Why I jump out of airplanes (2)
Archived Articles 23 Nov 2007 Tiiu HaamerEWR
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Today I am approaching my 700th skydive, and it has been an exhilarating journey, albeit not without some bumps and bruises along the way. Back when I was a student, and jumping rented student gear, I hadn’t yet learned how to pack my own parachute. The drop zone (henceforth referred to as “DZ”) paid qualified people to pack student parachutes.

When deploying a parachute, you pull on a handle (or a smaller leather hackey if you are experienced) and that handle pulls a small “pilot chute” out of a pouch on your rig. That pilot chute catches the wind and then pulls open the flaps of the rig on your back. When those flaps are pulled open, the main parachute comes streaming out.

I was still a beginner when one of the packers managed to jam the pilot chute so tightly into its pouch that when I was in freefall, I couldn’t for the life of me pull it out. Luckily I had practiced my emergency procedures and pulled my emergency handle, which deployed my second, reserve parachute. That was the lucky part. The unlucky part was that the emergency chute was an old fashioned, round one, and these types of parachutes drop down straighter and faster than the modern square parachutes which are now the norm. I landed hard and broke my ankle. Being on crutches was not fun- especially because I couldn’t skydive for six weeks.

I had always fantasized about freefalling in the dark and the following year my DZ scheduled some night jumps. I watched the other jumpers land in a lighted area and figured there’d be no problem. As luck would have it, the winds picked up after my plane took off, and after my freefall through the night sky, my parachute opened, only to start drifting away from the DZ and the lighted area. Everything was pitch black. I couldn’t see any buildings or terrain.

In order to land a parachute safely you have to pull on some toggles, which puts the brakes on the forward movement and allows you to step to earth gently. With regular canopy flight you can be travelling as fast as forty kilometers per hour in a forward descent. I was trying to estimate when I should pull on my toggles when I met the ground with a full, unexpected impact. I couldn’t get up, the pain was so bad. When I finally struggled to my feet I was horrified to see the blood collecting under my knee. I managed to drive myself to the hospital and was even more horrified to see my knee had swollen up like a balloon, filled with a colorful mixture of blood and fluid. But the scariest part of all was having the doctor insert a needle to drain it all.

This time I had suffered a torn quadriceps muscle and it taught me that soft tissue injuries are even worse than broken bones. My skydiving activities for the next several months were relegated to earning some extra dollars packing parachutes for other student jumpers. (By this time I had learned how to pack both student parachutes and my own.)

My first drop zone was great from a social viewpoint, but somewhat lacking in qualified instructors. I had a problem with body position in freefall, and after numerous attempts to correct it, the DZ gave up on me after squeaking me by with a “self-supervised” rating: one that allowed me to jump solo, but not with other people. Believe it or not, exiting solo from an airplane and watching the ground gradually get closer as you’re in freefall gets somewhat boring after a while, especially if you jump at the same drop zone, and are eyeing the same terrain each time.

I became very frustrated watching other people jump together in twos, threes, and fours, making different formations in freefall. Then I met a genuine professional instructor from another DZ and hired him to train me. We flew down to Florida and my journey as a skydiving student began in earnest. Up to now, I couldn’t even exit an airplane without the prop blast throwing me into some sort of spin or cartwheel. My first big breakthrough happened when John, my coach, taught me how to dive out of an airplane head first, and maintain a proper heading toward other jumpers without being blown off course.

The second breakthrough happened when the two of us went up on a sunset load and he and I freefell for over a minute. As I watched the video of our jump, taken by a camera flyer who flew slightly above us, I saw for the first time, a picture of myself successfully diving out of a twin otter, flying down toward my instructor, approaching him slowly and then proceeding to successfully turn myself into all the two-person formations that we had planned in advance.

For three years in a row, I hired John for a week and we flew to Florida, California, and Arizona to continue my training. He was a tough taskmaster and didn’t always have the best people skills, but he taught me how to fly, how to make formations with other flyers, and above all, how to be a safer skydiver.

I was ready to graduate from small skydiving formations to somewhat bigger ones when life intervened. Having lived in Alberta for 17 years, I was getting tired or the long cold winters. My piano students were growing up and leaving for university and my workload was becoming dangerously low – hardly conducive to financing any future skydiving excursions! Also, I missed my parents. It took only a single phone call to my mom to make the decision to move back to Ontario.

Because of the move, my skydiving had to be put on hold. The focus was on finding work, saving up some money for a house, and generally building a new life. But at the back of my mind was a deep passion for the sport, and a desire to get back in the air as soon as possible. A couple of summers later I ventured out to a new DZ close to my house and discovered to my dismay that I had forgotten how to exit an airplane correctly. I fired off a long, plaintive e-mail to my former coach, John, explaining how my former difficulties had recurred and how I desperately needed to get current again. No immediate response, but a few weeks later a brief response: “Florida or Arizona?”
(To be continued.)
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