September 23, 2002
5:30 PM   Subscribe

Ah, skydiving. The air around a dropzone, especially a big one like SkyDive Chicago, is pretty rarefied: a newcomer to the sport like myself is entirely lacking in cool, even if normal people think having made even one solo jump is pretty impressive. I'm certainly nowhere near the cool-level of the Golden Knights, the Army's team of crack parachutists. Speaking of them and SDC, they were of course there when this year's national championships were held in August. I especially liked the video of them showcasing their excellent HALO technique.
posted by kavasa (20 comments total)
I went skydiving for the first time a couple of months ago at Parachutes Over Carmi in Carmi, IL. It didn't really do much for me: While the others I went with were cheering and whooping with excitement, I only experienced a mild rush. For whatever reason, I have had much more exciting times on rollercoasters. Maybe it is because I am afraid of neither flying nor heights. Or maybe I just didn't appreciate the risk it represented.

Then I visited the skydiving fatalities website. This is a pretty good incident report of skydiving accidents in the last decade or so, written with an eye towards a simple reporting of facts. No sensationalism, just data. It seems there are about 30-40 skydiving fatalities a year in the US, about half of which are experienced jumpers.

My next jump was a little more exciting... .
posted by moonbiter at 6:09 PM on September 23, 2002

Just don't end up like Dead Mike.
posted by homunculus at 6:24 PM on September 23, 2002

Yeah, about 30 deaths a year is the number I've seen, too. From the reports I've seen, I'd expect a much higher number of them to be experienced, though. The experienced jumpers are the ones that do Stupid Shit. You know - low-altitude canopy turns, fast and complicated relative work, high-speed landings, etc.

Was your first jump tandem? SDC makes you do two tandem jumps before you get into their AFP program, and although I liked 'em, I, like you, was fairly meh. Landed, detached from the tandem master, and walked off. Doing your own freefall and canopy control is much, much better if you ask me.

homonculus - indeed.
posted by kavasa at 7:08 PM on September 23, 2002

My first jump was a little over a month ago. Solo, but the jump-master throws your pilot chute as you let go of the wing strut. I was also surprised at how ho-hum it was. Maybe it's because the descent was so calm and peaceful compared with the terror of climbing out of the plane.

I definitely have to try it again. I'm kicking myself for missing the last two weekends.
posted by Monk at 7:26 PM on September 23, 2002

My first jump was static line, hanging off the wing strut of an older Cessna 182. I pretty much put a furrow in the earth when I hit -- at 240 lbs, I'm loading even the oversized newbie canopies pretty heavily.

I've heard that free fall is where the real fun is at, which I can certainly understand. Still, I look at the cost for a jump and think man, I could buy some nice biking knickers for that. I guess I'm only rich enough for one hobby.

That being said, I'd recommend anyone even considering it to try it at least once. Even if it doesn't thrill you, the jump is worth it. If nothing else, the people you'll meet will make it worthwhile.
posted by moonbiter at 7:36 PM on September 23, 2002

I'd expect a much higher number of them to be experienced, though.

I guess it depends on how you set the threshold for experienced. 103 of the reported fatalities were jumpers with over 250 jumps, compared to 86 less experienced skydivers.

You're absoulutely right about the causes: a vast majority of deaths were a result of risk-taking behavior such as low-altitude turns or jumping in unfamiliar conditions (different equipment, new drop zones, etc.).
posted by moonbiter at 7:46 PM on September 23, 2002

absoulutely --> absolutely
posted by moonbiter at 7:47 PM on September 23, 2002

I'm thinking that skydive chicago would would not be at the top of my list.
posted by sj at 8:08 PM on September 23, 2002

Monk - yeah, I hear about a lot of people having made jumps like that, where the first one was solo. I think I prefer the admittedly more expensive route of SDC, although the second tandem is pretty redundant, IMO. My first solo jump, which came after two tandems and a 5-6 hour class, was great. I exited sans adrenaline-spiking fear (although the tandem exits didn't give that to me either), was stable the whole time, and pulled fine at 5,500.

Canopy descent can be peacefull, but I was spiralling and playing until 2k or so. ;)

You're also right it being damn expensive - about $2k for me to get through SDC's AFP thing, then $3-5k for gear. It's a good thing I've already got all my fencing gear. :P

Lastly: many thanks for the link to that site. It's a treasure-trove of Things Not To Do. I've been told about a couple, but some are new, and the reinforcement is great. I intend to skydive for many, many years, dammit.

On preview - yes, sj, I read those articles. I also called people at the FAA - no investigation of SDC was ever filed. They've also never had an injury more serious than a sprained ankle in their training program. I talked to the owner, Roger Nelson, and he was both courteous and informative. He neither brushed off my inquiries nor attempted to explain them away. All - all the recent deaths at SDC were experienced jumpers doing exhibitionist, high-risk stuff.

