Friday, December 30, 2011

Skydiving Duck: Solo Two (Adrenaline Boogaloo)

 Skydiving seems  cool, but I still get second thoughts on the drive to the drop zone.  What was I getting myself into?  This was for bold, adventure seeking types, not me.  I had no business getting on that plane.
The ride to altitude wasn't the torture it was in my earlier jumps, but it wasn't a merry-go-round ride either.  A primitive part of my brain still sounded the alarm: "Oh noes!  People are falling off this thing!  And you're in line to do the same!"
Oddly, standing in the doorway wasn't as scary is it used to be.  The exit was another story.
   "!@#!!" I thought "I'm falling out of a $%!&^@ airplane!  Holy *&%#!!"  Those first few seconds are just overwhelmingly weird.   Unnerving.  I'm falling, yet I'm so high that the ground doesn't zoom up.
I feel like Alice in Wonderland when she tumbles down the rabbit hole.

Experienced jumpers tell me this part eventually becomes great fun.  Will this ever be the case for me?  When?
 It still takes me about ten or fifteen seconds to quit flopping around and get stable.  I suspect the comparative lack of air resistance might have something to do with it, plus the fact that I'm not relaxed as I should be.
Then I was stable.  Hooray!
I tried to breathe deep and slow as I kept my eye on the view and the altimeter.  See?  I told myself.  You can do this.  Soon it was time to open the parachute.

I'm surprised (and a bit disappointed) that I'm still super frazzled after the parachute deploys.     What's wrong with you?  I thought,  Why are you so rattled?     You're a big baby!
Big baby or not, I was getting better at controlling the canopy.  I practiced my flares at different speeds and kept nagging myself to fly safely:  Look at the windsock!  Where's it pointing?  Look for the other jumpers.  See anyone?  What are they doing?  Hey!  Look before you make those turns!
Then came landing time.  One of my instructors once suggested the best time to flare is a second or two after you think it's time to flare.  I'm in no position to recommend this for everyone*, but it seems to work for me.
And what was this...?
Was I actually going to have my first stand up landing!?
I touched down, held the flare, was about to stand up when...
...I tipped over.  Whoops.
Maybe next time!

*for flakes, sake, I'm just a student. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Skydiving Duck: Solo Time!

The sun was out. The winds were down. Time for my first solo.
My inner critic played dirty.  He split into two and heckled me from different angles:

 Compared to the AFF jumps, things were simple.  No routines, no exit practice in the mock-up.
I felt like a kid riding the bike without training wheels when I grabbed the rental parachute and put it on by myself.  Within  a half hour I was at altitude, in the doorway, looking down.
Okay, there's the airport.  No clouds--Holy geez! am I really doing this!?--no planes, no peeps.  One, two, three, go!

The first few seconds out are still a bit overwhelming...
...then there I was- back in the alternate universe of freefall.  I rolled over by mistake but righted myself.  Then I played "watch the altimeter and practice your turns."
The chute opened without trouble and soon I was in my landing pattern.  Would I flare too high?  Too low?

I know I'm supposed to flare when I get about ten to fifteen feet above the ground, but it's hard to measure when it's zooming at me like a freight train.
Toggles up, toggles up, I thought, mimicking  what had squawked through the radio on my earlier jumps, not yet, not yet, feet together...  I could see individual weeds zipping by ...Flare half way... all the way, hold it... 
I planned a PLF but when my feet hit the ground they slid like I'd landed on a Slip 'n' Slide.  I came to rest gently on my back (I'll have to ask an instructor how to prevent that, since a less gentle landing like that would be trouble).
My solo wasn't fearless or flawless, but I'd done it.  I couldn't believe it.
Traditionally you're supposed to bring beer after your first skydive solo. I bought a bunch of it.  My instructors had earned it: If they could teach a high-strung, easily frightened, pain-in the-neck student like me how to do this, they can teach anyone.  

To find out what happened on my second solo, click here

Friday, December 02, 2011

Skydiving Duck: AFF Level 8

Weather and car maintenance had kept me grounded for a few weeks, but now the sun had returned.  Time to do  AFF level 8.   Could I really do all those stunts in the dive plan?  And what was this nonsense about diving head first out the door?  I didn't like diving into a pool.  How was I going to dive out of a plane?
I kept my breathing slow on ride to altitude.   Compared to my earlier jumps, I was relatively at ease...
The door seemed less threatening.  It was just... ...a door.  Outside was a view.   I was still nervous, but it wasn't unpleasant.
Then I was in the doorway.  Could I really do this?  The dive exit?  The tricks?  This was crazy!  What was I doing here?

