Thursday, May 17, 2012

Lodi – The Rest

           The rest of our Lodi trip was great and the rest of our jumps went much more smoothly. Aside from a few head over rear landings, my jumps got progressively better. I even got to do a front flip out of the plane for one of my exits. That was thrilling. And Jesse had great freefalls and almost perfect landings every time, getting in around eleven jumps. Jeff also had a great trip, jumping about thirty-five times and receiving his A license.

            One thing we all agreed on was how kind everyone was at the drop-zone. Skydivers from all around the world come to Lodi because of its great prices and its awesome “scene”. There are so many talented divers there and a reasonably size population of female divers that come through.

            I definitely had a blast, but by the end of the week, I was ready to move on to our next destination: Yosemite.

Lodi – The First Jump

The next day we repeat the previous morning’s preparations and head to the center. And before we know it, we are on the first ride up, helmet in hand, jumpsuits zipped, altimeter fastened, and parachute strapped on tight. On the way up, I try not to even think about our exit because I know I will psyche myself out. Instead, I glance around at all the other skydivers on the plane. One of the few women on the plane catches my eye, smiles, and gives me a thumbs up. She was here once, taking her first jump, a bit of nervousness and excitement written across her face despite how much she tried not to let it show. And now, she’s a bad-ass, decked out in her slimming suit of red and black, a confident smile on her face, trying to re-assure a girl who reminds her of her first time.
The door of the aircraft cranks open and we all begin to slide forward on the bench as people jump out. And then, Mike is at the door and climbing out, waiting for me to follow. I do, immediately, not thinking, just doing as Jesse and I practiced the day before. But what we could not prepare for are the 120 mph winds that are trying to rip me off the side of the plane.
“Okay,” I hear Mike’s muffle yell over the wind.
I try to yell my “Ready, set, go!” over the wind, but I know my lines are lost. It doesn’t matter though because now I’m falling and I feel Mike next to me, his hand securely gripping my suit. He gives me a few hand signals to reposition my body for a stable fall, check my pilot parachute, check my altimeter. Everything’s going smoothly and I’m actually feeling pretty good about it. Before I know it, I check my altimeter and it’s time to pull my ‘chute.
I arch my body and feel the initial jolt as my parachute starts to open. I look up to check to make sure everything is going well, as we were taught, and I notice something odd. My parachute is opening rather slowly and there’s a piece of fabric, called the slider, right next to my face. It’s flapping violently, loud, and at this moment, I recall the pictures in the videos we watched. The slider seemed so much further away in those pictures. My fall has slowed, but when during my tandem ride, it felt different. This has all taken about one second and I know I have only about two seconds total to decide whether my parachute is good or bad.
After one more glance at my slider, I look down on my harness. Here we go, I think. I find the red handle that cuts my main parachute away and yank it hard. I’m falling faster again and I look to the other side of my harness, find the metal handle, grip it with both hands and pull even harder. My hands move automatically, I arch my body again and it takes me a moment to realize that my reserve parachute has opened. I quickly stuff the handles into my jumpsuit, check my altimeter, and look up, reaching for the canopy toggles. Then I notice that the slider is right next to my face…again! Shit!
This entire time, I have not panicked. I have not cringed, cried, prayed, or even frozen up. But now, for about half a second, I don’t know what do to. What did the movie say? A bad parachute is one you can’t control? Okay. I remember Mike saying that we can test the control by pulling the toggles. If you turn left when you pull the left toggle, you’re good. I do this. My parachute turns left. I pull the right one. I turn right.
And then, I realize, I’ve made a mistake. There was nothing wrong with my parachute the first time. I scold myself aloud and look down to find that I’m still right above the landing zone. I land. Not nice and soft as I did with the tandem instructor, but on my butt, in the tall grass that comes up to my head. I’m still in one piece. And I’m extremely embarrassed.
“Better safe, than sorry,” I tell myself, knowing that I would not have acted any other way and that I wouldn’t have wanted to. I’m glad that I did not doubt myself. I’m glad that it didn’t take me more than two seconds to decide what to do. Because if it had been a bad parachute and I’d taken longer, I would have been a pancake at this moment.

Jesse before a jump:

Jesse after a jump:

Lodi – Ground School

           It’s Monday morning, the day Jesse and I start our AFF course. The day begins with a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and a cup of coffee. We pack a backpack with snacks and lots of water, as instructed when we signed up.

