One of the things I love the most about skydiving—aside from the whole jumping out of airplanes, feeling the column of air balloon below you, spinning as the ground rotates below you and flying under a square canopy after you pull—is the camaraderie. I’ve never been around a group of people so accepting, so welcoming of new people, so willing to sit down and talk.
On Saturday I arrived at Cross Keys a little after 8, a bit late for ground school due to traffic on the Jersey Turnpike. Our teacher was a guy with a prosthetic foot who spoke in some form of slurred quicktalk that I’ve never heard before. He lost his leg on a jump gone wrong, actually, as he admitted, through his own error. Something I’ve learned in my brief time in the sport is most jumpers view tragedies not as accidents, but as mistakes. Someone in the hanger told me that roughly 2% of skydiving fatalities come from doing everything right. There was nothing you could do to prevent what happened, and as many jumpers are prone to say when relating these stories, it was just their time. The rest, 98%, come from fuck ups. Turning to low, burning yourself into the ground, pulling off something under the canopy that, after training as long and hard as these guys do to get good at the sport, you damn well know better than. I wouldn’t know, this is just what has been told to me. My ground school instructor said that his accident was completely his fault, he knew better. He pulled a hard turn, which when you are under a canopy you quickly learn that any toggle pull left or right increases your speed, under 100 ft. from the ground and, as he said, burned himself into the ground. His ankle exploded on impact, he fell face first into the ground, his body rolled over his head. He broke his back and lost his foot. Yet he still sat there, training us, telling us the story to get it into our heads; there is are things you can do in each and every jump to ensure that you land safely, and the first thing is to just pull the damn chord.
After the class I signed up for my first AFF (Accelerated Free Fall) jump. I would have an instructor grabbing on to tubing on the leg of my suit. I’d leave the plane from the side, arch at the exit. The wind would hit me at 90mph, and I’d roll slightly, my arch righting me quickly, and then fall. For my first jump under my own canopy I wouldn’t do a single thing in the air but fly and maintain altitude awareness, checking how high I was ever 4 to 5 seconds. After I pulled I was own my own to plan out my descent and plan my landing. I would be a pilot for the first time.
But the winds picked up, gusting up to 19mph, and they grounded all jumpers without an A license (the license I am training for) with at least 50 jumps. Consistent wind is not a problem, any canopy can handle wind, but when you are a new jumper they give you a larger canopy which, when hit with sudden gusts of wind on descent, can collapse. You plummet. If this happens under 200 ft, it can be fatal. As much as I wanted to get in the air, you know these rules exist for a reason. I had to eat my eagerness.
There were relatively the same tandem instructors, cameramen, and radical bastards who’d been there last week. As I sat out on the patio, one by one, they’d pass by, first give me a head nod, stop at recognition, then get a big grin on their face. “You back, man! I knew you’d be up in the air again, you had that look. Training?” I’d tell them I just did ground school, and they’d smile, big and contagious. “Nice! The gusts will stop, they usually calm down between 4 and 6, we’ll get you in the air.” Then they’d sit down and talk. What they did. Where they lived. (Most lived in the area, some in trailers in the woods that surround the Drop Zone.) How many jumps they had. They’d just talk, answer all my questions, tell me about their first time, why they kept jumping, memorable experiences, all of it. At no point did I feel as though I was putting them out.
I’ve played sports my whole life. Soccer, basketball, and baseball growing up and rugby in college. The one thing that remains the same across the spectrum, in any sport, is this: the new guy is shit. He’s looked at cross-eyed, with suspicion. Teams form bonds with each other very quickly. There’s a reason war analogies are frequently used by athletes; you spill blood together, you fight for each other, you get each other’s back. No matter what happens off the field, on the field you are brothers. And a new person is just that. New. What has he done?
So you haze him, you fuck with him, he gets cold shouldered and bad nicknamed or simply ignored, at least until the first time he comes up big in practice or the real thing. After that he’s one of you; game supports game. When I first joined the rugby team in college I was largely ignored. When I went up to ask about a play or formation, whoever it was I had questions might answer me, but begrudgingly so. Bob, the hetero lifemate, and I met on the rugby pitch. “Hey rook,” he said over to me after I’d gone one on two, “you call that a move. What was that? Watch me Barry Sanders this guy.” Bob is built like a bowling ball, so he didn’t exactly Barry Sanders anyone, he more dragged two guys on his back for five or ten yards. “You call that Barry? That was more like Jerome Betus,” I said back, and everyone looked at me. You don’t trash talk when you’re new. But the first time we scrimmaged I juked two guys, split between them, and shoveled the ball to Bob, who was at the 3, and he bounded 35 yards into the try zone. After that he jogged back to me, fist extended, and gave me a pound. “Nice fucking pass,” he said. And that was it. From then on I was a part of the team.
Those rituals, those experiences of having to prove yourself, are not a part of skydiving. At least not in my experience. As I waited I found Shani, a girl who’d responded to one of my previous columns who jumps with a group of free flyers called Monkey Claw out of Cross Keys. I introduced myself and we sat there talking, me asking question after question. Midway through she waved someone over, “Honey, honey. This is Jarret. He wrote this column about jumping and is training here.” Her husband smiled big at me, “Nice, man. Welcome.” We shook hands.
Throughout the day the wind gusts didn’t calm down, but the loud speaker kept coming up. “That’s number 33 for the sky van.” As the day progressed it turned out that the pilot was nearing the record for most loads ever taken up, and to ensure he got there everyone started signing up. They even offered discount tandems to anyone who would join a load. Although I don’t need to tandem again, the jump would count towards my license, and I wanted to be a part of it. Part of the community. I asked Bonnie, the girl at the window, if Simeon was available. He had taken me on my T3 jump, and I wanted to jump with him again. That’s the thing about tandem masters. You never, never, never forget the people who strap you to them and take you out the door of a plane for the first couple of times. Ever.
I took my 4th jump, just as amazing as the rest. I made a small mistake during my jump. At 6,000 feet I locked on to my altimeter, as I’m supposed to. But instead of reading it right, I reversed the numbers in my head, staring intently at 4,500 feet, thinking it was 5,500. Just below 5,500 Simeon put his hand in front of my face, flashing me the pull sign, and I instantly realized what I had done wrong. I waved off, arched, and pulled. As we rode down I explained what had happened, and asked him what he thought. “I think it’s a tiny black mark, but not a big one. You know what you did wrong, you’ve talked it through, you won’t make the same mistake again.” Still, it sat with me, bugged me for the rest of the day.
But nothing can shake that feeling. I cannot describe it, though it’s certainly not for lack of trying here. It just keeps getting better and better, this flying thing. But almost as good as that, as the cold air, your arms extended at 90 degrees next to your head, your feet at shoulders width, slightly bent.
Only slightly better is the community of skydivers, the way they open themselves up to new jumpers, share their experiences, welcome you with open arms.
Only slight below that is the women. Female jumpers… damn. Just beautiful. There’s something unendingly sexy about a woman with a pack on her back, her hair windblown and wild. They are gorgeous. Especially the olive skinned, brown haired packer in the back of the hanger. Beautiful. All of them. But that’s a post for another time.