Orange, MA
August 22, 2004

Part of me considers my recent skydive experience as mounting evidence that I have become a bonafide adrenaline junkie. And as expected, it really is an amazing rush to jump out of an airplane at 13,500 feet. But after eight hours of class, including a full assessment of the risk and consideration of every possible contingency, the idea of jumping out of a plane really doesn't seem at all unreasonable.

Generally speaking, people are notoriously bad at assessing risk. I'll often return from a rock climbing or ice climbing excursion to have a coworker tell me, "that sounds awfully dangerous," as he puffs away at a cigarette. Somehow, retorting that 400,000 Americans die every year from smoking related illnesses just doesn't sink in. Statistically speaking, approximately one in 100,000 jumps is fatal. In contrast, about one in 6000 Americans die each year in auto accidents. In other words, you'd need to make about 17 jumps a year for skydiving to be as dangerous as driving.

Tomas and I decided to try a jump with the MIT Skydiving Club when we each independently stumbled on an announcement for an upcoming training session. The classes were offered through Jumptown in Orange, MA - which, as it turns out, is a highly regarded dropzone.

There are three basic options for a first-time jumper. In tandem skydiving, the jumper is strapped to the chest of an experience professional who is in control for the duration of the skydive. This is a popular method for one-time jumpers, as it only requires about 20 minutes of training and includes about one minute of free-fall. Static-line skydivers jump on their own, but get almost zero free-fall time, as their parachute is automatically deployed as they exit the plane. Tomas and I chose accelerated freefall (AFF), in which the skydiver exits the plane accompanied by two instructors. The student then performs a few exercises in the air to demonstrate stability and altitude awareness, and finally deploys his parachute and guides himself back to the landing site. AFF is the fastest and most popular way to obtain a skydiving license.

On the Thursday before the jump, Tomas and I attended a four-hour class with Jumptown instructor Joe Moore, a Boston native with a distinctive local accent. Joe demonstrated proper form with a "hahd ahch" of the back, discussed the need for "wadah geah" in case of a river landing, and even covered contingency plans for circumstances where landing in the "powah lines" is unavoidable. The training was excellent, and by the time the class ended, we were all remarkably comfortable with the idea of jumping out of a plane.

On Saturday, we drove out to Orange for four more hours of class to cover the remainder of the material and get some hands-on practice with the gear. Unfortunately, heavy thunderstorms prevented us from jumping, and we were forced to return again on Sunday - this time greeted by soaring temperatures and a cloudless sky.

I boarded the plane around 1pm for the 45 minute trip up to 13,500 feet. As we climbed, Joe pointed out the landing zone, as well as some landmarks to help me navigate my way back to the airport. The twin otter aircraft fits about 20 skydivers, all of whom looked remarkably comfortable, despite being seated right next to an enormous open door with winds whipping by at over 100 mph. As we climbed above 10,000 feet, it was surreal to watch the first set of sykydivers pour out of the plane without any hesitation whatsoever.

When it came time to jump, I was understandably nervous, but felt completely prepared. In an established tradition, my instructor asked, "Are you ready to skydive?"

Without hesitation, I responded, "Ready!"

I propped myself in the door, with my head on the outside and an instructor on either side of me. Competing with the howling winds, I shouted to the instructor at my right, "Check in!"

He gave me the thumbs up, and shouted "Okay!" in response. Next, I turned to the instructor at my left.

"Check Out!"


Keeping my head up and my hips forward, I shouted in sequence, "Prop! Up! Down!" And finally, leaning forward out of the planed, I yelled, "Arch, Arch, Arch!" as I fell into weightlessness, arching my back to form a stable falling position.

I then transitioned into the routine that I had practiced dozens of times on land. I looked toward the horizon to check my stability, and then at the altimeter on my left wrist. Turning to the instructor at my left, I shouted out "12,500 feet!" He gave me a hand signal to arch more. Turning to my right, I yelled again, "12,500 feet!" The instructor gave me another hand signal - this time to pull in my legs a little closer to my body.

