People often asses their relative risks poorly. Something old (and risky) seems safe, because it never ended in catastrophe before -- but new and safer things sound riskier to them. The risks of driving to the airport is probably as risky as the activity (for serious injury) -- but for lighter injuries (like sprained ankles), jumping out of a plane is definitely worse. Still, I rode a motorcycle in Southern California traffic, so compared to that, skydiving seemed safe.
Either you trust the equipment, the training, and your own abilities, or you shouldn't do it. I was confident and trusting (e.g. young and dumb); and was highly athletic (and still healed quickly), so it was no big deal. Now that I'm older, married and in far worse shape, I'm not so sure I'd rush out to do it again.
My first "jump" was a static line jump. I don't know why they call that a jump -- jumps involve going up, then down. And this was all down/drop/fall.
I spent a couple hundred bucks, and sat in a class for a few hours; where they taught me the basics. Pull right to fly right, pull left to go left. Pull both to slow down. How to gauge the distances to land, and slow the chute before you land (so you don't hit at 25 MPH). How to roll in case you hit hard - absorb the energy and all that. How to pull the reserve chute, if needed. Then mostly how to fly, and what not to fly into; avoid trees, water, high voltage lines, and so on; all pretty common sense stuff if you ask me.
Then they made fun of the local hang-gliders as being crazy for being so risky, and told horror stories about being up there, and hearing a "Twang" as some cable broke on a hang glider, and seeing them fold up and fall to their death. I was thinking, oh yeah, silk and fishing line is so much more secure and safe hobby; but then I was with these folks, so I shut up.
Then I drew the short straw; and I got to be the last one in the airplane, which meant first one out. They put 5 of us in a little Cessna, sans door. I literally had my left leg hanging out the door as we took off (I was facing backwards). I'd flown before; both piloted and been flown acrobatics in a small plane - so this wasn't that new or exciting; except this nagging feeling that about I was coming down without the airplane.
Then they took us up to 3500 feet and gave me the signal. I flipped my arm out and tried to grab the wing strut; something to hang on to before I dropped. You'd be amazed how much wind there is when you're flying. It took a couple tries. But it was actually kind of cool, climbing out on the landing gear of an airplane that is flying; grabbing the wing-strut, and hanging by your arms over nothing but an expanse of California scrub pseudo-desert (I did this at Lake Paris). I felt like Tom Cruise doing his own stunts, without the crazy scientology thoughts.
I looked at the instructor, he game me the thumbs up signal that means drop, along with a condescending smile that said, "you're an idiot, now just let go and we'll see if this works".
I let go, and fell.
Something interesting happened. From the time I let go, until the tug on my back when the tether pulled the ripcord (about 2 seconds), I sort of was in a black fog; it was like that feeling you get when you stand up too fast and things kind of go a little dark. I wasn't unconscious or afraid or anything, it was just that I couldn't really remember a lot of it. I talked to them later about this; this is what is known as sensory-overload. Basically, your brain gets so into processing what is happening and sensing and reacting, that it doesn't have anything left over for "recording" the events - and you have sort of a black spot in your memory. I was fully aware, even hyper-aware, just not recording.
I thought it was interesting that my brain could rationally understand on one level that something so seriously bad was happening and that I could be plummeting to my death, that it could overload; while it was the same brain that had sent the signals to let go in the first place. Some people couldn't remember their entire jumps they were so overloaded - but it only barely got me. I felt the tug, and remember everything after that.
After the jerk as the chute opened, I started doing the routine we'd learned; and I found out my chute hadn't opened fully. I was thinking, "Hmmm... this isn't a good thing". But they had gone over this in training; all the malfunctions, how uncommon they are, and what to do about them. My chute had partially opened but it wasn't serious; this was just end-cell closure. I tried to stall the chute (slow down), and let it go, and it popped one side open. I was going to try again, when the other side popped open. Viola. Problem solved.
Flying a chute was far more fun than dropping; probably because I had a lot more time to remember the latter. I flew the chute around and enjoyed the view. A couple minutes of that, and I circled for the landing, and went through my final approach. The training was good; and I just steered into the wind, and landed the chute perfectly - a tippy-toe landing. They commented it looked like I'd been doing this my whole life. Others landed a little rougher, but no injuries.
It was expensive but fun. They gave me my photos (an up-charge), and basically mentioned a twofer. For a only another hundred or so, I could go through another day of training, and do a free fall jump. This was jumping out from 13,000 feet, fall for a minute, and then fly home like before. Tandem jumps weren't as popular yet, and this was part of their advanced skydiving program (to teach you how -- not just to have jumped). Which all sounded good to me.
