A few weeks ago July 11 came and went. That date is significant to me because it was the anniversary of the last time I went skydiving. I dream about skydiving sometimes. I am surprised I don’t dream about it more often, it was such a big part of my life. It was an activity I took part in almost every weekend for many years. Skydiving is not just about jumping out of an airplane. Well, it is actually, but it is so much more. That is what surprised me the most about this sport, that it is more than an adventure sport; it is about belonging to a tribe, getting an education, free psychotherapy, taking on a challenge, danger, death, and a party – all rolled up in one and certainly worthy of a blog post.
A friend once described skydiving by saying, “When I climb out of the plane, it is as if the wind blows through me, taking all the bad stuff away”. Skydiving is those dreams of flying we all have had coming true. It is not “like” flying, it truly is flying. I can walk out of the door of an airplane almost three miles in the air, and for the next seconds or minutes, that seem like hours, go here or there, fly over to my friend and hold his hand, we can fly together side by side, I can do flips, rolls, fly upside down, fly over, beside or inside a cloud for a while. In the air there are times when we laugh out loud in our helmets and when things go wrong yell “oh shit” at the top of our lungs. Back on the ground we can talk in great detail for 20 minutes about a skydive that lasted a fraction of that amount of time.
Being a skydiver is to belong to a group whose members are from all walks of life. Men, women, old, young, students, unemployed, barely employed, and professionals; but all the same. Nothing else matters, it is only about the jumps. How many jumps do you have, what is your favorite discipline, how many reserve rides have you had, tell me your scary stories, your funny ones, and let’s tell them while drinking lots of beer. In this post I describe a typical skydive, nothing goes wrong, but it was special because it was my last jump before joining the Peace Corps.
My Last Jump – July 11, 2010
I keep my skydiving gear in a small closet in my home office. The wooden dowel that normally would support shirts and slacks on hangers is instead supporting my rig and one or two wingsuits. When I open the closet door, the unique smell of the fabrics of the parachute wafts out and is like perfume to me.
I love my parachute, my Pilot 168 in its container made by Dolphin. I love the smell of it. I love the colors of it — red, white and blue. I love the weight of it pulling against my shoulders and the snug feeling of my leg straps as I walk to the airplane. I love the way it feels on my body when I am suspended from it thousands of feet in the sky and am directing it to take me wherever I want to go. I used to have a square 7-cell Triathlon 190, but downsized to a semi-elliptical Pilot 168, going from station wagon to sporty midsize. I am not ready for a sports car yet, probably won’t ever be, since I don’t swoop my landings, and my bones take too long to heal. My 168 is responsive enough to be a lot of fun, and penetrates when landing into a brisk wind. Like I said, I love it.
Once I showed my wife the video I had made of a jump I did in Sebastian, Florida where it was very windy. The videotape was still rolling after I landed and she could see that I had to work to control my parachute and keep it from re-inflating and dragging me. As the video showed my canopy kiting in the gusts of wind, she could see my gloved hands pulling on the lines to control it, and she could hear my voice gently talking to my parachute saying, “Come on, baby, come on”.
With a smile in her voice, my wife asked, “Did you just call your parachute ‘baby’?”
July 11, 2010. I was selling my skydiving gear (and just about everything else we owned) in anticipation of joining the Peace Corps, and leaving the country. I had found a buyer for my rig and this was the day I was to turn it over to him. I had made three jumps earlier in the day and was about to do my last one. I knew this was my last jump for at least three years, maybe forever, and it had to be special. It had to be a wingsuit jump. Also, I invited my wife to come along in the plane as an observer. She had seen me land my parachute many times, but had never seen me from inside the plane. She would be sitting up front next to the pilot, on the floor facing backwards towards the door, like the skydivers.
I took her into the equipment room and found a student rig that would fit her. I laid it on the floor and arranged the leg straps so she could step into them. Then when her feet were inside them I picked the rig up from behind her and told her to put her arms through the harness. Then with the rig hanging from her shoulders, I tightened her leg straps. Smiling, as I started to tighten her chest strap I asked, “Over or under your boobs?”
Tish had never taken any interest in skydiving but was interested now. Referring to the parachute, she asked, “How do I use this thing?”
This amused me. According to FAA regulations, anyone riding in a plane which has an open door has to wear a parachute. The observer would never have to bail out and use it unless there was the most dire emergency, but once it was on, they always wanted to know everything about it as if they were learning to skydive.
Behind her, I pushed the handle of the pilot chute deep into the spandex of the BOC, so she could not pull it out even by accident. If a pilot chute gets loose inside a plane with the door open terrible things can and have happened.
