I have been skydiving for just about four years, having started in the summer
of 1998, and in that time I have made nearly 400 jumps. An experienced and
dedicated skydiver will often make upwards of ten to fifteen jumps in a day, and
often jump three to four days a week. By these standards, my jump count is
rather low, but my time in the sport has given me some insight into how to make
one's first jump a successful one.
But first, the fine print: Sport parachuting
or skydiving is a potentially dangerous activity that can result in injury or
death. EACH INDIVIDUAL PARTICIPANT, REGARDLESS OF EXPERIENCE, HAS FINAL
RESPONSIBILITY FOR HIS OR HER OWN SAFETY. THE
FOLLOWING INFORMATION IS PRESENTED IN THE HOPE THAT IT WILL BE USEFUL; HOWEVER,
THE AUTHOR MAKES NO WARRANTIES OR REPRESENTATIONS AND ASSUMES NO LIABILITY
CONCERNING THE VALIDITY OF ANY ADVICE, OPINION, OR RECOMMENDATIONS EXPRESSED IN
THIS MATERIAL. ALL INDIVIDUALS RELYING ON THIS MATERIAL DO SO AT THEIR OWN RISK.
Many readers may be asking why they would want to do such an unnatural thing
as jump out of a perfectly good airplane. Ask that question of anyone
who's made a skydive, and they will likely recite the common mantra,
"there's no such thing as a perfectly good airplane." But I
firmly believe that skydiving is not for everyone. Most importantly, if
you have health problems that could be exacerbated by a large surge in
adrenaline or a shock to the torso equivalent to jumping off a picnic table, you
should seriously reconsider or consult a doctor before heading to the drop
zone. Second in importance is that you have to want to skydive.
Consider your motivations; if you're heading to the drop zone because you were
pressured into it in any way, turn around right now, go home, maybe pick up a
copy of Drop Zone on the
way if you're feeling like you missed out. In the end, you would only
be spending a lot of money and misery in order to impress someone.
Be aware that in many countries there are restrictions on the minimum age one has to
be in order to make a jump. In most of the U.S., you must be 18 years old to
make a tandem skydive and 16 to make an AFF jump (see below). Many drop
zones also have a maximum weight restriction for safety reasons.
Given all that, the possible reasons for making your first skydive are
numerous. Some people go for the adrenaline rush. Some go for the
beauty of seeing the unobstructed planet from 13,500 feet up. And some go
for the simple reason that getting out of one's element gives a person a new
perspective, and forces her to grow as a person. When one is plummeting to
the earth at upwards of 120 miles per hour, the fact that the dog ate your
homework yesterday doesn't seem so important. Ultimately, everyone shows
up for different reasons.
Now, motivations in hand, you're ready to set up your jump. There are
three factors to consider: the type of jump you wish to make, the location of
the drop zone, and the price. The information below refers mainly to
skydiving operations in the U.S. and Canada, although skydiving organizations in
other countries, if they exist, generally operate on similar principles.
For your first jump, you can choose from three types of skydives. By
far the most common is the tandem skydive. This essentially involves
strapping a large jumpmaster to your back who will subsequently push you out the
door of the aircraft, keep you stable in the air, deploy the parachute,
and pilot you safely to the ground. Tandem jumpmasters are fully trained
to deal with all aspects of the skydive and any malfunctions which might occur,
and you will only need to go through about a half hour of simple procedural
instruction before making your jump.
You can also make an AFF jump. AFF refers to the Accelerated Free Fall
program, which is the course for new skydivers recommended by the
United States Parachute Association (USPA), an
organization which develops safety standards and training programs for member
drop zones, as well as representing the skydiving community to the Federal
Aviation Administration and lobbying on it's behalf. Successful completion of this
jump will start you on the path towards your skydiving license. You will
be wearing your own (rented) parachute in freefall with a jumpmaster on either
side to stabilize you. You will also deploy the parachute yourself,
steer the canopy to the ground, and land all under your own control. As
such, you will need to go through much more training than the tandem (expect six
to eight hours of class time), learning the procedures of the skydive, the
basics of body flight, how a parachute works and how to deploy it (dealing with
any malfunctions that may occur), how to fly your canopy in a proper landing
pattern, and how to land. You will be required to complete a series of maneuvers
in freefall, which will convince your jumpmasters that you can fly stably, that
you will know where your ripcord is when it comes time to deploy, and that you
are aware of your altitude at all time. It can be a lot to think about for
a first jump, and for this reason you may be better off doing a tandem for your
first jump in order to get used to the basic sensation of freefall, even if
you're convinced that you want to complete AFF. Remember, you will not
save any money if you have to repeat your first AFF jump.
Finally, some drop zones still offer static line jumps. In a static
line jump you are wearing your own parachute, but it's ripcord is attached to
the jump plane via a long cord, so that when you jump out your parachute will deploy
automatically. You will usually be jumping from a much lower altitude, and
you don't get much freefall time. In times past, students were required to
complete a series of static line jumps as part of their training, but this
system has been mostly made obsolete by AFF.
Next, you'll want to find a drop zone (DZ). Depending where you live,
you may have only one option within reasonable distance. You might not
even have that, in which case you had best contact your local travel
agent. But most major metropolitan areas have two or three choices, and it
may be wise to consider driving a little farther to get a better value.
