Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Becoming a Skydiver

On 4th August, after weeks of waiting for good weather, I finally got my birthday present! Kate and I got up very early in the morning to catch a train to Princes Risborough. Unfortunately we went to the wrong train station. With only minutes to spare we managed to catch a cab to the right station to get our train. From Princes Risborough, we took another cab to the drop zone, a little field near Lewknor just off the M40. Unfortunately the weather had gotten worse, from beautiful sunshine when we left London to overcast and being surprisingly cold at the drop zone. It was 8.30am and we were the first ones to arrive. Eventually, the clouds broke and the aeroplane arrived. I got my gear and at around 11am it was time to take off.

My two instructors, Simon and Ian, talked me through the first jump and made me practice.

It was a small aeroplane, we all had to squeeze in and there wasn't much room for manoeuvre! The time to wait seemed endless.

But finally we got up to 11,000 feet and it was time to repeat my drills, but now for real:

Simon: "Ready to skydive?"
Me: "Ready!"
Simon: "Get into the door."

So I got into the door, both feet dangling outside and a cold air blowing into my face. There was not much time to think. Both hands down near the edge of the aeroplane, turning towards my primary instructor, Simon:

Me: "Check in"
Simon: "Okay!"

Then turning outwards to my secondary instructor, Ian:

Me: "Check out"
Ian: "Okay!"

Then I pushed myself up, down and then out of the door with a full arch and suddenly we were all flying through the air.

I saw the horizon and was as stable as I could before I started my practice exercises, checking my altimeter, checking with my instructors for guidance. After I got an ok from both of them I had to find the toggle to launch my parachute three times, but not pull yet! Then back to checking altitude and instructions.

At 6,000 I was supposed to lock into my altitude, signal 5,500 and pull my toggle. But this time everything was happening so fast, and there were signals from my instructors all over the place and before I noticed Simon took my hand and put it to the toggle. It took me a while to understand what was going on until I finally realised we were at 6,000 feet and I shouldn't wait any longer but pull my toggle.

Four seconds later, after a jerk from the 'chute, I was hanging in the air. But no time to rest just yet. It was time for canopy exercises. Look up, check if it is big and square, and grab my steering toggles, pulling on left and right to make sure I can steer, and pulling both down at once to make sure the brakes work! Everything worked fine. I turned around to see where the drop zone was, to find out where I had to land, and a voice started talking to me on the radio. It was a very calm and reassuring voice. I was told everything was ok and I could just enjoy myself for a bit, heading into the wind and doing some turns.

But there was too much excitement than to just enjoy the view. I started to descend and the voice on the radio started to guide me towards the drop zone. The drop zone came closer and closer, I made my final turn and was heading upwind, passing the green grass of the landing spot and then there was a voice saying, "Jan, 3, 2, 1, flare!". All of a sudden I was standing safely in the middle of a wheat field.

The centre of the drop zone was not far away at all, though. I packed my parachute and got back, being a bit disappointed with myself with not being as good as I thought I should have been - but it felt great and I didn't fall over when landing!

I had my debriefing on the ground with my instructors and although there was plenty of room for improvement, they advanced me to the second level and told me it wasn't that bad and that I shouldn't be so hard on myself. So, I finally took out my credit card and decided to pay for the next seven jumps. I did one more jump that day. In this jump I was supposed to do a 90 degree turn in the air. The second jump was much better than the first one. It seemed to take much longer, and I knew what to expect. I did my exercises and turns, and at 6,000 I locked on and pulled my own toggle. Again they guided me to land in the wheat field!

It was a gorgeous day and Kate and I both got sunburned. We were ready to go home and return the next morning, but Martin the club owner invited us to stay for a barbecue in the field and we crashed the night in one of the other skydiver's tents, using emergency blankets to sleep with! It was a beautiful evening.

The next morning, at 7.45 we got up again. I was scheduled for the first flight. This was to be the last time I jumped out with two instructors and this time they were going to let go of me, to see if I could fly stably by myself. We got to 11,000, got out of the plane and got stable. They started to let go of me and I could now really understand what a difference it made when they held on to me, but I was alright. Then it was the same procedure as always, at 6,000 I locked on, signalled 5-5 and pulled. Unfortunately the wind was stronger than the day before and we left the aeroplane too far downwind. Even though I was trying to stay upwind, it was impossible for me, with my big student canopy, to make it all the way back to the drop zone. So again another landing in a field, but I was closer to the centre of the drop zone than ever before. With only about 10 metres to spare, I landed with a good standing landing - but sadly nobody could see it!

I did three more jumps that day. My fourth jump was with only one instructor and I had to do two 180 degree turns in the air. This time I did my landing procedures all by myself. I aimed straight for the green. My approach was just right, but unfortunately I flared a little bit early and landed straight on my knees in front of all the people watching!

On my fifth jump I had to do two 360 turns. I did that one with a new instructor, and instead of doing two 360s we did two 90 degree turns and a 360 turn.

My sixth jump was one of the most exciting jumps. This time I had to jump out of the aeroplane by myself, with the instructor closely following me. As soon as I had my heading, I was supposed to do a backflip, followed by some forward tracking. My exit was a bit unstable, as I bumped with my chute against the door frame of the plane, but everything went fine and after the forward tracking I had plenty of time before I had to pull my toggle. I managed to land standing, even though I flared a bit early again.

This was probably one of the most adrenalin filled weekends I have had. We got back home and had a glass of wine to celebrate and I must say I have never been so drunk after one glass of anything!

We went back a week later, on the 12th, to finish my course. On that day we had more clouds and I was on the second plane to go up. By the time we reached 9,000 feet we were told that we didn't have clearance to go up to the full 11,000 into the clouds. What a bummer, we had to land again. After a few hours we finally got clearance and I did my seventh jump. This time a backflip, two 360s, and some forward tracking. This was a fantastic jump. I exited, I did my flip and in front of me was a big, puffy cloud. I couldn't see my instructor just yet, so I continued with my turns. I started my forward tracking before my instructor showed up on the left side of me, giving me two thumbs up and with me having a big grin, checking my altitude and realised that we were only at 8,000 feet so far and I had plenty of time to enjoy the freefall. I landed by myself again - it started to get easier. My last and final jump was the so-called "hop and pop". I exited at 5,000 feet, stabilised, waited about five to ten seconds and pulled my toggle. That was it! I had now completed my AFF course and am eagerly waiting for my next chance to go skydiving!

Here a little video of my first jump: