Taking the plunge.....
ŠPaul M. Alvarez 2000-2008
Winter is not the best season to be jumping out of airplanes in south Florida. The weather fronts move in quickly and the clear morning skies quickly fill with clouds that dump huge quantities of rain. The combination of the high humidity and the wind causes the cold to seep into your clothing like a dry sponge sucking up ice water. I made my first jump on Valentine's day.
I had just parted ways with my soon to be ex-wife and, having also just quit my job, suddenly, I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands. I had no responsibilities and enough money in the bank to last me for a while. The thought struck me, like a speeding truck strikes an unwary opossum on a dark highway, that I could now do pretty much anything that I wanted. This was one of those opportunities that comes so rarely in our lives when we have the means to take a completely different direction.
Listening to the radio one day, I heard an announcer say "learn to jump, dial SKY-DIVE on your telephone". Skydiving was one of those activities that I, like many other people, had always wanted to do. I had visions of my childhood, watching Burt Lancaster in the "Gypsy Moths" hurtling towards the ground, a grenade strapped to his ankle billowing smoke with thousands of spectators, faces upturned , staring in wonder. Saturday afternoon brought me the then popular war movies with paratroopers, loaded down with gear, jumping into combat behind enemy lines in defense of their country. My favorite was "Ripcord" a syndicated television show of the time featuring a pair of free-falling crime fighters.
It seemed like the right time to give it a try, I needed a different kind of excitement then my recent tribulations had provided. Little did I know the significance that phrase on the radio was going to play in my life for the next ten years.
So I called. My only intention is to get more information about what is involved. I speak with Patty who identifies herself as one of the instructors. I ask the usual questions about the cost and time involved. She quotes what I think is a reasonable price and says that we could start at 9:00 Saturday morning and, weather permitting, jump that same afternoon. She assures me that after a few hours of class time I will have learned enough to strap on the gear and jump out of a plane. The conversation doesnt seem much different then calling the local theater to inquire about the movies that were playing that day. I somehow expected a more earth shaking conversation, perhaps about the spiritual implications and ramifications of the life and death activities we were discussing. Instead, I make an appointment for the following weekend. Patty suggests that I pack a lunch.
The subsequent few days seem to drag on as my anticipation grew. They are filled with most of my friends telling me that I must be deranged for wanting to jump from a "perfectly good airplane". In a macabre moment, my friend Stan has a "going away" party for me the night before. I am actually able to interest a couple of friends, while they are under the influence of various substances, into going with me.
The awaited day finally arrives. My friends bail out on me at the last minute, of course, finding pleanty of excuses why not to go and I drive the forty miles down US-1 to the airport in solitude, nursing a mild hangover and a cup of coffee. I stop at a roadside stand on the way and pick up some oranges.
The area south of Miami into Homestead is a major agricultural area. Tomatoes, beans, citrus fruit and other vegetables grow in abundance during their appropriate seasons. At this time of the year we were in between the tomatoes and the beans so the fields were mostly empty. The everpresent orange groves seemed to stretch endlessly.
Homestead General is a relatively small airport without a control tower. The main strip is the East-West runway and it has a somewhat shorter North-South runway. As you enter the airport gates you pass one of the areas that the DEA uses for storing planes seized during drug raids. Everything from little Cessnas to Lear jets and DC-3s sit forlornly rotting in the weather, road-kill on the drug highway, awaiting their final disposition.
Skydive, Inc. consisted of a hanger surrounded by airplanes with a small office and lobby area at the front of the building. Several nervous looking people sit in the lobby filling out forms as I walk in. Behind a glass display case filled with skydiving paraphernalia is an attractive blonde woman who turns out to be the Patty that I spoke with on the telephone. She tells me that Tom, the owner and head instructor, will be starting the class in just a few minutes. She then takes my money and hands me the forms to fill out.
The forms are the usual information and waiver forms you encounter when performing virtually any activities these days. It had the usual lines for name, address, emergency contact numbers and the "you won't sue if anything happens to you even if is our fault" line. The line that attracted my immediate attention was in big bold letters: "SKYDIVING IS A DANGEROUS SPORT, IT CAN LEAD TO SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH". It struck me as curious that it would be necessary to inform anyone that jumping out of airplanes at altitude might be dangerous. To me it seems as obvious as saying that the sky is blue or that the Pope is Catholic. Isn't this one of the attractions of "dangerous" sports such as SCUBA diving, mountain climbing, car racing and even skiing, that by their very nature there is a possibility of injury or death? We certainly do not expect to be killed or injured while engaging in these activities but we are not deterred by the possibility of it happening.
