Everything looks perfect from far away

Posted: August 31, 2010 in WHOZITS & WHATZITS

Why does one want to walk with wings? Why force one’s body from a plane to make a parachute jump? Why should man want to fly at all? People often ask these questions. But what civilization was not founded on adventure, and how long could one exist without it? Some answer the attainment of knowledge. Some say wealth, or power, is sufficient cause. I believe the risks I take are justified by the sheer love of the life I lead.

Last Saturday, I jumped out of a perfectly good aircraft 14,000ft above ground — I survived.

SKYDIVING. Where to begin, or stop rather? At first you’d think it’s just one of those crazy tricks that crazy people do. While that assumption may hold some truth – truth is relative, after all – it’s so much more than that. It requires guts. And by that, I mean, not just guts to sign up and show up, but guts to actually go through with it. Imagine the suspense, the thrill, the anticipation one would feel, I assume, before plunging into total abyss, into the unknown with nothing but pure trust for the stranger on your back and a huge multi-colored cloth on a string to land you back to ground. It’s total liberation; perfect fusion of the mind, body, and spirit. For a few good minutes, you become everything and nothing at the same time. No cares, no thoughts, no feelings. You just simply, exist.

THE FREE-FALL. When my friend who has gone skydiving beforehand told me that the free-fall only takes roughly around 35 seconds, the words “unreal” and “bogus” were knocking their shorts off in my brain. Heck, it should take longer than that. And so I rationalized. In real time though, my friend’s claims hold to be quite accurate; in skydiving time, however, the free-fall feels like a lucid dream wherein time is virtually suspended. I, personally, did not feel myself falling. Apart from the drop off the plane, I felt as if I was suspended with time and everything else in mid-air. “Like I was floating” were the exact words I managed to concoct to describe the experience. It did not even occur to me that I was falling at a rapid speed of 125-miles per hour! See, facts and figures like those evade your stream of consciousness once you’re up there. First jumps are supposed to be totally mindless like that. Of course, when I do decide to pursue it and become a pro, I must be aware of these things. But for now, I’m happy not knowing.

THE CHUTE.

I was on the point of cutting the cord that suspended me between heaven and earth . . . and measured with my eye the vast space that separated me from the rest of the human race . . . I felt myself precipitated with a velocity that was checked by the sudden unfolding of my parachute.

— André-Jacques Garnerin, world’s first parachutist, 22 October 1797.

Okay so I’m falling on a rate of 125mph but not feeling it, having a ball in mid-air, spinning ’round, tumbling, turning, enjoying the view then – WHAM! I get pulled back to reality. You know when you’re having that extra wonderful dream… let’s say, you’re about to be in a lip-lock with your long-time love, your eyes meeting with all the ardor in the world, then your alarm goes off or your annoying sister loudly barges into your room and forcefully yanks you outta slumber – yeah. That’s how it feels like. Annoying as it is, there’s also that undeniable gush of relief knowing that a) your chute works and, b) you’re gonna land safely. And it’s not as if the rush is over once the chute opens, no. Remember, you’re still suspended in mid-air and the wind velocity is still unbelievable. Aside from the yank, it really doesn’t feel that much different from the free-fall. Or maybe it was just me. My tandem instructor made me pull the strings – literally, and control my chute, which unfortunately for him, was another topsy-turvy adventure. I spun that baby ’round and ’round like no one’s business. I had an effin blast.

Just remember: When the people look like ants — Pull. When the ants look like people — Pray.

THE LANDING.

And wow! Hey! What’s this thing coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding word like… ow… ound… round… ground! That’s it! That’s a good name – ground! I wonder if it will be friends with me?

— Douglas Adams, ‘Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy.’

As all good things must come to a halt, so does my flight and dive. I had tears in the corners of my eyes which I struggled to fight back. Looking back, I don’t know what brought on the almost waterworks. Guess it was partly sadness that it’s over and partly relief that I made it back in one piece. All I know is that I when I landed, all I could think of was how much I want do it all over again. Or need, rather. It has become this ache in me of which the only cure would be another drop. I don’t know if everyone who has tried it shares the same sentiments. I don’t care. I know I do. Yes, it’s expensive but what’s a few hundred dollars to experience absolute freedom in a world where such is deemed to be impossible? Priceless.

