|Graduation Day as an AFF skydiving instructor|
For more than twelve years, skydiving instruction became my true passion. Over the years I made more than 1,200 skydives with students, covering the gamut from me being terrified to me feeling totally competent to deal with anything that might happen in freefall. Sometimes we had a cameraman accompany us, but usually it was a threesome, the student and my partner. This is the way it works in AFF: the student has been through a rigorous training session. At some places I worked, a preliminary tandem jump was mandatory. I noticed that a student who had been introduced to freefall by making a tandem, before being required to perform certain tasks, was much more likely to pass the level. In AFF there are seven levels of proficiency to pass before you are allowed to jump out of the airplane on your own.
|Me, student, fellow JM Cameron|
Sorry for the long description, but I realize that most of my readers have no idea what is involved in being a skydiving instructor. It's a lot of responsibility and I took it very seriously, not only because it was required in order to be a good jumpmaster, but because it gave me tremendous satisfaction to help someone else through that narrow doorway to become a certified skydiver.
Looking back, I am amazed at how much I learned from this activity. I was able to help students understand how to take it one step at a time, one success at a time, before moving on to the next task, and the intense satisfaction I felt when each student graduated to become a skydiver who was competent and filled with the joy of accomplishment. Each time a situation came up that was new to me (and students managed to surprise me throughout the years), I would discuss it with my fellow jumpmasters to learn the best way forward.
Every weekend I looked forward to working at the Drop Zone as an instructor, making between four and ten skydives with students in two days. I also earned money, as I not only had my jump paid for, but I also earned $25 to $30 for each skydive with a student. I used this money to take skydiving vacations or to buy the newest parachute gear. One year I made more than $5,000 skydiving and made more than 200 student jumps. It amazes me from this vantage point to remember how much I enjoyed all that. I could not imagine continuing to skydive without continuing to teach.
But you know, nothing stays the same. In 2000 I experienced a very bad skydiving accident by making a turn close to the ground. I've written plenty about it, but I had taught students over the years not to ever do something like that, and still I did it. Although there were other options, I didn't know what to do and made the wrong choice. I missed six months of skydiving from that accident, and it was awhile before I returned to teaching students. It's one thing to know something is dangerous, but it's still another to experience it in such a dramatic fashion. I like to think that my own accident has helped to prevent others from making the same mistake. Most skydivers don't get hurt or die from the freefall part of the skydive, but because they make poor decisions upon landing. Complacency builds up quickly when you have made thousands of soft landings.
Looking back at those years, I realize how much I have forgotten about those students, about those skydives. Who would have ever believed that something so dramatic, so extreme, could ever become mundane? One day I realized that I was no longer passionate about teaching and that it had become another job, that the spark was gone. Teaching the class on the ground became more enjoyable, because I was good at it and I no longer had to stretch myself to my physical limit wrestling a student around in freefall. Of course, by this time I had long ago passed my sixtieth birthday and was getting ready to retire from my career at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
There are no requirements for skydiving instructors to retire, but I felt that once I retired from my job, I should also retire from teaching skydiving. It was scary to contemplate at first, but I knew that playing, making formations in the sky with friends, was enjoyable. I spent more and more time doing that, and before I knew it, teaching had faded from my weekend activity. It also helped immensely to move away from Boulder and begin a new part of my life in another part of the country.
I have gone from making as many as 400 skydives in one year to barely making 50. It's been a gradual shift, but in the Pacific Northwest skydiving is a seasonal activity, beginning in May or June and stopping in October as the weather turns cloudy and rainy. So far this season I've been out to the Drop Zone four times and have made 12 skydives. I see the jumpmasters teaching their students, and I realize that those days are long gone. Not one molecule of my being wishes to trade places with those instructors. It's an amazing transition, really.
It makes me realize that the passage of years, the imperceptible movement from one state to the next, happens to all of us from birth to death. Now that I am in the twilight of my life, the light is gentle and oh those sunsets are spectacular. Contentment fills me, although it's Sunday and if the weather had cooperated, I would be driving down to Snohomish to play in the air with my friends. Today I am content to write this post, putter in the garden and read a good book.