The class begins by Tom introducing himself and reading the form to us, stressing the part about injury and death. He suggests that anyone who is uncomfortable with this can withdraw from the class at this time and get a full refund. No one accepts his offer.
Tom then launches into a description of the parts of the parachute and the theory of how it works. During this discussion he suggests that "the only stupid question is the one that you don't ask". Apparently inspired by this, Ted, one of the prospective jumpers, asks the perennial question "what happens if the parachute doesn't open?". Tom patiently explains the function of the reserve parachute and the role of the parachute rigger in packing it. This in turn prompts this same brilliant soul to ask: "what happens if the reserve doesn't open?". Apparently Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest does not apply to the modern human species.
In the course of the next few hours we learn that we are going to be using a system of opening the parachute called static line. In this system there is a cord that is attached to the top of the canopy with the other end of the cord attached to the airplane. If all goes well, this cord pulls the parachute out as soon as you leave the plane. We are going to be using the traditional round canopies, in this case a canopy called a Para-Commander, for the main chute and a military surplus canopy in a chest mount for a reserve. I would later discover that in the skydiving vernacular this was referred to as "gutter gear". Inexpensive, low performance equipment that is commonly given to students because of the high level of wear-and-tear on the gear when they invariably get dragged across the ground. Most experienced jumpers were using the state-of-the-art, ram-air parachutes, these perform considerably better, but are quite a bit more expensive.
The reserve parachute has an Automatic Activation Device or AAD for emergencies. This device is meant to open the canopy if certain parameters of speed and altitude are reached. For example, if you are still in free-fall traveling at 120 MPH when you reach 1000 feet it will fire and try to open the parachute, thus saving your life. This combination of speed and altitude is not a desirable situation to be in as you are about five seconds from impact!
The section on what would be happening during the actual jump was most intriguing, as this was not mere theory but what we would actually be doing and having done to us. It sounded fairly straight forward, we would sit in the door with our feet hanging out in space, the jumpmaster would yell: "Ready, Set, Go!" On GO the JM would assist us in exiting the airplane. We are then supposed to go into a hard arch for stability and count: "one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand" and then check for a round canopy. If the canopy has a problem we are to institute emergency procedures such as cutting-away and pulling the reserve. If the main canopy is OK we are then supposed to steer the parachute to the drop-zone, turn into the wind and then land. Tom shows us drawings of what different types of canopy malfunctions look like.
We learn that our greatest enemy, aside from gravity, is the clouds. The clouds block the view of the drop-zone and prevent seeing other aircraft in the area or the other jumpers. Recognizing the hazards involved, the FAA regulations prohibit jumping through the clouds and establish a minimum clearance from them. Because of the profusion of the winter clouds, we are going to have to wait for a large enough hole, appropriately located over the drop-zone, to to jump through.
During the navigation phase of the class, we were instructed how to find the drop-zone and how to determine the wind direction. We learned how we were supposed to steer the parachute and how to fly the landing pattern. Finally, we were taught how to put our feet and knees together and roll in a Parachute Landing Fall or PLF for short and how to release the canopy to keep from being dragged across the rocks. We are informed that we would be wearing radios and that someone on the ground would be assisting us with the navigation.
This all sounded fairly easy when drawn on the chalkboard in the calmness of the classroom. I suspect that the reality of the situation might be somewhat different.
We take a written test to prove that we learned everything that we needed then Tom tells that it is time for lunch. The hours seemed to have overtaken us very quickly but I didn't think that any of us was very hungry at that moment. As there were no eating facilities near by, I bought a can of soda from the vending machine and ate my oranges while I watched the clouds gather and keep an eye on the windsock. Nearby, a group of the experienced jumpers, in full gear, are doing a final practice or "dirt dive" for their next jump. They are crouched with their arms parallel to their upper bodies, imitating the free-fall position. Moving together and spinning in place, they appear to perform a bizarre hunchback's ballet.