It was as advertised; a day of training, and a flight in an old DC-3 (Goonybird). Once you get into one of those old vibrating loud things, you start thinking that the safest way down is probably to jump. They circle you around and climb real high. Then they open the door, and all the insane regular weekend jumpers bail out and do little patterns in the sky, before they split off and fly home. I had been watching them walk through their routines (literally) on the ground, before they went up; then repeat them on the way down.
I climbed out the door, with an instructor at my side. At the signal; swing your leg out, in, and then out - and as you kick out, you jump. The instructor jumps with you, hanging on to make sure you don't curl up in a fetal ball (and do a 13,000 foot cannon ball), or something silly that might make you go thud. But he isn't attached or anything, he just hung on and was there to pull your cord for you if you didn't look like you were going to do it on your own.
Now in all reality, it probably isn't that risky. Most people will pull, even when scared. For those that don't, they have an altimeter that will pull automatically if you fall below 3000 ft. Of course it gives you confidence to learn that the emergency deployment has an accuracy of +/- 3500 feet, which means you could make a Wil-e-coyote type big hole before it figures out to go off. But I figured most of that was just a liability fudge factor (in-case), and to prevent people from relying on the emergency device (that would have worked). Thankfully, I never had to find out.
They say you feel weightless and that it is great. While I enjoyed it, you aren't weightless. You feel more like wind is holding you up on an airbed - not unlike a waterbed, or when you fly your hand out the car window, only with your whole body. It was fun though; and you have a much bigger view when there's no plane around. I like airplanes, but there was something totally cool about being that high, with nothing else around you. You get the ultimate view, with a soundtrack.
Wind is loud, and cool. It wasn't THAT cold. You don't really feel like you're falling, because things are too far away to sense speed. You notice that things aren't as far away as they were a little while before as you're going down, but it isn't like things are rushing towards you.
They have these exercises to do; partly to keep your mind busy, and mostly because this program was meant to get you certified to skydive in like 10 jumps or so. So you use eye contact and signals to your instructor to show that you're tracking the horizon, your altitude, your target, and you know where your ripcord is (by tapping it).
The other issue is keeping a good arched form, so that you are "stable". Mainly you don't want to flutter down like a leaf; you want to be arched and falling like the space shuttle. That's really what the instructor is there for, is if you aren't stable, and you pull the cord, then it has a higher chance of getting tied up, and so on. I did fine, and had no sensory overload.
In class you learn that terminal velocity is just over 100 MPH. And some humans can track (glide) at about a 1:1 ratio. That actually means that you can track around the sky at up to 100 MPH, and race cars on the ground, and so on. A minute is both really long, and really short amount of time; sometimes at the same time.
There's was a big life lesson for me in pulling that cord. Remember, you're being held up harness, which includes a strap on each of your inner thighs. While they were cinched down when on the ground and in the plane, you've moved around a bit, and they are a little looser. Loose enough that in freefall, and guys reason for being can get between his thigh and the harness. When one pulls the cord, you are suddenly rapidly decelerating, and being held up by whatever is between that harness and your thigh. I think they heard the squeal across the radio as I realized I was being held aloft and had my full body weight (times a couple of G's for deceleration) resting firmly on one of my gonads.
So there I am, 5,000 feet in the air, and working desperately to get Mr. Right-Nut out of the jaws of this vise grip. And it is amazing how fast you can work when there is blinding pain involved. At which point I hear across the radio headset I'm wearing, "are you alright?"
I assumed it was the scream and my testicular problem that they were referring to, so I wheezed out a "I'll live". But that was not the problem they were referring to; "look up at your chute". Which I did; and it was twisted. I'm thinking, "Great, what is it about me and chutes?"
It was no big deal; the lanyard (risers) were a little twisted, but the chute was mostly open above that. Of course if you can't rectify the problem, it likely means a couple of broken legs, but survivable. I still preferred the alternative to months in casts.
The solution is easy, you pull the risers apart, and kick (or air-bicycle), while you untwist - unless it twists faster than you can untwist, and you have to cut away and use the emergency chute. I knew this stuff.
For me, it worked fine, and few twists around, and the chute popped open, and I was flying down - though a little lower than I'd intended to be, since during my experience, the ground had been rushing up towards me, trying to be my my gravitational buddy (the partially open chute hadn't been slowing me down quite as much as intended). But obviously, I'm here to write the story, so things were fine. I had plenty iof time to get back on course, fly for a little, and aim for the landing zone. (Throbbing scrotal pain was diminishing quickly).
Again, I scored a perfect landing. They were impressed that I'd never done it before, and landed like a pro, twice. The second day there was wind, and some of their people were having a tougher time (a few did a little thump, and then got dragged by the wind+chute). But I can pick some things up quick, and flying and landing just felt natural, and I collapsed the chute quickly. (No dragging).
A third jump
I was contemplating my career in skydiving, and hanging up my jumpsuit for good, when from behind me I hear this amazing dulcet voice saying something with a British accent like, "would you like to go on a jump with me".
