If riding in an airplane is flying, then riding in a boat is swimming. If you want to experience the element, get out of the vehicle.
- Shydive Archive
Skydiving : Getting Started
- Where do you start?
- Where to go?
- What to expect?
- What are your options?
Know the risk
One of the most asked questions from people who are thinking about skydinving: how safe is it to skydive? Skydiving is actually one of the safest of the "extreme" sports. You are jumping out of an airplane and falling 12,000 feet towards the ground at 120 miles per hour, so there is risk involved. But compared to driving a car every day on the highway, you're much less likely to hurt. Each year, about 35 people die skydiving, out of about 2 million parachute jumps. Every year, about 46,000 people die in traffic accidents, about 140 people die while scuba diving, about 850 die while bicycling, and about 80 are killed by lightning.
The important thing to understand is that mistakes in judgment and procedure are the cause of 92% of skydiving fatalities. So if you do what you're supposed to do during that minute long freefall to the ground, you'll be fine. And more importantly, you for the most part control your own destiny.
The biggest reason why people are afraid of skydiving (aside from the thought of plummeting toward the earth) is because popular culture has propagated several inaccuracies about skydiving. Here are some of the most popular myths, along with the real story for each one:
- MYTH: You can't breathe during freefall.
FACT: You can breathe during freefall. Otherwise, skydivers would be unconscious before they get the chance to open their parachutes.
- MYTH: You can hold a conversation during freefall.
FACT: Yes, Wesley Snipes may have done it in Drop Zone, but that was Hollywood. In reality, freefalling is way too loud to hear anything other than the wind screaming through your ears.
- MYTH: If you jump out of a plane without a parachute but you grab on to someone with a parachute, then all you have to do is hold on to him, and when his parachute opens, you'll float down to the ground with him.
FACT: Another movie miracle, and another Snipes move. While stunts like this have been done, it is almost impossible to achieve. When a parachute opens, it exerts a tremendous jolt to the body, and anyone trying to hold on to that body is 99.99% likely to get flung off.
- MYTH: Freefalls can last five minutes.
FACT: Most skydiving planes cruise at about 10,000 - 12,000 feet. This means that you have about 35 seconds of freefalling before you open your parachute. To fall for five minutes, you'd have to go up to 60,000 feet (and bring extra oxygen for the plane ride). You can't pull out the emergency exit and jump out of a cruising 747 and live to tell about it.
Find a Drop Zone
There are about 400 skydiving centers across the U.S. Many drop zones offer first-jump courses every weekend, so you may be able to drop by (no pun intended) and check out the class before you schedule your own.To find the drop zone nearest you, you can:
- Go to the United States Parachute Association web site which gives not only info about skydinving, but offers complete list of drop zones... or
- or Call the USPA at 703-836-3495 to get the name of an affiliated drop zone in your area.
- Call 1-800-SKY-DIVE, which will automatically connect you with a parachute center in your area.
- Look in the Yellow Pages under "Skydiving and Parachute Jumping Instruction."
- Ask around. You probably have some friends who have done it. I'm sometimes surprised at the people I know who have done it.
- If you're in college, most universities have skydiving clubs. This offers a cheaper and easier way to get into the sport.
Choose a method of skydiving
The only requirement for jumping is that you be at least 18 years old (some drop zones allow 16-year-olds to jump with parental consent) and under 250 pounds. You should also be free of any heart or severe medical conditions and, as always, if you've got something wrong with you you should probably talk to your doctor before you jump. Someone who has had fainting spells, blackouts or respiratory problems should probably not be jumping and should definitely discuss this with the drop zone staff.
Most skydiving courses work the same way. First, you will get trained by a certified instructor. This instructor will try to scare you into not jumping (the last thing an instructor wants to deal with is a panicker in mid-drop). Then you will fill out all kinds of legal documents saying that if you get hurt, the skydiving company is not responsible. Again, these documents are very scary, and you will see words like "injuries" and "die." But if you wanna jump, you have to sign these documents.
Depending on 1) how much time you have, 2) how much cash you've got to spend, and 3) how brave you are, you have three options for what method of skydiving you'll use for your first jump: tandem, static line, and accelerated freefall (AFF). These offer varying levels of airborne freedom and varying levels of training time. You want to fly freely? Go AFF. Just along for the ride? Try tandem. Want to make it quick? Do static line. You decide.
- Tandem (costs about $125 to $200): This is the most common first-timer's experience skydiving. The good part is that you don't have to work up the nerve to jump out of the plane - you have no choice. You are basically strapped onto the jumpmaster (i.e., the pro) and he/she controls the jump from exit to landing. You're attached to them, so all you have to do is enjoy the view. Tandem requires little preparation time - usually under an hour.
