Falling with Style

Sam Weigel gives a big smile as he enjoys his favorite part—free-fall. Courtesy Sam Weigel

It’s a brilliantly clear, calm and slightly chilly Tuesday morning in the skies high over Central Florida, and I’m feeling a little sick. I am packed tightly among 15 other skydivers sitting backward in a steeply climbing PAC 750XL, all swaying rhythmically as one to the light turbulence. The others’ moods are ebullient, high-fives and fist bumps all around, but my eyes are closed, my heart is racing, and bile is rising in my throat.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way. What exactly am I afraid of? Death? Not really. Getting hurt? Possibly, but that’s never stopped me. Screwing up? Ah, there it is: the old fear of looking foolish in front of others, namely the two experienced instructors who are accompanying me on my very first skydive. Well, mental preparation is the best antidote for that. I shake my head, breathe deep, and force myself to chair-fly the jump again, step by step.

The airplane abruptly banks onto its final run, the pilot reduces power, and the rear door opens as a green light comes on. “Are you ready, Sam?” asks Lucas, my primary instructor, as he looks into my eyes, searching for any signs of incipient panic. I force myself to grin and nod, and we start a crouched waddle aft as skydivers plunge from the aircraft, a pronounced whoosh accompanying each as they leave. The fear is completely gone now—I’m busy concentrating on exit procedures.

Lucas climbs through the door, stands up outside and faces forward. I do so just in front of him, prop blast whipping at my jumpsuit. Frasier, the reserve instructor, crouches at my feet. This is actually pretty neat, I think; I’ve never stood up outside of an airplane in flight. I glance back at Lucas and down at Frasier, both of whom signal their readiness, then mime the count: up, down and out. Arching my back mightily and raising my hands in surrender, I plunge into the void.

I’ve been intending to skydive for a good 20 years, ever since I rode along in the right seat of a Cessna Caravan flown by a former student and saw how fun it looked, as a full load of divers rapidly clambered out of the airplane. But it was one of those things I just never got around to, initially from lack of funds and later because of a lack of time and an embarrassment of competing hobbies. The reality is, experiencing free-fall via tandem skydive takes only an hour of your time and a couple hundred bucks, but I was disinclined to do it that way. If I went skydiving, I wanted to learn something from it, to gain a new skill. Like most pilots, I suspect, I don’t find much satisfaction in being a thrill-ride passenger; I’d rather be “at the controls.”

A month ago, my younger brother, Steve, called to ask me if I knew of any good drop zones near me. With two tandem skydives under his belt, Steve had intended to do the Accelerated Free-Fall course during 2020—but then, well, 2020 happened. By the end of the year, drop zones had reopened, but winter had descended upon Minneapolis, so Steve was looking to come down to Central Florida to do the course in the last week of December.

As it happens, there is a large and well-regarded operation, Skydive DeLand, just over an hour north of our winter marina. I asked Steve if he wouldn’t mind some company at the course, and he enthusiastically agreed. Steve’s a good guy to do something like this with. A born daredevil and committed adventurer, he learns new skills quite naturally but is less apt to study, while I tend to grasp the theoretical side readily and then muddle through the actual practice.

The AFF course is the most common way of learning to skydive today, and it has largely supplanted the static-line method of yesteryear. It consists of one day of classroom instruction followed by seven skydives (assuming no remediation is required), each one of which introduces a new skill. There are no tandem dives; from the start you wear your own rig and are flying solo once under canopy. However, for the free-fall portion, you are accompanied by two instructors for the first three levels and a single instructor for the last four, with an increasing amount of autonomy throughout the levels (they hang on to you quite firmly for the first few jumps, ready to pull your chute for you if required).

The first skydives are all about proper body positioning for stable “belly flight” and being able to consistently find the small pilot chute—in a pocket on the bottom right side of your rig—that deploys your main chute. After that, you learn turns, moving forward and backward, backflips, and recovering from unstable exits. And throughout the course, you have considerably more time under canopy than during free-fall—to better work on canopy control, identifying and correcting deployment anomalies, landing patterns, hitting your aim point, timing and executing the two-stage flare, and making soft stand-up landings. This is all roughly akin to pre-solo training in airplanes; it doesn’t produce a skydiver of any great finesse, but it does give one the survival skills needed to go practice on your own.

