Monday, 8 July 2013

Reaping Rewards


Three fantastic jumps. Jumps so good just one of them would have been enough to class the day as a full success. To pull off all three of them within hours of each other was fantastic. Each one one was given an objective, and each objective wasn't just met but blitzed.

The first was all about the exit. That's all I wanted to do. Nail the exit. And that's exactly what I did. In hindsight it seemed so simple. Just jump out, making sure to twist forwards so I'm facing the airflow and let physics do the rest. That's what I've been trying to do all this time.

I understand why I was struggling. My brain has learned to deal with the raucous hurricane of freefall, but there's still that moment as I leave the door when it screams "AND WHAT THE HELL DID YOU JUST DO?!". That's in no way a bad sensation.

This time it was different. Perhaps I focused harder. Perhaps I'm just that little bit more used to it. Whatever it was I shaped up perfectly and dropped into the belly-to-earth position without a trace of spinning or flipping.

On the ground I planned the rest of the day. Two more jumps. The second needed to prove the previous exit wasn't a fluke. Then some tracking, because it's been a while. And if that went well, number three would be a fun jump. No rules, no goals, just as much stupidity as I could manage.

And so it happened. My second exit was again bang on. Perhaps confused by how easy this was becoming I lost my bearings and it took me 500' to confirm the direction I needed to track in. Then I was off. Halfway through I remembered a couple of tips I'd read to improve my body positioning and as I shifted I could feel my forward speed increase.

On the last jump things got off to a bad start. The heat limited us to 9000' instead of 12, so I'd have less time for chaos. I went out with no intention of trying to stay stable, facing the door and watching the plane as it shrank away. I stayed like that for a few seconds, just ragdolling on my way back to the planet. Then I checked my altitude and curled up into a ball, whipping through two axes in dizzying spin. Levelling out I stayed on my belly until pull time, but as I was about to wave off and track a little I spotted a canopy opening closer than it should have been. I turned away from it and pulled, confused by its proximity. I had left a sufficient gap before my exit, so I guess my tumbling fall must have slid me down the jump run.

With the parachute safely deployed I checked my airspace. The load only had one tandem and no videos, so the air was thick with canopies at my level. The increased risk of a collision was evident, but this wasn't worrying, I was just more alert. Watching these people soar around and below me was beautiful, and the whole thing was rounded off by a final tip-toe landing.

Next time will probably suck.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Business as usual

In many ways today was unremarkable. In the most important ways, it was great.

As is typically the case I got to the drop zone later that I wanted, and found it to be the hive of activity you would hope on such a glorious day. After such a long lay-off I needed some recurrency training, but with things so busy it took forever to get time with an instructor. Training was passed easily, I don't think I could forget my emergency procedures if I wanted to, and I was lucky enough to get on the next load.

I don't mind admitting that the time away from the sport had knocked my usually high confidence and on the flight-line the Jump Master, the jumper who was coordinating the load, picked up on my nerves. Speaking with him and another skydiver I let them know history indicated I'd be fine as soon as I got out of the plane, not realising I had set up the best moment of the day.

On the jump run one of the jumpers I had been talking with happened to be the man out before me and after making a normal exit, as I was setting up in the door, he flipped onto his back and gave me a big smile and thumbs up. I instinctively  reciprocated, and as he fell away and I got ready to go the feeling of pure (for want of a better word) awesomeness of what I was doing was irrepressible. Then I went.

The jump was what I'd expect after a long break. My exit was poor but I corrected it with an easy flip. I did nothing in freefall, just loving the sensation I had all but forgotten. This time my deployment was clean and I got to keep the first canopy that appeared above me. My landing pattern was neat but my touch-down sloppy, requiring a dropped knee. Then it was done, and I was pleased to be back.

Second confession: I've been wondering if skydiving is still for me. It's a lot of effort, it's dangerous and it's expensive. But it's worth it. Now I've reminded myself how it feels I know I want to keep going. I'm still not sure how involved I'm going to be. Right now, with the last of the dopamine being replaced by that contented feeling you get after any special exertion I want to jump as much as possible, but in a few days time I'll have bills to pay and weekend plans and so I may only do a few jumps a year.

That's fine. I've always put safety first and as long as I continue to ensure I'm not a danger to myself or anyone else on the load skydiving just be a special treat. In a weird way I'm quite excited to find out exactly which way I go.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

History Repeating

Skydiving is expensive and heavily weather dependent. At the start of last year I had no choice to take a long break from it, first because the English winter does not provide many days a sane man would jump in, and then because my bank account became stretched to its limits with other pressures. When I finally did jump, in May, I had my first ever malfunction. In training you drill and drill but until you actually find yourself at 6000' with a parachute that has failed to deploy in a land-able configuration you don't know how it's going to go. Seeing as I walked away from it, I think it went pretty well.

