I could see the plane making its final turn, aligning to the runway. “Let’s go!” My instructor yelled, trying to top the rumbling sound of the Dornier aircraft which waited for us. He was the flight leader for our group. “Full power!” a fellow skydiver yelled. We walked towards the aircraft. As our bodies tilted while fighting the wind from the aircraft’s propeller, I mumbled: “This is it. Let’s do this!”.
My ride before every jump
I was last in the line for the jump. I sat in front of my instructor and settled as he checked my parachute. The aircraft started to advance on the runway and soon took off. I rested my forehead on the window pane, figuring out how the landscape becomes more beautiful with every 100 feet gained. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. My instructor asked me to check my altimeter. “What do you do at 6000 feet?” He gestured. “I open my parachute!” I yelled at the top of my voice.
That’s right, I would be opening my own parachute and would be landing on my own. The thrill of taking control of the jump is leaps and bounds ahead of a tandem jump, which is when an instructor is tethered with you during the entire jump and landing. If you are not a certified skydiver, you have no other option but opt for a tandem jump.
“High five!” a skydiver nudged me. It was time. We were now at 15,000 feet and in the next 2 minutes, I had to jump along with my instructor. After a while, the slight inclination of the aircraft leveled with the horizon and the roaring sound of the engine suddenly faded. I checked my altimeter: 15,000 feet! The aircraft was now cruising, waiting for us to jump. A cold waft of wind bounced off my face which made me look up. The door was open. Time to jump!
As the other skydivers plummetted to the ground, I trudged towards the door with my instructor while wiping the fog off my glasses. He held my suit from one side.
“This is it” I mumbled again.
“Out, in, Arch” I yelled and the next second, I was free falling at a speed of 200 km/hr in Arch position! I focused on the horizon as distant clouds zoomed past us. I had to display some skills to my instructor and follow some procedure while free falling. If done successfully, I would pass this AFF level.
The Level 2 Jump. Two instructors accompanied me.
At 6,000 feet, I opened my parachute. I felt a jerk on my shoulders and thighs. Looked down and saw my instructor tumbling towards the ground at a crazy speed. That’s when I realized how fast I was free falling. I glanced up and checked the canopy to ensure there is no malfunction, a part of the process to stay alive. I sighed in relief and grabbed the brakes which were neatly tucked in the canopy side straps till now. These brakes or toggles help to make the turns and also reduce the speed of the canopy while landing. If you a pull the right toggle, you rotate right. Left takes you left, pretty simple.
Everything looked fine. In the silence wrapped around me at 5000 feet above the ground, I realized how fast my heart was beating, thanks to the freefall. I kept slowly drifting towards the ground and looked in front, making turns to soak in views from all around the horizon. It was such a liberating feeling! I was flying! Time to time, I used to pull one toggle real hard and kept swirling till the speed made me dizzy. Ha! So much fun!
Skydiving gave me a crazy rush while free falling and during the canopy time, I was completely relaxed and enjoyed the leisure time reveling in the vast, vast landscape that stretched in front of me, no matter which direction I am facing. However, I had to be aware of where the canopy took me. Can’t afford to land way too far from the landing zone.
At 1000 feet, the landing pattern starts. It is pretty simple and logical. First, I go with the wind till 500 feet, then crosswind till I reach 300 feet and finally against the wind so my speed is reduced automatically. Just 15 feet above the ground, I used to pull both the toggles and a nice and easy touchdown followed.
The buildup before each jump was crazy! I have rarely felt so many emotions running together.
I was in Spain with Skydive Spain to become a USPA Certified skydiver which would allow me to jump solo without any supervision at any USPA affiliated drop zones in the world. USPA stands for United States Parachute Association.
In order to become a USPA certified skydiver, I had to jump 25 times. The first 8 jumps would be part of the AFF course. AFF stands for Accelerated Free Fall. It is a training module, which enables you to skydive solo in the least possible time. In fact, this training module is what the armies also use to train their paratroopers. Hence, there is no doubt it’s difficult to pass AFF without repeating any levels. If someone can pass it without repeating any level, they would have my utmost respect! Based on the skydivers I met during my stay, the ratio of people who pass AFF without repeating any level is 1 in 10.
The other alternatives take much longer spanning over 2-3 months. If all the variables fall in your favor, you can complete this AFF course in 3 days! Unfortunately, for me, they didn’t.
I jumped a total of 8 times during my stay, 9 if you count Tandem jump. Every time I experienced the same rush of exhilaration. The buildup to the jump is just crazy! The mind starts doing tricks. One very weird thought which crossed my mind before one of the jumps was what if the aircraft’s propeller fan sucks me in when I jump! Scary right? Well, I didn’t realize that you jump behind the propeller fans. Stupid mind.
Out of the 8 levels, I passed the first 3 levels without repeating. But level 4 was difficult. It was completely focused on staying steady while free falling and then making controlled 90 degree turns on both sides before opening the parachute. I was not able to hold a stable position while free falling and kept spinning. Due to this, I couldn’t pass level 4 even after multiple attempts. If in future, I attempt to get my USPA skydiving license, I need to pass this level.
The level 4 jump. I kept spinning instead of staying stable. Couldn’t pass this level after multiple attempts.
The solution to maintaining a steady position is relaxation, visualization, and practice. To practice, my instructor recommended tunnel time. A tunnel is nothing but an indoor skydiving setup where they simulate free falling. As opposed to the 30 seconds I got to stabilize while free falling from the aircraft, I can practice for 30 minutes in the tunnel and weed out the issues that don’t allow me to stay steady. He suggested I go practice in a tunnel in Madrid.
However, by the time I reached the phase where tunnel time was required, I had only 7 more days in Europe. Out of these, 4 days had rain forecast due to an impending storm. Also, the tunnel time would cost me a lot of extra Euros which my budget, rather my bank balance didn’t allow. Frankly, I was demotivated after not passing Level 4 despite multiple attempts and needed a break from the huge uproar of emotions I used to experience during skydiving. But now I am as motivated as I was at the beginning of the course. Just need to wait for a while before I am up there again.
Why did I opt for the AFF course instead of a tandem jump? Because tandem jumps don’t excite me. I tried Paragliding in Bir Billing twice and had this realization. Of course, you may like it, and it still is an amazing experience. So, if you have limited time and are not big on extreme adventure, a Tandem jump is not so bad.
Also, in order to take things to the next level of adventure, I need the USPA license. Once I start leveling up with each jump, I can also try wingsuit flying and base jumping. These are really extreme sports and more dangerous than Skydiving, which means more adventure for yours truly.
I haven’t given up on Skydiving. I would definitely attempt the AFF course again in my lifetime. Among all the chapters of my life, Skydiving is undoubtedly the most exhilarating, fulfilling and unique chapter which has begun. I want to keep it long, to be a page-turner.
Check out the videos of all the 4 levels below. I tried level 4 thrice. Here, I have displayed only one video as they are similar.
Jump with two instructors.
Tested on Altitude awareness, heading awareness, good body position and instructor communications.
Jump with two instructors
Tested on Level 1 + practice turns with support from instructors.
Jump with two instructors
Tested on Level 1 & 2 + good body position without instructor support.
Jump with one instructor.
Good stable position + 90 degrees right turn + 90 degrees left turn.