I doubt a drop zone can ever really be that much of a factor in your safety. Your safety is your responsibility.
posted by kavasa at 8:14 PM on September 23, 2002

My first jump was static line, hanging off the wing strut of an older Cessna 182. I pretty much put a furrow in the earth when I hit -- at 240 lbs, I'm loading even the oversized newbie canopies pretty heavily.

That's how I learned, too. "Jumping" out of an airplane on my first jump was something I think I was mentally prepared to do. Doesn't one just step gracefully through a large door into the ether, perhaps croaking out a tepid "Geronimo"?

Nope. Crawling out onto the strut using that little miniature step....hanging by the arms from the strut of a Cessna in flight, propwash producing some marked leg flap...curiosity about the aerodynamics and drag of a human sized lump under the right wing...looking at the faces of people inside an airplane in flight....awaiting the jumpmaster (who I think liked to prolong that magic moment) to give his little nod and shout "Go!"


Surreal. How can canopy work or later free-fall experiences even compare?
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 9:43 PM on September 23, 2002

awaiting the jumpmaster (who I think liked to prolong that magic moment) to give his little nod and shout "Go!"

And then watching the airplane fly away without you, 14,000 feet in the air! Yeah, that is about as surreal as it gets.
posted by homunculus at 10:22 PM on September 23, 2002

I did a tandem jump a while a go, and have never seen so many pale faces in one cabin - mine included. The best part was descending through the clouds - brilliant! - Its very hard to have an accident whilst parachutting thou - there are alerts in the guys ear, and the parachure i was strapped to had an auto deploy comp attached to it -
posted by monkeyJuice at 2:10 AM on September 24, 2002

I've only jumped once, and it was at Skydive Chicago. A group of girls from my dorm did it to celebrate graduating college three years ago. I was pretty hungover from the "last-night-of-classes" drinking the night before, which is probably the only reason I went through with it. They make you sign the most insane legal disclaimer I've ever seen. Basically, no matter what happens you can't sue. Even if it's grossly their fault, even if they forget to pack your chute or the pilot crashes, you can't sue. I had no idea it was even legal to make someone sign so many of their rights away.

But like I said, I was hungover so I just signed on the dotted line. (Actually not so much hungover as lack of sleep. I wouldn't want you to think I was seriously impaired. I was just feeling like ass.) Went through the little class, got all the equipment, and got assigned a jumpmaster. (We were all going tandem.) The whole way up in the plane I was eerily calm. It's like it wasn't happening to me. As for jumping, I'd had this weird idea (mostly based on Mountain Dew commercials) that I'd just kind of push off like swimming and kinda float. Instead you PLUMMET. My stomach (already not feeling great) ended up in my throat. It was freezing cold, and the air was shrieking in my ears. My eyes were watering. We jumped from over 10,000 feet and had a full minute's free fall, and I hated every second. I just kept thinking, "Don't puke on your nice jumpmaster." Then finally I got to pull the ripcord. And man did it hurt like hell when the harness yanks up between your legs. (I'm a girl and it was still very bad.) Other than that, the parachute part was really great. I liked it much better than the free fall.

In retrospect, I can't believe I did it. Thinking about it now gives me the willies. I'm glad I can say I did, but I think it's sorta a one-shot thing for me.

As for SDC, they were great. No complaints, other than the insane disclaimer, which I'm sure is pretty much par for the course in the industry.
posted by web-goddess at 3:16 AM on September 24, 2002

i hated it. i signed up for 6 jumps and (stupidly, obstinately) wasn't going to throw my money away, but each was worse than the last. i don't enjoy horror movies either - my theory is that i either lack the hormone that (i am told) gives you a high after being scared, or my body doesn't have the correct response to it. or maybe i'm just a coward.

jumping out of a little aeroplane when it's a long way above the ground is plain stupid. your brain knows it's stupid and, as you're about to push off, a little voice inside you're head is saying "you are a moron. you could die. this could be very nasty..." and what do you get in return? a few minutes hanging from a rope - it's no more peaceful than being on an isolated mountain path - before you have the special chance to break an ankle.

i was also unnerved by the contrast between the pre-jump video etc, where we were warned not to take drugs, and the behaviour of experienced jumpers (i guess skydiving attracts people who want to get "high", whether through nerves or chemicals). and on one jump i didn't tighten the straps correctly around my legs, which gave me the choice between landing with feet apart (broken ankle) or crushing my balls...

never again.

[and how about an english english spell-checker - i try to remember to use that button, but it puts more effort into changing my nationality than correcting "real" errors]
posted by andrew cooke at 5:14 AM on September 24, 2002

File me under did-it-once-is-enough-thanks, with two static line jumps over the Virginia countryside. Crawling out the open door of a plane has to be one of the all-time evolutionary no-nos.

It was scary, it was fun, but on the whole I'd rather risk my life doing things where I'm not at the complete mercy of my equipment, but have at least some illusion of control over what happens. Like, say, rock climbing.