When I got the thumbs-up from both instructors, I started my practice pulls. Bringing my left hand over my head for stability, I slowly brought my right hand down to touch ripcord. I then returned to my stable falling position, and repeated the sequence twice more. With this done, I again checked my horizon and altitude and checked in with my instructors.

With nothing left to do until 6000 feet, I enjoyed the rest of the freefall, checking my altimeter freqently. At just above 6000 feet, I locked on to my altimiter to prepare for deployment. At 5500 feet, I waved my hands above my head to alert any skydivers who may be above me, reached to my right side, and threw my pilot chute into the wind as my instructors let go to continue their descent.

"One one-thousand, two one-..."

"Whoosh!" Sure enough, just as Joe had said, if the parachute deploys properly, you won't even make it to three.

I looked over my head to see a nicely shaped canopy. Reaching up, I grabbed the brakes and pulled them down to test for control.

The radio strapped to my chest came to life, "The canopy looks good. Try a right turn."

Pulling all the way down on my right brake, I took a fast, 360-degree turn to the right.

"And now to the left," I heard from the radio.

Pulling on the left brake, I repeated the procedure.

"And now try a practice stage flare."

Pulling both brakes to the middle of my chest, I could feel the parachute slow its descent and forward speed.

"And flare," came the voice, as I pushed the brakes all the way down, causing the parachute to rise even more.

"Looks good. You're right in the holding area, so just hang out there for a while."

The textbook component of the jump was over, and for the first time, a broad smile came to my face as I scanned the earth below, taking in all of the sights. I let out a yell, swinging my legs in the air.

When I reached 1500 feet, the radio spoke up again. "The landing area is directly downwind from you now. Start making your way toward us for a standard left-hand landing pattern."

At 1000 feet, I passed adjacent to the van with the radio operator, taking a 90-degree turn to the left at about 600 feet, and another left turn at 300 feet.

In the featureless field, it was harder than I expected to judge my speed and altitude as I approached the ground. At about 10 feet, the radio operator said, "Stage flare," and I brought my hands to my chest, slowing my descent. With only a few inches to go, I flared the canopy. My feet gently touched the ground, and I walked forward a few steps as my parachute collapsed beside me.

As I picked up my parachute, I was all smiles. The radio operator congratulated me on a solid landing and I boarded the van to return to the main facility.

By the time I got back, Tomas' plane was taxiing to the runway. I dropped off my gear and then took the van back to the landing zone, hoping to get photos of Tomas on his landing.

About twenty minutes later, I surveyed the sky as an array of parachutes unfurled overhead. The radio operator spotted the rainbow student parachute and turned on his radio.

"Tomas, test your brakes by taking turn a to your right."

The rainbow parachute continued straight ahead.

"Tomas, if you can hear me, take a turn to your right."

Still no response. The radio must not be working.

"Well, your bearing looks okay, so just keep heading that direction."

Meanwhile, Tomas - who was descending on a different rainbow parachute had thankfully figured out that the radio operator was directing his attention at the wrong skydiver. He was too far from the designated landing site to cross the runway above the 1000-foot FAA limit, so he started to plan for an alternate landing site - a football field next to the Jumptown facilities.

A few minutes later, the radio operator figured out what had happened as we spotted Tomas' canopy descending its last few hundred feet. But he was too far away to really provide any useful instructions.

Tomas took it all in stride, negotiating a nice, smooth landing about 100 yards from Jumptown. One of his instructors landed right next to him, congratulating him on his landing. Tomas gathered up his parachute and headed back to the building.

At the end of the day, Tomas and I were both happy to check off the box next to "Jump out of an airplane" on our respective life to-do lists. We're both interested in eventually pursuing a full skydiving license, but that will have to wait until we have both the time and money to pursue our adventurous tendencies.

Rob, geared up for his jump
Going through the routine on land
Boarding the twin otter
Rob, descending the last 100 feet...
...for a nice soft landing
Tomas, after his jump
Melanie, practicing on land

© Copyright 2004 by Rob Jagnow.