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AFF Level 1: Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Q: How cool am I?

A: Not so cool as I think I am. I failed Level 1.

Nobody fails AFF Level 1. (Well, some people do, but it not typical). Not type A die-hard nut-balls like me. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s how it went down.

As I previously mentioned, I had a long two week lag time (due to winds and weather holds) between my ground school training and my first AFF jump. All that waiting had a certain value but it also served to get me pretty jacked up (that’s a technical term for you noobs out there) and spazzy.

There were a few elements that led me to be extra spazzy. I had done all my planning and training with Sandy and Mike and now I was jumping with A and R, who I had barely met. There was a last minute decision by the DZO that put me on the load and they were holding the bus for me while a packer hurriedly packed my rig and threw it on me at the last possible moment. I ran to the bus and faked calm aplomb. (This is my go-to expression while hanging out in the drop zone. I fool no one.)

For unknown reasons, I had decided that I would be pretty good at free fall. Maybe “good” isn’t the right word. More accurately, that I wouldn’t make an ass of myself or become a target of worldwide drop zone ridicule as the first person who ever curled up in the fetal position for the duration of their jump. I knew I wouldn’t do that.

What I was pretty danged freaked about was the canopy work and landing. I was pretty sure there was a possibility I would completely misjudge the landing pattern and land off, or end up in a tree, or flare at 50 feet and hit the ground like a giant yellow brick (my student jump suit was yellow. A very bright, non-sexy, say hello to the clown girl, yellow). It was possible I could become the target of worldwide drop zone ridicule for the first human banana to ever drive herself into the ground, even with clear instructions given over a walky-talky. These are the thoughts I tormented myself with on the ride to altitude.

The AFF Level 1 dive flow (sequence) is as follows:

1) Exit plane smoothly into the relative wind and in sequence with instructors gripping you on either side (holding your leg strap and shoulder docking grip on each side).

2) Level off in belly down position (arch. relax. legs out. lather. rinse. repeat).

3) Circle of awareness (check horizon/heading, check altimeter, check reserve side instructor for signals, check main side instructor for signals).

4) Three practice touches to hacky of pilot chute with smooth counter movement of left hand.

5) Mini circles of awareness until time to wave off and deploy at 6,000 ft.

Simple, right? I’d been practicing this thing for two full weeks. Literally practicing it. Lying on my floor and going through the motions like a good good little type A dork. I was only obsessing/freaking about the landing.

It was a pretty full load on the otter, with maybe 20 people; a few tandems and the usually motley assortment of fun jumpers (hey! who you calling motley?). I was on the load with one other AFF student, Sara, who was doing her AFF Level 5. As we reached altitude (14,000 ft), we were skirting a cloud. The light turned green and everyone began exiting the plane. The tandems pushed past us to exit, which is unusual since tandems usually go last, but I didn’t really know that yet so I just waited for the signal from my instructors. Then someone closed the door and the plane started diving!

I was completely perplexed, freaked out, confused, and jacked up out of mind. WTF? We have to go back down?! Finally, an instructor told me that we couldn’t exit AFF into a cloud like that and it was raining in the cloud so we had to go below it to exit. Sara made it clear that she no longer wanted to jump on that run. Really!? I thought, she has done this four times and she doesn’t want to go. What should I do? I was still in stubborn bi-aach mode so when they turned to me to ask if I still wanted to jump I didn’t hesitate: hell yes!

In all the confusion of switching places, lurching dives and turns, final gear check and a once again open door, I only remember one moment. As I knelt in the door, one instructor on either side, my outside instructor yelled: “Are you ready to Skydive?!” I remember thinking: what the F**K am I doing! (I curse even more in my head, believe it or not). But I hollered back a “yes!” and took my position in the door. Then I jumped like the badass I am.

Except maybe not so badass, ‘cuz this is what happened:

As we exited, I lost my instructor on the left side. After a bit he came back into my line of sight in front of me. I checked for signals: none. I checked my right side instructor (thankfully still attached): no signals. “Aha! I AM a badass,” I thought moronically, “No signals. I’m a natural.

Then I checked my altitude like a good girl. Ooh getting closer. Any new signals? None. I still rock.

