There are people out there who, at some point in their lives, say to themselves, 'I'd really like to skydive once, but I'm not sure I could actually do it.' As it happens, it is easier than you might think. After participating in a series of training jumps you could find yourself with a bona fide1 licence that shows you took that leap of faith.
The place where skydivers get together to practice their art is called a 'drop zone,' for obvious reasons. If you want to learn, this is where you need to start.
A local drop zone can be found in several ways. Firstly, you could go to your local airport and ask. Usually someone at a pilot training facility or charter company will know something. An easier way, however, would be to go to the website of the US Parachute Association or Skydive UK!, depending on your location. These are very useful and informative organizations for skydivers in general, and their websites have lists of drop zones. Once you find the nearest place, give them a call. Someone will be happy to tell you when to show up, what it will cost, what to wear, anything to bring along and whatever else you need to know.
Once you've gone to the drop zone and filled out the necessary paperwork, you will find yourself in a classroom with a handful of other people taking their first jump. This is known as ground school, as all the practicing completed at this point is done on the ground. Depending on the size of that day's class, ground school usually lasts around four hours, and this is the time when you find out everything you ever wanted to know about a parachute (a parachute is also known as a 'canopy') and how to fly it. You will also find out how to correctly exit the plane, what to do in an emergency, and anything else you care to ask.
It is vitally important to find out everything you want to know at this stage by asking any questions that come to mind. If you don't understand something completely or don't feel comfortable with some aspect, ask about it. If you are wondering something, then you can guarantee that somebody else in the room is wondering the same thing, and they will be very glad that you asked. Don't worry about looking silly by asking something, as you will look a lot sillier than that when you let go of the wing for the first time and freak out.
Ground school also involves a lot of hands-on practice getting in and out of a plane, steering a pseudo-canopy, learning how to pull the emergency rip cord, and people telling you constantly that if anything goes wrong, 'Don't panic'. This sounds a bit odd, as if you are falling from three thousand feet with a parachute that suddenly becomes entangled in its own control lines, what else are you going to do? However, panic is not your friend at that point and will leave you facing an unpleasant impact with the ground. If you stay calm, you'll remember the emergency rip cord, pull it, and glide down safely on your reserve chute.
One question that is bound to occur to someone will be, 'Is skydiving dangerous?', and the simple answer is 'Yes, it can be'. You're going to be high up in an airplane and, at some point during your journey, you are going to leave the safety of said airplane while still in flight. This is an inherently dangerous procedure. However, if you pay attention in ground school and do what you are taught, you will be fine. Granted, there is the possibility of a total catastrophic equipment failure, but this is less likely than winning the big prize on the lottery or being struck by lightning. How many people do you know who have been struck by lightning or won the lottery? Out of an average 3.5 million jumps every year, there are an average of 35 deaths. This statistic becomes more comforting when you see that total equipment failure accounts for nearly none of these, whereas most of the deaths are due to experienced jumpers taking unnecessary risks, trying to break records, or just generally showing off beyond their ability.
So to recap: skydiving is dangerous, but if you have asked questions and do what you're told when you're up there, you'll walk away intact.
First Static Line Jump
The first jump is what everybody who skydives remembers for the rest of their life, whether they jump again or not. Oddly it is the simplest, easiest jump anyone will ever do.
After you finish ground school, you get suited up in a big coverall-like jumpsuit, helmet, parachute rig, altimeter, and radio. The rig weighs about 25-30 pounds altogether and is somewhat uncomfortable, but it will amaze you how excited you'll be for looking so odd.
For the first jump you, and two other ground school attendees, will hop in a plane with your jumpmaster and take off. Once you get to around 3500 feet, the pilot will cut the engine to slow the plane down to about 80mph. The jumpmaster, after making sure your static line (a cord which, when it reaches its end, will automatically open the parachute for you) is secure with one end connected to the plane and one end connected to your parachute, will open the door and tell you to start working your way out. You then need to grab the wing strut, brace your feet, and stand up slowly, which is not an easy task in an 80mph headwind. You then work your hands out to the end of the wing strut and pick your feet up. At this point you will be hanging for dear life on to the wing of an airplane in flight. Then when you look at your jumpmaster you will get the signal to let go.
Having released your grip on the wing you will find yourself suddenly falling through the air, looking helplessly at a plane flying up and away at an alarming rate. After approximately three seconds the static line reaches the end and your canopy opens above you. At this point you will receive a message from your jumpmaster telling you to untangle any line twists and then release your brakes. With checks completed you can then follow instructions and release the brakes.
At this point, most likely, you will be hit full force by the immensity of what you have done and break into hysterical laughter. Around you are the sky, the ground, the airplane, and your fellow students, quite a way above and/or below you. You have a brief time to enjoy the total peace and serenity of this situation, before radio instructions guide you down. You hit the ground with your feet and immediately fall on your ass, because no matter how much you thought you'd be the one in your class to hit the ground running, almost nobody does on their first jump.
At this point, quite rightly, you can truly celebrate knowing that you have done something that sets you apart from the crowd.
Jumps that follow get consecutively higher and place increased responsibility on you to go through the routine yourself, without prompting. After approximately five static line jumps you will do a hop-&-pop, which means you jump out and immediately pull your rip cord. You then go on to free falls, where you start higher and higher up and wait longer and longer before you pull your rip cord. You start to learn the procedure for packing your own chute. You also begin to have more independence in navigation; you depend less on the radio to get you back to the airport.
After 20 jumps you should be just about qualified for your 'A' license, which means you can jump without an instructor, with other jumpers in the air, and you have 30 days currency, which means you must jump at least once every 30 days to keep your license current. A 'B' license means you can jump at night and have 60 days currency. Higher grade licences basically mean even more freedom and personal responsibility.
Accelerated Free Fall Training
Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) training puts you in free fall from your first jump. You get the option to pull your own rip cord, or fly with a perfectly capable instructor on either side of you with a rip cord within reach.
Instead of the 3500ft reached for the static line jumpers, you will be taken up to approximately 10,000ft, and as you progress your opening height will decrease until you are finally opening at around 2500 - 3000ft. Your initial free fall will last for approximately 30 seconds.
The AFF course consists of eight levels of increasing difficulty. Each level requires that certain tasks be completed in order for the level to be passed. You will jump with two instructors and a camera person for your first three levels. They will both hold on to you throughout the jump. By the third jump just one instructor will be holding on while the other observes from a short distance away.
Only one instructor will jump with you for levels four through to seven. Once the remaining instructor feels you are stable enough on your own he will begin letting go, but remain close at hand should he feel that his assistance is required.
By your eighth jump, providing all levels have been passed first time, you will be flying solo enjoying the total freedom of the skies. In order to complete level eight you will be required to complete a minimum of three solo jumps, ending with a hop-&-pop from around 4000ft with a five-second free fall.
If you are looking for the biggest possible rush, this is definitely the option to go for. Your first eight jumps will, however, cost you the same as your entire static line course from first jump to getting your license.
The procedures in this entry reflect the experience of the Researcher only. Other drop zones will be similar, but may have slightly different procedures, equipment, and standards. This is to be taken only as one representation of several possible paths to getting your license. Call your local drop zone to find out more specific information.