Ready, set, go!
The dreaded dive (okay, it was more like a cartwheel-dive hybrid) was easy!  I didn't even flop around.  In retrospect, I thought "Well of course it was easy!  When you're in freefall your whole body is outside.  Who cares what part goes out first!?"
As for the dive tasks, here's how I graded myself.
  • Front Loop: A-
  • Barrel Roll: B- (crude and awkward.  Yahtzee Dice Roll is more like it)
  • 360 degree turns: C (I rushed these, body position could be better)
  • Docking onto instructor: A- (nobody got hurt)
  • Turn and Track: C- (It was close to pull altitude so I cut it short.  Better to pull on time than to track neatly into the ground.)
  • Canopy Landing B- (Who flared too high?  Tsk. Tsk.)
 The instructor signed my log book.  I'd passed level eight and was cleared to solo!
Me?  Solo?  I thought.  I couldn't do that.  I'd mess it up.  I'm not the kind of person who can...
Then I remembered those "I couldn't do that" thoughts aren't necessarily true...

Bonus Video:
I didn't tape my dive, but a tandem student sitting next to me had  her jump recorded, and you can see me leave the plane  (blue suit,  with the yellow helmet).  I'm only there for a few seconds, then the action returns to the tandem student.

(To see what happened when I tried my first solo, click here)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Skydiving Duck: AFF Level Seven

When I signed up for  AFF, it was on a "I'll try this level and we'll see about the others..."  basis.   Videos of the each level  seemed intimidating, but the video of level seven freaked me. 
Tumbling out of the plane!?  Backloops?  Barrel rolls?  No way was I going to do stuff like that!  I didn't do  those things.  That wasn't me.

But now, a few months later, I was ready to do the dreaded level seven.
Thanks to my history of bungled roll 'n' flop exits (including ending up on my back by mistake), this wasn't exactly unfamiliar territory anymore.  Sure, I was still nervous, but the sky and  drop zone had become more fun.  The  "what the hell am I doing here!?" vibe had faded.
It reminded me of Toontown from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
It was colorful, friendly, unique, exciting...
...and what was more surreal and cartoony than falling through the sky?

Of course, Toontown wasn't Disneyland.  Someone could drop a flowerpot  (or a piano) on your head.   Both Toontown and the sky require caution.

The plane ride is getting easier.  The facing-the-firing-squad terror has fizzled away.    Walking to that door is another matter.  Remember when Curly from The Three Stooges gets scared and goes "Nyaaaaaahhhhhhh!?"  That's me at the door!

It's amazing how dropping out of that door is easier than walking toward it.
I went through my routine.  I tried the backloop.
 It worked!
Now the barrel roll.  That sort of worked, but I don't think you were supposed to keep rolling until you were on your back again.  Whoops.
When I righted myself I tried tracking (for you non-skydiving readers, that's pulling your arms back so you fly forward).
How graceful was I?  Think "Peter Pan on horse tranquilizers."
Soon the canopy was open.  I remember thinking "That feels like a line twist" and looking up to find one.  I'm getting good at kicking them out.
As for the landing...
 ...I still haven't been able to do a stand up.   Guess I need more practice there too.
But guess what?  I passed the level!
(To see what happened when I tried level 8, click here.)

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Skydiving Duck: AFF Level Six

As I work my way through AFF, my attitudes are changing:

My thoughts on the ride to altitude have been more consistent, but I'm shaking less than I used to...
All week I'd anticipated the exit to be like my previous ones:  I'd leave the plane with the instructor holding on to a jumpsuit handle.  Not so, I learned.  We'd get into the usual exit position, but I was to leave first, and he'd follow.
What!?  I thought.  Jump out of the plane unattached?  That's nuts!
Then I thought, Well, I don't see why I couldn't do it...
Soon enough I was on the plane, at altitude, stepping towards that screaming evil blowhole called "the door."   (The primitive part of my brain is still convinced that door = bad news.)   Fighting my instincts and the wind, I somehow got into position.
Ready!  Set!  Go!
Holy  Smackerel!  I thought as I flew  Did I really just jump out of the plane?  Wow!  I can do this...!
Or could I?  In seconds I was on my back.  Whoops.  Time to try out the "bring one arm in and you'll roll over" trick.  It worked.  I was back in position.  Sorta.
Out of nowhere the instructor grabbed my arm handle, gave me the Relax! signal and let go.

Oh yeah.  Relax!  I'd forgotten about that.  I relaxed (as much as I could) and found myself more stable.  From there it was easy: spin left 360 degrees stop, spin right 360 degrees, stop etc...   It was weird seeing the view twirl so fast, and even weirder to think I was causing it.

The canopy ride was uneventful.  I still haven't mastered a stand up landing, but I'm not getting bruised either.
I thought my tumbleweed exit might have disqualified me, but I passed the level.  On to level seven!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Skydiving Duck: AFF 5 part two

I returned to the drop zone to retry level five (AFF).  As I waited for my instructor, I looked up and saw the plane fly over.   It was tiny- I could have eclipsed it with my little finger held at arm's length.   Little dots- the jumpers- dropped out like clockwork.  It looked like an early video game. 

