6/08/2010

The Fundamental Lessons of Skydiving pt 1

I don't know a single skydiver that can't say skydiving has fundamentally changed their life. Whether introducing them to a new community, challenging them beyond their assumed limits or just giving something to brag about, everyone comes back down from their first solo jump with a different worldview than the person who went up. So universal is this that there is a monthly column in Parachutist magazine called "How Skydiving Changed my Life."

What's interesting is that the life changing aspects of jumping seem to be different for every skydiver. For some it instills confidence and allows them to overcome adversity. For others it provides them with a second family. For others it is a profound escape, a feeling of freedom that trumps all other forms of distraction.

Still, there are certain lessons, certain aspects of the skydiving experience that become ingrained in all jumpers' characters. First among them:

Ambivalence Kills.

You must either do, or do not, never something in between.

This is best exemplified when landing a parachute. Once you begin to flare the canopy (engage the brakes) for landing, you can't let them up. If you flare too early, or too aggressively, you can stall the canopy, in which case you will fall straight down and will probably have to do a bracing, rolling landing*, and even then you still might still hurt yourself.

On the other hand, if you release a partial flare, the canopy will surge forward, gain speed rapidly and send you face first into the ground, which will send you to the hospital if it doesn't kill you outright. Once those toggles start to come down for landing, they can't go back up.

This is, by virtue of happening on landing, the most often observed such example. There are others.

Cutting away a malfunctioning parachute is an all-or-nothing proposition. When you reach your Decision Altitude,** you have to know, not suspect, not hope, but know that your canopy is land-able. If it's not, you have to know to chop it or you're in deep trouble.

Moreover, if you've made a mistake, and stayed under a malfunctioning canopy for too long and are now below the safe deployment altitude for your reserve, you have to commit to that mistake and ride the malfunction down. A partially inflated canopy can slow you enough to only injure you but a fall with no canopy at all is certainly fatal.

Reaching out an arm for a partner in freefall rather than flying your whole body towards them will cause you to backslide and put you further away from that person than when you first reached for them.

Failing to commit both hands when reaching for your deployment handle makes your wind resistance asymmetrical and can put you into a spin that will twist up your suspension lines as the canopy comes out of the bag.

I almost forgot the single most important decision a jumper makes. You have to either exit the aircraft or land with it because once you're out, you're not getting back in. Well, unless you're this guy.


This lesson, like all good lessons, speaks to everything we undertake in mundane life. Do something or do not do it. Commit to every action. Commit to every inaction. Mistakes are forgivable, failures of will are not. If you are going to fuck up, fuck up like you meant it.

Here endeth the lesson. Pull Low, Hook Low.



*This is called a P.L.F. - a Parachute Landing Fall. It's a standard maneuver that we all learn.

** Decision Altitude is the height above the ground at which you must cut away from a malfunctioning parachute in order to have time for the reserve to safely deploy. It varies depending on the experience level of the jumper and the kind of canopy they fly but it's usually in the 2000-2500 foot range.





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1 comment:

badheadcheese said...

excellent life advice

I really wish I had the money to go skydiving. I must learn how to do that because not is killing me.

My dad used to jump all the time, old school with the giant packs. I went up in the plane with him once and he played a trick on me. Apparently there's an optical illusion that makes it appear that the person jumping is going to slam into the face of the earth. He told the pilot not to say anything. I almost shit my 12 year old pants.