Once the pilot chute was tended to, I came around in front of her and began to tell her what to do if there was an emergency. “The pilot is completely in charge, do whatever he says. You would never jump out unless the pilot told you to. In 99% of emergencies you most likely would ride the plane down with the pilot. If he did tell you to jump you would put both hands on the reserve handle – this ‘D’ ring on the left side of your chest and jump, count to three and then pull it all the way out.” I placed both of her hands on the “D” ring, over her heart, and demonstrated how she would pull it out.
“Then what?,” she asked, “How would I steer it?”
“Well, you would look up and see two red handles attached to the risers with Velcro. You would pull both loose from the Velcro at the same time and then you could steer it with those. But don’t worry… you won’t have to use them”
She was smiling just a little too much, which told me she was nervous. I said, “I really appreciate you coming with me, it means a lot to me”, and gave her a kiss.
There are many disciplines in the sport of skydiving. There is formation skydiving (FS) which is the belly to earth orientation most people think of. There is “freeflying”, which is skydiving in a more vertical orientation (sit-flying or head-down). There is “CReW” (canopy relative work), swooping, and my personal favorite Wingsuits. I love flying my wingsuit more than about anything.
My friend Gary who was one of my instructors years before, was to join me on this last jump flying his wingsuit. We called this “flocking”, as we would be like birds in a flock. The largest wingsuit flock I had ever been part of was a 68-way flock that was a world record skydive in 2009.
The announcement came over the loudspeaker echoing in the hangar, “Load six, ten minute call”. Tish was ready to go, the ten minute call meant it was my turn to gear up.
I put on my parachute and wingsuit, and walked over to Tish, I now had the orange and blue fabric of my wingsuit stretching between my legs forming my leg wing. Similarly there was fabric between my arms and my torso forming my arm wings. My gloves were on, and I was carrying my helmet. My goggles were around my neck. Inside my helmet in special pouches were my audible altimeters. I was wearing a visual altimeter on the back of my left hand. My black parachute rig was on my back. Together, we walked toward the sunshine at the front of the hanger to wait to load.
Passing through the huge sliding doors of the hanger, we are joined by the other skydivers on the load, one or two tandem passengers and their instructors, a student and his instructor, and a few groups of skydivers. There is a specific exit order that works best. First out would be the belly-flyers, from large to small groups, then the freeflyers, from large to small groups. Next would be the students, then the tandems, last come the wingsuits. Wingsuits were always last out because we were moving across the sky horizontally and could always get back from a bad spot.
Reverse the exit order and that is the way we get on the plane. So Gary, Tish and I get on the plane first. We climb the three steps to the plane, crouch and move toward the front. Tish sits on the floor, beside the pilot, where a co-pilot’s seat would be in a normal airplane. She sits back to the instrument panel facing the rear of the aircraft. I reach around her find her seatbelt and thread it through her parachute harness and fasten it with a loud clicking noise. I introduce her to Stan, the pilot, and then I sit in front of her with my back to her. I could turn my head and see her and talk with her. Other skydivers come in and sit in front of me. It is a tight fit sometimes. The sounds of 14 young men laughing, jockeying for position fill the air. It is hot, especially inside my non-porous wingsuit and I begin to sweat.
Someone on the plane on every load at some point verbalizes which direction we are going to land. They do this by yelling, saying or perhaps asking, “hanger on the left”, or “hanger on the right”, confirming which side of us the hanger would be on when we are on the final leg of our landing pattern. This has to be done the same way by everyone or there could be a collision. Canopy collisions happen and can be fatal. Once I witnessed two skydivers collide under canopy about 150 feet up, neither survived the resulting fall.
When moving around the plane I instinctively reach around and feel for my “handle”, the small “hackey” that was attached to my pilot chute that I would grab when I was ready to deploy my parachute. Skydivers are always “checking their handles” to be sure everything was in the right place, especially when moving around the plane. Often they will ask a skydiver near them to do a “gear check”.
I had talked with Stan earlier. The plan was for me to exit the aircraft and fly with the plane as much as possible to maximize the amount of time Tish could watch me. Instead of putting the plane in a steep dive after we got out, he was going to bank slightly to the left and make a very shallow dive trying to match my glide path. I hoped it would work.
