Bucket List Item Completed: Skydiving

This is probably one of the more generic bucket list items I have.  Everyone has skydiving on their list, but it’s also one that I could have completed at any point and just haven’t out of laziness.  A good friend had his first experience in June out in Vegas and proceeded to become a converted zealot, going all the way for his license within a matter of months, and this convinced myself and a few others down here in South Florida to schedule the date.

I don’t have what I’d call a major fear of heights.  More like a respect for heights.  My dad has what I’d characterize as a major fear of heights – the kind of thing where when you’re walking along a balcony he’s brushing a shoulder against the wall opposite the ledge.  I’m nowhere near that bad but I’m definitely not comfortable on catwalks or other similar spindly high structures.

The whole thing was scheduled very last minute, and I didn’t even find out what time I was meeting my friends until 10PM the previous night, which probably served to push the reality out of my mind.  We drove down to meetup in Hollywood and immediately had a bizarre series of snafus paying for parking that culminated in us paying 10 bucks for 10 hours of parking after several unsuccessful attempts at alternate payment methods.

Piled into the car, the four of us headed south to Homestead where SkyDiveMiami is located.  All of us being technical, we joked how we hoped the experience would be better than their website looked.  We got lost several times along the way but finally made it and as we walked into the office.  Right then a guy in Super Mario Brothers Luigi costume walked through, parachute on his back, helmet and goggles on his head, and proceeded to bellow in an Italian accent: “I’m-a-Luigi and I DROP IT LIKE IT’S A-HOT” while performing several dance moves in a remarkably lithe manner.  I had to admit he was dropping it like it was a-hot.  An onlooker with a shirt that said “Sluts Love Me” laughed and then got yelled at to suit up so he could perform camera duties.

We checked in at the desk and were told to watch a movie which predictably started with a driving musical score and videos of skydivers giving the thumbs up and then cut immediately to a guy with the longest, most impressive beard I’ve ever seen (here he is, judge for yourself).  He began to talk about how there’s no perfect plane, no perfect pilot, no perfect chute, and ACCIDENTS CAN HAPPEN.  He talked about death, and making sure we were willing to risk it all.  I kept looking at his beard.  I started to get a bit nervous.

We then began initialing and signing our way through the single most impressive legal release I could ever imagine.  We signed away our entire humanity.  There were clauses that we agreed to like even if we did sue, and won, we would have to pay all legal fees and winnings, back to ourselves.  We checked that we understood that we could die, and had reflected on this possibility.  We initialed that we had made arrangements to care for our family’s financial future.  We witnessed for each other.  We declined an additional $300 fee that would release us from certain indemnifications.  We were basically scared to death after the completion of those forms.

Punctuated throughout were little interjections from some of the employees who exhorted us to not worry, we would have a blast.  They told us the only part that’s weird is when we jump out first with no chute and the tandem guy jumps afterwards and swims towards us to link up.  It’s got to be great to just see a constant parade of new fear coming in and out of your business each day.  We smiled thinly and began to suit up.

We had decided to do SkyDiveMiami’s highest tandem jump, from 13,500 feet.  This would give us about a minute of free-fall (at roughly 120mph) until we deployed the chute at 5,000 feet, and we’d be strapped to a licensed parachutist instructor who would do most of the work.  I took a lot of comfort from the fact that if something wrong happened, we’d both die, as I’m a strong believer in the alignment of economic incentives.

Suiting up involved donning a union-suit style coverall, a harness, an altimeter, and fitting leather caps and goggles.  I listed myself as 210 pounds, and had to be weighed, where the scale confirmed I was actually 205, a full 20 pounds below the limit.

We waited outside and met our instructors.  Mine was maybe 5 feet tall and announced that “he always got paired with the big guys”.  They were nice and seemed professional, checked each other’s equipment and the eight of us along with one solo jumper climbed up a step ladder and into the plane.  A brief taxi later and we were taking off.  We could see out of a very large doorway that was covered by a plexiglass shield and after a minute or so we were pretty high up and I figured we were ready to jump.  Wrong.  I glanced at my altimeter, and we were at 2,000 feet.  That’s when I started to get pretty nervous.  My instructor saw my glance and told me to relax, it would take us about 15 minutes to get to the proper level.  I glance around and all the instructors were sleeping.  One of them was doing his sixth jump of the day.

At this point I began to get irrationally terrified.  We hadn’t even gotten a damn parking meter to work!  We’d been lost twice on our way!  I was in the plane with my friend Troy, the worst luck guy to fly with in the world: every flight I’ve been on with him was a disaster and we’d been delayed, emergency landed, and seen people arrested on flights we were on together.

Finally we leveled out and we were high enough you could clearly see the ocean, on both sides of Florida. The solo jumper got the thumbs up, shrugged, then just hurled himself out the plane.  That’s when it finally hit me how stupid this was.  I’d had this idea that when you jump out of a moving plane you fly backwards with the wind.   But you don’t.  You drop like a damn rock, straight down.  All of the instructors were talking to my friends, giving them last minute instructions.  Mine wasn’t.  Instead, mine leaned over to one of my friends and shouted, “JUST REMEMBER.  THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS.  OH WAIT!  YOU’VE GOT TO GO!” and then cackled to himself as they knee-walked towards the opening.

