- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

It’s not really the fear of death. It’s the fear of that first step. That gut-wrenching, heart-thumping, mind-numbing, irrevocable first step into thousands of feet of nothingness. It’s convincing yourself that you really have what it takes to hurl yourself into the emptiness of space, with nothing to hold on to but your own indomitable faith that you will survive.

Which is why sky diving is more a state of mind than a logical concept.

Quite frankly, no sane person would make the decision to step out of an airplane thousands of feet in the air without the knowledge that (1) somehow he will, indeed, arrive safely back on earth and (2) it will be one of the greatest moments of his life.

The majority of people who take that first step do it just to say that they did it. Some 300,000 people per year make their first jump, and only about 3 percent of those ever jump again, according to Chris Needels, executive director of the U.S. Parachute Association.

Which means 97 percent either are in the “I just wanted to be able to say I did it” or the “Perhaps I’ll take up some other sport” category.

Three ways to leave an aircraft

Then there are people like Molly Whalen from Verona, Va., who had just completed her first two jumps at Skydive Orange, a sky-diving club at the Orange County Airport in Orange, Va. While most sky divers are male, about 15 percent are women, and that number is growing, Mr. Needels says.

Ms. Whalen’s brother is a lieutenant colonel in the Army, recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. He is also an airborne jump master who has, she says, jumped more than 800 times.

“I asked him for a sky-diving gift certificate for Christmas, and he gave it to me,” Ms. Whalen says. “There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to do it, even though I thought I’d be really nervous. But once I got in the plane, I wasn’t at all, which surprised me.”

Ms. Whalen made a tandem jump, in which she was attached to an instructor by a single harness. It’s one of the three ways a beginner may take that first jump — others are “static line” (in which a heavy, reinforced nylon cord is hooked at one end to a cable inside the aircraft and at the other to the bag containing the parachute canopy) and the self-explanatory “accelerated free fall.”

In tandem jumps the instructor does all the work and the student is along for the ride. It’s the type recommended for most first jumps, even for people who think they may want to continue sky diving as a sport, since it gives the jump school an idea of how the student will react.

It particularly tends to be the type of jump that the “one-time-only” jumpers make — which was Ms. Whalen’s plan.

“I wasn’t planning to make two jumps. But I told the instructor how much fun it was, and he asked if I wanted to jump again. So I did. Now I really want to take up the sport and will be going into the AFF program.”

The AFF, or accelerated free fall, is the ultimate of the training jumps. The student goes out the door on his own — no static line to automatically pull the ripcord, no instructor strapped on his back to keep them both safe. It’s just the student and 15,000 feet of empty air.

And, of course, an instructor on each side to make sure things don’t go too wrong. But still …

A tether to the past

If AFF is the ultimate first jump, it is also the most expensive. Least expensive — because no instructor is required to jump with the student — is the static line method. It is also the oldest, dating back to the very beginning of the use of parachutes as a means of leaving a perfectly good aircraft in flight.

“Static line training is what they used to use in the old days,” says Paul Taylor, an instructor at the Skydive Orange sky-diving club. “It’s a bit of a dinosaur.”

But think of the history.

Sky diving first became popular after World War II, following the daring exploits of famous airborne combat units such as the 82nd (All American) Airborne Division and the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division.

Most sky divers were men who were, or had been, Army paratroopers, using surplus chutes from the Army. These were round — unlike today’s winglike, rectangular canopies — and opened using a static line.

Once the static line played out, it pulled the bag containing the parachute canopy away from the jumper’s harness and — with any luck — the canopy opened. All this took roughly three seconds.

All the jumper had to do was hurl himself out and wait for the parachute to open. For free falls the static line was removed and a rip cord with handle attached.

The static line is still used today, although less often — partly because it takes more jumps before the student is ready for free fall.

“We keep it around,” Mr. Taylor says, “because we draw from a lot of the local colleges, and the college kids don’t have the money to spend on tandems and AFFs. We don’t see too many static lines these days, but we do it.”

Unlearning the tuck

Ironically, given the fact that the sport was inspired by military derring-do, military paratroopers can be among the most difficult students to train in sky diving.

“Trying to retrain military guys is the worst,” Mr. Taylor says.

“We get guys who come down from Belvoir or Quantico, and we have to retrain them from the way they were taught to go out of the plane. … Some of them adapt quickly, but the ones who have gone through the Airborne, the first thing they want to do is go back to their initial training, which is to tuck in.”

Airborne training teaches the jumper to exit the aircraft with feet and knees together, elbows tucked tightly into the sides and hands on top of the reserve parachute with chin tucked into the chest. That’s the exact opposite of the spread-eagle position of the sky diver.