I look at my instructor ahead of me. He gives me the signal to pull (see above). I reach back.

All hell breaks lose.

If you recall, I have previously done four (count ’em: four!) tandem jumps. In the last three, the tandem master let me pull. I think I am very cool. In fact, I have trained myself to be really good at pulling a golf ball located well behind me. On the back of the person behind me. A whole adult person’s body behind me! This is NOT where my hacky is. Not even close. I am officially a dumbass. Let’s count the ways:

Dumbass Thing Number One: I reach for my hacky. I am scrambling at the edge of my container, probably about two feet from the loction of my actual hacky, which is right up against my butt. I am WAAAAY off.

Dumbass Thing Number Two: I suddenly realize I never did any of my three practice touches in my dive flow. Completely spaced it. In fact, the first time I have ever reached for my hacky, the thing that will save my life, is now, at approximately 5,500 feet.  I think vile things about myself.

Dumbass Thing Number Three: I recover from my self flagellation and am determined to find the flippin’ hacky. I scramble; reach and feel around. I am so determined to find it that I forget that my instructor is there to help me with this very thing. He is trying to put my hand on the hacky but I am alternating between swatting him away and gripping his altimeter in a death grip of studipidity. I am thinking (I swear to god): “I don’t want my instructor to pull for me! (which he will do if we drop too far) I want to pull it myselllllllfffffff!!!” Like a two year old. We’re at 5,000 feet.

Dumbass Thing Number Four: I find the hacky!!!! I am thrilled! I rip it out of the BOC. I wait for the lurch of inflation. I wait. There is nothing.

I look down at my right hand. I am holding the pilot chute in my right hand, right in front of me. I am officially a ginormous moron.

To explain for those who cannot understand the magnitude of my error: The pilot chute is a very small parachute with a hacky sack attached to it that you pull out of a little elastic pocket on the bottom of your rig. When it catches the wind it inflates and yanks a cord (called a bridle) which pulls the pin that holds your bag closed and releases your parachute (see appropriate use above, mid-opening). You’re trained to pull out your hacky and throw it away (like you hate it!). There is a very important reason for this. First, if you do not let it catch the wind and inflate, it cannot release your main. You need that. More importantly, holding on to the PC can cause the worst of all possible malfunctions: the horseshoe malfunction.

A horseshoe is when your chute is attached to you in more than one point of contact. The second (unintended) point of contact will keep it from inflating properly. Furthermore, it can really really injure you depending on where that second point of contact is (your neck, your arm, etc).

But that’s not even the worst of it. A horseshoe is much more tricky to recover from. Most malfunctions allow a nice clean Plan B:  cut away the bad main chute and deploy your reserve. A horseshoe cannot always released when you cut away because part of it is stuck on something, so it’s flapping all over and hurting stuff. Then, if you deploy your reserve, the reserve can easily be fouled by the first unreleased chute.

That’s bad kids. Bad.

So, by holding the pilot chute I was not only not deploying my main, but also endangering myself and everyone around me. Get it?

I am smart enough that I computed this in approximately .06 seconds as I looked at my right hand and then I threw that hacky away like I hated it after all.

And then: whooosh! Up I went. Good canopy. Good spot. Drove that bad boy canopy like nobody’s business. Stood up the landing and walked it out like a Sunday stroll.

So, I failed my Level 1. My instructors were very apologetic but understandably felt I needed to do it again and not almost kill everyone this time.

I went up next load, did it again and nailed it. They said my performance was text book perfect.

Lessons learned:

1) Do NOT hold onto the hacky. Ever.

2) Do practice touches on the ground, in the plane, in the rig you are actually going to wear.

3) Don’t forget to do your dive flow.

4) If something changes about your exit, get re-focused before you jump.

5) Just because your instructors are not giving you signals doesn’t mean you are doing everything right. (Side note: my instructor was too busy stabilizing me to give me signals during free fall because I was unstable and creating a spin he was trying to control.) Think. Review your body position mentally and check yourself.

6) If you think you are badass, remember, dumbass is just seconds away. And stupid hurts.

7) If you fuck up and don’t die: do it again and do it better the next time. Learn from your mistakes.