Patty brings the rest of the students outside for the physical portion of the class, PLFs and arches. Our first exercise is to jump off of a three feet high pedestal and practice the PLFs. Over and over we take turns putting our feet and knees together and rolling as we hit the ground. The ground in South Florida is primarily composed of oolite, a compressed form of coral rock without any give to it. We start developing bruises from doing the rolls. On the picnic table we practice our arches.
Tom comes out, takes us to the back of the hangar and introduces us to "The Beech". The aircraft that we will be using is a twin engine Beech 18, built sometime in the 1940s. It is equipped with cargo doors instead of the smaller passenger doors making it ideal for in-flight exits. It is a very popular aircraft for the drug runners as it can carry over three thousand pounds of cargo. Peering inside the wide doors I see that the only seats in it are the pilot and co-pilot seats. To comply with FAA regulations concerning carrying passengers there are seatbelts anchored to the empty floor. No one actually ever uses any of these but the FAA says that they must be present. The two radial engines are massive and the propellers appear huge when standing next to them. It seems to be a stout, competent aircraft but the oil stains trailing from underneath the cowling make me reassess the concept of "perfectly good airplanes".
Tom tells us that he is going to be the pilot and that Patty is assuming the role of jumpmaster. The JM, as the name implies, is in charge of the jump. The JM directs the pilot and the jumpers and can abort the jump if the conditions warrant. The JM's main responsibility is safety and consequently, they are charged with doing the "spotting". Spotting is an arcane combination of art and science that involves determining the wind speed and direction, not only on the ground but also at the various levels that the jumpers will be passing through. The JM must calculate where these, often opposing, wind directions will take the jumper, where the holes in the clouds are and then factor in an adequate safety margin for the students who do not follow instructions. They direct the pilot to line up the aircraft in an appropriate direction and distance from the drop zone and tell the jumpers when to exit the aircraft. Their final function is to retrieve and secure the static line and bag after the jumper exits.
We practice our exits from the door of the Beechcraft. Sitting in the door with my feet hanging out, I discover that the jumpmasters "assistance" consists of rocking me out far enough on the word "Go" that I have no choice but to exit the plane.
Movement inside the aircraft is kept to a minimum and is only at the JMs direction. Tom tells us that our most important responsibility while in flight will be to protect our chest mounted reserve parachute. It has a spring-loaded pilot chute inside and could be opened if someone accidently pulls your rip-cord or if the AAD malfunctions and fires. If this occurs and the pilot-chute goes out of the door into the air stream the parachute will try to open and do its job of stopping the jumper. Unfortunately, the plane will still be traveling at one hundred and fifty knots and the jumper will be pulled through the side of the plane causing extreme damage to the jumper not to mention the airframe of the aircraft. With apparent relish, to illustrate this point he shows us photos where this has happened at other drop zones. They look like the photos of the auto accidents that we were shown during driver's education in high school, one mangled mass of metal looks much like another.
Finally our training is complete and we are ready to go, except that we need to wait for an opening in the clouds. Tom goes to check the weather reports while Patty takes us into the "parachute loft" to suit up. The loft is the heart of the parachute center. Two forty feet long tables are used for packing the round main and reserve parachutes. Around the walls are an array of ancient sewing machines and piles of parachutes and unidentifiable equipment. The air smells of wet nylon.
Against one wall an array of jumpsuits hang on a rack. Like uniformed soldiers in a Mardi Gras parade, the sage green military suits stand in contrast to the bright yellows and reds of the civilian suits. I find that one of the military suits fits me and I put it on. In addition to these we need a pair of boots. I look through the shelves to find a pair that fit. These are similar to combat boots but with thicker soles to help cushion the landing. They lace up tightly and are almost my size. The fiberglass Bell helmet and the goggles round out the ensemble
The parachute gear is heavy, nearly forty pounds. Patty helps me put it on and checks the straps and the emergency canopy releases or "Capewells" to make sure that they will work. She checks the radio receiver and secures it inside the jumpsuit, double checks the reserve parachute, gives me a wink and tells me that I am ready. I smile and agree with her. . I am starting to feel like the character Jim Buckley in "Ripcord", my childhood fantasy finally coming true.
After she checks out the other students she dons her own gear. In contrast to ours, hers appears to be half the weight and size and twice as comfortable. She wears a padded leather "frap hat" instead of the cumbersome hard fiberglass helmets and sneakers instead of boots.