Start by consulting the USPA's drop zone
directory. Not all DZ's are USPA
members, but those that are are required to adhere to a minimum of safety
standards, making it wise to restrict your choices. Also, if you have
friends who have made jumps in the past, be sure and solicit their
recommendations in order to choose the friendliest, most safety-conscious DZ
available to you.
You will also want to consider price in your decision. A tandem jump
will cost you $175, give or take $20, which includes the cost of renting the
parachute, jet fuel for yourself and your tandem master, and some profit for him
and the DZ. This price usually gets you a jump from 13,500 feet, and lower
altitudes (often depending on the capabilities of the aircraft) will be
cheaper. You can also often arrange discounts for large groups. An
AFF jump is more expensive (you're paying for a half day of ground
school plus jet fuel for another jumpmaster), and prices can vary widely
depending on the altitude of the jump, the quality of the rental gear, and the
wage of the jumpmasters. Given equal confidence in two DZ's, go ahead and
choose the one with the lowest price for the type of jump you want to do.
Keep in mind that some DZ's are more oriented towards making money from tandem
jumps as opposed to students and experienced recreational skydivers. This
may influence your decision if you think you want to go through the entire AFF
In addition, many DZ's offer video services, which usually cost around $60 to
have a third jumper videotape (and sometimes take still photos) of your first
skydive. The decision to get video is a personal one and depends largely
on your motivations for making the skydive in the first place. It can
often be great fun to look back on your first skydive, especially if you go on
to become an experienced skydiver, but keep in mind that you're also doing the
DZ the favor of advertising when you show the video to your friends.
Be sure and call the DZ at least a couple of days before you intend to jump
so that they can plan for your arrival. Many drop zones get very busy on
summer weekends and this will help them out immensely. Sundays are usually
a bit more calm, and jumping during the week is a possibility this can make the
process go much more smoothly.
At this point, you're ready to jump. But it is a good idea to spend
some time preparing yourself mentally for the skydive. The more you know
about what to expect, the better your mind will be able to deal with the new
sensations you encounter in the skydive, and the more you will be able to enjoy
the experience. If you have any friends who are experienced skydivers (or
"upjumpers"), they will be your best resource for this. Ask them
to show you how a parachute system works, and borrow any skydiving video they
have. Most upjumpers will be more than happy to brag about their
exploits. However, while upjumpers are generally very outgoing and
friendly people, there are simply not enough of us to be friends with everyone
out there, so your best bet otherwise is to get your hands on some video
(hopefully more realistic than Point Break). This page has some
skydiving clips to check out. In addition, the USPA has a good page of
frequently asked questions, and I've also listed answers to some
other questions that I often hear.
What will it feel like?
Contrary to intuition, skydiving does not feel like falling. When you
initially jump out of the plane, you will feel a slight sensation of falling,
but this is mitigated by the force of the wind due to the forward speed of the
aircraft. You will reach terminal velocity after about six seconds, after
which you will feel no acceleration until deployment. And unlike
bungee-jumping, there is no ground rush, as you are simply too far away from the
ground to notice things getting bigger. This is why the word
"flying" is so often used to describe a jump.
How long will my jump take?
The ride to altitude takes 10-25 minutes depending on the type of
plane. Your freefall will last 30-60 seconds depending on the
altitude. Your canopy ride will last 3-5 minutes depending on the
deployment altitude. However, the whole procedure of going through
training, suiting up, waiting for your load, etc... can take quite a
while. Often unpredictable factors such as weather can slow things down at
the DZ. Usually you won't spend more than half a day, but it is not wise
to make other plans that day other than a celebratory beer afterwards.
What if the parachute fails?
The chances of your parachute failing are very slim. Many malfunctions
can be corrected in a matter of seconds. If a malfunction cannot be
corrected, the jumper has the option of trying to land under a less-than-perfect
canopy, or "chopping" the main by pulling the cutaway handle and then
deploying a secondary reserve parachute. All reserve parachutes are
inspected and packed under controlled conditions by FAA-certified parachute
riggers. The USPA estimates that a malfunction requiring cutaway occurs in
one in 1,000 deployments, but keep in mind that this factors in upjumpers who
often pack their main parachutes quickly to make the next load. The DZ
makes sure that their tandem parachutes are packed by knowledgeable staff.
Can I pull the ripcord on my tandem jump? Can I steer the
Never hurts to ask.
When is the point of no return?
Once you're in freefall, it's really hard to get back into the plane, and I
don't recommend trying. Anytime before that, it's OK to say no. It
takes courage to jump out of a plane; it also takes courage to admit that it's
not right for you, especially after you've spent the money.
A small percentage of first-time skydivers go on to become upjumpers.
Going through AFF is not easy, nor is it cheap; you can expect to spend a
minimum of around $1100 for your training, after which you will want to purchase
your own parachute (at this point you'll be calling it by it's proper name: your
"rig") which can run anywhere from $1000 to $5000. And skydiving
takes dedication. The most dangerous jumpers are those who make a few
jumps in a summer, as they don't have the sensations or their emergency
procedures fresh in their heads.
The obvious question is, what keeps skydivers coming back to the drop zone
week after week? Common opinion has it that they're all adrenaline
junkies, but nothing could be further from the truth. It remains exciting,
but most upjumpers will tell you that the adrenaline rush goes away after
something like fifteen jumps. In reality, the attraction of skydiving is
simply in learning how to fly one's body through the sky. While the
adrenaline will be there, if you pay attention you will see the possibilities,
even on your first jump.