Back in February my Mom and I took a trip to Orlando Florida, and while we did not see Tony Orlando, we did have a very fun time. Since we were there for an entire week, and had relatively few plans, we started looking around for fun things to do, and I began thumbing through one of those glossy advertisement amalgimations that seem to magically leap into the pockets of of unsuspecting tourists everywhere. Swamp boat tours, Disney World, a million and one places to eat, and… Wait a minuet… Skydiving!
Not really thinking my Mom would be into it, I asked her jokingly what she thought about going skydiving. I nearly had to pick my jaw up off the floor when she said that she had “always wanted to jump out of a perfectly good airplane”. Immediately I picked up the phone, called them, and asked about how we could get involved. The next day, after two hours of driving across the flat, hurricane battered fields of central Florida, we pulled into the coolest little airport village I have ever seen. A huge tenting area to the left for free camping, showers directly ahead, a skydiving pro shop to the back, and a deck with a snack bar to the right, I realized that Z-Hills is pretty much village of skydiving gypsies. And I loved it!
Now it turns out that most people decide to go on a tandem skydive for their first time. The instructors call this “slinging meat”, which is a good name for it, since it’s really just a matter of the instructor strapping you to himself and making sure he has a large enough parachute for two. The passenger is pretty much just along for the ride in a tandem, and since I’m really not much of an “along for the ride” kinda guy, I decided instead to enter into the AFF (Accelerated Free Fall) program, and sit through the 9+ hour ground school so that I could jump, more or less, by myself.
Ground school for skydivers, it turns out, is about three hours of how to make a safe skydive, and six hours of what can go wrong, during which time, I started to get a little twitchy. It really would not have been that bad, had it not been for the video depicting all the various types of chute failures that can happen. To be perfectly honest, I started feeling a bit relieved as we looked out the window at the end of ground school to see winds gusting past 14 MpH, which is the limit for student skydivers. Relieved at least until I tried to go to sleep that night. It was three days before the weather improved enough to make the jump, which to me, translated into three nights of restless sleep and cold sweats.
The morning came to make the jump, and as we drove out to the drop zone, I was resolved to jump, but still feeling nervous. I was quickly assigned an instructor who who wrote my name on the board, and helped me get my gear together. I went through some final training, geared up, and climbed into the most uncomfortable airplane I have ever been in. Not that Twin Super Otters are uncomfortable as a rule, it’s just that they get that way when you remove all the seats, and cram more than twenty sweaty skydivers into them. As we climbed to altitude, I started thinking about how I would NOT be coming down with the aircraft, and the reality of what I was doing hit me more than ever. Still I was resolved, and as I do before a big technical dive, I meditated my way through every aspect of the experience that was to come.
My instructor indicated that we were getting close to our jump altitude, and I donned my helmut and goggles. We made our way up to the open door and I was suddenly faced with the moment of truth and a lot of wind. As instructed, I rocked back and fourth two times, and on the third rock, we exited the safety of that miserable airplane.
I had now jumped from a large airplane and was playing chicken with a small planet. All I could think of was how much I hoped my chute would open cleanly and that I would not have to go to my reserve as the poor people in those terrifying videos had. From what I have been told, studies have shown that a skydiver’s heart rate goes through the roof just before jumping, then drops a bit, and goes back through the roof again when it’s time to pull. I have no idea what my heart rate was doing through the jump, but I do know that it settled down quite a lot after I pulled and felt my chute open!
The rest of the skydive was much more interesting that I had thought it would be. Flying the canopy was a lot of fun, and getting into the landing pattern was an interesting challenge. Overall, however, the approach and landing went well, and I while I did not “stand it up”, I was quite happy to be back on the ground.
That night I learned just how much fun Z-Hills can be! Since I had passed my AFF level 1 jump, I was traditionally obligated to buy a case of beer at the dropzone bar for everyone to share, and we drank it around one of the biggest bonfire I’ve seen. I have six more jumps to make before I’m cleared for solo jumping. Then some coaching and a some logged solo jumps should get me my “A” license. The plan, as it stands, it to head back next winter and get as far as I can towards my license. I can’t think of a better way to spend a week in Florida.
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