Skydiving is an exciting activity that many people consider to be "the ultimate" when it comes to daredevil activity. It truly does require nerves of steel and an ability to overcome your natural instincts to not step outside of an airplane that is thousands of feet above the ground.
Today, most people think about what is known as tandem skydiving when they think about taking their first jump. Tandem skydiving is where the student skydiver jumps from the airplane attached to an experienced instructor. Tandem skydiving is often shown on television when people take their first jump. There are many advantages to tandem skydiving. Obviously, having an experienced instructor in command of the entire process is a comforting thought, and a real safety advantage. Beyond the safety, another advantage is that it allows the first time jumper to experience a reasonable amount of freefall on their very first dive. It is considered a good opportunity for someone who is likely to only do one jump to have a great experience skydiving and then they can go on to something else, or they can opt to take skydiving training.
Traditionally, the entry to skydiving is to begin your skydiving training by doing static line parachuting. Military paratrooper training includes static line parachuting. My own entry into skydiving was via a static line training program. When you do your first static line jump you are on your own. You are not attached to an instructor.
A static line is a cord that is connected to the airplane, and to your parachute such that when you exit the plane, the parachute will automatically be deployed as soon as you reach the end of the static line. That is, the static line allows you to freefall from the airplane until you reach the end of the line. Then, when you are that far away from the airplane, the line stays attached to the airplane, but since you are falling, the static line detaches from you, deploying the parachute at that point.
I will continue with this description of static line parachute training by recounting my own first jump. I believe this will give you a good feel for what is involved in the process. Of course, not every class will be exactly the same, but all of these basic elements will be included, except now there is additional technology available that adds to the safety and enjoyment of the process.
My story began when one of my college friends and I decided it would be an interesting, fun thing to try a jump. We did the research and found a place with a good safety record that offered static line training. It was about an hour away from where we lived, and although it was expensive (at least in our view of the world) it was affordable for us. The standard program was to arrive at the airfield early on Saturday morning, spend the morning doing ground school and safety training, take a lunch break, and then, weather permitting, you would do your first static line jump that afternoon.
As we told our friends that we were going to do this, many said that they had always wanted to do it too, and asked if they could join us. Within a few days we had a dozen guys who were committed to do it with us. We still had a dozen committed two days before we were scheduled to attend. The day before our jump, we got phone calls throughout the day of guys giving us their reasons that they were not going to join us. All told, by the time it was time to drive to the drop zone, it was only my friend and I. I had assumed that some of the guys were more "talk" than "action", but I was somewhat surprised that none of them followed through.
The program we were attending had an "all-inclusive" price for the first jump that included: the training, equipment rental, insurance, parachute packing fee, and the "lift ticket" (the ride in the airplane up to the jump altitude). The insurance was a 90 day policy, so, my second jump a few weeks later was considerably less expensive in that I didn't have to pay the insurance, or the training fee. I just paid for the equipment rental and the lift ticket. I was exempted from the packing fee because I repacked the parachute I used myself (under instructor supervision).
The morning of the training, the instructor informed us that we had already made it through the most dangerous part of the day. He told us that statistically, there are more (and worse) accidents on the freeway on the way to the drop zone than jump accidents. This was somehow quite comforting to think about. There were two other guys there who we didn't know. That made our class size 4 people, so there was plenty of direct interaction with the instructor.
The morning training was very enjoyable. The instructor was fun, but dead serious. The bulk of the time was spent talking and drilling about what to do if you are headed toward a problem. For example: "You are headed straight for powerlines â€“ what do you do?", or "You are going to land in water â€“ what do you do?". Of course, they made sure we knew what to do in a huge number of exceptional circumstances. We spent time learning how to control our parachute and steer ourselves to where we want to land. We learned how they will communicate with us about how to change our course to land in the right place if we were headed the wrong way. (Most drop zones today offer radio communication between the jumper and the instructor. We didn't have radio when we did it, so they placed a large blue cross on the ground, and if we weren't headed right, the instructor would stand on different parts of that cross to tell us which way to steer. (It is really easy to end up FAR from your intended landing point if you go the wrong direction.) They taught us how to exit the airplane, and how to position our bodies, and what to do if our parachutes didn't fully deploy, and a host of other details to remember. They also taught us how to use our emergency parachute. There was enough drill to make sure that our reactions would be instinctual. They taught us how to exit out of the plane onto the step on the landing gear and how to hang from the strut under the wing, and ultimately, to let go.
