Two Years of Skydiving

16 Jan 2018

Category: life

Tags: life

On July 13, 2013 I did a tandem skydive. It took me two and a half years to finally get around to signing up for a first jump course, the first step on the way to getting a skydiving license and being able to skydive without being strapped to someone else. A long series of events led me to be staying at my brother's house in Gilbert, AZ during the winter of 2015/2016. I made the decision that it was now or never to get into skydiving, so I went to the internet and found out that there was a dropzone in Arizona about an hour from my brother's house in Eloy. The website was not great and looked like it was mostly for tandems. I had a bit of trouble figuring out exactly what I needed to do to sign up to learn how to jump solo. At the time, I thought this place didn't really have its shit together considering they only offer first jump courses once a month and to sign up you have to call and hope someone is there who can help you out. I managed to schedule myself into the course on January 14th, 2016. I rode my motorcycle out in the freezing desert morning to arrive at 8am for my course.

It was a very non-descript location, a few trailers, signs for where to go if you are coming to do a tandem, and a wind tunnel set back in the distance. I figured that I just needed to set aside any preconcevied notions and be open to whatever was normal in this environment. I decided that I was going to pay upfront for the entire A license which at Eloy means ground school, ten minutes in the tunnel, and 25 jumps, most with a coach. This is dependent on you passing the different levels as the amount you pay allows you to fail I think two or three levels before you would have to pay more. I did this to prevent myself from deciding after a couple jumps that I didn't like it and didn't want to continue. I had mixed feelings during my tandem, there were both really high, great emotions as well as some discomfort mostly during the canopy flight. I have learned some things since then to know that the harness was not adjusted properly so that the discomfort was mostly due to my instructor not doing things quite right.

Skydiving is an expensive sport. The biggest hurdle is getting your license and getting your first set of gear. Luckily I had a lot of savings from working at Facebook, and no fixed costs at the time, so that I could put down the $4k+ required to go from zero to A license. The course was my first introduction to what I see as a dichotomy in skydiving. This is a dangerous activity. You have to take action and be mentally sharp to save your life. If you lock up mentally or physically, there is a significant chance of serious injury or death. However, intelligence is not actually what is required to operate in that environment. You need to be able to assess situations and respond quickly, but that isn't the same thing as being analytical in a non-pressure situation. So on one hand you might think to yourself, gee I'm smarter than these guys I should be able to handle these situations. You can answer all the questions in the classroom about what to do in certain malfunction scenarios. But, on the other hand, once you are out the door, the important part is your ability to handle sensory overload and still have a functioning brain. So you might think you're smarter than some skydivers, and you may very well have more raw intelligence, but that means jack shit when it comes to your initial ability to skydive. It teaches you not to judge people based on your preconceptions of what matters. There are certain aspects where intelligence will benefit you, but being humble and teachable is more important than anything else. There is necessarily a physical component so being athletic is also clearly useful, but only insomuch as it does not make you overconfident.

My previous experience in different sports has actually been arguably detrimental to my skydiving. I learned in those sports that you push as hard as you can and when you fail, you might get hurt, but you just get up, dust yourself off, and try again. This works in football, track & field, triathlon, etc. In skydiving this can get you killed or seriously injured. It requires a lot more mental assessment and skill building within your limits because the consequences of going beyond yourself are much worse. Skydiving does still have a saying that "if you are going to be dumb you better be tough." There are plenty of military attitudes where people just push it and walk it off. But as you progress through the sport, you only make it out the other side if you learn to be smart about managing risk as well as being lucky and tough when you invariably do make mistakes.

The first few jumps to get my license were an overwhelming experience. You dirt dive repeatedly, you recite the whole plan to your instructors several times before you get out the door, you try to mentally prepare yourself and visualize what you are going to do. But once you make that exit, usually a good chunk of the plan went out of my head. I always got the major points, I kept my eye on my altimeter, and I always pulled on time. But sometimes I'd forget what I was supposed to do next and it would take me a little longer than I'd like to remember. When you get down, the instructor asks you to tell them how the jump went. I learned later this is a tool for assessing the student on their own understanding of what is good and bad. Making mistakes is okay, no one is a natural born skydiver, but you have to be able to recognize those mistakes. If you think you are amazing and you are telling the instructor they are wrong, you aren't going to last long.

I failed one level during AFF, which is the first 7 jumps. It was the 7th jump. I went from overwhelmed to budding confidence to the beginning of complacency in 7 jumps. The jump itself went exactly as planned. The exit went well, the manuevers were acceptable. But when it came time to turn and track away, I decided that I had this shit down and didn't need to take my time and be precise. As I came to about 170 degrees of my turn I didn't think I needed to stop and just threw my arms and legs into a tracking position. I ended up tipping over headdown but asymmetric so I also started spinning. I'm over 200 pounds so when I point directly at the ground, I get going pretty fast. My instructor was quite a bit smaller than me, so while he chased after me, I had a jump start on him and was taking it down faster than he could catch up. I stopped the tracking, but thought I needed to track for a few more seconds so threw myself back into this stupid spin. At that point I realized it was probably time to pull and I didn't know why I was spinning, but priority number one was to pull so that is what I did. I ended up with a perfect canopy over my head. I flew my pattern and landed well. During the debrief my instructor was not thrilled with what I had done. We talked through it, I agreed that I failed obviously, and I was a little bit shaken up. This was my first skydiving lesson in getting back on the horse, because he put us on a 20 minute call so we could go back up and do it again. I learned my lesson, went up, and passed.