We hobble out to the plane, encumbered by all the gear, and make a final practice exit while Tom checks out the plane. We struggle to climb aboard. They sit us down facing the rear of the plane with our arms wrapped around the reserves to protect them. The other students look as if they are beginning to question their own sanity. I suspect that I may have lost my own sometime previously and simply enjoy being where I am. By nature I am enthralled by technology and the conquering of gravity, even in this most primitive form, seems to me most exhilarating. I will be jumping third out of five students.
Tom climbs aboard and settles into the pilot's seat as if it were a comfortable easy chair in front of the TV. He starts flipping switches and checking gauges and fires up the engines. They begin to spin and finally catch and explode into life with a thunderous roar and a cloud of smoke. He lets them idle for a few moments, releases the brake, checks for traffic and we pull out onto the taxiway.
As we taxi towards the south end of the runway I check the windsock and see that the wind, as is typical for winter, is coming out of the north. Out of the window we see Gino, one of the other instructors, driving the van to the drop-zone, a bean field two miles away. Gino will be talking us down with the radio and remains in constant contact with the plane in case he has to move the drop zone because of the clouds. They seem quite thick and it is overcast, I wonder if we will be able to find a hole big enough to jump through.
The plane stops at the end of the runway. We sit patiently as Tom does the final checkout, running up the engines and checking the radio for other aircraft in the area. This is the moment of truth. As we are ready for take off, the students look tense and make nervous attempts at humor as they realize that there is no turning back once we leave the ground. For most of them it is the first time in a small airplane.
Suddenly, the engines drown out any conversation as they go to full throttle and with a lurch Tom releases the brakes and we plunge down the runway, building speed as we go. Out of the door I can see the ground whizzing by furiously. My stomach sinks as we become airborne and I can see the ground rapidly dropping away from us. We begin our journey to the thirty-five hundred feet altitude from which we will be making our jump.
We reach two thousand feet fairly quickly, just below the level of the clouds. We fly around looking for the apparently mythical hole through the clouds to complete the asent. The clouds seem impenetrable and there seems no way through but we continue to optimistically fly and search. Finally, like a beacon in the darkness, we see a ray of sunlight peeking through a hole. Flying through it we burst into the crystal clear skies above. The clouds lie like a fluffy cotton comforter below us.
Now we flying in circles looking for another hole near the drop zone to jump back down through. Patty is perched with her head sticking out of the door looking for holes. She turns to us and tells us to get ready, we have found an opening and are turning onto jump-run! We all watch intently as she moves Susan, the first student, into position, the students eyes appear as big around as dinner plates. Tom drops the engine speed and sets the plane in level flight. Patty anchors the latch on the end of the static-line to a cargo ring in the floor then has Susan swing her feet out of the door into the wind stream, white knuckles gripping the bottom edge of the door. Gripping the back of Susan's pack Patty sticks her head out of the door and gives Tom hand signals to line up the plane with the drop-zone. I hear her yell "Cut" and Tom throttles back the engines.
I hear her yell at Susan "Ready" and rock her slightly forward. She yells "Set" and rocks her back, I notice that Susan has her eyes closed. Patty yells "GO" and rocks her forward and out of the airplane. The static line whaps against the side of the plane and she is gone. Patty pulls in the line and bag and the plane banks into a sharp turn preparing to go around for the second run. Out of the window I can see Susans open canopy below us.
Ted is next. As Patty hooks him up I hope that enough information soaked into his brain and that he will remember some of it. We turn onto jump-run. Sitting with his feet dangling in the breeze staring out of the door, he looks as if he might have a change of heart and back out. Patty takes ahold of his pack and with a "Ready, Set, Go" he is gone. We bank again and it is now my turn!
After anchoring my static-line Patty helps me into a position next to the door. We turn onto jump-run and when the plane levels out she has me swing my feet out. I put them into the wind stream and I feel the power of the hundred and twenty knot wind. All I see out of the door is the blanket of clouds. I have no idea where we are but Patty's grip is amazingly strong directing me forward. From far away I hear someone yell "Cut". Patty yells in my ear "Give me a good, hard arch". Then I hear her voice from a distance yell "Ready" and I feel myself being rocked forward. My face goes into the wind and it turns my head. She yells "Set" and now I am leaning back, all I see is blue sky. "Go" is left far behind me in the airplne. I feel as if a huge hand slaps me as my body hits the air stream and a sudden jolt, as if running into a wall, as the canopy deploys. After I stop seeing stars and catch my breath I realize that I am supposed to be counting. I look up and see a yellow and black round canopy over my head. I have no idea whether I did an arch on exit or not.
