Sunday, August 12, 2012

Taking that Step...

The fact that I am writing this post indicates that I did not go splat when jumping out of the airplane... so I guess that ruins the suspense.

So this morning Eddy (the experienced skydiver) and Hans (another first timer --- whose wife now thinks he has  gone nuts)  and I drove out to the jump site at 10 am this morning, getting there at 11:30. (Here is the facebook page of the jump center).  The weather looked a bit questionable ---  lots of cloud cover.  But when we got there people were jumping --- I guess there were enough holes in the clouds to land easily.

We started by signing our lives away on the usual form that says "Yes, I know this is dangerous and it isn't your fault if I go splat".    Understandably the form was written in Swedish  (did I mention that I am in Stockholm this week?) so I needed translation.   Besides name and address, the first question was "Do you have any psychological problems".     I thought about writing "I'm about to jump out of an airplane, draw your own conclusions.."  That was apparently not the correct answer.

We put on jump suits and waited around for our turn.  While we waited, we watched other people jumping.  Since there is only one plane in earshot, you can easily hear it buzz overhead.  Then just before people start jumping out, they drop the engines so the plane is moving more slowly.   If you have sharp eyes, you can see the bodies free-falling towards earth (they drop very fast).   Even from the ground, you can hear the noise of the chutes opening, and then the people drift down towards the landing field surprisingly quickly.   They also seem to come in with quite a lot of speed for the landing, but this is intentional --- if you come in quickly in the horizontal direction, you can get a lot of lift and not have too much velocity in the down direction.   No one had any trouble hitting the landing field --- in fact it seemed like people could usually land within a few feet of their target area.

When we were called, the novices got a short bit of instruction.  These are tandem jumps so there really isn't much to learn.  You are strapped to an expert and just go along for the ride.  We  put on our harnesses and climbed into the Cessna Caravan.  The plane looked like it was held together with duct tape, but apparently it was just inspected a few weeks ago and found to be in perfect condition (despite its looks).  

There are no seats in the Cessna--- more like two long benches.  The people straddle the benches and basically sit in the lap of the person behind you.  With 15 people and all the gear and parachutes, it was pretty tight.

The plane took off just like any other plane, except it felt a bit strange not to have the usual instructions on how to tighten your seatbelt.  It took about 10 minutes for the plane to climb up to 4000 meters (13000 feet, or 2.5 miles).  I was surprisingly not all that nervous as we climbed.  The plane is not heated or pressurized, so it felt cold and you could feel it a bit in your ears.  On the way up it felt like any other plane ride except that it was very tight and everyone kept looking at their altimeter (many of the people had altimeters on their wrists) and the back of a Cessna is extremely noisy so you can only speak to the person next to you if you yell in their ears.

Besides Hans and I, there were two other people making tandem jumps.  (The woman sitting next to me was looking a bit green.)   Then there were a few people like Eddy making jumps on their own.

On the way up it seemed to me that there were two different cloud layers.  One low down layer was sparse --- at about 1500 meters height  --- just about at the level where we would open our chute.  Then there seemed to be another thicker layer around 3500 meters --- maybe going up to 4000 meters, where we would jump from.

When the plane slowed the engines for the jump, you put on your goggles, they open the side door of the plane, and people start jumping out into the abyss.  This is by far the most unnerving thing to see.   When someone jumps out, they fall away so fast it seems very unreal.     I think at that moment I started to look a bit worried.

The young woman just in front of me looked back, gave me a fist bump, and a few seconds later she disappeared out the door.   ( A well timed fist bump really does wonders for your morale. )

So it was my turn.  I shuffled over to the door with the tandem pilot strapped to me, put my legs out of the door and in an instant we were falling.

I think the reason why it isn't so frightening to jump out is because everything happens so fast.   The amount of time between the door opening and actually jumping out is barely a few seconds.     Maybe it was a bit easier not to be frightened, because in fact we couldn't see the ground from where we jumped --- there was a layer of clouds in-between us and the ground.

When you skydive, you (approximately) reach terminal velocity of about 120 miles per hour within roughly 10 seconds.  But within 3 seconds you are already at 60 miles per hour and the wind is already very strong.   So you really only have a very few seconds of feeling weightless.  Honestly, I didn't even notice the sensation of being weightless. It feels like diving off a diving board.   I rolled over in the air once or twice before we reached a stable position.  And then very quickly you don't feel anything like what you think of as "falling" anymore.  You feel like you are moving at constant speed (which after about 10 seconds ... you are).  Perhaps it is more like swimming.

Regarding the sensation of falling at 120 miles per hour: It is very windy. And it is very loud. And it is very cold.  And you get a lot of wind up your nose.  (Maybe that is only me because I have a large schnoz --- but many of the experienced skydivers had helmets which keep the wind out of their faces more effectively than goggles do, which suggests that they are trying to avoid wind up their nose as well).   During the fall, it is surprisingly hard to move and re-position at all --- the wind is exerting a LOT of force on your body, and any movement moves the force around in unexpected ways.  I suspect this all takes some getting used to.

Only a moment after we jumped, Eddy jumped after us.  He caught up with us and (being in very good control) he managed to move over to us and grab onto my arm --- we fell together for fifteen seconds or so before he separated again.

We were in free-fall for about 50 seconds.  At that point we had reached 1500 meters and the pilot deployed the chute.  The "jerk" was not as strong as I had suspected.  Apparently the chutes are designed not to yank you suddenly.   Once the chute had deployed, we watched Eddy deploy his (tandems have to deploy higher... so Eddy deployed well below us).  I think looking down and watching Eddy was the first moment when I realized I could see the ground below us.  I also noticed that my ears needed to pop a few times.

The pilot let me steer the canopy.  You have a left and right cord and you pull the left one to turn left and the right to turn right.  It is very easy to steer and it is very responsive.   You can turn in extremely tight circles and spin around in a completely nauseating way (which we did a lot of).   Apparently the tandem pilot mentioned later that he thought it was funny that I screamed "Holy Crap" when the parachute was spinning around.  I think from deploying the chute to landing on the ground is about three minutes or so.   You get a very good view of the area from the parachute.  And it is fun to be able to steer around in the clouds.

I was a bit surprised how fast the parachutes descend -- and how fast they move horizontally as this happens. I had this image in my mind of a parachute floating down gently, but that is not at all how it seems to work.  (I suppose it is gentle compared to descending at 120 miles per hour though).  

The tandem pilot took over the steering for the landing, aimed at the landing site and made a very soft (but fast in the horizontal direction) landing.  And so it was over.     No splat.


Unknown said...

Welcome back to blogging, and I'm glad to see that you're well unsplat (yes, this is my attempt at a new adverb).

The one thing which isn't clear from the post is whether or not you're planning to jump ever again.

Marilyn BG said...

Very cool description of free falling. Makes me want to try it myself. Did you feel like screaming while up there?

Steve said...

I don't think I felt like screaming in free-fall. Maybe just at the moment of jumping out of the airplane. But once you get to terminal velocity, the huge noise of the 120 mph wind would make screaming pointless -- I wouldn't have even been able to hear myself.