It took me about a week to get through the 25 jumps to get my A license. It would have been less but there were a few wind days and they force you to only do so many jumps a day while still a student in Eloy. I now see that as a great thing, but at the time I thought I could handle more jumps a day. I learned a lot about my body and flying a canopy. I was so happy that I had paid upfront for the whole thing, because although I don't think I would have quit, I might have tried to take some time off to think things through. Comparing my initial progression with some of the other people I started with taught me two things. First, currency is king in skydiving. The more often you jump, the quicker you learn. However, the flip side is that overall time in the sport also matters as it isn't just the jumps that matter. You learn and progress also during the time spent between jumping days. You learn things by talking to people around the dropzone. It takes the mind and body some time to assimilate new information.

I don't think I'm going to write my current memory of my entire skydiving life up to this point right now, although that might be nice to have written down. So forgive me if I jump around a little bit. After I got my license, I was hooked. I knew that I wanted to try wingsuiting after seeing a co-worker at Facebook who did it while we worked together. I thought it looked super cool so I knew I wanted to try it. I consciously made the decision not to broadcast exactly what I wanted to do to everyone as I quickly saw there are totally those guys who show up to a first jump course saying they want to get into wingsuit base jumping because they saw it on YouTube. I was open to what the sport had to offer as I had zero knowledge of anything in skydiving besides seeing skysurfing in the X-Games and wingsuiting from someone I had known. I learned about FS and freeflying, I learned about tracking and angle flying, about high performance canopy piloting. I learned about CReW and the wind tunnel. It turns out skysurfing isn't really a thing anymore.

I started staying on the dropzone in Eloy first in the bunk house and then in a tent. I got my first rig around 60 jumps. It was a 1998 Vector 3 with a Spectre 210. I bought a brand new Cypres AAD, had that installed, and then set about jumping the shit out of it. I bounced around different diciplines. I wanted to try everything with the goal of wingsuiting still on the horizon. You are required to make 200 jumps before you can put on a wingsuit so I knew that I could have fun doing other things until I got there. My initial goal after I saw how quickly I got my A license was to try and get into a wingsuit by my birthday on July 17, 2016. I ended up getting to 200 jumps in April because I was living on the dropzone and Eloy is one of the busiest dropzones in the world. I later learned that my initial feelings about the dropzone were unfounded because it actually is one of the top places to jump in the world.

In my two years since my first jump course, I have done 738 skydives, 30 BASE jumps, and 5 hours in the tunnel. I have 106 belly jumps, 100 freefly jumps, 100 tracking/angle jumps (40 in a tracking suit, 60 slick), 14 hop n pops, 3 high pulls, and 415 wingsuit jumps. I have jumped in 4 states in the US, 4 countries (USA, Belgium, South Africa, Botswana), which means I've skydived on 3 continents. I have jumps out of 10 different types of aircraft including a C130. I have learned an incredible amount in this short period of time, the biggest thing I've learned is how much there is to do and how far I still have to go. My jump numbers are altogether decent for two years in the sport, but I've been surrounded by people from the very beginning with 5000+ skydives and hundreds of hours in the tunnel. I have always tried to stay within myself when it comes to thinking about progression. I have made a few mistakes along the way, gotten hurt a few times, but I have come out the other side hungry to learn more and more keenly aware of the need for risk management, honest self assessment, and the need to fight complacency while maintaining currency.

Skydiving is also how I met the love of my life who is now my wife. I would like to think that we would have met and fallen in love regardless of this sport, but that probably isn't true. It was just the right series of events that led us to meet and spend time together. For that reason alone I feel I have gotten out of skydiving more than I could ever possibly give back. It is because of this that I feel the need to help out anyone coming along after me as much as I can. I try to be as open and welcoming as I can to people making their way in skydiving. I know that my experience was made enjoyable and I stuck with it because of the people I have met along the way. The organizers at Skydive Arizona and Skydive Perris helped me to understand that ego is toxic. Most of them showed me that you can be a ninja who does rad shit and also help noobs progress and have fun. As soon as you start thinking you are too good for something, I don't want to associate with you. You probably are really good, but so are plenty of other people who are both better than you and more than willing to be cool to everyone that is out there trying to have a good time. I learned that the people who showed up from out of town that were hot shit at their home dropzone because they had 1000 jumps were quickly put in their place by the locals with 10000 jumps. The same locals that would give you advice if you ask for it and have a drink with you at the end of the day regardless of your jump numbers. I have learned a lot about cutting out the bullshit in your life. Skydiving has been an emotional, mental, and physical journey. One where I have grown and learned about the great equalizers that exist in the world.

I am looking forward to many more years of checking my ego at the door and having fun with the vibrant community that makes up skydiving. I have a few goals for the next couple years within the sport, so this is probably the best place to hold myself accountable. I would like to start competing. For wingsuiting this primarily means racing, so I have started to get into performance flying, and my goal is to compete at nationals within the next two years. I would also like to broaden my horizons outside of wingsuiting as I have started to get a little overly developed in that area at the detriment of other aspects of skydiving. Therefore, I am thinking of trying out 4 way FS and/or 2 way MFS. I want to get into the tunnel and progress my freeflying skills because sadly time and money have been in short supply for that particular endeavor. If I can get another 5-10 hours in the tunnel so that I am statically solid both headdown and headup, then I think it will just be a matter of finding someone who wants to train MFS with. I know that Perris has a glut of people willing to work with me on FS so when the time comes for that I am sure I can pick that up and try it out. Most of my prior belly jumps were screwing around with only the occasional turning of points. I did my coach course recently and realized that my belly flying skills are shit, so I would like to spend a bit of time honing that skillset if only so that I can be a more well rounded skydiver.

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