Both those jumps were tandem jumps. We were securely attached to professional Tandem Master skydivers who did all the work. We were basically just along for the ride. I’d say it was the ultimate “E” ticket, but only old-time patrons of Disneyworld would know what that means. Suffice to say it’s the coolest carnival ride you can imagine. And after you’ve jumped out of an airplane a few times, even the wildest roller coasters seem a bit tame.
As I mentioned in the first tale, when they saw how much we loved jumping they immediately began whispering in our ears, “AFF. AFF.” When we came back for another, the whispering got louder!
AFF: Accelerated Free Fall
CN and I returned to Hutch for the third (and certainly not last) time on September 6 (1997). This time we were taking the next step: beginning our skydiving training by taking the Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) course. This is one of the two main ways one can learn to skydive (the other is Static Line).
The difference is that in AFF you jump alone (although experts jump with you) and are responsible for pulling your own ripcord. With Static Line as cable is attached between you and the plane, and that cable pulls your ripcord. AFF sounded much more fun to us, and Hutch didn’t teach Static Line anyway.
The first part of AFF is a day-long classroom session that prepares you for the really stunning part of the course: jumping out of an airplane. Not just once, but at least seven times! Each of those seven jumps involves one or more tasks you must accomplish to pass the jump. If you fail (and live), you have to repeat the jump until you get it right.
If you start your class in the morning, and if the weather is good, you can get that first jump in the same day. Each of the next six steps requires a bit of training, so those jumps usually take place over a matter of days or weeks, depending on your schedule, the weather and the schedule at the drop zone.
AFF Level 1
Well, here I am in free fall again. This time, I’m not attached to anyone, but I do have a couple of experts along for the ride (and holding on to me). That’s Rob on the left, and Tim (Drop Zone co-owner) on the right (Tim’s the one sticking his tongue out at the camera). One of the things you learn and practice on the ground is the exit procedure that allows all three of you to exit the aircraft together.
All you have to do on this first jump is three Practice Rip Cord Pulls (PRCPs). This is a move where you go through the motions of pulling your ripcord, but don’t actually do it. It’s designed to demonstrate that you have your wits about you and can pull it for real when the time comes. Once you complete the PRCPs, you just enjoy the ride until you’re at 4,500 feet when you pull for real.
With regard to “ripcords” very few skydivers actually use a ripcord. Most sport jumpers have a pilot chute on a long piece of webbing that they throw out to the side. The wind catches the pilot chute (big time!), and it is the pilot chute pulling on the rig mechanism that actually releases and starts to deploy your parachute. However at the time I did my AFF, Hutch used ripcord-based rigs. Part of graduating out of AFF and into regular rigs involves learning how to toss out the pilot chute.
And out comes the chute. Rob lets go the instant I do that; you can see that he’s no longer holding on to me. If you look closely (click on the pictures for a bigger version), you can see the ripcord in my right hand. One element of this is that you need to remember to hang onto it; they charge you for a new one if you drop it. I love this picture. Brian (the camera man) caught the exact moment the chute’s bag leaps out of the rig and begins to deploy!
Tim sticks with me until the chute actually pulls me out of his hands. This is to insure that all goes well. If I had some sort of malfunction, he’d be there to help. Another reason for the guys sticking with you is in case you freak out. I’ve seen video of first time jumpers who started flailing about, or went fetal. Then the instructors really have their work cut out for them (part of their training involves learning to deal with such cases).
Of course, once my chute does open, I’m on my own until I reach the ground. But I do have a radio, so they can talk to me and help me land safely. You are responsible for a couple of things, though. First, once your chute deploys, you need to check to make sure it deployed correctly. If not, you need to deploy your reserve chute (and, of course, then check that one). Second, you need to fly yourself back to the drop zone and set up for landing. This is where the radio comes into play. Assuming it’s working. Assuming you can hear it clearly. Those aren’t always givens!
If CN and I thought the tandem jump was amazing, this was several orders of magnitude beyond amazing. We were hooked, but good. Eventually we both passed our AFF training and got our baby skydiver’s license. We even ended up buying our own rigs, which meant only paying for the (half) plane ride.
Sadly, the 90-minute drive combined with a new marriage and life in general made it impossible for us to continue with the sport. Eventually we had to give it up, but it will always be one of the greatest times of my life (both the skydiving and the marriage).
In the end, I made only 50 jumps total (including the tandem jumps and the AFF jumps). That may sound like a lot to someone who’s never tried it, but those in the sport make thousands of jumps. Watching experienced skydivers play in the sky is really a treat. That 100+ MPH wind allows all kinds of interesting acrobatics! To this day, when the sky is clear, I still look up and wish I was still jumping.