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34 and Counting: Part II – AFF

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!

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34 and counting: Part I – The Tandem

“It’s the closest you’ll ever get to God.” I guess my story begins with this quote from the movie Point Break, a film my friend and I watched incessantly and memorized line for line when we weren’t slingin’ drinks behind the bar together back in the early 90’s. In our early 20’s at the time, with an abundance of adrenaline and a deficit of good sense, we’d reaffirm our commitment to jump together one day each time we’d watch the exciting but (as I now realize) unrealistic skydiving scene from the movie. At the time, it seemed as sure to happen as the sun rising each day.

Fast forward to Fall of 2009. Guess what? Life happened. My buddy was living his and I was living mine, and our joint skydive had not occurred in either during the 16+ years since we’d gone our separate ways. The friendship was still solid and we’d usually talk several times a year, but the skydiving promise was rarely mentioned. My birthday was coming up in November, and I wanted to do a little something different for this one. After striking up a conversation with a friend at my favorite cigar bar one afternoon, the topic came up. She’d done a tandem. Twice! Absolutely loved it both times. I told her I’d always wanted to, but just never got around to it. By the time I left that evening, I was seriously considering it. As wonderful as the idea of jumping with my buddy seemed, I realized that if it hadn’t happened in over 16 years, it probably wasn’t going to, so this was something I was going to have to do on my own. Looking back, I must also admit that there may have been a bit of midlife crisis at play here too…..a small epiphany of sorts. “I’m not getting any younger. I’m in good shape for my age, and most of my friends are in a different place in life right now. Carpe Diem motherfucker. It’s now or never” I’d tell myself. So over the next week, I made peace with the fact that I may actually be able to do it. I researched the specifics and began to wonder if I really had the balls to jump out of a plane. After wrestling with myself for a bit longer, I decided that my 42nd birthday would be like no other. I was going to do it. Now….how to tell those near and dear to me! Freda, my significant other, reacted with a great deal of concern, but to her credit, never discouraged me. She explained that her concern was out of love and for my safety, but if that’s what I wanted to do, go for it. My parents both reacted in a much calmer way than I thought. My mother even stated, “Well, I always thought you’d do something like that.” My father was actually quite intrigued by the idea. I was shocked….but in a pleasant way, knowing I wouldn’t have to carry the additional burdens of disapproval of loved ones up and then down with me. So it was decided. I called Skydive The Farm in Rockmart, Ga., and set up a tandem on my birthday, a Saturday in November. I was really going to do it!

The next 5 or 6 weeks seemed to drag out. I continued reading and learning about what I was about to experience. My heart would race when I’d watch videos and think of how it must be to fall from 14000 feet. One weekend, two weeks before I was scheduled to jump, we were at a Halloween party and I mentioned what I was planning to do. A friend, upon hearing what I was planning to do, immediately said he would do it with me. I called bullshit, and he said “No really, I’m serious. I’ve always wanted to do it.” I looked at his wife, who nodded in agreement. So he committed, and we were set to do it together. Now I didn’t have to go it alone! There were daily texts between us. 10 days….6 days….3 days. Finally, it was time!

My Dad and I arrived at the DZ bright and early on the Saturday morning of my birthday. My friend and his wife met us there. Freda opted to not come and watch, but did choose to receive a phone call upon my landing safely! We were pretty much the first ones there and didn’t really know where to go, but a regular got there about the same time and directed us to the office. We walked in and found someone sleeping on the couch. Immediately the thoughts began to race through my mind. “I don’t know about this. What kind of place lets people sleep on the couch? This doesn’t look very professional to me. Is the guy sleeping going to be the one I jump with?” All sorts of other thoughts raced through my mind as I looked around. I now realize that this is just a part of life at most dropzones, but at the time it was a little unnerving when mixed with all my other thoughts and feelings. Nevertheless, things started coming to life. We read and signed the waiver forms, which as most of you know, can be quite an experience in itself. We then watched a video of what we were getting ready to do. Soon after, we were led into the hangar and given our choice of who we could jump with. They asked me first, and pointed around to a few people. One of the guys was sleeved out in tattoos, had hoop pierced ears, etc. I saw him and said “That’s my guy.” His name was Ryan…..a 23-year-old skydiving badass that completely looked the part for what I wanted to associate with my skydiving experience. We met, and he began telling me all the specifics about what to do during the skydive. We got all rigged up, took a few pictures, and it was off to the bus to head to the airport, only about 10 minutes away. It was starting to get real now!