I watched him strap on his harness and helmet, climb into the cockpit and, minutes later, a black dot falls off the wing two thousand feet above our field. At almost the same instant, a while streak behind him flowered out into the delicate wavering muslin of a parachute — a few gossamer yards grasping onto air and suspending below them, with invisible threads, a human life, and man who by stitches, cloth, and cord, had made himself a god of the sky for those immortal moments.

A day or two later, when I decided that I too must pass through the experience of a parachute jump, life rose to a higher level, to a sort of exhilarated calmness. The thought of crawling out onto the struts and wires hundreds of feet above the earth, and then giving up even that tenuous hold of safety and of substance, left me a feeling of anticipation mixed with dread, of confidence restrained by caution, of courage salted through with fear. How tightly should one hold onto life? How loosely give it rein? What gain was there for such a risk? I would have to pay in money for hurling my body into space. There would be no crowd to watch and applaud my landing. Nor was there any scientific objective to be gained. No, there was deeper reason for wanting to jump, a desire I could not explain.

It was that quality that led me into aviation in the first place — it was a love of the air and sky and flying, the lure of adventure, the appreciation of beauty. It lay beyond the descriptive words of man — where immortality is touched through danger, where life meets death on equal plane; where man is more than man, and existence both supreme and valueless at the same instant.

— Charles A. Lindbergh, contemplating his first parachute jump, ‘The Spirit of St Louis,’  1953

***

Top 10 Fascinating Skydiving Myths

Skydiving is the single most exciting sport there is. Nothing even comes close to the exhilaration you feel when floating on a cushion of air, and flying your canopy safely to the ground. It’s also very misunderstood, and filled with many common fallacies and misconceptions that keep most people from trying this beautiful sport. It’s heavily regulated by national organizations and in comparison to past decades and studying statistics, it’s surprisingly safe! To participate in it regularly, you’re required to obtain sufficient training and a license. It can be a long, expensive process to get your license, but once you do, the feeling of accomplishment is like no other. I highly suggest you try it at least once in your life.

#10: Skydivers pull a rip cord.

Actually, rip cords pretty much went out with the round chute back in the early 1980’s. Skydivers using modern day “rigs” (the entire contraption of harness, container and canopies), throw out a pilot chute which is tucked into a pocket on the bottom of the container, just above your butt. The pilot chute is a small parachute attached to a “bridle” which is attached to the main chute. As the pilot chute is deployed, it catches the wind and pulls the closing pin which releases the packed main chute, pulling it from the container, so it will inflate… We hope.

There are some dropzones who still use rip-cord gear when teaching their students. Once they’re properly trained however, they graduate to the common bottom of container design. A reserve deployment does use a rip cord to activate the chute, but this is an entirely different design and we hope we never have to pull that handle.

#9: You can talk or yell to each other during free-fall.

Despite what you’ve seen in movies like Point Break and Cutaway, you cannot hear another skydiver during free-fall. Perhaps if you were to yell into his year, you may hear a little but you certainly can’t have any type of conversation. The wind traveling past your ears at well over 100mph pretty much makes you deaf to all sounds. Additionally, it would be very hard to fight during free-fall as well.

#8: When you deploy your chute, you go back up.

This is a common fallacy. One thing a skydiver cannot do is go back up. What you’re seeing when a skydiver deploys and goes up is an optical illusion. You’re actually seeing the videographer shooting the skydiver continue falling away from the one deploying who is obviously slowing down.

#7: If you’re ever knocked unconscious in free fall, you’re dead.

Another common fallacy; it’s understandable how this could be perceived however. Think about it… if you’re ever knocked out by a mid-air collision with a fellow skydiver, who’s going to deploy your chute? Well, most skydivers jump with a device known as an Automatic Activation Device (AAD). It’s a small, air-pressure and speed sensitive unit that will cut the closing loop of your reserve chute so that it deploys automatically. They are usually set so that if you drop below 750 feet above ground level at over 78mph, it goes off. If you are unconscious, your landing will likely be rough and you may injure yourself or perhaps still die, but landing without any chute at all would be far worse. Some skydivers choose to jump without one because they are a mechanical device that can fail and possibly misfire, although they rarely do. The odds of it working when needed far outweigh the odds of it malfunctioning and deploying your reserve when you don’t want it to.

