I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My years as a skydiving instructor

Graduation Day as an AFF skydiving instructor
I will never forget this day: June 18, 1994. After more than a year trying to get certified as an AFF (accelerated freefall) skydiving instructor, it finally happened on this day. My sister Fia with her daughter Megan (at my feet) and brother Buz are in the picture as well. I had flown to Dallas from Boulder to complete the course, and I asked my siblings who live nearby to come and celebrate with me. Tomorrow will be eighteen years since that happy day. I'm amazed that I didn't have any grey in my hair at all, and now it's completely white. It happens so slowly that you don't notice until you see a picture like this.

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
On Level I, both jumpmasters have a secure hold of the student before the door is even opened, right at the center of gravity at the hips, one jumpmaster at each side. The student has been taught to arch (thrust hips forward) as this is how stability is gained in freefall. We jumpmasters are expected to maneuver the formation of the three of us out of the airplane door, with the student doing his or her part by assuming proper body position. Well, this happened most times, and then the fun started. The student performs a "Circle of Awareness," looking out at the horizon, then down at the altimeter on his or her chest, then getting eye contact with each jumpmaster in turn. Next the student makes three practice ripcord pulls, with the jumpmaster assisting if the student needs it. At 5,000 feet above the ground, the student then pulls the ripcord, and the jumpmasters let go of the student. If necessary, the instructor will pull for the student and of course the student needs to repeat the level. The student is alone under canopy and needs to ascertain if the parachute is airworthy, find the landing area, and fly it to the ground. Most Drop Zones have someone on the ground with a radio, and the student has a radio that the jumpmasters have hopefully remembered to turn on before leaving the plane. After everyone has landed, we meet together to discuss the skydive.

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.


Anonymous said...

I don't blame you one bit for the transition. No matter the activity, we all do it. A few years ago, a tandem jump ended in the waters off Oahu, when both student and instructor drowned. I am glad something like that didn't happen to you!

Bragger said...

I love reading your skydiving posts. You have inspired me to write about my own (limited) skydiving experiences.

Linda Reeder said...

Isn't that sense of contentment wonderful? Is it the gift of a life well and fully lived?
I had mo idea how much instruction went into learning to skydive. Very interesting.

MissDazey said...

I am a new reader to your blogs. I admire anyone who not only has a passion, but is active in that passion. I can't imagine how exciting it might be to be a skydiver. Thanks for sharing, I'll be visiting your blogs again and reading the archives.

Rubye Jack said...

and here I thought all one did was go up in the plane and jump after perhaps a few basic instructions. Now that I think more about it I can see how you would need an instructor.

It is so liberating to become older and to be able to let go of certain things. I love the freedom.

Dee said...

Dear DJan, thank you for detailing the steps in actually skydiving. The one thing I'm missing is what is the difference between free fall and skydiving? Is one the part of the other? Is it that you free fall without a parachute for a few seconds and then you pull the rip cord and use the parachute? Sorry to be a little muddled here. I've never before known someone who actually did this on a regular basis and was--moreover--an instructor.


DJan said...

Hi Dee, yes, there are actually two parts to a skydive: the freefall (usually for about a minute) and the parachute or canopy ride to the ground (about four or five minutes). It is the freefall part where the instructor can assist a student, because once the ripcord is pulled, the parachute opens and the student is then alone under canopy. Hope this helps you understand it.

Gigi said...

Most transitions in our lives our so subtle that you don't even realize it until you stop and take stock and only then do you realize just how much has changed.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

What keeps you young is that you keep finding new things to do. You will enjoy gardening for different reasons than you have enjoyed skydiving. Same for hiking, biking, photography, blogging, and all the other things you do. Still, it's good to be mindful of how we have learned and grown from our passions. Diving and instructing have given.you many strengths and skills.

Red said...

Fascinating account of skydiving. You had a very rewarding experience.
Twilight aren't bad years . they are just as good as all the others.

Rita said...

I am glad you gave a more detailed explanation for those of us who know little or nothing about skydiving. Thanks!

Those shifts happen from the time we learn to crawl. ;) It's strange to look back and remember the things we thought were monumentally important at one time that just aren't anymore. I think it's kind of neat to look back and be able to say--been there, done that--and you lived it and really do know and remember how it felt. :)

Jackie said...

LOVE the details....and being one who knows absolutely nothing about skydiving, I would love to know more. As I was reading, I noted that you said, "The student is alone under canopy and needs to ascertain if the parachute is airworthy, find the landing area, and fly it to the ground." My question is (and this is a serious question, Jan)...what does the student do if he/she finds the parachute is not air worthy. Were you and your partner near enough that you could help or do something if that did happen? (See...I told you I was ignorant regarding these things.) I love this post. I love learning...and am so happy that your teaching became a life-long learning experience for you. I find that teaching is that way...in all fields. Don't you agree? :)) And...making 50 dives a year after retirement...that's amazing to me!! Retired or not retired...that's amazing!! Your transition has been one that you are comfortable with, and since I've started reading your blog, I know that you aren't sitting back on your heels. Nope. You are a "go getter" type of lady, and I admire you. And...I don't think you are in the twilight of your life at all. You have plenty of sparkle left in you, my friend. Enough to light our lives. Thank you for sharing!!!

Trish said...

Fascinating, how many steps are involved! Our daughter made two tandem jumps and, watching her from the ground was both terrifying and exhilarating.

DJan said...

Jackie, every skydiver has two parachutes: a main and a reserve. If the main is not airworthy, you have a handle that releases it, and another handle to pull the reserve. All this must be done before you reach 1,000 feet above the ground in order to allow the reserve to open before impact. Hope this helps!

Friko said...

Your description of a dive with a student at the beginning of this post gives the impression that the process takes a long time; of course I realise that that is not so, that all actions are performed in quick succession. The responsibility must be enormous, decisions and actions following each other speedily and another student safely guided to the ground.

All things come to an end, but you have memories to treasure and surely also a great sense of achievement.

Unknown said...

Whoa! I admire your courage and passion for skydiving. You really did pursue the training course without second thoughts. Now that's what I consider one tough chick. Time surely flies so fast but I envy you becaue I'm sure that you had the jump of your life. Wonderful story.
- SkydiveBaltimore.com

Unknown said...

Accidents always come in the most unexpected moment. The pain is surreal, unbearable, and slower than anyone could ever imagine. But on the other hand, it is a life-changing experience. Just think that everything happens for a reason. All the best!

Amy Baron