Finally everyone is in and seated. Two rows of skydivers all sitting on the floor facing the rear of the plane. Each person is seated between the legs of the person behind them. “Nuts to Butts”. The two turbine engines start and the plane begins to taxi. The sliding door is swung down and closed. Skydivers all have their seatbelts on, and most put their helmets on. The manifest list is passed forward arm over arm to me and I hand it to the pilot. Stan has his earphones on and is talking to someone and readying the plane for takeoff. We taxi down to the end of the runway then turn and with the noise of two turbine engines at full throttle we begin accelerating. Seated on the floor I can barely see the hangar flash by with people standing in front watching. Small toy figures, waving, then the pilot has pulled back on the yoke and it gets much smoother as we become airborne. I look at the altimeter on the back of my left hand and watch it turn clockwise and soon approach 1,000. At 1,000 feet there is movement as all 14 passengers undo their seatbelts, remove helmets and make themselves more comfortable. The sound of audible altimeters, inside helmets beeping their “I am on and ready” sound is heard. I have two audibles and they gave me their signal.
Now everyone relaxes. People have to yell to be heard over the noise of the engines, but there are some brief conversations. There are no discussions of what to do in the air as every skydiver or group of skydivers has fully worked that out on the ground from how to exit the plane, to what altitude to separate, “break off”. This pre-jump planning is called a “dirt dive” and looks like an odd dance going on in the hanger.
The King-Air is the fastest airplane used for skydiving. There are other planes that are preferred because the door is larger, which makes it easier for a lot of people to exit at once. There are other planes that are slower but are more fun, like the tail exit planes, but the King-Air is the fastest. After about eight or ten minutes we have gone from 1,000 to around 11,000 feet.
Normal exit altitude is around 13,500 or if lucky higher. There are FAA regulations that control the altitude the pilot is supposed to not exceed. The highest I ever jumped from was 22,000 feet and this required that we breathe oxygen from 12,000 up to exit altitude, but that was a “special” skydive and not the norm. Every now and then a pretty girl can convince a pilot to give us extra altitude.
At around 11,000 feet, things start getting interesting. I tell my wife that we are close to exit and that I won’t be able to talk anymore once my helmet is on. I put on my helmet and check all my wingsuit zippers to be sure I am ready to go. I touch my handle. Some skydivers are up on their knees. A skydiver in front of me turns and extends his open palm. I press my palm against his and then make a fist and bump his fist. I then do this little ritual with every skydiver close to me. This is a ritual skydivers do everywhere I have ever jumped.
Over the sound of the engines, someone yells, “What is the interval?”, and the question is echoed forward to the pilot who announces over the intercom how many seconds to wait between groups. This is dependent on the ground speed of the airplane. If the plane is moving into a fast headwind the “ground speed” of the plane can be quite slow, and the interval can be as much as 30 seconds or even more. The answer comes back over the intercom, “Seven seconds”.
I reach back and touch my handle again. There is a red light by the door that goes on, and simultaneously the pilot announces, “Door”, over the intercom. The door is pulled open and the noise of the engines sounds much louder, and the flow of air created by an aircraft going about 110 mph fills the cabin. One skydiver is leaning his head out of the door, looking down, making sure that we are in the right place. The skydivers are positioned in the door to exit in a hurry when the time comes.
When the pilot, using his GPS, determines that we are over the ideal “spot”, the pilot turns on the green light and announces “Exit” over the intercom. This is usually followed by some of the skydivers yelling for them to go, “Go, go, go”. A skydiver climbs out of the door into the blast of wind and balancing with his toes still on the edge, grasps a bar that is affixed to the outside of the plane and holds on there. He tries to take up as little room as possible as another skydiver climbs out and then another. Three men, in their crazy colored jumpsuits, my skydiving brothers, are hanging on the outside of the King-Air. I never tire of seeing that. One of the skydivers looks back into the plane and makes eye contact with others in his group that are still inside the cabin, then he gives an exaggerated count with his arm or head or entire body and suddenly the plane bucks as they drop off and the others in their group jump out the door after them.
The next group waits the prescribed seven second interval and jump, and then the next, then students go, then the tandems if there are any. The plane is almost empty now and the wind is really whipping around. I turn to look at Tish, who is holding on to a piece of the pilot’s seat on one side and bracing herself against the cabin wall on the other. I wave at her and move to the door. Gary is there in his white wingsuit, and with an exaggerated gesture, “after you sir”, indicates I am to go first. I turn to look at Tish once again and then get sideways to the door, grab the frame of the door and step out into the wind.
People who do not skydive ask me, “What is that like, to jump out of the door of the plane?” Certainly it was scary the first few times, but after you have jumped a number of times it becomes routine. If you have never jumped before, exiting the aircraft is the part that gives the most anxiety. When you are an experienced skydiver it is just like slipping into another element, much like when you slip off the side of a swimming pool into the water. You could die in the water if you did not know how to swim, but you do know how and it is no big deal. Like a swimmer in water, skydivers are familiar with that element and know what to do to survive in the sky. If there is a moment that may cause any anxiety it would be when you deploy your parachute, or when you land. Those are the moments when something probably would go wrong, if it were to go wrong.
