Saturday, January 14, 2012

Uneven number

There is an old saying that the rule for pilots is to try to keep the number of takeoffs equal to the number of landings. I am now short one landing, because the other day I went skydiving.

I had done the ground course a month earlier but constant bad weather and other commitments had kept me from completing my first jump until the new year. My calendar was as clear as the sky, so I had no excuse not to make the drive down to Wilton near Picton to leap out of a perfectly good aeroplane.

Arrived around 1100, handed over my skydivers logbook and waited for my instructors to find me. A bright yellow and red jumpsuit covered my civilian cloths and I strapped an altimeter to my wrist.

Fully, a young Kiwi guy greeted me and we went off to find a parachute. Fully showed me how to step into the thing and how to strap it on tight along with a helmet and a pair of painfully tight goggles. Mick, a very experienced instructor started quizzing me on my knowledge and abilities. He seemed barely satisified by the halting responses I gave him but we all waddled down to the waiting Caravan.

The engine ran while we boarded, the sound of a roaring turboprop usually sounds pretty good to me, but I felt strangely unenthused. Long padded benches were along the floor of the aircraft as I turned and slid back into position, Fully taking the spot immediately in front of my and Mick beside. We waited a few seconds, the exit slid closed, double checked the altimeter read zero before the pilot turned the aircraft around and pushed forward the throttles, the noise increasing in intensity and pitch. I was impressed by the way the pilot picked up the nose wheel and held it up as we roared down the gravel strip before rotating and climbing at what felt like a pretty steep angle.

I turned and looked out the window at the strip to try and memorise the view of the field from the air as we made a long climb to altitude. I don't recall if we climbed upwind or not. The sensations were all so strange and powerful it was had to take everything in. Fully and Mick checked that I was all good. I responded with a thumbs up and said "good to go." They later told me I looked quite bored by the whole thing. Apparently my visible response to being terrified is to appear uninterested.

Around 12000 feet a yellow light illuminated. Mick shouted that we would be third out the door. I nodded. The exit opened and the engine noise subsided as the pilot throttled back. The first group of jumpers crouched at the doorway before unceremoniously hurling themselves out. The second group did the same and Mick and Fully positioned themselves either side of the door as I shuffled forward to kneel in between them. The whole environment seemed hostile, it was very cold, the slipstream pounded on the side of my face as I looked down through the clouds to the blue green earth 4 kilometres straight down.

The training kicked in as I checked left, right, looked to the horizon, and half fell, half leapt and no doubt was half bodily thrown from the aeroplane.

There's a short period immediately after exiting the aircraft I have no recollection of. Mick later told me my arms and legs were waving like a rag doll, so it's likely I experienced some senory overload and blacked out for a second or two. The next thing I remember is looking at the horizon in the distance through a pair of very wide eyes. The air rushing past me roared like a speeding train and the pressure made if difficult to breathe so I gulped air like a landed fish and went though my workcycle to maintain awareness.

The first awareness checks came and went as we hurtled towards the ground. Some people describe skydiving as being like underwater or like flying. I felt it was like falling rapidly towards the ground, acutely conscious of the rapidly unwinding altimeter. Perhaps my flying experience had made me a better judge of my position based on looking at the ground, but I could see features below getting ominously larger.

The final awareness check came and I reached for my pilot chute. My hand failed to find it on the first attempt, which is considered poor technique. On my subsequent attempt my hand closed around the lovely squeezey rubber ball and I pulled the thing out as hard as I could, counted one thousand, two...

...and was jerking like a hooked fish under a big bright and perfect canopy. I reached up for the yellow toggles and pulled the chute fully open. There was still too much going on for me to do everything I needed to do perfectly, my mind still catching up with the rapidly proceeding events. Looking down I couldn't quite make out the drop zone, but I found the X of the freeway crossroads and the airfield beside it.

The parachute was a lot more sensitive and agile than I thought it would be and took little effort to maneouvre. As I got closer to the dropzone the radio in my helmet chirped as the target assistant told me he could see me. A large yellow arrow is used to help the student jumper to maneourvre to land and it was a simple matter to follow the arrow as the TA guided me into the circuit. Before long I could make out a figure holding up a pair of batons and began mirroring his signals as he lined me up and commenced the flare to land. My feet landed followed shortly after by my butt as I slid along the grass and came to a ungainly halt. My heart was pounding and my shaking hands did a poor job of gathering in my chute as the TA joined me and helped me sort the chute out properly.

When I first flew an aeroplane I knew that it was what I was meant to do, I loved every second of it and I have thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of piloting since. On the jump course I met a young guy who expressed the same thoughts about skydiving. I can unequivocally say I did not feel the same way about skydiving. It's possible I would skydive again, but it's unlikely I would do it for enjoyment.

Nevertheless, it's something everyone who is able should do at least once.