<img class="aligncenter size-large wp-image-2344" style="border: 1px solid black;" title="Kurt Swan AFF Cert” src=”http://alan.mystagingwebsite.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/IMG_0004-600×400.jpg” alt=”Kurt Swan AFF Cert” width=”600″ height=”400″ />Editors note: In the last year, Kurt Swann has gone from watcher, to tandem jumper, to AAF certified jumper. This is his story.
Skydiving. That’s the one item that seems to be on most everyone’s “bucket list.”
When most people say “skydiving,” they mean making a tandem jump where you’re strapped to an instructor during freefall. Scary, sure, but not quite scary enough to qualify as gut-wrenching adventure. So, while tandem jumping is a great experience, if you have the extra time, money, and desire to scare yourself silly, forget the tandem jump and sign up for an Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) course – the course that lets you jump out of a plane by yourself.
At the end of your first lesson on the very first day, you’ll skydive wearing a parachute without being attached to anyone. Two instructors will fall along side you to help keep you steady. If you completely freak out they might be able to help you open your chute but other than that . . . you’re on your own.
After you complete seven AFF lessons you’ll be cleared to jump solo. Completely on your own. No instructors. Just you. By yourself from over 2 miles straight up. I swear.
Worth it? Definitely.
Starting The Class
My AFF class, which had about six students, began at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Maybe it was my imagination, but everyone in class looked like they were on the way to a firing squad.
The class started with the instructor telling us that it’s not too late to back out if we don’t think we can go through with the jump. Better to just stay on the ground instead of getting dressed up in skydiving gear, flying up to altitude only to chicken out and ride back down in the plane. Who wants to climb out of the plane after it lands and take the AFF walk-of-shame?
Well . . . what a happy, cheerful way to begin the class.
After that we were told of all the possible ways the parachute might malfunction. They even had videos showing various skydivers who had problems opening their chutes. They only showed us the first part of the videos, so I don’t know how the ill-fated jumps ended.
We then learned about the gear we would use. The skydiving rig is like wearing a backpack but, instead of camping gear or dirty laundry, there are two parachutes inside.
The main parachute is stuffed in a bag that’s attached to a smaller parachute, called a pilot chute. The bag with the main parachute is packed in the backpack-like container while the pilot chute is stuffed in a pouch on the bottom of the container. On the end of the pilot chute is a leather ball, slightly larger than a golf ball, which acts as a handle.
So, to open the main chute, all you have to do is reach behind to the bottom of the container, grab the leather ball on the end of the pilot chute and fling it out. The pilot chute inflates and pulls the main chute out of the bag and container so it can inflate. Then we float safely to the ground. At least that’s the plan.
In case things don’t go as planned with the main cute, another parachute, or “reserve” chute is also tucked away inside the container. We never see it because it’s only opened in case of an emergency. So we really don’t want to see it but if we need it, it’s there.
We learned the basics of how the parachute fits in the container, how to open the chute, how to cut away the main parachute in case it malfunctions, how to open the reserve chute, and how to control the parachute after it opens.
Then we learned the exact jump sequence we would use when exiting the aircraft. Every single step was rehearsed even to point of how to stand in the airplane door as get ready to jump. Something like this . . . left leg back, right leg bent at the knee, both hands holding the door frame, chest upright and facing the front of plane . . . etc etc. No detail was too small to ignore.
Everything is rehearsed over and over and over. And over again. Because when actually jumping out of a plane wearing a parachute for the first time, a human brain goes into “slow motion stupid mode.” Tunnel vision takes over and the brain operates like it filled with glue.
Okay, class is over and now it’s time to suit up and actually do this. It’s around 1:30 in the afternoon when it’s finally my turn. Rehearsal one last time on the ground with my two instructors. Then we climb into the plane.
The plane ride up to 13,000 feet takes a little over 10 minutes. Looking back, it was all a blur.
About half way up, one instructor makes me tell him one more time exactly what we’re going to do during the jump. How we stand in the door. What to do during freefall. How to open the chute. How to steer the canopy. How to land. I’ve gone over the steps all morning about a thousand times. And now one more time as we climb to altitude.
The plane levels off and someone opens the door, which rolls up like a small garage door. We make our way to the exit just like we rehearsed. Only during the ground rehearsal there isn’t an 80 MPH wind blowing by the open door. Yikes.
Taking tiny steps I get in position in the door between the two instructors. I make eye contact with the instructor inside, turn and looked at the instructor hanging on the outside the plane, bend my knees slightly while keeping my chest upright, look forward at the propeller, and then . . . push off.
This is crazy.
Now we’re falling. Seriously, this is really crazy.
I look straight at the ground and can see the airport below. I’m supposed to be counting to 5, but I forget. Oh well, can’t remember everything. I guess at what feels like 5 seconds and then check the altimeter worn like a watch on my left wrist. It says 11,000 feet. I think.
Then I make eye contact with the instructor on the left and then with the one on the right. They both give me a thumbs-up.
That’s the end of the first task. Nothing more complicated than looking at my left wrist, reading a number on a dial, and then looking at two people who are only a couple of feet away.
If someone asked you to do that on the ground, you would laugh. But when falling through the air at 120 MPH the impact of stress on my feeble brain makes this feel like quantum physics.
The next task is to practice touching the handle that opens the parachute. Since I can’t see the small leather ball attached to the pilot chute, I have to locate it by touch. Slowly reach back with my right hand to the bottom of the container and touch the leather ball. Then bring my hand back up near my head.
Repeat five times. Check altitude again. More eye contact with both instructors. More thumbs-up.
Somewhere in this process, the goggles get loose on my face. I’m wearing glasses underneath them so maybe that’s part of the problem. One instructor adjusts the goggles for me and somehow, my glasses come off. Never to be seen or heard from ever again.
Oh well. My vision’s not that bad so I can still see well enough without glasses. Besides it’s not like we can go look for them.
When I see 6,000 feet on the altimeter, I “lock on” to it as rehearsed. At 5,500 feet I wave my hands in front to signal I am about to open. Then reach back to the leather ball, toss it out and guess what? The parachute opens. Just like they said it would. Crazy.
Now the rushing wind of free fall is replaced by silence as I slowly glide to the ground. The instructors are gone and I am by myself under the canopy at about 4,500 feet. Above my head are two toggles attached to lines attached to rear corners of the canopy. Pull on the left toggle and the parachute turns left. Right toggle turn to the right. Pull both at the same time and the parachute slows and almost stops. Perfect.
This is the best part of the day, since the parachute is open. It’s open without a malfunction, and I can fly around. Life is good.
But then I realize I’m at the east end of the airport, when I should be at the west end for landing. Oops. All of a sudden, life is slightly less than good. A little correction gets everything back on track.
At 1,000 feet, I fly parallel to the runway and at 500 feet make a left 90 degree turn. At 250 feet another left 90 degree turn to where I’m lined up for the landing area. The instructor talks to me in a radio attached to my helmet.
Pull on the toggles that slow the parachute right above the ground and I land standing up. Back on the ground in one piece. Amazing.
In the next several weeks I finished the AFF course and less than a year later I have made a total of 100 jumps. That’s a lot of jumps for me but still a very low number compared to many instructors who have thousands of jumps. Thousands and tens of thousands.
And we’re still alive. It’s breathtaking, scary and definitely gut-wrenching, but it’s all worth it.
So here’s the deal. If you ever think you’d like to learn to skydive . . .my recommendation? Do it.
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