A little over a month ago I jumped from 5000 feet and had about 10 seconds of freefall. I thought it was awesome. Every little step that I make in learning to skydive is fun and exciting, like I’m a baby who’s aware of my progress growing and learning to walk and talk. Yesterday, though, was like the way some people teach their babies to swim; by throwing them in the pool and making sure they don’t drown. That’s not a complaint at all, just a comparison.
When I arrived at the airport in the morning, there were already a few people. Within an hour, there were ten. The weather was absolutely gorgeous. Almost no clouds, beautiful sky, very warm, and light wind. Larry asked me what I had done last time, considered a moment, and then told me I would be going all the way to the top with everyone else and learning to do 90 degree turns. This meant I would be going up to 13,500 feet and jumping out of a plane completely unfamiliar to me, falling for almost a minute, with 9 other people. Needless to say, I was a little nervous. I was going to have an instructor watching me the whole time, and falling 9000 feet isn’t very different from falling 1000 feet, but just the idea was a little mind-boggling.
We all got on the plane and figured out the jump order and opening altitudes and all the important stuff, took off, and made our way up to 13,500 feet. They opened the door and a blast of colder air reminded us we were a couple miles above the ground. The first group went out. I counted a few seconds and followed after them with my instructor and another jumping out right after me.
In short, I thrashed for a bit. I was able to get mostly stable, but it was very tenuous. When I tried to turn, I couldn’t control it, and I would end up flipping over onto my back. I’d right myself and try again, turning a little, then losing it and turning a lot, then flipping again. It was crazy. With only a few thousand feet left before I was supposed to pull, I figured things out a little better and was able to get in control and make small turns. Then I stopped turning for a thousand feet and maintained a stable position with one heading, waved off so others knew I was going to pull, and pulled my pilot chute.
My first reaction after my chute opened was that it was awesome. My second, only a fraction of a second later, was intense pain in my ears. My third, another fraction later, was the realization that falling 9000 feet in a minute must really screw with the pressure in one’s ears. I got things sorted out and took stock of where I was and where everyone else was and where I needed to be. The wind had changed direction, but the people who had jumped before me hadn’t taken it into account, so they ended up landing with the wind. The people who had jumped after me had faster chutes, so they landed before I did and they landed into the wind, so they had no problem. I set up my pattern and made some modifications on my way down and enjoyed the ride and landed only a couple feet from where I had intended to land. It was pretty slick.
In the debrief, it turned out that my arch wasn’t the best ever, which was part of the reason I was flipping. Also, the suit I was wearing was too loose, and I’m a tall and skinny guy, so I was floating a lot, and the instructor had a hard time staying with me. Finally, while my fall wasn’t ideal, it was pretty average for a beginner.
I was immediately ready for my second jump. It was the same drill this time, except I was supposed to not suck. We were the last out. This time I was in a different suit that was tighter and didn’t have any wings at all, so it was better, and I had a better arch, so I didn’t flip at all. But for some reason I couldn’t stop spinning. I was always turning clockwise and I couldn’t figure out why or stop it. I would try one thing and it wouldn’t help, so I’d try something else and I would spin faster. I was really struggling to figure out what I was doing wrong. Then I got into a much faster spin and had to really twist to stop it. When I looked at my altimeter I was already 500 feet past where I was supposed to deploy so I quickly waved off and pulled at 1000 feet below my target. Under canopy I did fine and I landed standing, but I knew it was a bad jump. The instructor talked to me afterwards and said that the spinning wasn’t so bad but that I wasn’t doing the right things to start and stop the turns. However, it was not so good and could have been dangerous that I hadn’t pulled my chute at the right altitude. By falling too far, I was starting to get into the airspace of the people under canopy who were moving a lot slower than I was, so a collision could have been deadly for me and someone else. I wouldn’t be able to jump on the big plane until I showed I could have some altitude awareness.
That’s when we got the smaller Cessna 206 started up. This was the small plane I was used to. We waited for the big plane to go up and drop a load before we went up so we wouldn’t interfere with them. Two other guys, the instructor, and I went up. The two guys jumped at 8000 feet and we continued up to 11,500. This time I jumped out and had a good arch. I maintained my heading fairly straight for a while, then tried turning. I wasn’t in complete control of my turns, but I was a lot better than the previous jump, and I was a lot more aware of where the instructor was and what my altitude was. It also helped that I was looking up at the horizon and looking in the direction I wanted to turn. I waved off at the right altitude, pulled my chute at the right altitude, and had a great stand-up landing. I was happy to end the day with a good jump.
In the end I had racked up a little over 2 1/2 minutes of freefall and learned a lot about controlling myself in the air and watching my altitude. I suppose I could have been a quicker learner and not screwed up that second jump so badly, but I can’t do it over again, so I’ll just learn from all those little mistakes and not do them again. I’m really glad that I’m learning at this drop zone. Everyone here is concerned about safety and making sure you’re comfortable but challenged, that you know what you need to do to improve, and that you have the right equipment and good training.