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Get Down to Earth

Martin Evans

All Fall Down: The author takes his first plunge into oblivion with guidance from Skydance jumpmasters Vladi Pesa (left) and Max Hurd.

A small Davis operation offers a truly mind-numbing recreational experience

By Michael Mechanic

"Relax," Vladi says, as the Twin Otter lurches skyward. Easy for him to say, he's done this a few thousand times. And Max has about 500 jumps under his belt. I, on the other hand, have never even ridden in such a small plane, let alone leapt from one. At the moment, relaxation is a difficult concept.

I've spent two full days at Skydance Skydiving near Davis, training and waiting around for my first jump into the void. I enrolled in a program called AFF--short for accelerated free fall--which normally encompasses six to eight hours of training followed by a jump from 13,500 feet, about 60 seconds of free fall, and a solo canopy flight and landing after I pull the ripcord at 5,000 feet. Conditions were bad yesterday, however, and I've waited all of today for the weather to clear. It finally has, and I'm having mixed feelings about the fact.

Alongside me are a man from England named Max Hurd and a Belgian named Vladi Pesa, both "jumpmasters" who will jump alongside and hold onto straps on the legs of my jumpsuit until I pull the chute. Jumping with us is a fellow named Martin Evans, who is wearing a special helmet equipped with video and still cameras to document this temporary loss of sanity.

"Scared" doesn't accurately describe the feeling that precedes a first jump. It's closer to sheer terror. As the door in the side of the plane is opened, your heart takes off like a jackhammer lost in the whine of the twin turbines. You mouth goes completely dry and, if you're at all normal, you basically go into denial. I focus on the floor and ceiling of the cabin or on people's faces--anything but the earth below.

As a passenger on the preceding jump run, I'd already learned to avoid looking down. Dave Beckert, chief instructor at Skydance, offered me an airplane ride to pass the time. Each skydiver carries an altimeter, and I watched the dials slowly turn as we climbed sharply. At about 13,000 feet above the landing area, the pilot leveled out and flashed red and green lights at the rear of the cabin--a signal to open a chest-high cargo door.

Nine experienced divers took up positions near the door and chanted, "Ready? Set? Go!" before tumbling together into the skies. A couple moved into the doorway and quickly dove out, followed by two tandem instructors, each with a student attached to his chest. Watching them disappear sent chills up my spine. Dave tried to get me to come closer to watch the divers, but I remained pinned to the opposite side of the craft, every instinct screaming for me to stay away from that open door.

Suddenly I wasn't at all sure I could go through with the jump. "Is it normal to be petrified when the door opens?" I asked him as the pilot guided the Otter safely back to the single runway of the Yolo County airport.

"Completely normal," he says. "That's your primal fear. You wouldn't be human if you didn't feel that."

By the time we debarked, the wind had dropped to less than 14 miles per hour, the wind-speed ceiling for student skydivers. It was time for me to gear up for the real thing.

In Search of Safe Passage

The acceleration of gravity is about 10 meters per second. That means if you were falling in a vacuum you'd reach 1,000 mph within 9.5 seconds. But, of course, you're not in a vacuum. What makes skydiving possible is air resistance, which provides an equalizing force to check a body's acceleration. This limits a skydiver's "terminal velocity" to around 120 miles per hour when the diver is in the arched, belly-down position.

Jumping out of an airplane sounds crazy. Ironically, though, the most dangerous thing about my skydive was undoubtedly the drive from Santa Cruz to Davis. Over the past decade, an average of fewer than 30 people per year have died in skydiving accidents in the United States out of an estimated 3 million jumps per year, according to the U.S. Parachute Association. Over the same period, an average of about 43,000 people per year have died in car wrecks. Skydiving is pretty safe as long as you're careful about your equipment and don't do anything stupid or macho.

Student deaths are even less frequent. The USPA estimates that 100,000 people take their first jump each year, and only one student died in 1995--the result of a tandem jump gone awry. Just two AFF students have died accidentally since drop zones began operating the accelerated free fall courses 14 years ago--and those incidents happened before new safety devices had been developed.

Despite the reassuring statistics, the waiver student skydivers must sign doesn't exactly put one at ease. I hesitated a bit at the section that reads: "I expressly and voluntarily assume all risk of death or personal injury sustained while participating in 'parachuting activities,' whether or not caused by the negligence or other fault of Skydance Skydiving."

Such waivers are necessary, says co-owner Ray Ferrell, who founded Skydance in 1984 with former world champion Dan O'Brien, because "you can't buy liability insurance to cover this."