The King-Air has a low tail and the tail is pretty close to the door. If I were to exit with my wings open I would strike the tail and could be seriously injured or die. That happened to a friend of mine last year in California. The plane was a Twin Otter which has a high tail, but he still managed to hit his head on the tail and go spinning to the earth unconscious. He would have been saved by his Automatic Activation Device, except for the fact that they were over an area whose elevation was about 800 feet higher than the dropzone where the AAD was turned on. So when the AAD thought it was at 1000 feet above ground level and deployed Steve’s reserve, he in actuality was about 200 feet above ground level. The reserve was deployed, but too low to do him any good and he did not survive.
So I exited with my wings closed down for a second or so, until the tail passed over me, and then opened them up and started flying. I saw Gary exit and come down and to my right. I extended my legs and tried to get as much speed as possible, while de-arching slightly and maxing my wings out in order to stay in a position to be visible through the door to where Tish must be. I flew as long as I thought she could see me and then went looking for Gary.
Flying a wingsuit is truly human flight. We cannot gain altitude but we can fly as much as three feet forward for every foot we drop. It is fundamentally different from any other kind of skydive because of the large amount of horizontal movement and also the difference in how you deploy your parachute, the different emergency procedures, and the fact that when your parachute is opened you cannot reach your risers and steer your canopy until you have unzipped your wings. We joke, “Anyone can skydive, it takes a real man to skydive in a straight jacket.” There is also the danger of running into other skydivers’ opened canopies, so we plan a “flight pattern” to keep us well away from other skydivers.
Being outside of the plane at 13,000 feet, watching the plane leaving you is an amazing sight. The sky is huge, your visibility unrestricted for 360 degrees. The clouds are all around you and below you as well. Ahead of me the airplane was descending and turning to the left slightly. It was quite small now and the open door looked tiny. The sky was full of beautiful fluffy medium size clouds and a few really big ones. Below that the earth was a patchwork quilt of plowed fields, patches of forest, small ponds and lakes, and roads. The view, as always was beautiful. I was alone in the sky, flying.
Even without a wingsuit on, the sensation of skydiving for me is not one of falling, it is more like floating or flying. About ten seconds after you leave the aircraft you reach “terminal velocity”, you are no longer accelerating and you are falling as fast as you are going to (unless you change your orientation to the earth), and at that point it just feels like you are floating on a cushion of air. If you look down as you are falling from two miles above the earth, you can not really tell that the earth is coming up at you because you are so high. We are not looking down much anyway, we are looking for our friends in the air.
With a wingsuit on, I really am flying and can make big movements with my wings like sharp turns, dives, and pulling out of dives; or small discreet movements by moving my hand or foot slightly to move a few inches or feet over to dock with someone. I can do acrobatics, flips and barrel rolls or fly on my back looking up. There is no sensation of falling, there is just the sky, the clouds, other skydivers and the passage of time.
Gary is a very experienced skydiver but I had much more wingsuit experience, and was better at it. Gary knew that and the plan was for me to come to him. I saw Gary below me and to my right. I pulled my wings in slightly and bent at the waist and angled downward. Diving, I could tell my speed was increasing by the sound of the wind. My head was up and as I approached Gary I had to slow down. If I just opened up my wings all the way and flattened out my glide, my speed would cause me to have too much lift and I would “pop” and be too high. The trick is to rocket down and at just the right time flatten out and bring your knees up for a moment, which acts as a speed break. If done right you end up on level and at the right speed to move up into position. This I did, and ended up right beside Gary, but he was looking in the other direction and did not see me beside him. I flew forward getting into his range of vision, then dropped back and flew closer so we could, “take a dock”.
In every skydiving discipline “docks” are taken. All this means is making some kind of attachment. “I took a dock” certainly sounds more manly than, “I held Gary’s hand for a little while.” So I flew close to Gary, opened my hand, flew a little closer and took a dock on Gary. We looked at each other, he smiled and nodded. I released his hand and popped up and over and came down on his left side.
Wingsuit pilots love clouds. We call them “puffies”, which I assume is short for “puffy cloud”. Because in a wingsuit we have horizontal movement we can chase puffies whenever we see them. It is not uncommon for a wingsuit pilot to end up landing “off” (off the dropzone) because they chased a puffy that was irresistible, and could not get back.