I was smiling as I boarded the plane, but Fear snuck on after me.

He spent the next fifteen minutes hollering about the door.  I think he doesn't like it.
Getting myself to back out of said door is about as easy as getting a cat into a bath. 

My exit was sloppy, but then I arched correctly.  I couldn't believe I was floating (okay, falling) thousands of feet over the ground, unattached, and able to control my turns.
Freefall makes the "be here now" cliche real.   Body position, the altimeter, and what's happening right now replace everyday worries and nagging thoughts.  Maybe that's part of the appeal?  I'm too new at this to know for sure.

My thoughts after the chute opened:
Yay!  It opened normally..! ...where am I?  Oh... there's the landing area....   Far above me I could see the plane dispensing jumpers.  Below I could see other parachutes.  Cool!  I was in the video game!
Hey Super Mario, my cautious side thought, you're hanging 4000 feet in the air like a *@!! pinata.  Why don't you, ah, check to see if you can flare and steer the parachute before you take in the scenery?

I circled around my holding area until I got to 1000 feet, where I was to start the landing.  The plan is to fly with the wind at 1000 feet, turn 90 degrees (west) at 600 and turn another 90 degrees at 300 so you'll land in the wind.  I had a walkie talkie strapped to my helmet.  Some instructors flew me in with precise instructions.  Others waited until I was near the ground and told me when to flare (slow down the parachute).  I didn't hear anything.
After the 300 foot turn, I noticed I was heading straight for a flag in the middle of the field.
Way to go!  I thought.  The landing area is the size of Rhode Island and you point yourself at a stupid flag.  Now what?  I was too low for any real turns (turning drops you).  Then I figured,

1. If I focus on the flag, I'll hit it for sure.
2. If I focus on the area to the right of the flag, and very subtly pull on the right steering toggle, I'll pass it.

The ground flew closer.  By this time the walkie talkie usually squawked landing instructions.
I didn't hear anything. 
Wow!  I thought. They trust me to do it on my own?!  Okay... I'll just wait till I'm almost down,*  okay, flare to level off...  ... flare all the way...
It worked!  I landed gently (for me).  Just right of the flag.
Later I learned that the walkie talkie wasn't working.  The instructor was trying to tell me stuff, but the walkie talkie wasn't picking up.  So that's how I accidentally landed without assistance.

Here's the video:
*technically this is ten to fifteen feet over the ground, but to me it looks like "almost down" 

Click here to see how level six went.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Skydiving Duck VIII: The Big Spin (AFF Level 5 attempt, take 1)

The trouble started at altitude.  As with the previous jump, I was to leave the plane standing in the doorway, facing the plane, with my upper half  completely outside.   I grabbed the bar over the door,  turned around, backed out and... ...wait.  I was stuck.  Had my parachute somehow hung up on something?  Was I doing something wrong?  I couldn't get completely upright*.  
The instructor signaled me into the plane,  No, I wasn't hung up she said.  The only resistance was the wind, but that shouldn't be enough to stop me.  
Thanks to my bumbling we had to wait several seconds for the plane to turn back into position.
Way to go!  I thought.  You're holding up the whole plane!  I'm sure that's a good way to make friends at the drop zone.
A wave of fear and doubt hit me.  I was screwing up.  Causing trouble!  Being a pain.  Who did I think I was, doing this parachuting stuff? 
Soon it was time to exit again.  I stepped out, looked right, then left, and stepped out.

 It's funny.  My earlier drops from the airplane seemed terrifying and violent.  There was no question that I was falling, and fast!  Now they seemed  more gentle.   Not a cozy nap-time gentle.  More of a Hey!  I'm free falling again.  Time to get to work!
 The dive plan was  simple.  Circle of awareness and controlled 90 degree turns.  It was nothing I couldn't do.  Right? 
At first things  seemed good.  Right ninety degrees, left ninety degrees.  Then things went downhill...

...right ninety degrees, left 180 degrees, right 360 degrees.   I was blowing it! (Later I'd learn that I'd rushed into the turns without checking the instructor's hand signals, and was sabotaging myself with uneven leg positions.  Thus, the spinning.)
Then came pull time.
I arched, reached back and... ...where was that handle?  It was as if a gremlin had pulled it out of my reach.

Don't be silly, I thought.  It's back there somewhere.  Go grab it!  NOW!
But a few seconds into my hunt I started spinning again (in hindsight, I should have returned to an arch and taken a second swipe at it instead of hunting for it like soap in the tub).  I arched to stop the spin, spotted the instructor nearby and-
The parachute yanked me upright like a rag doll.
The instructor pulled for me.
From exit to pull time, I'd made hash out of the freefall.  This was going to be a do-over.  I obviously needed more practice.**
At least  canopy ride and landing went well.

