Special thanks to Vanora for the AFF section.
Skydiving. Many people, at some point in their lives, say to themselves, "I'd like to skydive once, but don't think I could actually do it." Well, it's easier than you might think. This entry describes the series of training jumps you would take if you wanted to become licensed; tandem jumps are a different category. If you just want an (accurate) description of the mindset of a skydiver, look at the Entry for skydiving.
Is skydiving dangerous? Yes, it can be. You're going to be up in what is usually referred to by wuffos1 as a 'perfectly good airplane', and 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 (see below), 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 lottery if you purchase a ticket for every Big Game, which is less likely than being struck by lightning. How many people do you know who have been struck by lightning? Exactly. Out of an average 3.5 million jumps every year, total equipment failure happens an average of slightly more than zero times(slightly more than zero, being quite a bit less than one). Out of those 3.5 million jumps, there are an average of 35 deaths, nearly all of which are 'experienced jumpers' taking unneccesarry risks, trying to break world records, and whatnot. So to recap: skydiving is dangerous, but if you do what you're told when you're up there, you'll walk away very much alive.
Finding a Drop Zone
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 go. A local DZ can be found in several ways. One, 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, plus 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, bring, anything you need to know.
Once you've gone to the drop zone and filled out the necessary paperwork, you will probably find yourself in a classroom, usually with a handful of other people taking their first jump. This is known as 'ground school', as it is all done on the ground, as opposed to what is done in the air. 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(or 'canopy') and how to fly it, how to correctly exit the plane, what to do in any possible emergency, and anything else you can think of to ask. Ask questions. If you don't understand something completely or don't feel comfortable with some aspect, ask about it. This is why you are here. If you are wondering something, then nine times out of ten so is somebody else in the room, and they will be glad you asked. Don't worry about looking silly by asking something, you'll look a lot sillier than that when you let go of the wing for the first time and freak out. So will everybody else, don't worry about it.
Ground school also involves a lot of hands-on practice getting in and out of the plane, steering a pseudo-canopy, learning how to pull the emergency ripcord, and people telling you constantly that if anything goes wrong, "Don't panic." This sounds a bit odd, if you're falling from three thousand feet with a parachute that suddenly becomes entangled in its own control lines, you're not supposed to panic? In a word, yes. Panic is not your friend at this point. If you stay calm, you'll remember the emergency ripcord, pull it, and glide down safely on your reserve chute. If you panic, well, you could forget all about the reserve chute, and end up hitting the ground rather hard, and nobody wants to clean that up. If you hadn't freaked out, you'd be fine, but noooo, you had to panic and hyperventilate and forget all your training, and nobody wants to die in that mood. But I digress.
First Static Line Jump
This is the big one. This is what everybody remembers for the rest of their life, whether they ever jump again or not. And it's oddly 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 believe me, it will amaze you how excited you'll be for looking so odd. For your first jump, you and two of your new best friends will hop in usually a Cessna 182 with your jumpmaster, and take off shortly. Once you get to around 3500 feet, the pilot will cut the engine to slow the plane down to about 80 mph. The jumpmaster, after making sure your static line is secure(one end connected to the plane, one end connected to your parachute--when it reaches the end, it automatically opens the canopy for you! How nice!), will open the door and tell you to start working your way out. You grab on to the wing strut, put your feet on the weel well, and stand up slowly (no easy task in an 80 mph headwind). You then work your hands out to the end of the wing strut, and pick your feet up. You are now hanging for dear life on the wing of an airplane in flight. You look at your jumpmaster, who gives the signal to let go. You scream, "Are you insane?!?!?" He gives the signal again, emphasized by a wide grin. You attempt to give him a signal of your own, which causes you to lose your grip, and you are suddenly falling through the air, looking helplessly at the plane flying up and away at an alarming rate. After about 3 seconds, the static line reaches the end, and your canopy opens above you. You look up and thank whatever God you believe in, even if you don't believe in any. At this point, your radio crackles to life, and you hear, "Good job, jumper #2(or whatever number you happen to be), untangle any line twists and then release your brakes." You look up, find that your lines are free and clear, and release your brakes. At this point you are hit with the full force of what you have just done, and you break into hysterical laughter. You look around at the ground, the airplane, and your fellow students, quite a way above and/or below you. You now have time to enjoy the total peace and serenity, for you know that you are flying, and there's nothing under you but three thousand feet of open air, and nothing above you but a bit of canvas and nylon, and yet you are no longer afraid, because you're there, and you can see first-hand that it works. After the radio guy guides 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. Congratulations. You're now a different kind of person from others on this planet. You can fly.
The next jumps get consecutively higher, and with more responsibility on you to get things done. After around five static line jumps you do a 'hop-and-pop', which means you jump out and immediately pull your ripcord. You then go on to freefalls, where you start higher and higher up, meaning you wait longer and longer before you pull your ripcord. 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(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. The licenses continue on with more freedom and responsibility, but if you get to that point, you'll learn about it on your own.
AFF (Accelerated FreeFall) training will put you in freefall from your first jump. You will pull your own ripcord, unless you are on such a buzz that you have forgotten that you need to stop yourself from falling at some point. Should this be the case you will have a perfectly capable instructor on either side of you with a ripcord within reach.
Instead of the 3500ft reached for the static line jumpers, you will be taken up to approximately 10000ft, and as you progress your opening height will decrease until you are finally opening at around 2500 - 3000ft. Your initial freefall will last for approximately 30 seconds.
The AFF course consists of 8 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 onto you throughout the jump. By the 3rd jump one instructor will be holding on while the other observes from a short distance away.
Only one instructor will jump with you for levels 4 though 7. Once the remaining instructor feels you are stable enough on your own he will begin letting go unless he feels his assistance is needed.
By your 8th 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 8 you will be required to complete a minimum of three solo jumps, ending with a hop & pop from around 4000ft with a five second freefall.
If you are looking for the biggest possible rush, this is definitely the option to go for. Your first 8 jumps will however cost you the same as your entire static line course from first jump to getting your license.