There were two gigantic clouds up ahead of us; both below, one to the left and one to the right. Gary took off toward the one on the right. I decided to check out the one to the left. I pulled in and dove. I came out of my dive and approached the cloud. I flew over the top of it and as I approached the edge I turned to the left and flew alongside. Before I reached the base of the cloud I flew inside the cloud and then out the bottom. Coming out the bottom I could see the airport was where I had thought it would be – I had not strayed too far away – and there were no canopies anywhere near me. I turned toward the hanger just as my first audible sounded, meaning 4,500 feet. I kept flying for about 10 or 15 more seconds until the next sound, which meant 3,500 feet. I flew for another few seconds then I went into my deployment sequence.
The deployment sequence is first to “wave off” by kicking my feet three times, to alert any other wingsuits (in this case Gary) if they happened to be behind or above me. Then I closed my leg wing while simultaneously reaching back with both hands. My right hand would close over the hackey and pull the pilot chute out which I would throw to my right and then bring my arms back in and wait for the parachute to be pulled out of the container by the pilot chute. We close the wing after throwing the pilot chute because of the huge area of dead air (the burble) that is behind us. The pilot chute needs wind moving at a fast rate of speed to be able to extract the parachute from the container and deployment bag.
I could feel myself being pitched back as the parachute and lines were being pulled out of my container. Because I was moving horizontally when my parachute opens I swing forward like a pendulum. I could look up and see my parachute filling with air. There is a special sound it makes as it opens that sounds almost like thunder from the ground. Once my parachute is fully inflated I am now suspended by my harness beneath 168 square feet of fabric about 2,500 feet above the earth. The parachute open, I quickly take a look around to be sure I am not near any other open parachutes. I also take a good look at my parachute and make sure it looks ok (“square, stable, and steerable” our instructors would tell us). The coast is clear and the parachute looks fine so I unzip my left and right arm wings freeing up my hands to reach up and grab the risers, which I do, and point the parachute in the direction of the drop zone.
After looking around once again to be sure no one is near me, I reach down to my ankles to grab the zipper to unzip my leg wings, first one then the other. When I lean in the harness to reach each zipper, it turns my parachute slightly and I have to pull on my riser to correct my heading. The next thing I do is reach up and collapse my slider. The slider is a small rectangular piece of parachute material that slides down the lines from its place directly beneath the opening parachute. The slider is there to keep the parachute from snapping open too quickly which at the very least hurts like hell, and can seriously injure a skydiver. All my housekeeping chores done, I reach up and unstow my brakes (also called steering toggles) which releases the parachute from it’s half-braked opening configuration letting it surge forward and fly.
With the brakes released and the toggles in my hands I am now steering my parachute. I give it a few turns to be sure everything is working fine. If anything was wrong with it, I would want to know now at 2,500 feet when I have time to deploy a reserve parachute, rather than at 25 feet about to hit the earth.
The modern ram-air parachute is a small aircraft. The angle of the parachute and my 170 lbs beneath it pushes it forward. The forward speed causes air to fill the cells of the parachute giving it an aerodynamic shape. The forward speed flowing over the aerodynamic wing surface imparts lift. When I pull down on my left or right toggle, it pulls down the left or right rear edge of the parachute which causes it to turn in that direction. In the final leg of my landing pattern when I am about 10 or 15 feet above the ground, I will pull both brake toggles down, flaring the parachute. The timing of flaring is not difficult but it is a learned skill, and when done right your landing is as soft as a feather. (In the interest of full disclosure I must admit that during my skydiving career I have had a few broken bones and stitches… you can get hurt)
Much closer to the ground now I have to keep my eyes peeled for other parachutes. Being a wingsuit pilot, I usually get out of the plane last and have a longer freefall which means I usually get down after everyone else, so traffic is not usually an issue, except for the other “birds” on the load. I can see the spectators near the hangar looking up and in the landing area there are a few people gathering up their parachutes. I fly with the wind alongside the landing area and at about 500 feet turn left. Another left turn at about 200 feet brings me facing the wind. I make a slight correction with the steering toggles as I descend. A few seconds later as I am about 15 feet off the ground I pull both toggles down, flaring my parachute and lightly touch down. My parachute gently collapses next to me and for the last time I remove my helmet and gloves, gather the parachute and lines, and walk back toward the hanger.
Here is a link to the nice thread of messages posted by skydivers in response to my “goodbye” post on Dropzone.com…
I have posted just a few of my skydiving videos on You Tube. Click on this link below to see them: http://www.youtube.com/user/rivermist#p/u