The Pilot's Lounge #76: And Now For Something ...

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Got a lust for adventure? Tired of the status quo? Finished boring holes in the sky or getting $100 (let's be honest -- $200) hamburgers? AVweb's Rick Durden hasn't seriously thought about skydiving for many years, but recently he decided to take the plunge, and it has awakened his soul.

The Pilot's Lounge

One of the contentions among those who show up here in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport is that those who are attracted to aviation have a significantly greater sense of adventure than those who merely exist on the surface of the planet. Perhaps it is because we desire to move in the third dimension -- and, therefore, seek to overcome one of humankind's greatest fears, that of falling -- we shun the mundane.

Yet, somehow, for a majority of pilots, once the goal of the pilot certificate is achieved and the ritual of giving rides to friends is completed and holes are bored in the sky on some summer days, much of the magic has disappeared. Boredom raises its insidious head. The "Is that all there is?" question looms large. Pilots report a vague discomfort that something is missing; that there has to be more. And that's perfectly OK because, despite arguments to the contrary, pilots are humans, and are forever motivated by and looking for challenges and new adventures. After all, if the Wrights hadn't scratched the adventure itch, we might very well be visiting the sky only in helicopters and balloons, so it's OK to be dissatisfied with the status quo.

Luckily, aviation has a massive mix of options and opportunities for adventure, so we'd be foolish not to explore those that seem appealing. In the past, I've written columns suggesting pilots expand their horizons: to fly seaplanes, ski-planes, tailwheel airplanes and to take some aerobatic dual. The idea is to go out and try something new; to further explore this world of aviation that so attracts us.

Jump Out? Me?

The whole idea of reaching out to new experiences and to grow had been the subject of several conversations I had had with some of the regulars in the Lounge over the first few months of this year. All of them had been skydiving at least once in their lives and I was curious about it. I was not wildly enthusiastic, as the blazing desire to jump had somehow faded as I'd gotten older; after all, I'm a middle-aged guy with a healthy fear of heights.

When I was in college and law school, I had no hesitancy at all; I wanted to skydive. It looked as if it would be a great deal of fun. Frustratingly, I found that the reputable drop zones wouldn't take me because I'd had knee surgery. I was told that, because of the descent rate of the old, round parachutes, I was not a good candidate for the sport. I also had a very weird experience on the day I was supposed to check out to carry jumpers in an older Cessna 182. On the ground, awaiting my checkout flight, I watched as the jumpers exited the airplane, free fell, opened, landed and hurried together into a hysterically laughing group. The jump plane landed and rolled out, but did not taxi back. As the pilot came walking in, I was told that one of the jumpers had grabbed the ignition key (older 182s had the ignition key in the center of the panel), turned it off, pulled it out and left the airplane holding the key and waving to the pilot. Evidently, this was a fad that was going around the jumping community at the time. The jump pilot, who was maybe about 5'5" tall, wasn't happy about the little joke, and proceeded to break the nose of the much larger prankster with his first punch. There was a lot of blood flying before the two were separated. I never did haul jumpers.

As rectangular 'chutes revolutionized the sport of skydiving, I was amazed when I watched the degree of control exhibited by jumpers and the astonishingly soft landings they pulled off routinely. I found out that my knee history no longer disqualified me for jumping the rectangular 'chutes, but I also discovered that my earlier intense desire to jump had departed. I continued giving aerobatic instruction while wearing a parachute, but no longer had the strong urge to take instruction and make a jump on purpose, choosing to merely regard the 'chute as a lifesaving device.

Nevertheless, as a result of this year's talks with people I respect, I realized that I'd been suggesting to people that they expand their aviation horizons and wasn't following my own recommendations. It was time to go and explore the world aloft on much more personal terms, rather than from inside the winged cocoon through which I normally traversed it.

Find A Good Jump Instructor

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SkyDive Michigan! at Brooks Field
(Click photos for larger versions)

The next step was to call my friend, Lynn Humphreys, who has been the guiding force behind Skydive Michigan! -- a well-respected drop zone in Marshall, Mich. -- for some 11 years. From a tiny office in the corner of a lovely, old, brick hangar built by the WPA during the Depression, Lynn manages an organization catering to those who desire to leap from airplanes with an infectious enthusiasm.

The instructor whose lot it would be to walk the stumbling student through a first lesson was Stan Lathrop, the other principal of Skydive Michigan! Because I was to make a tandem jump where the instructor wears the parachute and the student wears his own harness that is clipped to the front of the instructor, Stan would not only tell me what was going to happen, he would be the one guiding me through it when it happened. We first went through various legal forms, most of which involved waivers of liability that one expects in this day and age. I watched a detailed video that discussed the tandem parachute concept and went into more detail on the waivers I would be signing, which lead me to a couple of interesting thoughts: As a lawyer, I was impressed with the degree of openness with which the risks were discussed, so much so that I figured that, should I get hurt, the waivers I signed would probably stand up in court; and as I hadn't spent my life under a rock, I knew people could get killed skydiving and having to sign a waiver didn't cause me to reconsider my decision to press on.