#6: Everyone falls at the same speed.

Despite what some people think, everyone falls at a different rate and the speeds will vary depending on weight (heavier people fall faster), body position and clothing (baggy jumpsuits slow you down, tight fitting suits go faster). The average terminal velocity in the belly down position is around 120mph. Some of the more advanced freeflying positions like “Head Down” or “Sit Fly” can push a jumper to over 200mph! Essentially the less amount of surface area to the wind, the faster you go. It takes a lot of work to contort the body in an arch (to speed up) and cup (to slow down) in order to catch up and stay with a group.

#5: A skydiver always packs his own chute.

A good skydiver learns to pack his own chute early on in his/her skydiving career and continues to do so. However, there is no legal obligation to pack your own chute. There are trained packers who work at drop zones and will pack your chute for you. Generally the cost is around 5 to 7 dollars per pack. Many skydivers however, choose to stick to packing their own chutes because they know how they like it packed (there are small variations for smoother openings) and ultimately, who are you going to trust with your life? Yourself or some kid working the summer for 6 bucks a pack? If you choose to use the packer, be sure to tip them well!!

#4: You can deploy your chute at any altitude.

I had an argument with a friend who was reading about military HALO operations, (High Altitude, Low Opening) and insisted that these military skydivers would free-fall all the way down to between 100 and 50 feet then deploy their chute and land safely, this of course, is simply not possible. Free-fall speeds can be anywhere from 100 to 160mph depending on varying scenarios; that’s over 170 feet per second! A good main parachute needs about 600 to 800 feet to open for two reasons. First, it needs to inflate. The cells are closed end and a great deal of air needs to fill the cells before the chute is operational. Second, it needs to opens fairly slowly to keep from injuring or even killing the skydiver. A hard opening chute can kill a person when they go from 120mph to 18mph in only two or three seconds. Hard openings are usually a result of packing error. Fatal hard openings are extremely rare but a ‘normal’ hard opening can make you see stars, and bruises!

[Minimum opening altitudes (as regulated by the USPA and CSPA) are 2500feet for A licensed skydivers and 2200feet for B, C, and D. Reserve chutes are designed to open much faster due to their necessity to do so quickly.]

#3: You need to wear oxygen masks at very high altitudes.

Only on the plane. Hypoxia can set in quickly at 18,000feet, so it’s necessary for planes to supply it when climbing to that altitude and beyond. The most common high altitude jumps are between 10,500 and 14,000 feet. Some larger drop zones with larger planes, will offer special “extra-high” jumps of 22,000 feet. This of course costs “extra-cash”. Some fancier planes offer masks, but more often it consists of a small hose coming out of the ceiling of the plane and you simply put it in your mouth up until you jump. Once you’re out, you’re only at that altitude for a short time, so extra oxygen on the jump itself isn’t necessary.

#2: The higher the altitude, the more dangerous the jump.

Actually it’s the opposite. Skydivers want as much altitude as possible. Not just for the extra freefall time, but also it gives us extra time correct a correctable problem that may arise. It takes about 1480 feet to reach terminal velocity (around 120mph). Whether it’s a 1500 foot fall or 15,000 foot fall, having a bad chute or no chute at all – the outcome is not going to be good. Ultimately, there is no “safer” altitude for a high-speed impact. And considering the 600 to 800 feet it takes for a chute to open, I’ll stay above 3000 feet when I jump, anything lower would just be crazy!

#1: It’s possible to survive a terminal velocity impact.

Everyone has heard the story: A skydiver jumped from 15,000 feet, his chute didn’t open and he landed in a muddy field and only broke his leg, or his back, or only ended up in a wheelchair, but he survived! There’s always something wrong with the story however. Many times it’s completely made up. But in almost all these cases, there was “something” out, meaning there was a tangled mess of a chute (malfunction) or both chutes (double malfunction – extremely rare!) trailing behind the jumper. This can slow your descent down considerably. An impact into soft ground or trees at 45mph is certainly survivable. You won’t enjoy it, but you have a better chance of survival.

***

In a world in which we are all slaves to the laws of gravity,

I’m proud to be counted as one of them freedom fighters.

Skydive!

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