Jeff is almost finished with his and it’s going well so far. His instructor seemed pleased with his progress and he has only a few more jumps left in the course.

            The instruction starts with ground school. We make our way over to the main Parachute center building. The planes are out already and people are starting to load up for a first round. We meet our instructor, Mike, or Mikie, as some of the other employees call him, and he sits us down to fill out some forms. He‘s a thin guy with a shaved head and glasses. Not tall, not short. When he speaks, his voice has little inflection. I had expected someone with high energy to teach the course, but Mike is pretty even keeled.

We learn later that despite his reserved demeanor he is an amazing skydiver, with over 17,000 jumps under his belt. Some of the other employees say that he is definitely the best skydiver at the Parachute Center in Lodi, probably in the country, and maybe even in the world. Anyway, he’s a top-notch skydiver. But, you wouldn’t guess it when you first meet him because he’s so modest.
He takes us through the landing exercises, a few movies, and then Jesse and I split up with our separate jumping instructors. I stay with Mike and Jesse goes with a super friendly guy names Blaine. Blaine is more along the lines of the skydiving instructor I expected: high-energy, fast-talking, ready-to-roll-at-a-moment’s-notice. He is also an excellent skydiver. Secretly, I’m glad that I get to stay with Mike. I like how low-key he makes such an extreme activity feel. As if jumping out of a plane was a relaxing activity. And for him, it might in fact be, simply because he does it every day.
With our separate instructors, we learn a few more skills we will need during the freefall. And then, it is time for our jumps. We start to get ready, but before we check out our equipment, the owner of the Parachute Center, Bill, comes in to tell us that it is too windy for a first jump. Which is fine with me since the entire morning I’ve been trying to shove all this information in my memory and need a little time to digest.
So, our instructors tell us to scamper off and meet up again the next day all-set-and-ready to take our first jump. Jesse and I re-enact our exits and all the steps we’ve learned for the rest of the day, trying to prepare ourselves for the real thing. And the longer we wait, the better I feel. Though I have the time to get nervous, I think that the extra practice time allows me to prepare like a student, to study the material before the final exam. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lodi – Diving In


          We woke up early the next day to sign up for our tandem jumps. I have to admit that I never really read or watched anything about skydiving or jumping out of an airplane before we left. This may or may not have been a good thing. I might have been more scared knowing that you jump out of a small airplane simply clipped to another person by what looks like a climbing harness with a chest strap.
            Jeff met up with his private instructor, Ed and began his course a day earlier than us. In order for us to be AFF certified, we first had to try a tandem and then we could start our course the following day. Jeff was upbeat before he left us. We still didn’t know him very well, but he did not seem anxious or nervous in the slight bit. Maybe since he is a professional hang glider pilot, he feels at home in the air, a place that many of us believe would only feel this way for birds and bugs. But, with that said, hang gliding and skydiving are completely different sports. The element of free fall would be something that Jeff had never experience and it was evident that he was truly looking forward to it.
            Jeff wasn’t the only one excited, though. Jesse was stoked as well. He didn’t share the same experience in the air as Jeff, but that didn’t curb his enthusiasm. While I can’t say that I exactly was excited to jump out of a plane, I can say that I was curious. What would it feel like to plummet toward the earth? Would it feel like jumping off a cliff into the lake, like I used to do when I was growing up? Would I want to hold my breath and close my eyes until I pulled out my parachute? I wanted to know.

We fill out our paperwork, gear up, and are herded into the waiting area. At this point Jesse and I have been split up a little because they have to organize us by our height and weight, I assume, to match us up with our tandem instructors. My instructor is a short, muscular guy from Israel. He has such a calm and reassuring demeanor that I almost can’t believe that he jumps out a plane for a living.
            Finally the time comes for us to file onto the plane. The scent of fuel hangs so thick in the air I can taste it on my tongue. And as the plane creeps forward and into the air, my breath comes in shallow pants and my stomach drops away. I try to glance back at Jesse, but he’s too far behind and so I just watch the ground fall away out the window. My instructor makes a few jokes, probably to wipe the fear from my face. The ride up takes longer than I expect and I’m glad for this. It gives me time to collect myself and to remind myself that I want to do this. If I really hadn’t wanted to, I wouldn’t have stepped on the plane. I tell myself that even if right now I could wet my pants with fear, it doesn’t matter because I am doing this; the only way down is out that rickety, plastic door.