The weather this year has been very poor, and though it's picked up in the last couple of months I've chosen to spend a lot of money and time doing other things that could not be rescheduled. I don't regret these choices for a second, but it has meant jumping has had to take a back seat again. Tomorrow I hope to make my first jump in months. And it's May. Damn.

The jury is still out on exactly how much the mal was my fault. Lineovers are mysterious things, poor body position on my part may have contributed, but equally it could have been dumb luck. In truth, knowing how well it turned out, I'm glad it happened. It's a real test I've passed, and a great story I'll tell for the rest of my life. But I'd rather not go through it again.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Out with the Old

#39, 40, 41 - 14/10/12 

During the first 6 months of my time skydiving I had a frankly sucky success rate when it came actually jumping after I got to the drop zone. It's a sport very dependent on the weather, and I've had trips foiled by rain, wind and cloud.

So I thought I'd seen it all.

Until I turned up early today, to find the airfield covered in a thick layer fog. However, lurking in the gloom was a pleasant surprise.

Just plane better (Sorry)

The most despised Islander was sitting, looking for a new owner, because next to it was a glorious new(ish) Caravan. Pretty soon the sun burnt away the fog and I got a chance to see what the new plane was like.

God damn it's fast.

Newer and lighter than the other Caravan, I found myself genuinely shocked by how little time it took us to get to altitude on each jump. This bodes well for the future.

My first jump was an exercise in mediocrity. My exit, tracking, pattern and landing were all "ok" in the most depressing sense of the word. There was nothing hugely wrong with it but I've done all of the elements of that jump much better before. My landing was a pretty solid stand-up, which I was pleased with.

The second jump was an improvement in all areas. Still not fantastic, but much better. The exception to this was my landing which was the smoothest ever. I touched down like an experienced butterfly on a sturdy leaf, or some other equally cliched metaphor. Anyway, it was good.

The last jump was an unequivocal f**k-up. Whenever I exit I make sure to check I'm in the right sort of place to get back to the landing area, though there's never been a problem before because I'm never the first man out so someone else has got us in the right place first. Well, it turns out my brain doesn't actually do anything during this check because immediately after I got out I realised the airfield was beautifully obscured by a nice big cloud. My plan was to do some flips and turns but this immediately got cancelled as I fell towards the huge white monster. I watched the jumper who got out before me, silhouetted against the cloud, as he clipped its edge, then I fell into it. I knew I was well clear of the other guy but I was still concerned by the possibility of a collision. Watching my altimeter my pull height of 5000' came and went. As it reached 4000' the cloud started to clear and I pulled. As I got down the pattern seemed busier than usual, with more canopies landing together than usual, but I maintained good situational awareness and landed well again.

After talking to a senior instructor I understand better what I did wrong. Skydivers tend to play it a bit hard and fast with the "avoid cloud" rule. He said that if you can identify the landmarks around that's ok, and that's what I did. Also, I've been down to 4000' before. It's a safe pull height. The two things I did wrong were not checking the spot properly, and not jumping the plan. Both of them were ok this time, and, after today, both of them I'm sure I'll do properly in the future.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Nailed it!

#37 & 38 - 08/09/12

I got it. Finally. Not sure what's changed. Back in the Caravan (whoop!) I launched myself out, twisting as I went so I faced into relative airflow (because the plane is flying forwards). Physics did its thing and I rotated gently through 90 degrees into the belly-to-earth position, rock solid and in complete control. Having stayed perfectly on-heading the whole time I spun so I was facing perpendicular to the jump-run and then rocketed off in a track, the whole sequence feeling like the most natural thing in the world.

It was a no-wind day, so my landing was a bit faster than usual, and I got dumped unceremoniously on my backside. This didn't dampen my spirits, but I was concerned as a tandem landed near me, close enough that I could hear the instructor yelling "Lift your legs up!". The student didn't respond and I noticed he was completely limp, chin resting on his chest. When his trailing legs caught the ground the two of them were pitched forwards and landed on their front. I jogged over, anxious to help but unsure what I could do. The instructor got up and was crouched over the student, but before I reached them I could hear laughter. The student was still lying on the ground as he had been told, but seemed ok and was making jokes about the experience. Apparently he had been fine the entire jump, then fainted just before landing. Moments later he was back on his feet and fully recovered.

I was hoping my exit wasn't a fluke so an hour later I was back on the plane and when my turn came I was rock-solid again. As I swung belly to earth I couldn't help but kick my legs and punch the air in victory, movements which of course made me unstable and sent me spinning. I recovered immediately, then went off into another track, which was a bit sloppier than the first one. However, on this jump I timed my flare to perfection and landed nicely on my feet, and even my canopy collapsing down on top of me in pure slap-stick gold couldn't take the edge off what was probably my best ever jump.