Stan was wondrously patient with me. Frankly, I was nervous as hell, not just as a new student facing a new experience and wanting to do it right, but I knew I was going to have to deal with my fear of heights in order to enjoy something that so many of my friends purely loved to do. Stan took my nervousness in stride and, because of his experience, was able to offset a lot of it by clearly explaining what we were going to do and answering questions in appropriate detail. We then went through the entire process, step by step, starting with the gear we would wear, what we would do in the airplane on the way up and the altitudes at which we would don the last bits of gear, such as goggles, and then how we would physically fasten the tandem harness arrangements together. I learned that the harness I was wearing had four attach points to Stan's, that it was rated for something on the order of 5,000 pounds and any one of the clips would easily keep me from soaring off on my own, even if the other three came adrift.

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Packing parachutes for the next jump

Stan showed me how to preflight the parachute and reserve, to assure all pins were in place and not bent, that all straps were secure and everything else was in its place. Stan said we would exit the airplane at about 9,000 feet AGL and we went through the procedure to do so several times. As we approached the target, I would move from my spot where I was sitting on the floor, with my back to the pilot (yes, I would be wearing a seat belt), get to my knees, turn and face forward. Stan would then attach my harness securely to his and tighten all of the adjusting devices. Anthony Engelman, our videographer, would be in front of us. (Yep, the deal included an extremely well edited DVD of the event.) When the right cabin door was swung up against the wing, Anthony would climb out on the wing strut while he waited for Stan and me to get out onto the step arrangement mounted on top of the right main landing gear. At that point, my task would be to knee walk forward to the instrument panel (no right side yoke). Then, on Stan's call, we would each place our right feet out on the step. Next, I was to reach out and hold onto the strut with my right hand. Then we would each put our left feet on the step. Once in position, I was to cross my arms over my chest, so as to avoid a death grip on the strut. (I was determined I would not embarrass myself with that particular stunt. I hoped if I did something stupid, it would at least be more creative.) Stan would take us off the platform to the right and aft, and position us into a face down free fall while releasing a small drogue 'chute that would help stabilize and control our speed. When he tapped me on the shoulder I was to spread my arms and get into the classic skydiver's arch. We practiced everything several times.

Stan said I'd have a fair amount of time to look around during free fall as it took a whole six seconds to descend each thousand feet. Truly a leisurely descent. He said we'd open the parachute at about 4,500 feet AGL and then he'd have me maneuver it as we descended. We would also practice the landing flare a few times. Landing position was to be with feet together and knees bent.

There were a number of jumpers finishing up what appeared to be a successful day, and I was fascinated by the enthusiasm of everyone present. Old hands gave me a great deal of encouragement and answered questions that I had. I got the strong sense that they were either akin to drug pushers seducing a potential addict or that they just plain enjoyed what they did so much that they wanted to share it with the world. As the evening progressed, I came to the conclusion that their attitude was honest proselytization.

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Jump plane ready to go

Our chariot to adventure was a Cessna 182 that was about my age, something most reassuring. I wanted age and treachery in this endeavor, not youth and exuberance. We walked out and, as I recall, boarded and strapped in. Until I watched the DVD I did not recall just how much time we spent going over the procedure at the airplane itself before we got in; I had no recollection of it at all. Me? Nervous?

During the climb to altitude the pilot initially climbed downwind until reaching half of his desired height, then made a 180 and climbed into the wind, so that the effect of the reduced climb rate with altitude was offset by the change in groundspeed, and we arrived at the appropriate altitude back over the airport. I'd heard that skydivers were not always comfortable during the climb, not completely trusting the airplane, but I saw no sign of any unease on the part of Stan and Anthony. They seemed to be in a mode of suspended animation, of tolerating the ride to altitude as something that was to be put up with so that they could get to the important stuff and get out of the airplane. To me, wearing an ear-covering leather helmet, the airplane was a quiet, secure place of calm.

With about 2,000 feet to go, we donned our goggles and fastened helmet chin straps and generally made another check to see that everything was as it should be. Then it was time to move from my comfortable, secure, very pleasant spot on the floor. I got to my knees, cursing the discomfort of the position, and Stan hooked us up. Anthony had me make sure his helmet camera was running. Both Stan and Anthony exuded a mounting level of excitement. What they live for was about to happen.

The pilot reached for the door and the entire tenor of the day changed radically.

