Anyone who tells you they ain’t scared jumping out of a plane at 12,500 feet at midnight for the first time with nothing but the moon to guide them back to earth is a mighty big liar.
The hardest part of getting your ‘D’ license (expert rating) from the USPA (United States Parachute Association) is by far the notion of making two night jumps. They are as scary as hell. We jumped all day at Perris Valley Skydiving – the night jumps were as far in the back of our minds as we could push them. We didn’t even talk about it until Jim Wallace called us together for the briefing.
There were about a dozen of us that gathered together late that afternoon. We all had made our 200 required skydives. We had completed the accuracy landing jumps, the water training (not drowning with a 200 square foot completely wet canopy over your head in the deep end of the pool).
This was the last hurdle. Jim walked us through the first jump, which would be made at 7,500 feet. We would each exit on our own pass (plane flying over the landing area), ensuring that no other canopies would be in the air as we approached the DZ (Drop Zone). A truck would be parked at one end of the landing area with its headlights pointing into the wind, so we could set up properly for our landing.
Everyone kept their eyes peeled on Jim. No one wanted to spread the sheer terror each one of us felt. At first we thought maybe we would take off right after sunset, and have a wee bit of light left. Not a chance. Jim said for the jump to be official, it had to be made at night. Around 7:30 we geared up and headed for the Twin Otter. It was eerily quiet as we gave each other gear checks and climbed on board.
We were each issued two chemical flares, the kind you shake-awake. One would be attached to one of our main canopy risers – in the event that anyone had a malfunction (and had to jettison the parachute, activating the reserve), so they might be able to locate their canopy after landing by looking for the glow stick. The other would be attached to the top of our helmet, well, so we could be found in the event of…
Ok, the plan was simple. On jump run, each of us in turn would make our way to the door where Jim was. Our job was to locate the DZ amidst all the ground lights and point it out to him. Then, and only then, would he clear us to exit.
I worked my way to the door. It was my turn. No fear now. No room for it anymore. Jim smiled at me. Jim had a disarming smile – one that could stop a charging elephant in his tracks. He had put me out on my first skydive about a year and a half earlier.
This was way different. All I could see were teeny tiny lights, homes, a road here and there. After what seemed like an eternity, I spotted the DZ and the truck lights near the landing area. I pointed them out to Jim and he gave me the thumbs up to exit. I stepped out into the nothingness and looked up as I watched the plane sail off. I checked my altimeter. That’s about all you do on your night jumps. Pull altitude was twice as high at night – to give you time to find the DZ and set up a landing pattern. I looked around briefly before checking my altimeter again. An exit at 7,500 gives you about 20 seconds of freefall before reaching your 5,000 foot pull altitude.
I did a slow 360 to look at the moon and the mountains. Before I knew it, I was passing through 5000 feet so I grabbed my hackey – a little leather ball on the end of my pilot chute and tossed it into the wind. My canopy opened, I did a line control check, and all of a sudden everything was calm. I had plenty of time to set up for my downwind leg (part of the landing pattern). I cherished the moment a bit. I felt victorious, although I still had to land safely. I picked out the truck lights and turned into the wind, sailing directly over the vehicle at around 100 feet. What they didn’t tell you was just as scary as the jump. As you approach the ground, your own shadow moves up to greet you very quickly and offers the illusion that you are about to crash into something. I started to flare my canopy at about 12 feet and the horizontal speed was converted into vertical speed, slowing the canopy and permitting me to execute a tip toe landing.
I wanted to scream with joy that I was halfway there, I had made my first night jump, but there was no wind in my lungs. My knees began to shake. The adrenalin was literally pouring out of me onto the ground. I had to scurry out of the landing area to make room for the next skydiver, so I picked up my canopy, crossed the runway and went up to the office window to check in. We all had to check in after landing to make sure everyone who went up came down, in one piece.
I laid my rig down and began to quietly pack. As the grass was filling up with jumpers, we compared stories and shared the absolute fright the jump had been. Now all we had to do was pack our rig and do it again.
Relative work is the expression used to describe two or more skydivers exiting the plane at the same time and then executing a series of pre-planned formations before a predetermined breakoff at around 4000 feet to give us enough separation to open our canopies safely without fear of collision. To be extra safe we increased our break off altitude to 7,500 to give everyone enough clear air to not have to worry about traffic during the landing pattern.
Me and three of my friends logged in with manifest for a 4 way plus cameraman – we definitely wanted to celebrate this very rare experience with some photos. It was closing in on midnight when the Twin Otter approached 12,500, our normal exit altitude at Perris. We left a lot of time between groups of jumpers to ensure no one might encroach on another’s airspace in freefall. The disorientation of not being in daylight played havoc with us. We tried to execute a linked exit (two jumpers outside of the plane holding on to a rail, two inside with grips on the outside jumpers.
Without being able to see the plane and the sky, we blew the exit (lost grips, tumbling through the air) but quickly regrouped. On most jumps you are trying to turn as many points as possible in the allotted freefall time (about 65 seconds from 12,500 feet). A point is a recognized formation with each jumper having specified grips on another skydiver’s arm or leg gripper (a tube-like fabric extension on the jumpsuit).
On this jump all we wanted to do was build a round (four skydivers in a circle with grips on each other’s wrists), and we barely accomplished that. At 7,500 feet we broke off and tracked off into the blackness to give each other enough separation for a safe deployment. Once we were all safely under canopy you could hear the whoops and hollers of elation from everyone in our group.
Now things got a bit more dicey. With more than one of us in the landing pattern, we had to have our heads on swivels, looking for the chemical lights each of us wore to ensure that we were not encroaching on each other’s clear air for landing. We had predetermined which part of the DZ we would land in. In the daytime, this is not a big deal, sharing airspace. At night, it was a very big deal.
Again, the unreal illusion of collision with ourselves occurred as our shadows jumped up at us during final approach. This was unnerving to ALL of us. Elated but exhausted, we made our way across the runway to the packing area. The adrenalin was pumping again, and my knees gave out momentarily. I chose not to pack, just to dump all my gear into the back of my car. I’d deal with it in the morning. It was a quiet and somewhat eerie 90 minute ride home at around 2 am. My mind was completely blank, save for the notion that I had just accomplished what very few people get to do in life -- and lived to talk about it.
(I’m in the upper left, about to join the formation)