Of course, Mr. Taylor doesn’t mind having the Army on hand. The Golden Knights parachute team trains at Orange County Airport every August, he says, “with brass coming down from the Pentagon to jump with them.”

The joy of falling

The accelerated free fall may be expensive, but it’s also the fastest way to get to the level where a student becomes a certified sky diver. AFF is generally considered to have started in 1981, although it actually goes back to the 1970s, when an instructor jumped with Johnny Carson for his TV show, Mr. Needels says.

An AFF jump normally starts at around 14,000 to 15,000 feet compared to about 4,000 to 5,000 feet for a static-line jump. The student exits the aircraft with an instructor on each side. The primary instructor uses hand signals to get the student into the proper position and to pull the rip cord at the appropriate time. If something goes wrong, the instructor can also reach over and pull the cord himself.

The key is confidence. Total, absolute, no-doubt-in-the-mind confidence that after taking that first momentous step, one will ultimately settle gently onto the earth with a feeling of great pride and ecstasy, rather than screaming in like a homesick rock.

It is the greatest leap of faith imaginable. Like bungee jumping — but safer.

Floating free

Jumping from 14,000 feet takes about 50 seconds before it is time to pull the cord. That doesn’t seem like a long time, but right now look at your watch. When the second hand hits 12, hold your breath and keep holding it until the second hand hits 10. That’s a long time.

Once the student has left the aircraft in an AFF jump, the first sensation — according to those who have done it — is shock, an instantaneous “What have I done?” That’s replaced almost immediately by a feeling of total euphoria, of floating on a cushion of air rather than falling through the sky.

“When you’re out, it’s windy and kind of loud,” Mr. Taylor says. “You can’t really tell that you’re falling. The wind is coming at you from all different directions, but it just becomes peaceful.”

For those with a fear of heights, standing in the open door of an airplane is totally unlike looking out the window of a tall building or being on the edge of a cliff. The earth is so far below that the perspective is totally different. It’s almost as though the mind cannot accept the fact that you really are going to step out into that total void.

But it does happen that people freeze in the door — at which point they simply sit back down and enjoy the ride back in the airplane. The only pressure is that which they put on themselves.

Diving in safety

Let’s repeat the mantra: It’s not really the fear of death. And then let’s admit the truth: It is the fear of death. There is no getting around the fact that bad things can, and do, happen.

To ensure that a safe and gentle landing does occur, the parachute industry has developed several safeguards. One of the most significant is the Automatic Activation Device, or AAD, which not only has saved numerous lives but also adds just that little bit more confidence that even if a sky diver does totally panic and freeze up during the free fall, one last safety measure will take over to ensure that all ends well.

The AAD is a barometrically controlled device that senses if a diver is falling too fast at a pre-specified defaulted altitude, normally around 1,000 feet. If he is, it automatically pops his parachute for him.

It’s like the air bag in a car. You don’t expect to have an accident, but if do, you can still walk away from it.

Training for life

For the person taking up sky diving as a sport, the key is training. The industry is regulated by the U.S. Parachute Association (www.uspa .org). Along with coordinating sky-diving activities through the United States, the USPA produces the sky diver’s manual, which provides regulations based on three levels: suggestions, recommendations and requirements. It also established the standards for training.

“Five years ago [the USPA] came out to the Orange County drop zone and asked us to revamp the student program,” Mr. Taylor says.

“They already had the AFF program, but because of advancements in equipment, wind tunnels and training methods, techniques had changed. So they wanted to revamp the way we teach student sky divers, and they tasked this drop zone to do it.

“Since then, the Integrated Student Program [ISP] has been developed, and that program is recognized throughout the world.”

Essentially, the ISP standardized training so that students received the same level of training regardless of where they trained or if they switched from one method of jumping to any other method — from static or tandem to AFF. Students also have to meet specific criteria before they can move on to the next level.

According to the USPA, sky-diving accidents rarely result from equipment failure or bad luck. But the sport does have obvious and inherent risks. The ISP is designed to provide the preparation and judgment needed to manage those risks.

In fact, most accidents in the past were not the result of a parachute not opening, says Mr. Needels of the USPA.

“There wasn’t anything wrong with the parachutes. What was wrong was that people didn’t know how to fly them,” he says.

“In aviation terms, it would be like going from flying a little Cessna tricycle gear aircraft to flying a jet, without the training to go with it.”

When the industry went from using the round, military-type parachutes to the rectangular, wing-shaped airfoils, “it was like trying to learn how to fly a sheet of plywood,” he says.

So the USPA developed part of the ISP program to teach people how to fly the high-performance canopies.

“We believe that is why, over the past few years, we have had a lower fatality rate, and we anticipate it going lower. We have a lower fatality rate now than we did 20 years ago, and there are a whole lot more people sky diving now. It’s the equipment and training.”