The 10 minute ride to the airport was pretty quiet and uneventful. I asked Ryan a few questions, and while friendly enough, he wasn’t overly chatty. Others were talking, joking and whatnot. I particularly remember several people commenting on the fact that one of the other tandem instructors had recently lost a good bit of weight. “Yeah, that meth’s a helluva a drug,” he said. It was obviously a joke, and brought out a good chuckle among everyone. It was a nice way to ease the tension, but before I knew it, we were pulling up to the plane. My heart began to beat faster, my mouth got dry, and my palms got sweaty. We departed the bus and my video guy did another quick little piece before we boarded. We filed into the plane and took our seats. The pilot started the engines and the fumes filled the cabin. They were really strong… much that they had to open the door so everyone could breathe! We took off and began the climb to altitude. There was one hop ‘n’ pop, so at about 5000, the red light came on and the door slid up. When I felt that cold air and looked out into the sky, that’s when it really started to hit me. Next thing I knew, a guy took his position in the door, faced forward, and just hopped out. There one second, gone the next. Holy Shit!!! It was shockingly surreal. In my head, for the first time I was saying “What the fuck are you doing?” The video guy was filming and turned to me to get my reaction. “Hey Allan! What do think about that? Did you see that guy get sucked out of here?” I commented, and he then said “Okay, next time that door opens, it’s your turn. Skydiving baby.” So we got to 14000 and the door opened. People, and groups of people, started jumping out. We were towards the end, and my buddy went just before me. We got to the door and I looked down. It was literally breathtaking in the truest sense of the word. I have never had such clarity of life as I did at that moment. I couldn’t believe what I was about to do. Before I knew it, we rolled out of the plane doing forward flips…..two to be exact. We got belly down and stable, and the drogue was deployed. I immediately began screaming. Not a terrifying scream, but more of an “I just jumped out of a plane and am having a fuckin’ blast” scream. Dave, the video guy, appeared in front of me and extended his hand, which I grabbed. We were spinning, high-fiving, and everything else. Then, before I knew it, freefall ended as Ryan deployed the main. This is when things got really interesting.

The deployment was a bit more violent than I was expecting. Not a neck-breaker or anything, but pretty substantial nonetheless. I looked up and saw the parachute over our heads, but noticed we were spinning. I thought “Hmmm…..this doesn’t seem right.” Ryan didn’t say anything initially and I could tell he was working to try and fix something. We continued to spin. I asked “Are we cool?” He said, “We will be if I can get this worked out,” or something to that effect. Then he asked me to help him kick. I’m like “Kick how?” This isn’t something we’d covered before the jump, so I had no idea what he wanted me to do. Nevertheless, I tried to do what he asked, to no avail. He then calmly announced “Okay….we’re gonna have to chop.” Now I didn’t know exactly what “chop” meant in skydiving lingo, but I had a pretty good idea based on the root meaning of the word. The next thing I know, he says “3…2…1.” The trap door opened, and we fell for a few more seconds. I then look up and see the most beautiful fully inflated grey canopy. No spins this time either. All the lines were extending to the chute in a straight, proportional and unobstructed way. Almost immediately, he announced “Well, that was #8 for me.” I said “Let me get this straight. Did we just have a main parachute failure?” “Yep, he said. “And out of the thousands of jumps you’ve done, that’s only the 8th time you’ve had to go to reserve on a tandem?” “Yep,” he said. We came in and made a perfect slide-in landing. Dave was there to greet us with the camera. “What do think of that Allan? You got a 2 for 1! Not everybody gets one of those!” My buddy and I met, slapped high-fives and gave each other a big hug. On the walk back to the hangar, a very nice and supportive guy approached me, put his hand on my shoulder and told me not to worry about it. “It’s about a 1 in 1000 chance, but it does happen, and that’s why there are reserves,” he stated. Although things were still going at warp speed in my mind, I really appreciated such a kind and comforting gesture from a total stranger. That was when all the misconceptions and stereotypes about skydivers began to melt away in my mind. The magnitude of what had just happened didn’t really sink in for quite some time. I had waited 42 years and finally grown the balls to jump out of a plane, only to have a main chute malfunction of severe line twists that resulted in a cutaway. Un…Fucking…Believable!!!!! As I tried to absorb and make sense of it, a weird feeling came over me: the malfunction and cutaway, in a strange and sick sort of way, had only added to the experience. I couldn’t believe I was actually feeling this way about it. “I really must be certifiable,” I thought to myself. I left the dropzone that day supercharged with adrenaline and with a whirlwind of thoughts, but one thing was clear: I knew I’d be back.

The four of us left the Farm and decided to grab some lunch. As we talked about the experience, my buddy and I decided that we wanted to get licensed together. As we talked about what we’d just done, I could hardly get my beer up to my mouth without spilling it. I couldn’t believe it. I’d just survived a main malfunction, and wanted to go back for more! We agreed that we’d get through the holidays, and would start the process sometime after the first of the year. So that’s what happened. I got through the holidays, saved some money and started my journey in earnest around the end of February this year. My buddy had other priorities to pursue and opted not to do it yet. He still wants to, so we’ll see. For me, the pull was undeniable. And it continues to be just that….undeniable.

So as you may have gathered from the title of this, I’m at 34 jumps and counting. I’d planned to try and summarize everything I’ve felt and done up to this point in one writing, but as you can see ended up getting a little long-winded! For now, let me just say that this has been an incredibly defining experience for me. This will now be a multi-part memoir, so there will be plenty more thoughts and stories in the future. I hope you’ll continue the journey with me in part II, which will be coming soon. Until then, enjoy the pic of me and my buddy after our tandem.

Blue Skies my friends!!!

We did it!!!
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Just a quick note to…

Welcome another addict to our midst =D

I always love hearing about how people got into this. It’s interesting to see where people originally came from and how they came to try this for the first time.
Some just did it because their friends dragged them, others because they’ve always wanted to, and some just did it to simply say “I did it”.

I’m not really sure where Allan comes from, but I’m quite looking forward to hearing his story, and I just wanted to welcome him to Skydive Addiction.

Can’t wait to read about your story Allan.