            The door cranks open when we reach the right altitude. I slip on my goggles and feel my instructor tightening my harness straps and clipping them to his. The person in front of me leaves their seat and I watch them fall away from the plane. And then it’s our turn. We quickly hobble over to the door and I see the earth directly below me. It’s like looking off the edge of the cliff with high winds that want to sweep you away. I can feel my leg muscle beginning to resist the jump, but I relax them just as my instructor pushes us out into the fall.
At first, I can’t believe what is happening. I am falling, plunging toward the ground, and I can’t do a damn thing about it. I take a big gulp of air and while I am still scared, I realize I can enjoy the ride down. My instructor pulls the parachute and I feel the jolt from the opening. And then he gives me a ride. It’s fun, for sure. But, at that point, my stomach is already a mish-mash from nerves and the nausea is going to get the best of me if we don’t get to the ground soon. Luckily, I don’t puke and we have a nice soft landing.
I can feel my hair sticking up in all directions and I know I am not walking in a straight line from all the spins. Jesse has had a great time and is ready to sign up for the course. I, on the other hand, am not so sure. Did I have fun? Hell, yeah! But, did I want to spin some more? Most definitely not! Jesse and I walk back to the car to share our stories and collect our thoughts. Jesse says that he didn’t get the spins on the way down and I begin to worry that maybe it was me and my nerves and not my instructor spinning the parachute that has made me nauseous. We eat some food and I become more hesitant to sign up for the course since my nausea is not subsiding.
We wait for a few hours and talk it over, deciding that I should try another tandem. We were going to be in Lodi for a week weather I took the course or not because Jesse and Jeff are going to be taking it. It would suck if I just had to hang out and watch, but I don’t want to be nauseous for a week either.
So, I sign up for another tandem and tell Cathy at the front desk that I am trying to decide weather or not I want to take the AFF course. My tandem instructor James, a jolly guy from Idaho, comes and finds me a little after that and begins coaching me in certain positions I will need for the course. I am a little surprised at this one-on-one attention because I didn’t see anyone else getting it. He is so nice and I tell him that I had gotten a bit nauseous on the last jump.
            “Well, I don’t like spinning either, so we’ll stick to the basic stuff,” he says with a smile.
            He shows me a few other hand signals and then we are called back to the gear room. He gives me a device that looks like a giant watch. He explains to me that this is an altimeter. It shows you how far from the ground you are.
            “So, at about 5500 you’re going to pull the ‘chute,” he says to me with a mischievous grin.
            I laugh and then realize he’s serious. “Really?” I squeak.
            “Oh yeah. My daughter is 18 and has about 60 jumps on you. You’ve gotta learn quick and catch up somehow.”

            We load up again on the plane and it all seems quicker this time. When we’re looking over the edge out the door of the plane, I am not so terrified. We push away from the plane and fall. The altimeter gives me something else to focus on other than the fact that the ground is coming closer. When the dial flicks to 5500 I find the little round hacky-sack on James’ leg and give it a good hard tug. The parachute fills with air and we are gliding down smoothly. He instructs me to pull the toggles on each side of the parachute to turn it at certain times. We land smoothly on the ground and I know that I’m ready to sign up for the course. I know that I can do this by myself. 

The Low-Down in Lodi - Day 1

           When we first arrived in Lodi on Saturday afternoon, the parking lot of the Lodi Parachute Center Airport had just begun to empty out. The weekend rush of adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers headed back to their, typically, less-mind-blowing routines. The only ones remaining when we arrived were those that had never left. The ones that took one tandem and that was the end of it. They quit their desk jobs and were reborn skydivers.

            We rolled in and jumped out of the car into the ninety-degree heat. Jeff had come earlier in the day and had watched the three-hundred plus thrill seekers file out of the airport. He said it was a zoo. We wandered around a bit, looking for him when a stocky guy with shades, a smile, and a beer approached us.

            “Can I help you guys?”
            We said that we were just looking for a friend who was going to meet us here.
            “Are you guys skydivers?” he asked, as if this were a yes or no question.
            Uh…Well, we’d never done it before, so “Not yet,” we said and his smile brightened.
            “Oh, cool. Well, I’m Wilmar. Let me show you guys around.”

            Wilmar was just the first of many friendly faces at the Lodi Parachute Center. He introduced us to a few of the regulars and the employees at the Parachute Center and gave us a brief tour. The intimidation I initially felt about being in a new place and around such an extreme sport was lessened by how welcoming and kind everyone was toward us.

Now, all we needed to do was jump.