According to the United States Parachute Association's home website, there are 34,000 member skydivers in the United States. Make that 34,001.
I've read estimates that put the number closer to 29,000, but either way you look at it, holding a skydiving license puts you somewhere in 0.0001% of the overall population.
It feels I've accomplished something, to be honest with you. I can't shake the feeling of pride, after jumping all winter, driving 2 hours on weekends down to the drop zone, sometimes, frequently, just to sit there as wind conditions or cloud coverage completely screwed me out of a day in the air.
There were still things to do: learning to pack, and an avalanche of knowledge, and just the camaraderie of the skydiving community to wrap myself in, but 25 jumps, of which 3 were tandems, 7 AFFs, and 5 were coach, each displaying or learning a different skill or technique, all while hurtling at approximately 120 miles an hour towards the ground. Well it feels like I've accomplished something.
I cannot put this any other way. Skydiving is the greatest thing I've ever done. In my life. It is the best hobby, skill, diversion, sidetrack, exploration, meditation, talent, whatever I have ever had. Unequivocally.
I've never been around a more impressive, diverse, intelligent, engaged, and worldly group of people. I've jumped and bonded with people from England, Australia, South Africa, Africa, South America, Canada and every possible region of the United States. They are ex-military, doctors, lawyers, Asian, African, studs, dorks, and thrill seekers. They have more stories than you could imagine, and the only things I've been able to find that tie skydivers together are these: 1) They are very open minded. 2) They are incredibly knowledgeable and open. 3) They are opinionated and experienced. 4) They fucking love to hurtle their body out of the nearest airplane heading up to 14,000 feet.
I have now made 29 jumps out of airplane, hurtling my body in every imaginable angle and velocity I can hold with control. I've dealt with emergencies and the unexpected. I can control my flight, I can think of something to do, and do it. And here is the thing:
I'm nowhere near good at this sport. In each of my 29 jumps, for the roughly 60 seconds you get in freefall before pulling my pilot chute and dealing with your canopy, the wind conditions, and flight pattern of my landing-for all of the 5 to 6 minutes of total time in the air-I learn in leaps and bounds.
Every jump shows me something new. Every jump I do something or accomplish something that seemed well beyond the grasp of my knowledge or experience just one jump prior.
On my check out dive last weekend, Kim, my blonde and British instructor took me up. Earlier in the day we had taken a coach jump together and when we landed she said, "I'd sign you off right now. You know what you're doing. So ask for me on your check out dive and we'll just keep your progression going. I'll start teaching you some real jumps."
On that jump she had taught me the mantis flying position, a flying position where you keep your arms in closer to your head, your hands limp and loose. It give you more maneuverability in flight, allows more precision with your legs. This is what I mean by learning in exponential increments. And yet at the same time, in knowing, just through watching Kim and my other instructors fly for that same 60 seconds, in realizing that I don't know shit.
My check out dive was my last of Sunday. On the ride up to altitude Kim went over our jump with me.
"I'm going to take you on a tracking dive. Mainly because once I teach you how to fly on all surfaces, we can ease from there right into freeflying." Freeflying is the discipline I want to train in. There are no rules or boundaries to it, save the imagination. Every surface, from the tip of your head to the balls of your feet, is a viable surface to fly on. All of them. Just balance and imagination limit what you can do.
"We're going to do a special exit out the door, after that I want you to track, hard and straight and as fast as you can. Use me as your guide. If you move away, it's because you are moving away, I won't be going anywhere, so if you're moving away from me, or towards me, adjust back to straight. After that, turn around and track back the opposite direction. When that track is finished, dock with me, and then we're going to have some fun."
"What kind of fun?"
"You'll see. Just respond to me. You'll be fine."
"What are we going to do?"
"I'm not telling."
"Can we go over the dive again, then?"
"Because you know this. You know you know it. Stop over thinking things. Just have fun. Trust yourself."
We sat side by side in the door, dangling our feet into the free air. We linked arms, and each grabbed a grip on my leg band. We rocked forward, back, and then rolled forward, out the door, linked and connected and both tucked. We flipped into the sky once, twice and then a third flip. At the end of the fourth, she sloughed me off, and I righted myself before her, then turned right and started my track.
I peeled my hands back to my side and straightened out my legs. Slowly. Deliberately. I kept my eyes on her the entire time, as I was supposed to do. As I picked up speed, I arched my body forward, bending at the waste, pointing down, and picking up more and more speed. And as deliberately as I had sped up, I slowed down to a fall, letting my momentum carry me forward. Turning 180 degrees I performed the same maneuver, back the other direction, keeping my eyes on my instructor, the wind slicing off my body, the ground moving backward below.
As I turned and docked with her, she offered me her right hand. I gave mine, and she gripped in a loose "What Up" shake grip. She smiled and kind of nodded her head before moving into a sit, and then scissoring her legs. The effect sent her plummeting below me, and forced me head down, my hand still grabbing hers.
I was head down.
I was head down!
I WAS HEADDOWN!!! I stared and looked around, as shocked as I was pleased while at the same time knowing I had done nothing to get into this position, and it would be awhile before I could get there of my own accord. Bu I was head down, flying straight towards the earth.
And just as suddenly as she had flipped me up, she changed positions, rocked up above me, and in one fluid motion swung her arm out and threw me across the sky. I tumbled and shook, clothes in a washing machine, before arching and falling stable back onto my belly. After turning to track back to her I saw that I was at 5,000 feet. I turned right and tracked away. At 4,500 feet I waved off and pulled.
I now have my A license. Nothing has meant so much to me and so little in the grand scheme of things. It means that I can jump anywhere in the world I want, and any time, but not in any condition. I means that I can leave the plane with other people and can learn more and more and more.
It means, essentially, that I can save my own life to a reasonable degree that they trust I'm not a complete jackass. That's really what it means.
And there is so much left to learn. I don't think I could put it better than the hetero lifemate, who had a graduation of sorts himself that same weekend. He graduated off AFF status. He is no longer a student skydiver, and probably 15 jumps away from getting his A license. He sent out the following e-mail this week that says it all:
It's quite an amazing thing to be able to train your mind to think clearly-react succinctly-and register the pleasure and sensation of flying while falling at 120 mph. There is a reason only a handful of people are able to do this-and it's not just because it's scary.