I turn around, and this amazing vision of a woman was behind me. All day, I'd been making goo-goo eye's, while having guilty visions of carnal experience with this hot girl. Suddenly the pain in my scrotum was almost forgotten, though it felt like my prior injuries had caused some swelling, as my pants were shrinking.
She was a Penthouse Playmate, Hustler Honey, and was doing a nude jump for the Playboy Channel while I was there, and needed someone to go up with her; I kid thee not. I was mentally typing my letter, "Dear Penthouse Forum, I never thought this would happen to me when...".
I'd asked someone else, earlier in the day, something discrete like, "Holy crap, who is that Hotty!" And had been told about who she was and what she did. She was so far out of my league I wasn't sure we were even in the same species, but if Billy Joel got Christy Brinkley then anything was possible. I physically reached over and pinched myself to make sure I was awake, and she just tittered, "you're cute". Something about the slack jaw, and bobble-head making yes, yes, GOD YES nods, let her know that I might consider a jump on, er, I mean with her (chute optional).
As I was listening, raptly, she was explaining that I didn't need to get naked, but she would be, if that was OK with me. Yeah, I was amenable to those terms -- since the idea of my dick flapping under 110 MPH winds might kill the mood, and I wasn't completely sure that one of my testicles wasn't purple. She just needed someone to jump on her, um, I mean with her; as a backdrop/extra. I was so in. I would be her fluffer, and throw myself fully into whatever job she wanted me to do. When the instructor said the four cruelest words that I've ever heard, said, "sorry, he can't go".
I'm not a violent person. But I've never wanted to punch someone in the mouth as bad as I did right then. How DARE you! They say guys have two brains, and only enough blood supply to keep one fed. I'm pretty sure I know which one was being oxygen deprived at the time, and it wasn't the more rational of the two of them.
He explained, I wasn't qualified yet, and there was no way I could go on my third jump by myself; not to mention the distraction. It wasn't a good idea. I was thinking, "surely there has to be a way; this is a once in a lifetime opportunity". I was give him a "come-on" look, looking at her, pleading with him, explaining I could still be an in-plane prop; breaking out my wallet - surely we can come to an agreement. But no dice. She was laughing at my enthusiastic desperation. There was something about safety, and licensing, and all that other bullshit that I did not care one wit about right then. But no go. I was grounded.
Sandy said, "Oh well, maybe some other time", and trotted off. Actually, that wasn't her real name. That was the name she used in the March 1986 Hustler magazine that I ran out and bought. We made love many times after that, and it would have been so much more enjoyable had she actually been there in person. But alas, it was never to be.
When Sandy jumped out of the plane, there were 100 guys laying on their backs on the ground below, looking up at the heavens, making their own little tent city. All the guys were using their telescopes and binoculars that they use to track their friends acrobatics; but for some reason there was a lot more seriousness in spotting this stunt than most.
Sandy landed far away, was rushed into a van, and I never saw her again. So much for my third jump. To this day, I'm still pissed at that uptight jump instructor putting my safety above my penile gratification.
I was getting ready to leave, when they had a more serious issue. Someone had to cut-away their chute, and pull a reserve, and the guy was drifting towards a freeway (the reserve was not a parafoil/flyable thing). Fortunately, he came down all right, but had landed hard, and got dragged. The wind had kicked up, and sometimes you can get pulled across the field. He was scraped up, but would be back in a couple of weeks. This wasn't a very common event, but did bring me back to earth.
I hung up my parachute after that, and never sky-dove again. (I did one in a wind-tunnel, which was fun -- but not quite the same thing).
I had an offer by one of the friends who was BASE-jumping off a building in Los Angeles, and wanted to know if I would go too. I was contemplating it; I mean a BASE jump would round out my skydiving experiences nicely. Not to mention the getting arrested and prison stories I might get out of the experience as well. But you don't get time to fix malfunctions on BASE jumps; you just live or die based on whether things work right. And the odds were telling me to seek adventure elsewhere. (Like randomly dialing "Sandy's" in the white pages, and saying "it's me!").
Minor malfunctions are rare; say one in 50 or one in 100 jumps; serious ones far more rare. I'd had one minor and one medium risk malfunctions in two jumps. Two for two meant I'd pushed my luck about as far as I was going to. Plus I'd done what I wanted to do. I'd had some fun experiences, learned a bit, and proven to myself that I wasn't afraid of heights or trying new things. And got a story to tell. My wallet couldn't afford the hobby anyways; it can get expensive fast.
Then a few weeks later, I heard that the DC-3 that I didn't have much confidence in, had crashed and killed a few people. That kind of drove home the message; it might not be much of a risk, but someday the odds are going to catch up with you. It wasn't long after that, that I sold my motorcycle as well.
Skydiving: 1987.06.28 Written: 2003.05.16