Before I begin this, my apologies to Adam and all of you for being a slacker on the blog. I have been a little busy since my last post, but not so much as to justify my lack of blogging for so long. So yeah……I’ll take the “slacker” stamp on my forehead like a champ. Also, although I now have 44 jumps, I thought it best to leave the title of this series of writings at 34…..for continuity if nothing else.
The holidays came and went, and 2010 got off to a good start for me. With plans to start AFF, how could it not? Things were right on track. I stayed within my budget during Christmas, and got my taxes filed within the first week of February. A week or so later, the refund showed up in my account as expected, so it was time to set things in motion. I called the Farm and scheduled my AFF training to begin on Friday, February 19th. The plan was to take a Friday off work and try to get through all of AFF in three days….not unheard of by any stretch of the imagination, especially in February when the DZ isn’t that busy.
I showed up bright and early Friday morning. Nothing was happening at the DZ. I wondered whether anyone was even there, although Hans (the DZO) had told me there was someone who stayed there all the time, so just come on in and Andy would greet me. I walked in and looked down a dark hall, just in time to see a figure emerge from a room about mid-way down. “Morning!” he said as he stretched and yawned. “You about ready to get started?” “Yeah, whenever you are,” I said hesitantly. Now for the record, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect as I began AFF, but I’d venture to say that this wasn’t it. I pictured a more “structured and professional” type environment. After shaking hands, we went out front and got better acquainted while Andy had a smoke and a cup of coffee. Again, not sure what type of person I was expecting as far as my AFF ground school instructor goes, but suffice to say it was not someone like Andy. Early in our conversation, all my preconceived notions about skydivers began to melt away. Here was one very cool dude, who obviously knew his shit, that was going to be almost completely responsible for my well-being as I made my first jump later that day. I embraced this fact immediately. We adjourned to the classroom, and began covering the overwhelming onslaught of info. I’d done a fair amount of reading prior to this from the SIM and a couple of other books, so most of it sounded at least somewhat familiar. But it was still a lot to take in…..especially when coupled with all the apprehension that most new jumpers experience. There were no exceptions in this area with me, as the magnitude of what I was about to do really started to sink in around mid-morning. I was okay until he began covering all the possible malfunctions. Although he used adjectives such as “minor” and “nuisance” with some of them, in no time at all my mind was in full-on pessimistic, worst-case-scenario mode. Line twists? You could die. End cell closure? You could die. Pilot chute hesitation? You could die!!! My mind ran rampant with the possibilities. Andy could see it on my face. “You okay? You look like I kinda lost you there.” “No, I’m good. Just thinking” He’d no doubt seen this reaction countless times. Visions of the great life I have kept flashing through my mind. My significant other, my dogs, my friends, my family, my health, etc. Was this worth risking all of those? Surely I couldn’t be the first to have these thoughts, so I pushed them into the back of mind, as I knew it was critical for me to absorb everything Andy was covering. Before I knew it, the clock read 2pm, and it was time to get ready for my first AFF jump.
Andy was one of my two instructors. The other was Jesse, who I’d met a couple of month earlier. He did my Dad’s video when he jumped on his 70th birthday. I really liked him, so this made me feel a little better about things at this point. We went to mock-up and reviewed the dive flow several times. Although utterly simple now, remembering all of the steps, when to do them, and putting them into practice seemed nearly impossible then. As we got on the plane and reviewed the dive flow on the way up, the fear was almost paralyzing. Even with two instructors, I quickly realized that it was a whole different ball of wax when it’s up to YOU to throw out that pilot chute and save your own ass. Andy and Jesse were doing their best to tell me to breathe, relax and whatnot, but I was having none of it. As we got to altitude and people began exiting, I really began to wonder if I could do it. When it was our turn, the jury was still out in my mind, but somehow my body began going through the motions. Before I knew it, the three of us were falling together. A few signs to correct my body position, and I began my COAs and PRCPs. Kept checking my altitude and pulled for myself right on time at 5500’. The 280 sq. ft. canopy inflated beautifully over my head, and what a glorious site it was. Jesse was coaching me on the radio. I flew a good pattern, albeit outside the south tree line, and damn near stood up the landing. It was completely overwhelming…..everything I’d hoped it would be and more. But as good as it was, I’d soon find out that it wasn’t good enough to quiet the voices in my head.