Following my training, I grab the steering toggles and spin the parachute to the right looking for the drop-zone, all I see are clouds. Three turns later I discover that I was looking too far away, the DZ is just below me. I hear nothing from the radio. At the DZ Gino has set-up the portable windsock and turned the van into the wind. It has a huge white arrow painted on the roof and we are supposed to face in the direction that the arrow is pointing. He has laid out a large yellow cloth X on the ground as a target. I appear to be somewhat off the wind-line. I turn the canopy towards it and when I seem to be in line I turn into the wind. My altimeter reads just over two thousand feet. I look down and see that I am moving backwards in relation to the target. This means that the wind is pushing me backwards faster than the parachute is moving forward. I am going to overshoot the target by some distance but the field is huge and empty so I have lots of room for error.
Once I have taken care of the navigation I relax a bit. I look around and realize that I am suspended in mid-air with nothing around me but the canopy over my head, I am completely separated from any connection to the earth and alone with nothing but the sound of the wind for company. It is an awe-inspiring sensation that is impossible to describe and must be experienced to be understood.
I look down and see that Susan has landed, taken her gear off and is standing next to the truck watching. I see Gino helping Ted, who is lying on his back, collapsing his canopy. A long shallow furrow extends upwind from Ted's feet where he has been dragged, he is quite a distance from the target. I am determined that I will not be dragged. Above me I hear the plane come around and in a few moments I see another round canopy appear, the forth student. My altimeter reads five hundred feet and it is time to prepare for my landing.
As I am already as far downwind as I need to be, I do no more maneuvering, all I have to do is hold my position and land. I am starting to get "ground rush" as the ground is coming up fast. I put my feet and knees together, my body tenses waiting for the impact. My feet hit and I go into my PLF. I start to get up, the wind re-inflates the canopy and pulls me down again, I struggle to keep my ground and quickly reel in the steering toggle and collapse the canopy. Gino gets to me, helps me get up and asks if I am OK. I reply that I am fine and he races off to prepare for the next students landing. I walk back to the truck feeling extremely elated and somewhat lightheaded.
I take off my gear and stow it in the truck. I join Susan and Ted and congratulate them, they are pumped up with excitement and chattering away. We watch as the fifth canopy blossoms. A few moments later we see Patty's rectangular pink canopy open much lower. By this time the forth student has landed and Gino is helping her. We see Patty doing spins and dropping fast, she swoops by overhead, hooks a turn into the wind and, like a giant flamingo settling into the water, does a tiptoe landing next to the truck. This is in marked contrast to our crash and burn style of landings. She comes over and congratulates us, like the rest of us she is under the influence of adrenaline.
Gino catches the last student and brings them back to the van. We pile in and effusively discuss our adventure on the trip back.
Back at the airport we remove the gear while Patty fills out and signs our log books and gives us our "First Jump Certificates". Subconsciously I know that this certificate has no practical value but it marks a personal milestone in my life. A milestone that most people only dream about and this imparts to it an incalculable value. We overcame our fears and, yes, perhaps our common sense as well, and joined the ranks of those who know that no obstacle is insurmountable and that we can, in fact, do anything we set our minds to. Fear is not an enemy, it is instead a good friend warning us to be careful.
The jump was finally over. As it was late in the day and the clouds were getting even worse, we decided to adjourn to a local restaurant for dinner and drink in celebration of our survival. During the meal we all recounted our adventure, embellishing it with every new telling. Needless to say, it was an event that none of us would ever forget. All of the students promised to return the next weekend to make more jumps. Ultimately, I was the only one that did.
In the course of the next several years I made hundreds of additional jumps. I became a Jumpmaster, Instructor and FAA certified Parachute rigger. I eventually went to work for Tom and took my turn packing the parachutes, teaching the classes and throwing the students out of the airplanes. My greatest accomplishment is that, of the hundreds of students that I trained, outside of some minor abrasions and contusions, none were ever injured.
Tom was killed last month. A Cessna that I had made many jumps from went into a spin, crashed and burned, killing him, the pilot and five students making their first jump.