Furiously focused for the count.
(You could fry eggs on that kind of heat.)
Born again on the relative wind.
Frantically trying to fall faster,
Gaining ground on the base I feel the rush of speed.
Twisting and turning and threading my way through the air.
I wrapped my arms and legs around a great big ball of it as I flare my way in.
As a weekend jumper inextricably tied to a group of older, crazed-out-of-their-heads, mildly demented skydivers, I spent 90% of the 20 or so years that I jumped out of planes for fun, on very informal, relaxed jumps where there always was a Plan B, because Plan A dissolved very quickly -- almost always due to a lack of concentration by one or more of the jumpers who never really seriously honed their skills with success as a goal.
We were relative work skydivers -- this entails four or more people exiting the plane at the same time with the goal of building a formation, and then transitioning to other formations, trying to complete a specific set of these unusual shapes during the 65 seconds we had of free fall.
You would practice these positions on the ground to ensure that everyone knew their place in each one. Our jumpsuits had grippers on the arms and legs, fabric rolled into what looked like long hot dogs that could be grabbed by a person's hand in order to link them together.
These informal skydives almost always failed due to what we called ‘flailers’ – skydivers who lacked proper control over their body as they moved into position to ‘take a grip’. Invariably, the chant of “We Lived!” as we walked back to the packing area soothed any ruffled feathers of those who were seriously attempting to complete the points practiced.
While I did manage to get invited on some serious RW (Relative Work) jumps, I was fairly comfortable hanging out with my rowdy friends every Saturday. Some medical issues forced me to stop jumping for about four months. Skydiving is an edge you must hone weekly to maintain the skills required to be safe and have fun at the same time. When I was ready to return to the sky, I decided on making a Thursday trip to the DZ, hoping for a quiet day of getting my feet wet again. Melanie C., the owner of the DZ, asked me if I wanted to come along on an 18-way formation. I tried not to soil myself as I agreed. I neglected to tell her about my lay-off time.
Every skydiver on a jump over the size of 8 adds a layer of complexity to the successful completion of a skydive by a factor that is almost geometric. An18 way was way outside my skill set at the time. Each skydive contains three specific types of positions. First, you have the base. This is a group of 4-6 jumpers who exit the plane with grips. They form the pedestal on which the rest of the people join and link to. A stable base that does not spin in the sky is a prerequisite to a good jump. The base will usually have 3-4 skydivers stepping outside the door and rotating 180 degrees while holding onto a bar attached above the door.
Two jumpers will be kneeling inside with grips on the chest straps of two of the outside base members. If there is sufficient room (there usually is) two ‘floaters’ will be positioned further down toward the tail of the plane. They will literally push off on exit and float behind the base at it begins its descent. The rest of the jumpers (divers) form a tight conga line inside the plane, exiting as quickly as possible to keep the distance between them and the base to a minimum.
The most prestigious position on the jump is the last person out. On this jump, that was me. The success of the skydive depends on “last-out’s” ability to dive fast and hard on the formation to complete it before we run out of air. With an exit altitude of 12,500 ft. AGL (Above Ground Level), we’d have roughly 55 seconds of freefall until we reached a break off altitude of 4000 ft. At break off, everyone in the dive turns 180 degrees (or thereabout) from one another and begins what we call a fast flat track to pull altitude of 2000 feet. The flat track position we assume gives us maximum horizontal separation (a couple of hundred feet at best) so we have clear air to pull.
On a four way this is a no-big-deal thing; when you have 18 people in the sky with you, it becomes a very-big-deal thing. At 2000 feet you are eight seconds from impact with the ground. It’s way enough to have to go through the routine canopy check to make sure you have a landable canopy -- to having your airspace crowded with other jumpers on their way back to the landing area. Your head must be on a swivel all the time to ensure a clear and safe landing.
The exit of the base from the plane is a precision timed operation. It is a physically performed cadence of out-in-out. “Ready” (the group in the door gently swings out in unison a few inches – all eyes are fixed on one another), “Set” (The group swings back in slightly to match the cadence), “GO” (We swing out and exit). As mentioned earlier, if there are any floaters waiting patiently outside the door, they perceive the gentle movement of the base and are silently saying Ready, Set, Go in their heads. On the “G…” portion of GO they exit just ahead of the base, providing them with the clean air they need to hold the formation together and on heading for everyone else. This is an art form. A stable exit is something that can take a hundred jumps to master.
The Relative Wind is an expression we use to define how we move from the moment we leave the plane. The first two seconds after the exit, we are actually moving horizontally – because of the forward motion of the plane and the backwash from the propellors. We occasionally had a commercial jet at the DZ that could only slow to about 225 mph at exit altitude. When you jump from a plane like that, you actually fly alongside the plane for 2-3 seconds before gravity checks in and moves the Relative Wind to a column underneath you. The base is falling at about 120mph. By the time the first divers exit the plane, they have managed to create almost 500 feet of separation. Even though the door is wide enough for a two-at-a-time exit, we line up single file. The reason is quite practical. If you don’t give the person in front of you a foot or so of space, you get kicked in the teeth by their feet in your face from too close of an exit.
Been there, done that, got the tee shirt…
Let’s do the math. Two floaters and six in the base. That leaves 10 divers. With about 1.5 seconds between divers on a great exit, that means I’m leaving around 15 seconds after the base. That’s about 2000 feet of space I have to clear to be part of the formation. When you factor in relative rates of acceleration, it’s closer to 3000 feet. I have a lot of work to do.
I dive out, eyes on the base. I immediately assume a nearly vertical no-lift position, and in under 10 seconds I am falling at roughly 180 mph on my way to the formation. This is where things get dicey. At some point in the dive I have to slow myself down so I don’t go below the formation (done that more times than I can count). If you find yourself below the formation, you are a clear and present danger to everyone else on the skydive. If your canopy were to deploy accidentally while you are below the rest of your team, at least two people die, including you from the impact of a person in freefall on top of your opening canopy.
Your job is to get-the-hell-out-of-Dodge quickly. The dive is over for you, so you immediately begin tracking away horizontally to put yourself as far from the rest of the jumpers as possible.
To slow down from a steep dive to match the base’s rate of fall, we pretend we are hugging a giant beach ball with our arms and feet. The more body area we expose to the Relative Wind, the faster we decelerate. The art here is to know when to start decelerating – and when to stop: when to re-assume a normal freefall position that matches the rate of fall of the base so you can fly in and take your grips, smiling ear to ear like it’s no big thing, I do this every day.
The difference for me is that this was the first and only time I’d be the last out on a big way in my 20+ year jumping career. I’d been on a bunch of 8 ways, a 10 way every once and a while. At one point I’d even make it to a 26-way world record attempt (where I took the wrong grip and blew the dive for everyone else).
I made it cleanly into the formation by 6000 feet. If you’ve never seen an 18-way smile at 120mph before and hold it for a clean 10 seconds before break off and track away, you haven’t lived yet. I carry those 10 seconds with me wherever I go. When times get tough I yank them out and quietly re-live them until I get the steam to continue to move forward.
Everyone needs 10 seconds of something to live with, to live for. It doesn’t need to be a 180mph dive on a big way. You’d better get out and find yours while you still can, day’s a wasting…