed their wing suit training the day before, and complied with the honored tradition of buying everyone beer. Once Laurie shuffled in, it was only to pull a sheet out of the printer and point a grim finger at the high-altitude wind speeds. No loads were going until that wind died down, especially no loads with students.

Luck was with us, however; by midmorning the wind died down just enough to let me talk my instructor into jumping. My first load of the day was jump 5 and that was shockingly cold (at 13,000 feet) but uneventful. I pulled a perfect landing despite the wind. So I got cocky.

Somewhere during the previous two days I had read a lengthy essay on how to improve landings, which contained instructions for the very dangerous emergency technique of rear-riser landing. Parachutes have steering toggles, but if the steering lines become jammed it is possible to control (and land) the chute using the two rear sets of lines (the risers). On a regular landing, just before touching the ground, the parachute is slowed to a standstill by “flaring,” or pulling on the steering toggles all the way. When landing with rear risers (disclaimer: DON’T do this) the concept is the same, but the parachute responds to riser input very differently.

On my 6th jump, after pulling my ‘chute and getting stably underway, I decided not to unlock my steering toggles, and simulate a steering failure all the way to the LZ. I practiced rear riser maneuvers, and executed the landing pattern all with the risers. On my final approach, I decided to try a rear-riser landing, thinking I was in tune enough with my rig that I knew what to expect.

The coach saw me coming in with my hands on the rear risers and began to swear at me through the radio clipped to my chest. I ignored him and concentrated on picking the right time to flare. Flaring is done very rapidly and decisively; there is no hesitation. There is also no going back—once you flare you cannot unflare, you can only land. If you flare too early the ‘chute stalls on you and eventually drops you the (hopefully few) feet you have left, if you flare too late you hit the ground going too fast. When I tried flaring with the rear risers, however, I was in for a nasty shock—the ‘chute fought back at me and would not slow, while the ground continued to rush up.

It was my very good luck that it was windy that day and that I was flying an enormous and very forgiving student canopy. I was landing into the wind, and a gust hit my chute at just the right time to save me from a very hard landing. I landed standing on my feet perfectly, but otherwise very shaken. Needless to say, none of the coaching staff were remotely pleased. I still smart thinking of what they had to say about that little stunt. They could not flunk me on 6 however because I had actually made the landing.

In the hassle of getting reprimanded six ways from Sunday, I misplaced my goggles, and when the five-minute call came for my next load, I was racing around frantically trying to borrow another pair. The only goggles available were these enormous things big enough to cover Chewbacca’s face. But I was out of time so those would have to do.

My 7th jump. Pass this and I could fly solo. Flunk it and I was going home, since there was no money for re-jumps. I was jumping with a coach right behind me. I would be graded on my exit and how fast I gained control, on my posture, my ability to hold and head in a direction, turns, flips, altitude awareness, proper opening procedure. I was opening higher than all the other divers so my coach and I went last. I exited diving towards the wing and stabilized. I checked altitude. I turned, checked altitude. I turned again, checked altitude. I backflipped and checked altitude. Forward flip, checked altitude. Track, checked altitude. Got ready to pull. And...the billowing wind sucked the contact lenses right out of my eye sockets. Both—at the same time. I signaled and pulled my chute.

There I was, staring at my contact lenses, all shriveled up and pasted to my plastic goggles. Not good. The hardest part about skydiving is landing the rig and it is good to be able to see the ground and judge how far it is when doing that. I was too blind to do it without lenses. But, being near-sighted, I could now see the altimeter on my wrist better than ever. I landed my chute by guessing and looking at the alti needle. Again, please do not try this at home.

I wasted no time in celebration; I got back on the next load and jumped my first solo. Kind of boring to tell you the truth, after those training jumps with goals and the coach taking points and all. I even jumped again and had it filmed, only to find out how unstable and dorky I look when I skydive. I will never forget, however, the last load of that day.

There was not a cloud in the sky as we cruised up to 13,000 feet. I was first in and last out of the plane since I was opening highest at 5000, and this time I was alone. There was an indescribable moment—I stood at the edge of the loading door and looked out west past the wing. The timing was perfect to see the flaming copper of the setting sun reflecting on the gulf, the bay, and all the thousand little lakes all the way east to Zephyrhills, turning them gold. I dived and as I left the plane behind me all I could hear was the rush of wind. I watched the world put on a spectacle, so beautiful, so far below. For the first time, I began to understand the depth of beauty inherent in that time-honored greeting and farewell, “blue skies.”

To read the previous installment of Thrill Seekers, click here.

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