Read More from Sam Weigel: Taking Wing

Free-fall from 13,000 feet to the student deployment altitude of 5,500 feet takes but 50 seconds. My first skydive seems to go even quicker than that. Lucas, Frasier and I come out of the airplane somewhat sideways, and we seem about to tumble, but I doggedly maintain the stabilizing arched position, essentially turning myself into a giant shuttlecock. We settle down as we accelerate to terminal velocity, and I set about my practice pilot-chute touches. I don’t really feel the acceleration; rather, the roaring wind just steadily intensifies until it is a solid, unchanging pressure and high-pitched buzz. We’re fluttering back and forth a bit, and Lucas gives me the signal to arch more. I thought I was, but as I de-tense my muscles, the wind bows me into the proper shape, we stabilize, and it occurs to me that this is almost relaxing.

Much too soon, it is time for me to throw the pilot chute. There’s a mighty jerk, my instructors shoot downward, and suddenly I’m under a big, beautiful, brightly colored canopy not unlike the spinnaker sail aboard Windbird. A wave of exhilaration sweeps over me, and I roar out an exultant whoop to the parachute-filled sky as I test the toggles, swooping this way and that. A few minutes later, I make a passable stand-up landing (mind you, a few hundred feet from my aiming point), gather my chute, and walk over to my waiting instructors with a Cheshire-cat grin spread across my face. I can’t wait to do it again.

I do, in fact, do it again and again, though it goes in fits and starts—as it turns out, skydiving is even more weather-dependent than VFR flying. Steve gets in only two jumps before he has to fly back to Minnesota, returning a month later to finish up. If it’s not the clouds, it’s the wind; there can’t be much of either from 13,000 feet all the way to ground level.

Nevertheless, I proceed steadily through the course, making all the usual mistakes that my instructors expertly correct with the help of helmet-mounted GoPro video. Over the course of five minutes and 50 seconds of busy, practice-filled free-fall time, I come to really enjoy the sensation. This is a bit unexpected because I don’t consider myself much of an adrenaline junkie, and I figured I’d more fully appreciate the longer time under canopy, reckoning the parachute almost like another aircraft to fly. And I do enjoy canopy flying—having improved the accuracy of my spot landings considerably—but during the deep peaceful sleep that follows a long day at the drop zone, my dreams are the exuberant, weightless dreams of free-fall.

Free-fall, despite the name, doesn’t feel like falling all at—it is flying, in the purest possible bird-flight sense, with the least possible airframe between you and the sky. The smallest body movement elicits an immediate aerodynamic response, with greater maneuverability than any aircraft you’ve ever flown and no structural limits save the obvious one. Deep-blue sky above, verdant earth below, and white puffy clouds sweeping past, the noise and vibration of terminal velocity fade into the background. This is absolute freedom, absolute peace. And if your steadily unwinding wrist altimeter and the rapidly approaching ground remind you that your trespass into the realm of angels must necessarily be an ephemeral one, this renders your remaining seconds before deployment altitude all the more priceless.

Having completed my seventh jump with a successful check ride to finish up the AFF course, I climb aboard the PAC 750XL for my first solo skydive. As the airplane climbs to altitude, there are no jangling nerves—only happy anticipation. I exchange high-fives and fist bumps with the skydivers around me, many of whom I know now because the drop zone is a friendly, communal sort of place. I don’t know if I’ll continue in this sport, though I’m at least working on my A-license. I have too many expensive, time-consuming interests for my own good already, and being any good at skydiving requires rather-intense, constant practice.

But for now, I’m going to enjoy myself. The airplane banks onto its final run, the green light comes on, the door opens, and skydivers start whooshing out of the airplane. I waddle down the aisle with a light heart, watching the preceding jumper tumble into space with a rapid somersault. I take my own place in the sunlit door, turn my face to the cool prop blast, and make a joyful leap into the eternal void.

This story appeared in the June/July 2021 issue of Flying Magazine

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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