Update: I took level five again and passed it.  

*I was wearing a slightly larger parachute this time around, so maybe I mistook the  wind resistance for being stuck.
**the instructor  suggested I work on keeping my legs even  in the tunnel.  The next day I did ten minutes of tunnel time, focusing on those legs..   I'm getting better.  We'll see how my attempt at level five goes...

Friday, October 14, 2011

SkyDiving duck VII: Arch Nemesis (AFF level four)

Normally skydiving seems interesting and cool, but when I'm in that plane watching people drop out the door, I change my mind.  Suddenly I'm nostalgic for the days when "trying something new" meant sampling Absinthe or making rugelach.
Why was I in this stupid airplane?  How on earth was I going to jump out of it?
Fear pestered me on the way to altitude.

This jump required a new exit.  Instead of crouching in the door between two instructors I'd be hanging out the door with one.  The idea of hanging out the door seemed even scarier than falling from it.  One of my subconscious rules must be "Don't hang from speeding vehicles."
When the time came I forced myself into position and went through the routine I'd practiced over and over:
Check right (instructor), Check left (propeller), kick forward... no wait... it was kick back, then forward.. hey, you're blowing it, dummy!  ...kick, kick, arch!

Another sad, sloppy exit was underway.  
This drives me batty because I know how to arch.  Why can't I do it right away like I'm supposed to?  Arrgh!
Then things got better.  I arched properly, the instructor let me go, and I stayed in place.  
I pulled on time and the chute opened normally.  No twists!

It's funny.  In the relative safety of the plane I feel scared, but when the canopy opens, I feel relieved.  This in spite of the fact that I'm dangling from a kite, thousands of feet in the air, with plenty of opportunities to get mangled*
My landing went smoothly...
...until the "contact with the ground" part.  I flared on command but there wasn't much wind, so it was another PLF roll.  I'm getting good at those rolls.
And that's how I passed level four.
As for level five, well, click here to find out what happened.
*following directions and paying attention minimizes these risks, but I try not to fool myself into thinking "Yay!  The 'chute opened.  Now I'm safe!"

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Skydiving duck VI: AFF 3, Take Two, with a Twist

I was still frightened on the plane ride up.  This disappointed me. Then again, my fear level had dropped a little.  The soul melting terror of my earliest flights had been replaced with a distracting unease.   
Minutes later I was out the door with a whoosh.   You're supposed to arch.   I thought I arched.  I certainly yelled "Aaarrch!"
Alas, the GoPro video (see below) caught my bad form, as did my instructors.
I suppose I could have defended myself with "Gee, I was distracted, falling out of a plane and all."  Instead, I added "Arch right away when you're out the door" to my to do list.

Lucky for me (and the instructors hanging on to me), my form improved.  They let me go.  Would I spin?  Flip over?
Incredibly, I was able to hold still.  Yay!
I kept a sharp eye on my altimeter.  I'd botched my last lesson by not pulling on time.  Nothing was going to distract me.   Not the wind, not the noise, not thoughts, not even a pterodactyl   or flying saucer...
...6500 feet, 6000 feet, 5500 feet, wave off, pull!
I felt the familiar tug of the opening chute.    Ha!  I'd done it!

Then I looked up.  What the ...!?
The lines were twisted like a wrung out  rag.  This wasn't the cute little "X" twist I'd had a few dives earlier.  This was a bad-attitude-"#@!* you!" twist. 
I grabbed the risers and tugged them apart, and kicked out the twists.  The parachute  became much more cooperative.

I kept my eye on the landing area and worked my way towards it.  I almost didn't notice that it was a beautiful day with a gorgeous view- the lake spread out like a flat emerald, the mountains  like piles of brown sugar.   Maybe that's good- one doesn't land safely by sight seeing.
I had radio help for landing.  I currently don't get how the pros know when to start the flare.*
Yes, I get that you're supposed to do it at ten to fifteen feet above ground level.  I get that you should be looking forward instead of down.  Still, as I get lower and see the weeds zipping by, it's tricky to judge.  I look forward to the day when I figure out how to do this on my own.
Well, I passed.   Here's the GoPro video.
See my sorry exit and my recovery (well, the body position could be better but hey, I'm new at this) yourself:

To see what happened on level  four, click here.

*Flare means pulling down on the steering toggles.  When you get to the ten-fifteen feet above ground level, you pull them half way down and hold them.  This levels you off (so you're flying parallel to the ground instead of at an angle.) for a few seconds.  Then the canopy drops and you pull the toggles all the way down, which slows your decent long enough to land you gently.  If you know what you're doing.