Ferrell, whose first time in a plane was also his first skydiving run, has taken about 5,000 jumps and, like many diehards, has also become a pilot. "The equipment has gotten so safe that the skydivers who do get killed are killing themselves with their own negligence," he says. "We have had very few injuries here, and the severe ones are almost always caused by someone trying to be a hot rod."

"It is unbelievably safe," says Ron St. Jean, a Scotts Valley resident with roughly 6,000 jumps, who was at Skydance last Saturday for a leap or two. "My life has never been at risk."

And it's true. If you have your mental act together, the equipment is nearly foolproof. It is painstakingly manufactured, and a complete rig with safety devices costs about $4,000. You carry two chutes on your back, a main canopy and a reserve. Each has a small, spring-loaded pilot chute that, when the ripcord is pulled, forces open the container housing the main parachute. The pilot chute catches air and drags the canopy out of its container.

Most parachutes nowadays are rectangular and shaped like an airplane wing, which gives them lift and forward motion, and also makes them steerable. Four sets of canopy lines run through rings in the corners of a rectangular piece of material called a slider, which makes the transition from 120 mph to practically zero easier on the passenger. Steering is done by pulling on toggles that control lines attached to the rear of the canopy.

Although no reliable numbers are available, Cliff Smucker, president of the Parachuting Industry Association, estimates that serious main-canopy malfunctions happen once every 600 jumps or so. The instructors prepare you for all of them. In certain bad situations, you pull a "cutaway" handle that releases the main chute, sending you back into free fall. Reserve canopies are made to deploy quickly and can only be packed by a Federal Aviation Administration-certified rigger and must, by law, be repacked every three months.

Most chutes now also have a reserve static line, which deploys the reserve as the main chute is cut away. Many--including all the student canopies--carry a little device called a CYPRES, or Cybernetic Parachute Release System, which automatically deploys the reserve at a certain altitude if the main isn't out.

But ultimately, the responsibility to pull the ripcord is yours. As Max succinctly put it in yesterday's training, "Pull the ripcord. Save your life."

Facing the Facts of Falling Down

Despite the training, nothing can quite prepare you for the fear of stepping through that door. We're back in the Otter and I'm wearing a jumpsuit, chute, goggles and a helmet equipped with a radio. I watch the altimeter on my chest, which now reads 8,000 feet.

"Altitude awareness" is a skydiver's best friend. Students pull at 5,000 feet, but any jumper who hasn't pulled by 2,000 feet--what the FAA calls "the hard ceiling"--is aiming for trouble in the shape of a big, flat planet. At the hard ceiling, you're 17 seconds from impact, and the main chute takes a few seconds to deploy. Neat stuff, but I'm in too much of a state of shock to think about much of anything right now.

My altimeter reads 11,000. Vladi and Max are having me talk through the exit procedure. Finally, at around 13,000 feet, the door is opened and Vladi asks me if I'm ready.

"Ready!" I lie.

Max climbs out of the plane and holds onto a bar just inside the cabin. Vladi and I duck out together. "Check Left!" I shout over the roar at Max. He nods and mouths, "Okay."

"Check Right!" I shout at Vladi. Okay.

"Prop!" We turn our heads to face the propeller. "Ready, Set, Arch!"

We're falling to Earth, whipping through wispy clouds toward the ground so fast the only thing I can comprehend is the adrenaline ripping through my veins. I look at my altimeter, then at Max. He gives me signals to adjust my body position. I look at Vladi. He gives me the "relax" signal.

I'm trying.

We go through a few planned drills in the minute it takes for my altimeter to drop to 5,000 feet. As I pull the ripcord, Vladi dives away and Max disappears from view as my chute deploys.

All is quiet. The rush of the wind is gone, and I'm sitting in a comfortable harness looking down at the tiny airfield below. Everything worked perfectly.

The rest is a cakewalk. I do spirals, take in the view and slowly maneuver my way toward the big silver barn that marks the landing zone. As I make my approach at 1,000 feet, Max gives me some steering tips over the radio. At 12 feet from the ground, I'm supposed to flare my chute by pulling the control toggles down, but I flare a bit too early and make a less-than-graceful landing.

I don't care, though. I'm alive. Very much alive, in fact. And I'm feeling pretty joyful to be back here where I belong--standing on the belly of sweet Mother Earth.

The AFF course at Skydance costs $286 for six to eight hours of training, equipment and a skydive with two jumpmasters. Static-line jumps costs $188, including training and equipment. Tandem skydives (instructor deploys chute and steers canopy) cost $128. For more information, call Skydance at 800/752-3262.

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From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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