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Rick and Stan on approach to land

As the door went up against the wing, the noise level ramped up, the cold air came in, and this abstract idea of departing an airplane became hard reality. I had wanted to experience the sky as my airplane did: facing the tempest itself, not sheltered from it by aluminum and plexiglass. OK, chump, you got it. I'd flown open cockpit airplanes in the past and I'd even had one ride on the open lattice work that is the front end of an airplane called a Breezy, but the opening of that jump door was a punch to the solar plexus with actuality. Recalling the steps practiced so diligently in the calm of the office was suddenly amazingly difficult. The sheer power of the air, at but 60 mph, as I struggled to put my right foot on the platform, became every bit of my existence. This was aviation in the raw. On that step I had a visceral feeling for what those airplanes I had been flying for so many years experienced every moment they were in flight. For a brief moment I was aware of thinking about the genius it took to design and build things that could live in this environment. It's funny how one's mind zips through so many thoughts, so fast, when in a situation that is foreign to it.

With both feet on the step, I thought of my friend's comment that the first skydive would be an exercise in letting go and of my determination to do as I had been instructed. Releasing my grip on the strut, I crossed my arms in front of my chest. Almost immediately we left the airplane and rotated to a face down position as we experienced what felt to be about four seconds of weightlessness. We stabilized in a world of wind and far more sensations that I could take in. Intellectually, I knew I was suffering the tunnel vision one gets when confronted by something new and different, especially as a brand new student, but try as I might, and doing all that I could to see and feel everything, I was simply overwhelmed.

During free fall, there was no sensation of height, just of floating on a bed of wind and being disconnected from the rest of the world. We began to pitch fore and aft and I assumed that I wasn't in the correct position, but didn't know what to do about it (I later learned I had not arched my back enough). I finally looked up and out as Stan turned us through a full 360 and saw Anthony in formation with us, filming away with his helmet camera. I didn't think to look at the altimeter; I was too busy existing in sensory overload.

A moment later I realized Stan had pulled the ripcord and I recall being momentarily disappointed because I wanted more time to figure out this free fall stuff and stop the pitch oscillations. Opening the 'chute generated a smooth, deceleration over maybe 3 seconds and felt to be something just over 2 g's. Of immense surprise, the sensation was one of being pulled strongly upward, not of decelerating and it immediately triggered my fear of heights most effectively, after it had been dormant during free fall. As the opening sequence began, Anthony disappeared downward with a rapidity that astonished me.

Once the parachute was open, Stan described what we were doing and had me look up at the canopy. Because the harness causes one to hang leaning slightly forward, it was difficult to look upward far enough to see the canopy. The angle within the harness was more than a little uncomfortable, I felt as if I were looking down over the top of a building. The position in the harness, combined with my frustrating fear of heights proceeded to give me a bad case of the willies, which I could not suppress. If there were anything I could change about the experience, it would be to hang in a more upright position where I felt that I was sitting in the harness. Actually, I'd rather have had the risers coming off of my shoulders; perhaps it's a control thing.

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Flare for landing

As Stan had me handle the steering toggles to turn left and right and make a few circles, he discussed the forward speed of the 'chute and I found myself trying to estimate the distance we could cover in our "glide" and how to maneuver to hit our desired target for landing.

We practiced the flare to landing and even though I knew the chute could be slowed dramatically, it was surprising how much so when we pulled the toggles downward. As I write this, I realize I forgot to ask if there were any danger of stalling the 'chute as one would the wing of an airplane. The downward pull on the toggles seemed to almost bring us to a dead stop in the sky before Stan would call for me to raise them again and we would accelerate briskly downward and forwards for a few moments before again achieving equilibrium.

After years of watching skydivers hit the ground with some force, the landing was almost an anticlimax, although I cursed my bifocals for causing me to flare about a foot too high, leading to a completely painless, but most undignified fall forward when my feet finally touched the ground. So much for the cool, stand-up landing I was going to pull off. Sigh.

After landing, the camera keeps rolling

Stan had adjusted our approach so that our parachute collapsed onto Anthony as he was filming, leading to a great deal of laughter on the part of all observers. Even though I was at the bottom of the skydiving social order, a newbie, a brand new student, clumsily reaching for knowledge, overwhelmed by the entire experience and frankly not yet sure whether I liked it, the feeling generated by the other jumpers was infectious. I was among a warm group of those who love to skydive and it felt good to be able to have some inkling of what it was they did with such joy.

As we walked back to the office and I shed my gear, I was still in the midst of sensory overload, very glad that I had gone but frustrated that there was so very much happening and I could not drink it all in. Ludicrously, I thought of the joke about the turtle who had been mugged by four snails. When the police interviewed him about the crime, all he could say was, "I just don't know, it happened so fast."

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Lynn Humphries, Stan Lathrop, and Rick

As the days went by and I replayed the events mentally and had the chance to watch the DVD, I decided that I will go again. Perhaps it's an innate desire for control, but next time I want to try AFF, accelerated free fall, where the student jumper wears the full rig and an instructor hangs on to him at the waist, one on each side. I know it will take much more ground school, but that is not a problem in the least. I want to learn more about this skydiving stuff. Experiencing the sky in an intimately personal way, without a flying machine around me, is a curiously intoxicating sensation that is calling me back.

OK, now it's your turn.

See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.