I struggled to fight back tears as I stared out the window of the small plane. The ground moved ever further away and I took deep breath after deep breath trying to rid myself of what I perceived to be negative feelings. There was no room for them in what I was about to do. Despite the tears, it wasn’t sadness, it was something else entirely. The instructor whose rear-end I straddled on the bench in front of me turned and asked how I was doing. I couldn’t remember her name. At that point, I couldn’t remember my own name.
“Pretty nervous,” I told her, chuckling … well… nervously. That’s what I said, but scared fucking shitless was what I actually felt. And then I said as much. Fearful tears started to well again. I couldn’t remember feeling this scared since my first time guiding the Upper Gauley wherein I threw up a few times in the porta-john prior to the trip. At least I didn’t feel nauseous. Yet.
Deep breath in….. long breath out….
“You should feel nervous. If you didn’t, we’d be nervous,” they both said. I had to laugh a little, because when I used to guide I would say something fairly similar to my guests who expressed worry or concern, and as a scuba instructor I often tell my students the same thing. It’s not that it’s insincere, but when it’s used on you…well… it’s just different.
“Close your eyes and visualize exactly how you want the jump to go, from beginning to end,” said the instructor straddled behind me. I think her name was Lauren but I don’t really trust my name recall in an ideal situation, much less this one. My first thought was that I wanted to end up on the ground, in one piece, with all of my parts and pieces intact and useful. Anything prior to that didn’t matter. Okay, it mattered. But the desired end result was the same regardless of anything else. Ground. One piece. Everything working. I closed my eyes.
My AFF training started hours ago, on the ground. It seemed like just minutes. It began with an overview of the gear. This is how you read an altimeter, make sure it’s at zero before boarding the plane, etc. We quickly moved onto procedures. First, we actually learned how to deal with the canopy and any issues that might arise after deploying. Prior to this phase of the training, I had felt fairly secure that I had two instructors with me during freefall so during the ‘dangerous’ part, they would be there. They would make SURE I opened my chute. Once that occurred, I was kind of on my own. However, I took some comfort in the fact that while I was on my own, I did have an open chute. So I was pretty much in the clear.
I was wrong.
As the instructor went on, I realized that most accidents happen AFTER the chute is deployed. Lines can get tangled. Chutes can fail to deploy. Chutes can fail to fully inflate. You could steer yourself into another jumper. Or power lines. Or trees. So many things can go wrong at that point, the easy part was pulling the cord. After that… all hell could break loose. Well, maybe not that severe, but that’s where my nervous brain was steering me. Holy hell… maybe I didn’t want to do this. Maybe I can’t do this. Doubts began creeping in. After all, my initial nervousness wasn’t regarding the jump or freefall, it was worry about the landing. And this discussion about all of the potential problems wasn’t helping any, necessary though it may be.
We learned how to recognize and deal with all potential problems by using a training rig, photos, and questions thrown at us while simulating the canopy ride. You can fix this, you can fix that…. but these you can’t fix and you need to cutaway and deploy the reserve. Over and over and over again we went through the motions. Muscle memory is important. While you need to certainly keep your wits about you, one can’t dilly dally around while plummeting to the Earth. You need to recognize the problem, know what to do, and do it. I finally became fairly comfortable with my ability to recognize issues and fix them. But I was still nervous about navigating in for a landing.
Once all of that was done, we went through the procedure from inside the plane through pulling the ripcord. Two instructors would be with us, one on either side holding onto us. We were to exit the plane in a controlled fashion, establish stability in freefall via a good arch, practice touching the ripcord, and continually check altitude before waving off at 5500 and pulling. This was the part I actually felt fairly okay with. I had done two tandems already, so the freefall wasn’t entirely new to me. Like the canopy stuff, we went through it repeatedly, burning it into our memory – muscle and otherwise.
We visited the student landing area because they put us noobs in a totally different spot so we don’t land on top of people who actually know what the hell they’re doing. Also so there is less traffic for us to have to worry about as we’re making our approach. The approach. UGH. I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to identify the landing area, much less land in it. How the hell do you go from 13,500 feet and land in this small area? Small being a relative term, it was actually the size of a football field. To me, it was tiny though. Like expecting me to thread the needle at 25 mph. We watched Steve help another noob navigate in using a radio. Flare. Turn left. Turn right. Keep on truckin’. He had it all under control. We were taught how to do everything ourselves, but he was there to give us direction and guidance. I loved him. He was my new hero. I wanted to handcuff myself to Steve.
