The second installment in my ongoing series about skydiving's effect on jumpers' psyches is about one of the least discussed lessons of the sport. Though we don't talk on it much, it is one of the starkest realities, one of the harshest truths one can learn in both freefall and in life at large.
You are on your own.
When I took my A License oral exam, there was a particular question that, by the SIM,* I got completely wrong but that the instructor gave me credit for anyway. "Who is responsible if a jumper exits into a cloud?" was the question. Per the FAA, the pilot is responsible for picking a jump run that is free of clouds. My response, though, was "I am responsible, because I choose whether or not to exit the aircraft."
He meditated for a second and said, "That's not actually correct, but I like your answer better."
And that's the truth of it. Ultimately, you and only you are responsible for your own safety and those moments in the air when you are most likely to find yourself in life-threatening danger are precisely the same moments when no one will be able to help you.
All movie antics aside, once you wave off and reach for that deployment handle, you are too far away from other jumpers and too short on time to receive assistance. Any malfunction of the canopy, any wrestling of the winds, any complication on landing, you and you alone have to handle.
What can be really scary is that, even while you're utterly alone,someone else's mistake can harm you. They could be a low-puller that didn't see your wave off and that falls directly into you. They could ignore lower canopy's right-of-way or forget the direction of the landing pattern and cause a mid-air collision. In any of these situations, you're in trouble, and there's still virtually nothing that the other person can do to help if you're not prepared for the situation.
As with virtually everything else, you have friends and comrades but ultimately you have to know to count on yourself. Confidence in your own skills, training and discretion is the only way to ensure a safe and successful trip across the sky.
*SIM stands for Skydiver's Information Manual, one of several publications by the United States Parachute Association that details regulations, recommendations and procedures for all aspects of jumping. It is the closest thing to a bible that the sport has. It is available online if you'd like to take a look at it.