12 November 2008

[Updated] Another Rush!!

Updated: Link to the video of my jump

OK, this post isn't about mountain biking, but it's about something just as exciting. Today [26/October/2008] I went skydiving! It was an absolute blast. I took my son for his 19th birthday and enrolled us in the Accelerated Free Fall solo jump course at Skydive San Diego. My dear friend Beth from Martha's Vineyard came along with the intent to do a tandem jump. Due to concerns about her knee she decided that she didn't want to jump, but after watching how smooth and soft the landings were for several dozen other people, she decided to do the tandem jump after all.

We started out early in the morning, leaving Encinitas at around 6:30am and arriving at the Otay Lakes site just a little before 8am. Our course was scheduled to start at 8, but as was to be expected, there was paperwork to do and after waiting for late arrivals, so we finally got started with ground school around 9.

Once we got going, ground school went pretty fast with only 6 people in the class. We learned hand signals that the in-air instructors would be giving us. We also learned the correct position for free fall, how to control the chute once it was open, the mechanics and parts of a parachute and how to recover from possible malfunctions. It was a bit awkward, in my opinion, that the last 45 minutes of the class were about possible malfunctions, rather than ending the class on a more positive note by burying the unlikely malfunctions in the middle of the class.

We also spent a good amount of time going over the airplane exit procedures and body position. The all important "arch" was drilled into us from the moment we got into the classroom.

My son and I were the first to practice the exit procedure with an actual chute on. Man, they were a lot heavier than I would have thought, and after twenty minutes with them on, my shoulders were screaming.

The instructor had us lay on the ground to practice the free fall arch position, while he came around to check whether we were "relaxed" enough and in the right position to allow him to flop us around. With the chute still on, it was not easy to keep in a good position. I was really glad when he told me to let someone else try on the parachute.

After the ground school was finished, we sat around and waited to be manifested on a plane. This was one of the points where Skydive San Diego appeared to be unorganized, at least for the uninitiated. After about an hour of waiting, I decided to ask what the deal was, and was told that we'd be jumping around 3pm. With about 90 minutes to spare, I decided that we should head off to East Lake Village to pick up some lunch (since the only food that they had on site were burgers and pizza, neither of which was very enticing to me. My son decided to order a specially made sushi roll, and the fellow making it was about as slow as he could possibly be and still make progress. After about 10 minutes of making the roll, we were back on the road, and another 10 minutes later we were back at the drop zone.

Just as we got back we heard my son's name being called over the loud speaker and he rushed to get a jump suit, parachute and then kitted up.

Fortunately, we were all manifested on the same plane, but while Hakan was suited up and ready to go, there was no one who seemed to be able to provide any information about me or Beth, other than that we were all on the same plane.

After a while, with only about 20 minutes to go before we were supposed to load up into the plane, someone one of my in flight instructors finally showed up and got me kitted up. After suiting up, he ran me through the exit and jump procedures one more time, and then told me to go to the waiting area. Beth took one more picture of Hakan and I before we headed out to the plane, a twin prop Otter.

On the walk out, our camera flyers (I bought the "delux video package" for both of us) filmed us and asked us how things were going.

Once on the plane we took our seats, somewhat crowded together, with Beth all the way at the front of the plane, Hakan a few spaces further back, and I was somewhere in the middle of the plane. I had one of my in-air instructors to my right and one across the isle from me.

As we climbed, the in-air instructors asked me what I would do at the specific altitude we were at. At 5500' I told them I would pull the rip cord. At 6000' I told them that I would wave off and reach for the rip cord. It was at that point that all the training seemed to disappear from my head. When they asked me what the different hand signals meant I couldn't remember "Circle of Awareness" (checking the altitude on the altimeter and scanning the horizon.) I recovered my composure, but felt very awkward for having forgotten something so basic.

When we got to 13000' they opened the door and people started jumping out. Very quickly the back half of the plane was empty and it was my turn. One in-air instructor positioned himself outside the airplane and the other just on the inside.

I shouted "Check In" to the instructor inside and "Check Out" to the outside instructor, each responding with "Check". I looked down but VERY quickly decided it was best to just look forward at the propeller and wing. I then ran through the three steps: "Drop" (lowering my shoulder so I was no longer wedged in the doorway), "Prop" (I continued to look forward at the propeller), and "Jump" (stepping out of the airplane). Strangely enough, just writing this has caused my heart to race and give me butterflies in my stomach.

As I started to fall, I could feel the turbulance of my body and tried to figure out how to make them stop. Then, one of my instructors shook me, reminding me to relax and arch. I did so, and all the turbulance stopped and the free fall felt very smooth.

They ran me through the different skill checks (altitude awareness, practice handle touches, more altitude awareness) and kept telling me to straighten out my legs. They were giving me hand signals, to do all this, which would have been much better had I been aware of what it would be like because they seemed to be in the periphery of my vision rather than easily seen. Of course, everything was in the periphery of my mind at this point with the exception of falling. I checked my altimeter and we were at 7000'.

The next thing I knew one of the in-air instructors was telling me to pull the rip cord. I reached down, grabbed the handle and threw it as I had been taught. My in-air instructors were quickly gone below me as my chute opened, leaving me by myself.

The parachute had opened properly and I grabbed the toggles and tested out turning to the right and turning to the left, and then finally flaring to slow the parachute down.

I looked down below me and the ground was quickly approaching (all though, not nearly as fast as it had been when I was free-falling at 120 miles per hour.) I turned this way and that, experimenting with the way that the parachute worked, enjoying myself as I watched the ground approach.

When I got to 1000', I started working my way down the air strip as we had been instructed, turning to cross the airstrip at 500' and then heading into the wind at 250'. At this point I heard a crackle on the radio instructing me that I was doing great. As I approached the ground the voice on the radio told me "not yet", "not yet", "not yet", "not yet" and then finally "Flare". I was about 10' feet off the ground and I pulled the toggles all the way down, bringing me to a very soft landing.

I gathered up my parachute and headed back to the waiting area. I was looking for Hakan and Beth as I walked, and just as I got to the fence, Beth and her Tandem Instructor came floating down. Beth had a smile on her face that was so big, it extended past her ears! I still didn't see Hakan anywhere. There was only one more person descending, and I figured that had to be him. He too made a perfect landing.

I dropped my parachute off, got comments on my jump from the in-air instructors who gave me my log book, and decided right then and there that I was going to continue on toward my A-Licence (25 jumps).

We chatted on the way back to Encinitas, everyone was thrilled, excited and stimulated. I feel like I've embarked on a new adventure that will keep me engaged for a long time.

Of course, I still have Mountain Biking, so when I'm not jumping out of planes, I'll be riding single track. Now, if I can just figure out a way to combine the two... :)