Then again, maybe it was the laundry-parachute scene in Fandango that did it.
posted by gottabefunky at 6:34 AM on September 24, 2002

heh. like moonbiter and fold_and_mutilate, my first and only jump was static line, and like web-goddess i was extremely hung over from a sleepless night of post-high school graduation celebration. i know, probably not a good idea (seventeen and stupid), but a friend and i had vowed to do it.

i loved it - huge adrenaline rush - but i don't think i'll ever do it again, even though i'd love to freefall. the problem i have is the whole 'who packed my chute?' thing; were they even more hung over than i? smoking crack? in a really bad mood? i guess if i could do it myself i'd be okay with it, but that's the rub - you have to have jump experience first.

also, the single most effective thing that helped to reduce our class size in half before we jumped was the large poster they dramatically unveiled, showing a single-engine cessna that looked as if a giant can opener had been inserted at the door and worked back all the way to the tail. what happened is that someone had somehow accidentally pulled their reserve ripcord while in flight and with an open door, and being that the reserve chute is spring loaded (so that in case your main chute is deployed but tangled, the reserve chute can project far enough away from the main to not get itself tangled with the main), it shot itself out the door and proceeded to open. the instructor, in a creepy kind of glee, explained that the person did not go out and around the door (as might happen in a cartoon), but rather the reserve chute pulled them through the path of least resistance, that path being right through the side of the plane. at this point, about six or seven people stood up and said "no #$%@ way."... needless to say, my buddy and i guarded our reserve ripcords with our lives.
posted by modge at 8:33 AM on September 24, 2002

I've got about 800 skydives and have flown countless loads of skydivers in 182s, both students and experienced jumpers, tandem, static line and AFF.

I love skydiving. But full disclosure: My wife asked me to take a few years off while our son grows, and I'm okay w/ that. It's a really expensive habit anyway. I still have my gear.

Fear: It's normal, even healthy. For a new jumper, there's very little fear for the first or first two jumps. The environment is so new and novel that the newbie doesn't really understand what's going on. After about the second jump, however, the fear starts. This is normal, and runs up to about the 10th to 25th jump. It ends when the student becomes more confident in the equipment, their ability to operate the equipment, and their ability to operate the equipment in the potentially hostile environment of a skydive.

Relaxing, btw, is the secret to a stable freefall position. And the secret to relaxing is becoming more comfortable in freefall. See?

And yeah, freefall's the thing. After about 10 seconds you're going as fast as you're going to go and you, human, are flying.

People do die, however, because you're not really flying, but only simulating flight. Sport death, where the equipment fails the jumper, is very very very rare (this was not always the case). Usually what happens is the jumper fails the environment and make a series of mistakes (almost always more than one) or miscalculations, culminating in their hitting the ground in an uncontrolled manner.

The one fact of skydiving is that it does not suffer fools gladly, or for long. OTOH it's pretty easy to be a non-fool, so there you go.

What continues to impress me in this regard is how the safer skydiving equipment becomes, the greater the willingness of skydivers, generally a certain type of skydiver, to push the boundries. (I'll leave the reasons why to the psycholgists among us.) In pushing the boundry they do something foolish in that hostile environment and ..... game over.

But it comes down to this: you leave the airplane wearing two parachutes. Before you reach the ground you need to open one of them. Everything in between is gravy.

But man oh man, bailing out the back of a DC-3 with a gaggle of your buds to do a series of manuvers in freefall is better than anything shy of good sex, and even then it's very close.
posted by Elvis at 9:55 AM on September 24, 2002

Might as well chime in with a pointer to my DZ, Sky Knights in East Troy, WI, one of the oldest skydiving clubs in the US. Skydiver Driver, one of the few true-skydiving-stories books out there, was written by one of our pilots in the mid-80's.

We're not quite the scale of Roger's operation at Skydive Chicago, but we do have a fast plane and great facilities -- and adrenaline tastes the same wherever you serve it.

In about 600 jumps I've had many memorable experiences, but a brand new one this year was the World Freefall Convention at the old USAF base in Rantoul, IL. Tailgate aircraft, high-altitude jumps with supplemental oxygen, chopper jumps, and jumps from a C-130 -- a very rare opportunity for civilians!

Weblogger Kevin Fox made his first jump earlier this year, and documented it at his site...
Part I, in which he decides he wants to go skydiving;
Part II, in which he videos himself talking about the decision as he drives to the DZ;
Part III, (the best piece) in which he does a great job of recounting the experience, with text, photos and video.

For you folks recounting the natural hesitation to climbing out of a moving airplane, I'll tell you that eventually, you get to the point where you can hardly stand to be crammed into the plane for the 12-15 minute ride to altitude, and you can hardly wait to get outside and get flying on your own.
posted by Tubes at 11:16 AM on September 24, 2002

Man... It'd be nice to be able to use a DZ a little bit closer to Madison... But I'm going through the UW club, and that's their home DZ, so I get both rides to and a discount at SDC.

By the way... Did anyone actually click on the "technique" link?
posted by kavasa at 11:56 AM on September 24, 2002

wisconsin, representin'...!

(my jump was in Omro, WI)
posted by modge at 12:49 PM on September 24, 2002

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