After lunch it was time to do our jump. At our drop zone, they had an old Cessna 180 four seater. They had removed all the seats except the pilot's seat. One person would jump at a time. The person who was "on deck" to jump, sat on the floor next to the pilot, facing the rear of the plane. The instructor sat on the floor facing the jumper, and two students who were waiting their turn sat behind the pilot. Note that there was only room for three students per plan ride. Thus it would take two plane trips to have us all jump. I was in the first group. I was scheduled to jump last in that group. My friend was on the ground during my jump. When he did his jump, several experienced jumpers went up with that group to fill out the airplane.
Our group put on our parachutes and got in the plane. The instructor connected the static line to the first guy. When we got to proper altitude, the pilot throttled back the engine and the instructor opened the door. He told the first guy to get out of the plane. He did. The instructor yelled "GO!" and he let go and we saw his parachute open. The same thing happened for the next guy. Then it was my turn.
I maneuvered into position at the front of the airplane. It was quite noisy, so it was difficult to talk. The instructor connected my static line to me. I yelled back to him just to double check. The pilot throttled back the engine. The instructor opened the door. At that point I was sitting on the floor of the plane, facing backward, thousands of feet in the air, an inch away from the open door of the plane. It looked a long way down to the ground. He signaled me to get out of the plane. I swung my leg out, but I was startled at how much the wind was preventing that. It took a deliberate effort to get my leg out of the plane. I stepped on the step and swung around into position and grabbed the strut. As we had been taught, I got into position hanging from the strut, my back arched, and looking at the trailing edge of the wing. (we did that to make sure we were in a good hard arch) I recall thinking how absurd it must look to people on the ground to see me hanging from the strut of the wing of the airplane. People must have thought I was NUTS!
The instructor yelled, "GO!" and gave the signal. I let go of the strut and began my brief freefall. Then, I was at the end of the static line (it was very brief, but SEEMED a lot longer â€“ it seemed like a million thoughts raced through my headâ€¦.I remember thinking â€“ "Well, I am either going home successful or dead, but I am not going home having chickened out!") and my parachute deployed. I looked up. My canopy was PERFECT! Then I looked down. "Where the heck am I?", I knew that we had taken off from a grass airstrip in a cornfield, but now when I looked down I could see cornfields for miles and miles. I reached up and got my steering handles from where they were attached by Velcro to the risers of the parachute. I decided to try steering around a bit. This was great fun! It was startling how much control you really had with the parachute. So â€“ I started to steer around and look for the "big" blue cross on the ground. I spotted it, but it sure didn't look very big from this altitude. I continued to experiment steering around. As I got closer to the ground I could see the ground instructor standing in the center of the cross. That meant everything was good. So â€“ I kept steering around, exploring, experimenting, and enjoying the ride. Then, as I got much closer to the ground he moved to one of the tips of the cross. It was time to start lining up for the landing. I got into position and he stood in the center of the cross. That meant that everything was good and I was on my own. The goal was to land in the center of the center of the grass airstrip. There was tall corn to either side of the airstrip, so it would be quite uncomfortable to land off the strip. I came in, did the appropriate "flare" of my parachute and landed right where I wanted to. I was startled how much forward speed I had and it caused me to gently land on my feet, but then go down onto my knees. I was on the ground! I gathered my parachute and headed back to where the ground crew was. It was a great reunion. Then the airplane landed to take the next group up.
To be perfectly honest, now that I was safely on the ground I was more nervous and frightened for my friend than I had been for myself. After all, it was my idea to do this, so I would feel terrible if anything went wrong. Everything went perfectly. Once he was on the ground, the airplane then headed much higher to let the experienced jumpers have long freefalls before they parachuted down to join us.
The instructor signed our logbooks, and we all talked about the day's events. I felt like, based on the fact that we were walking around on the ground, that we had chosen a good school for our static line parachute training. After we left the jump zone, we were very excited and even stopped for a steak dinner on the way home.
I'll never forget that first jump. I would be willing to bet that you won't forget yours either if you ever decide to try it. I will guarantee you this, though, that once you do it, you will never look up toward the sky the same way again. You will know that you have been a piece of the sky, and a piece of the sky will always be in you.