We returned to the hangar, where I was debriefed and told “Good job. You made it to level 2.” I called home to check in and let my s.o. know I’d survived my first AFF jump. Only then did I voice my feelings for the first time. “Babe, I’m not sure that I’m cut out for this,” I told her. “I was absolutely terrified, but I was able to do it.” We talked for a bit longer, and to her credit and my surprise, she didn’t try to discourage me from continuing…..something that probably wouldn’t have been too hard to do at that point. She was my no means really encouraging so to speak, but she does want me to be happy and do the things that make me that way. After hearing about skydiving for several months, she knew it meant a lot to me. So I dismissed my reservations as normal for a newb, and onward we went to level 2.
We went through the same routine with level 2. I Met with my instructors, went over the dive flow, and headed to the bus. Long story short, level 2 was also successful, and even though I was able to do it, I still wasn’t feeling very motivated to continue with AFF. It was still very stressful, and honestly, pretty terrifying to me. The reality of what I was doing really hit home once I was in the plane on the way to altitude. Getting into position at the door on these first two AFF jumps remains a surreal experience to this day! After I passed level 2, daylight was fading, and there wasn’t enough time left for anymore jumps. I took the opportunity to decompress and talk to a few other experienced jumpers about my feelings. I was brutally honest with them about my feelings. But at the end of the day, everyone confirmed that many before me had experienced the same uncertainty early on, and suggested I stick with it through all of AFF. If I still felt the same say after getting through all 7 levels, then maybe it really wasn’t for me and I should take a hard look at my reasons for skydiving. I took this advice to heart, and left the DZ with a commitment to return the next day and try to bust out levels 3, 4 and 5.
I returned to the DZ early the next morning, still apprehensive but ready to get on with things. Sleep the night before had been a futile effort, as my mind was racing in 100 different directions lying in bed, so on top of the stress and adrenaline, I was tired and not my usual rested self. So I got through level 3 with no major issues, other than trying to make peace with myself on what I was actually doing. Level 4 was a different story. Not really sure what happened, but I was VERY uptight (even moreso than usual), and naturally it showed up in the dive. It was almost like I was too scared to even TRY to demonstrate things on the way down. As a result, I pretty much locked onto my altimeter at about 8k, and just waited until my pull altitude without even really trying to do any maneuvers. Needless to say, level 4 was the one that I didn’t pass. After that, I decided to call it a day and do a little more soul searching and talking to people. I’d pretty much decided that the plan of getting done with AFF in one weekend was shot, and I didn’t care. It would’ve been nice, but I wasn’t on any schedule and just wanted be comfortable with things and do them when I felt ready at that point. I left the DZ that evening with a plan of coming back the next day to re-do level 4 and see what happened from there.
I got to the DZ early again Sunday morning. I was assigned a different instructor for my second attempt at level 4. I’m not sure if it was the difference in teaching styles, but I felt much more comfortable this time around. Not that there was anything wrong with my first instructor for level 4, but it just felt better and more relaxed this time. Long story short, the “Oh….I see what this is all about” skydiving light bulb came on during my second attempt at level 4. It went perfectly! So much so, that I felt like a complete dumbass for not getting through it the first time. Very relaxed, and dare I say, FUN! Debriefed and immediately went back up for level 5, which was the first jump that really felt comfortable and in control to me. I could’ve kept going and possibly knocked out levels 6 and 7, but decided to just quit on a good note and soak in the vibe at the DZ, as I was still enjoying meeting and talking to so many new and (mostly) helpful people. I popped a few beers and just roamed around and mingled the rest of the day, and resolved to come back the next Saturday to complete AFF.
I showed up the following Saturday morning feeling really good about things, and after looking forward to it all week, was definitely ready to jump. I was really stoked about being able to leave the plane on my own. This made me more comfortable than being linked to an instructor for some reason. Anyway, levels 6 and 7 were much less stressful to me than the earlier dives, and went off pretty much without a hitch. My level 7 instructor debriefed me, and after doing so, held out his hand and said “Congratulations. You made it through AFF.” It was a great feeling. An announcement was made over the PA, which was followed by cheers and applause. Again, I could’ve kept on jumping and gotten my first solo, but I decided to call it a day to celebrate. It was a good day!
The sights, sounds and smells of my AFF experience were my first real impressions of skydiving and will remain seared into my memory, if not my soul, forever! Although fear and uncertainty dominated my emotions early on, I wouldn’t trade having to deal with such feelings for anything. That which does not kill us makes us stronger, right? Successfully pushing through such potentially paralyzing feelings has been very rewarding and motivating to say the least. I look forward to many more of the emotions that only skydiving can provide!
Until next time, Blue Skies my friends!