You wear a harness that is attached to the jumpmaster's parachute system. The two of you, sandwiched together, leave the plane together and fall for about 45 seconds before the jumpmaster pulls the chute at about 4,000 feet. From there, the ride to the ground lasts about 5 minutes.
FYI- in the United States, tandem jumping is still classified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as an "experimental" form of parachuting, since there are only two parachutes (main and reserve) to cover two jumpers. But since it's been in use for years, it's a safe bet the experiment is really over.
- Static Line (costs about $85 to $150): Developed by the military to drop soldiers down from the sky in a hurry, this method is also used as a first foray into skydiving. These jumps are made from about 3,000 feet and require a four-to-six hour training class. With static line skydiving, a cord attached from the plane to your parachute pulls the parachute open almost immediately after you jump out. The advantage to this method is that you don't have to pull your own rip cord. The disadvantage is that you only get about 3 seconds of freefall. The parachute ride to the ground lasts about three minutes, during which you are directed to the ground by radio contact or ground signals. So there's still a danger, because you have to land yourself instead of letting the instructor do the work for you.
- Accelerated Freefall (costs about $250). This is the way to go for true thrill seekers - you're as much on your own as you can be (at least for your first time in the air). You pull your own rip cord and you float to the ground solo. Of course, the training usually lasts all day, but this is the method used most frequently for those interested in becoming serious skydivers (AFF dives earn more credits toward certification than static line jumps).
Upon leaving the airplane, two instructors jump out with you, holding on to you during the entire freefall. Usually, the jump is made at about 11,000 feet, and the freefall time lasts about 45 seconds. During those 45 seconds, you have to perform three "practice pulls" in which you go through the motions of pulling your rip cord. This is done so that the jumpmasters can determine your relative sanity in the air. If you're not performing the practice pulls correctly, the jumpmaster may assume you're too nervous to do the real thing, at which time he/she will pull your rip cord for you. If you're handling the 120 mile-per-hour drop okay, you pull your cord at 4,500 feet. Either way, once the parachute is pulled, the instructors will let go of you, and you'll be on your own. The gentle sail to the ground lasts about 5 minutes, during which you're guided by radio or ground signals.
For all three methods, make sure you consider having your first jump videotaped, which costs $50-$100. There's nothing better than looking back and feeling the nostalgia of fear as you watch your body awkwardly flip out of an airplane. To tape your jump, another skydiver jumps out of the plane before you and flies somewhere nearby with a camera mounted to his helmet.
Yes, it's kinda scary. But despite the fact that you dart out of the airplane and reach speeds of 90 to 110 miles per hour during the first 10 seconds, freefalling doesn't even feel like falling. That's simply because the sensation of falling is primarily a mental one, caused by the sight of things moving closer or past us. During a freefall, most of what you'll feel is lots of wind and a small sensation of pressure against your body. It's more like floating than falling.
When you open your chute it's a different story. Once it opens, it feels like you're being stretched upwards. It doesn't hurt and lasts only about four seconds. After that, one steers the parachute using simple controls in each hand. Radio contact with the ground (via walkie talkies in your helmet) makes is very easy to "Right turn," "Left turn" your way to the ground.
As for landing, beginning jumpers use big, square parachutes that act more like gliders than umbrellas, making landing slow and soft. The landing is usually easy to maneuver, but keep in mind that most skydiving injuries are caused during landing.
"What if the parachute doesn't open?" Yes, this is a concern - but not too big. You do have a second chance. By law, all parachute backpacks must be made with a main chute and a reserve chute that can be opened if the main chute is damaged, twisted, or simply doesn't come out. The FAA also requires that the reserve chute must be inspected and repacked every 120 days by an FAA-rated parachute rigger, even if it hasn't been used during that time. However, to get the reserve chute out depends on you.
Get LicensedOnce you've jumped, you'll either feel a sense of accomplishment and completion, or want to do it again, of course. And again. And again. They say that the adrenaline pumping through your body after you jump lasts for weeks.
It takes about 10 to 15 jumps, each of increased level, until the student is competent enough to jump without instructor supervision. However, if you learn with the AFF method, you can start jumping on your own after seven jumps. Each successive jump costs a little less, and once you're licensed, what was once $350 becomes only a $20 one. As long as they bring their own parachutes (and most prefer to), certified skydivers only pay for the space on the airplane.
There are four skydiving licenses: basic, intermediate, advanced, and master. To get a basic license, you need to:
- Complete 20 freefall jumps.
- At least 3 of these freefall jumps must be controlled freefalls of 40 seconds or longer.
- Have had a total of at least 5 minutes of freefall time.
- Prove that you know how to 1) pack your own main parachute, 2) know what to do in an emergency, and 3) know other general skydiving information.
Many skydivers get licensed so they can work toward being skydiving instructors, which is really just a way to quench their own skydiving desires without having to pay for every jump.