Eventually it was time to gear up. Bloody hell. Shit was getting real now. I couldn’t use my own glasses because they are tinted. Apparently, they like to see the fear in our eyes. Sadists, all of them. Jumpsuit on, rig on, helmet and glasses ready. Stomach churning. Onto the plane we went, positioning ourselves in reverse jumping order.
While my eyes were closed on the plane, I mentally went through all of the steps as well as I could. Position at the door. Maybe I shouldn’t do this. Stop it, you can do this. Check in, Check out. Ready, Set, step off and arch, arch, arch. Fuck. What the hell is next. Circle of Awareness. Three practice touches to the ripcord. Horizon. Altitude. Arch. Tummy not feeling so good. Shut up, you’re doing this. 5500 ft – wave off – pull cord. Feel violent jerk as speed drops from 120 mph to 25 mph. OMG THE CHUTE BETTER OPEN – WHAT IF IT DOESN’T? WHAT IF IT’S TWISTED? WHAT IF IT’S TANGLED?!!! You’ll deal with it. Steve will be on the radio. He will help navigate you in. Steve is god.
After I opened my eyes one of the instructors asked how it went.
“I lived,” I told her. But I still wasn’t so sure that would bear out in reality.
“We’re up,” they said.
I went through all of the pre-jump steps, just as I was taught and just as I had planned. Everything went exactly as I expected, and I stabilized my fall (with their help I’m sure) very quickly. Then things started not going exactly as I had imagined.
I seem to recall during my tandem freefalls that the fall felt like it went on forever. Such was not the case this time. I checked altitude and called it. I got a hand signal to correct my body position. I responded. I got another one. I responded. And another one. I responded, but at that point I was feeling like I apparently sucked at freefalling. I lost track of what I was supposed to be doing. Another hand signal reminded me to do the practice touches to the cord. So I did, and when I moved my arms we all spun 90 degrees. There was a very brief moment of panic that quickly abated. We spun, we stopped. It was all good. On my next check, I tried to position my arms better. No more spinning. More altitude checks, and I kept calling them out even though I didn’t need to. At 6000 ft I locked onto my altimeter. 5500 ft came quickly. My first thought was to pull the cord, but immediately remembered the wave off. My slight hesitation was enough to cause both instructors to give me the signal to pull. I waved off and pulled. The moment of truth had arrived.
One one-thousand. Two one-thousand. Three one-thousand. Look up.
Holy hell. What I saw was not what I wanted to see. The left outside cell was not fully inflated and was instead flapping around. That’s okay. That can be fixed.
Flare. Not fixed. Flare again – hold – one – two… and filled. Shit shit shit. Whew. Okay. Left turn. Right turn. And… throw up. Okay, so I didn’t throw up, but I can tell you with utmost certainty that I wanted to and I had to consciously fight it back. And then in my ear….
“Hey Shelley, congratulations!”
It was god.
He wanted me to make a couple turns and do a practice landing flare. So I did. I also did every damn thing he told me to, even when he told me to keep flying straight and I was heading in the vicinity of (but very high over) power lines. I was about to turn on my own because I didn’t want to be anywhere near power lines, and he told me to do so.
He helped steer me into the noob landing area and come in for my final approach.
“Wait for it…. wait for it…. and NOW!”
I pulled both toggles down together and positioned my body for the parachute landing fall. However, I pulled them down a little too fast and that combined with a slight updraft in the landing area caused me to lift a little higher than expected. And then fall. I looked at the ground coming at me at a high rate of speed and resided myself to the fact that it was gonna hurt. And probably leave a mark. Kind of like hitting ejector rock at Sweet’s Falls on the Upper G. You know it’s gonna happen right before it does, and you know it’s gonna hurt. But there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
I did the fall as trained, but along the way my hand was smooshed between my body, the altimeter, and the ground. I remember my head hitting and feeling glad I had a helmet on. It actually took me a moment to take stock of my body and make sure all was intact, I didn’t exactly jump up immediately. However, I did get up and walk away, with nothing more than a pretty severe bruise on my hand that would remind me for several days of successfully completing Category A of the AFF class and starting my path to an A License. And the nervous tummy was gone.
Thank you Skydive Orange! I’ll be back next week for my next class and some fun with the Sisters of Skydiving.