Equipment, costs, finding fellow sky divers

Ready for that first jump? Here’s a guide to jump centers, cost and equipment.

Drop zones

According to Chris Needels, executive director of the U.S. Parachute Association, there are roughly 300 sky-diving clubs in the United States, of which 267 are affiliated with the USPA. Many of them are in the Washington area — though none is really close. For a complete list of clubs approved by the USPA, see its Web site at www.uspa.org and look under “Drop Zones.”


• Ocean City Skydiving Center: Ocean City Municipal Airport, 12724 Airport Road, Berlin (150 miles east of Baltimore). 410/213-1319 or www.skydiveoc.com


• Skydive Orange: Orange County Airport, 11339 Bloomsbury Road, Orange (80 miles southwest of Washington, between Culpeper and Charlottesville). 540/943-6587 (weekdays), 540/672-5054 or skydiveorange.com

• Skydive Virginia: Louisa County Airport, Route 208, Louisa (75 miles south of Washington). 540/941-8085 (weekdays), 540/967-3997 or www.skydivevirginia.com


• Skydive Delmarva Inc.: Laurel Airport, Route 24 West, Laurel, Del. (15 miles north of Salisbury, Md.). 888/875-3540 (weekdays), 302/875-3540 or www.skydivedelmarva.com


• Chambersburg Skydiving Center: Franklin County Regional Airport, 3506 Airport Road, Chambersburg (55 miles south of Harrisburg). 800/526-3497, 717/264-1111 or skydivingcenter.net

• Maytown Sport Parachute Club: Donegal Springs Airport, 188 Airport Road, Marietta (20 miles east of Harrisburg). 717/653-0422 or www.skydivemspc.com

• The Skydivin’ Place Inc.: Kingsdale Airfield LLC, Kingsdale (40 miles north of Baltimore). 717/359-8166 or www.skydivepa-md.com


The cost of sky diving varies with the club and the type of jump, so it’s a good idea to call the clubs you’re interested in. Paul Taylor, an instructor at the Skydive Orange sky-diving club, says that depending on the “drop zone” used, the first tandem jump should fall between $220 and $235.

A static line jump at Skydive Orange is $205, less expensive than a tandem jump because it takes about half the training.

The most expensive, but also the best for the person interested in becoming a serious jumper, is the accelerated free fall or AFF, $355 at Skydive Orange. It includes six to eight hours of instruction plus two instructors.

“It gets progressively cheaper for succeeding jumps because we’ve given you the nuts and bolts, and we build on that,” Mr. Taylor says.

There is no set number of jumps required before a student can start jumping by himself or herself, although it is normally around eight jumps and most of the way through the training.

Getting through the standardized training program may take 10 jumps or 15 jumps, Mr. Needels says, and may cost between $1,000 and $1,200.

“However,” he says, “what we are trying to do is to get people to get their ‘A’ license, which is 25 jumps and able to pass a performance test.”


Sky-diving schools provide their students with all the equipment required for the training jumps. The sky diver can then continue to rent equipment beyond the training phase, although most purchase their own, with airworthy equipment running between $2,000 and $6,000.

Beginners should be aware of too-good-to-be-true discount coupons that some clubs offer. The coupons may appear to cover everything, but may not take into account “extras” — perhaps a very high equipment rental fee, training expenses, even the cost of the aircraft. Beginners should find out if the club is a member of the USPA and what exactly the total cost of the jump will be.

They should also ask how old the equipment is and when was it last replaced. That is, after all, what you are putting your faith in.

What to knowbefore takingthat first jump

Helpful hints for the novice jumper: Sky-diving clubs: Learn everything you can about the drop zones (clubs) you are interested in. Find them on the Web site of the U.S. Parachute Association, www.uspa.org. Call and ask questions.

Age limits: Sky divers in the United States must be 18 or older. Anyone over 50 may be asked to demonstrate flexibility and strength.

Weight constraints: Jumpers who weigh 220 pounds or more may pay a bit more to make up for wear and tear on the equipment.

Reservations: Don’t just show up. You will probably have to pay a reservation fee of around $50 and be given an appointment time and date.

Alcohol: Do not — under any circumstances — drink alcohol to work up your courage just before you go to jump.

Weather: Check it. No one jumps in bad weather.

Pets and small children: Do not bring them. A sky-diving club is for adult fun andis not a playground. Some clubs will ask you to leave and take your pets or children with you.

Friends: Bring them if you wish, but odds are they will spend a lot of time being bored while you are taking the initial training.

Cameras: Leave them at home. Drop zones have photographers who can take your picture.

Medical questions: Ask your doctor if you can safely jump if you are pregnant or have a medical condition — severe sinus congestion, for example, or a cardiovascular problem requiring a pacemaker. Follow his advice.

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