Then it was our turn.  When you jump out you’re on your knees, strapped very tightly to your instructor behind you who controls the chute.  You kneel on the edge of the plane and look down and you can barely see the ground you’re so high.  Then you cross your arms, lean your head back where you can see the wing of the plane, and with no count the guy just hurls you forward and out of the plane.  It’s an amazingly terrifying experience, and I was just petrified as we hurtled down at remarkable speed.

One of the things they forget to tell you in the training that was probably the second scariest part of the experience was that at 120mph you have intense wind blowing in your face which makes it hard to catch your breath.  I’ve traveled at 160mph on a motorcycle around a track, and 185mph on straight roads, but that’s with a helmet on.  Stick your head out of the window of a car at 60mph and it can be hard to catch your breath.  I couldn’t catch my breath and I was thinking to myself, great, I’m going to hyperventilate, pass out, and this is going to be so dumb.

After about 15 seconds I managed to to figure out a way to breathe and then realized my brain was working very very slowly.  We were doing turns, and it didn’t feel like we were falling, but I could see the horizon getting closer.  My ears were popping like fireworks.  I tried to remember to look at my altimeter, but I couldn’t, and I lost all track of time.  It seemed like four seconds after we were out of the plane we had deployed the chute.  It got a lot quieter and less scary, until my instructor announced that he was going to make a few comfort adjustments.  He had me hold the chute controls, then started fiddling, and I suddenly dropped in my harness about four inches.  I mentioned we didn’t need to be comfortable.  More fiddling.  I drop another few inches.  Then we began steering the chute around.

Meanwhile, our aforementioned friend Troy had a nice freefall, but when the chute opened, they immediately began spinning around and around at high speeds.  Another member of our party could see the chute spinning like crazy and heard his instructor mention “Uh oh”.  Troy later recounted to us that he got dizzier and dizzier and just closed his eyes.  We don’t really know what happened, something about the chute not deploying quite right, but in the end we all made it just fine.

We glided in and the last bit that was unnerving was that the chutes are amazingly maneuverable, which means you can descend quite quickly if you want to, but as we came in for our landing it was pefect and like stepping off a curb.  My instructor actually apologized for not hittine the 5 foot sand bullseye perfectly.  I couldn’t have cared less.

I had a massive headache, I was shaky from adrenaline, I had slobber coating my entire face, and I couldn’t even really process what had just happened, but we were back without any problems! We all were very grateful to our instructors and the very nice and professional crew at SkyDiveMiami for a very memorable experience.

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One thought on “Bucket List Item Completed: Skydiving

  1. Sounds like you had fun!I mentioned to Troy earlier that if you’re having trouble breathing, it’s because you’re holding your breath. The tandem orientations I’ve seen generally include "if you can’t breathe, try screaming!" Freefall causes weird involuntary reactions in people, including locking up one’s diaphragm; screaming gets it moving again, which helps you breathe normally. After all, there’s plenty of air around :-)Did you enjoy the view under canopy? Was anyone nearby in freefall? Is there video? I want to know!As for Troy, seems he had a toggle fire. This is a minor malfunction, but opening into a spin can also be indicative of more serious malfunctions, and the need to troubleshoot it quickly makes it extra fun. Understanding a toggle fire requires some knowledge of the parachute system, so if you’re interested, read on.Modern ram-air canopies are proper wings, turning a parachutist (or two) into an auto-inflating nylon aircraft. There are several ways to control them, but the most common is "brakes". The parachute has a bunch of suspension lines, which (as you might guess) are charged with suspending your weight, and are carefully measured to ensure the parachute holds a wing shape. It also has two brake lines, one for the left and one for the right, which are connected to the very back of the wing.The brake lines are connected to "toggles", which are those yellow handles you see people using. Pulling the left toggle will curl the back left side of the wing downwards, greatly increasing drag, turning you left. The right toggle works the same way. Pulling down both toggles will curl down the back of the wing on both sides, which then causes the whole thing to pitch up and slow down. That’s great for any time you might want to fly slowly, including just before your feet hit the ground.Another time you might want to fly slowly is right after you deploy your parachute. (You don’t want to crash into anyone, right?) In order to fly slowly here, the brake lines are rigged such that they’re pulled down automatically when your parachute deploys. Grabbing the toggle and pulling it out of the holder releases this, allowing the parachute to fly forward at its full speed.A toggle fire refers to a scenario where one of the toggles is somehow released at opening. This can be due to packing, equipment maintenance, body position, and/or luck. The point is, the parachute has one brake released and the other one pulled down, and so it starts a diving spiral. Exciting! (This is especially exciting because the other reasons you might be spiraling at opening generally require a cutaway and reserve deployment.) However, if you realize you had a toggle fire, the solution is easy: release the other toggle, and you’ll level off and fly normally.

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