A great day.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Treasure Island(er)

#36 14/08/12

Headcorn has two jump planes, the Caravan, which is new and big and fast, and the Islander, which is none of these things. Fortunately we mostly use the Caravan, but sometimes it needs to go for maintenance, and then we're left without an option. And this was one of those times.

The thing that gets me about the Islander isn't the extra 5 minutes it takes to haul itself to altitude, or that altitude means 1000' less than in the Caravan, or even that it only carries nine jumpers meaning I might not be able to do as many jumps (as happened this day). No, what gets me is the damn landing gear.

It's a high wing aircraft, but the undercarriage is still on the wing, meaning it has a long support strut, which just happens to be right in front of the door.

Designed specifically to ruin my exit. Courtesy of Colin McGowan, looking at Belize.
I know that the aircraft is flying at 70 knots. I know no matter how hard I throw myself forward I'm going to be left behind. I know nobody ever hits that wheel. And yet, when I got in the door I still thought "I am definitely going to hit that wheel." Seeing as my new plan for obtaining some semblance of stability on exit was to throw myself forward into the airflow this caused an issue. So I went out sideways, and immediately started loop forwards.

It's amazing how fast your brain works when your adrenal glands have just emptied themselves into your bloodstream. In a fraction of a second I realised I wasn't going to be stable, thought "F**k it, if I'm flipping I'm doing it on my terms." and kicked my legs out to put me through a beautiful, on-heading front flip that ended with me slamming into the stable belly-to-earth position.

Was it the stable exit I wanted? No.
Was I stable faster and in a more controlled way than usual? Yes.

From then on the jump was good, but then I didn't really have any objectives. As I came in to land I discovered the winds were stronger near the ground (usually the reverse is true), so I came down short of my target but still well inside the Landing Zone. Continuing the good landing progress from last time I deliberately flared slightly early. The canopy reached a dead stop with my feet still a metre or so from the ground, but then gently lowered me down into an easy stand-up landing.

For me, it was a good jump. Hopefully next time I'm there the Caravan will be back and I can try my new plan for a stable exit without being psyched out by a tyre.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Margin of Error

#33, 34, 35 26-07-12
Exits and landings. The beginning and the end of the jump. The bits I suck at. Exits have always been an issue, but a couple of rough landings had knocked my confidence. So with summer finally arriving and providing weather that made it criminal to stay inside I headed for the drop zone to finally get in a day of hardcore jumping.

On my first jump the exit was poor. I rolled right and by the time I sorted out my arch I was far enough over that I completed the rotation instead of rocking back. From there I followed the plan, straight down with some turns, including seeing how fast I could spin whilst remaining in control. The rest of the jump and deployment went fine, but as I got below 500' I started to worry about the landing.

I realise now that I was concerned about flaring too high. At some point in the manoeuvre the forward and downward speed of the canopy both reach zero - the perfect time to land. However, after that the canopy will collapse, dropping you out of the sky. A lack of currency (I'd made 3 jumps all year) had left me without the confidence of exactly when to flare, and not wanting to commit to it fully. This led to me coming in too fast, and having to PLF or slide it out. And so it went with jump one.

As I got up I knew I hadn't pulled the toggles all the way down to complete the flare. The Polish instructor on my last jump had highlighted it then as well. At the other end of the jump I believed if I committed more to my exit, made it a more determined, aggressive move, it might be better.

I put this into practice on jump two. I leaped from the plane, straight into a tracking pose. However, I hadn't considered that the forces on me are different at exit compared to freefall, and found myself plunging towards the earth. Uneven airflow over my shoulders quickly turned this into a spiral. The effect was unexpected and completely, well, fantastic. Tracking forwards is like flying, this was something else. As my speed increased I levelled off and then flew forwards, tracking perpendicular to the jump run. Unable to see my altimeter I correctly guessed 9000', turned and tracked back, opening almost exactly were I had exited.

This time I flared strongly as I approached the ground, and was rewarded with a perfect tip-toes landing. It was probably my best ever and I couldn't keep the grin off my face afterwards.

Jump three was something of an anticlimax. I put my arms forward on another aggressive exit to try and level myself out, but still ended up spinning. Again my tracking was good and I had time to think about my body position and adjust it as I fell. The increase in forward speed was noticeable and satisfying.

The winds had increased on this jump so another stand-up landing was expected and I managed it well. As I started collecting up my canopy several students landed close by. Watching their inexperience I realised that flaring is not as precise an art as I had somehow made it in my head. A canopy doesn't collapse the second it stops moving forwards, but drift leisurely down for a while first. With this psychological block broken I believe I'm now competent at the important end of the jump. Now I just need to sort out the other.