This is a personal account of Ben Mills on his AFF Skydiving Course.
AFF Course started: 16 th January 2005
AFF Diary (and Tamdem).
Day 1 – Having made my own way from Madrid to the local station Villa Canas, I was picked up by Lamorna from the station. Taken straight to the Drop Zone (DZ) and into the bar where another student Martina was celebrating graduation of her AFF course in the traditional manner, the video of her skydives was playing and she had bought a crate of beer for everyone to share.I was introduced to Barry my instructor immediately and several other people. Everyone was so nice, friendly and welcoming. Most people seemed to know just how I was feeling….nervous about the whole thing!. I say most as some people seem born to skydive but for the rest of us mere mortals, who have a fascination, an interest or have just decided to step outside their comfort zone….way….way….way out!!! The emotions are powerful, and can swing wildly.The Red Dwarf episode ‘Confidence and Paranoia” springs to mind. Half of you is really excited, I have been dreaming about it for nine months, since doing a tandem skydive in New Zealand. Classic backpacker rite of passage.
For me the experience breaks down into several phases. Thinking about doing it, researching etc. that interest kindled, then it’s the actual going and booking it, a big step in its own right. It took me until my last week of ten months of travelling to do my tandem. My research told me that it’s now a safe sport. Of course there is an inherent risk, but its extremely well managed, and for the tandem especially, you don’t have to worry about it quite as much. ‘I’d done my research; I was in the hands of an expert’. It’s the strangest thing, how as usually a back seat driver (I ride motorcycles but find it hard to get on the back!) then I was eventually able to put by life totally in someone else’s hands- albeit for a few brief minutes, but nonetheless its my life (that’s the ammunition paranoia has). The morning of my tandem went fast. I called the school, it went something like this. ‘I’m enquiring about doing a tandem skydive, I was wondering if you had any spaces in the next few days?’ ‘We do, but it’s a beautiful day, perfect for skydiving- can you do it today?’……deep breaths…’errr, yes, ok…’ ‘we’ll pick you up in an hour, its only a short journey to the school, and it’ll be over in 20 mins’….’eeerr ok’… another deep breath…’ok’. Paranoia springs back into action. I’m nervous, hell I’m nervous. I pace around, also incredibly excited. Confidence fights back. ‘remember the research, its safe, you’re with experts, thousands of people jump every day, all around the world, you can do it, relax, be cool, it’ll be a one in a lifetime’ (although I already had a sneaking suspicion id love it more than that, and knew the AFF awaited if I got the bug.) So I’m trying to stay cool, but I don’t know how. Paranoia steps in ‘you’re going to jump out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane, what are you doing?’. Confidence counters, it’s a tremendous battle with two titans in the corners, but confidence is winning, just. Remember you can pull out anytime, even at the door to the plane. You don’t have to do decide now. So lets get ready and take the first steps. I get washed and dressed and walk around a lot. I drink water, coffee, and pace some more. I manage a few bites of a small piece of toast, I’m only trying ‘cos I should. I go the toilet 5 times in that hour, and again at the school. The briefing is short but thorough; there is not much to learn as a passenger. You have some responsibility to help your instructor, but you only have to do a couple of things. They answered all my questions, a common one being ‘do you get that losing your stomach feeling, like on a rollercoaster?’ the answer being, ‘no’, but I would have to wait to see to believe it. Their whole manner, from as soon as I arrived at the school, was professional, friendly, understanding and reassuring. Paranoia takes a beating. Confidence is here- I am ready, I want to do this, its only 20 minutes, go for it, you can do it. We get in the plane, I am excited (I am quite an excitable person). If you’ve never been in a small plane before, it can be freaky. Noise is the main factor, especially when they open the door. It took about 10 minutes to climb to jump altitude, I am singing loudly above the noise. From one of my favourite Queen songs, ‘don’t stop me now, I’m having a good time, I’m having a ball’. The instructor talks to the others in the plane, “he’s a bit excited heh” he then taps me on the shoulder and says something like “Ben, just try and relax, you’ll enjoy it so much more.”These were the magic words, somehow they really hit home, a strange Zen came over me, I actually did relax ! I stopped singing and put my faith in my instructor. We run through what I have to do again, the position to hold on exit etc. The door opens. I shuffle out, mesmerized by the view, before I realize it I’m completely suspended out the door connected to the plane only by my instructor. legs fully out and tucked under the plane, hands holding onto my chest strap, ready for exit.
3 – 2 - 1 – “ “
That’s not a typing error, I just can’t find the words to express the feeling on exit. It’s well known that the sensory overload is strong as you leave the plane. For me I think my brain just said “can’t compute, won’t compute” I don’t black out or anything of the sort, I’m fully conscious of what’s going on and what I’m doing, I just can’t make any sense of the feelings, why should I be able to, I’ve never done this before and nothing I’ve experienced so far is anywhere near close to this. As I write this I have now completed my first two AFF jumps today and for me I have experienced this again on each jump. It’s truly an overwhelming experience but there’s nothing you can do to prepare for it, you just have to literally throw yourself into it and be consumed by it, allow it to engulf you and embrace it. It’s truly amazing. A thousand poets could each write a thousand poems and no one could adequately describe how this felt to me, you just have to experience it for yourself. I’m sure it’s not the same for everyone but this is how it was for me.
This mind stretching, awesome moment is over very quickly. Within seconds we are stable, in the classic arched face down skydive position, in freefall. A tap on the shoulders to allow me to release my arms into the classic pose too………………………….…..... I am immediately struck by how comfortable I feel, and the view is breathtaking. The instructor didn’t lie to me, I felt no stomach loss sensations, in fact I feel very comfortable, the constant pressure of the air as we rush through it at about 120 mph is reassuring, it feels somehow natural. The instructor on your back (and later just a parachute) also feels safe and again reassuring. This is altogether a totally different set of feelings to the exit.
Where that is Mental and overload time, this is Natural. I’m actually pretty relaxed at least in part, I feel at one with the sky, like somehow I’m meant to be there, that it was always part of me, it just took me 28 years of life to discover it. I felt free, freer than I ever have before, I was flying.. kinda, it felt incredibly exhilarating and also somehow it just felt right !. I knew at that moment that I’d want to experience this again. No matter how hard it might be to exit the plane, this is worth it. It didn’t feel like anything I’d imagined, no falling stomach feeling, more like swimming, swimming through thin water or surfing underwater with a jet pack on your back using your arms and legs as rudders with only minimal movements….. you see I just can’t describe it adequately, you have to feel it for yourself. I see the other instructor fly in and link hands with mine, another skydiver is filming us. For a moment we are all experiencing this freefall together, this is yet another reassuring, amazing feeling of sharing this moment. I felt a kin with these strangers, I knew how they felt, completely and utterly amazing. Then suddenly it’s over.
I had about 45 seconds of freefall on my tandem and it was gone in a flash. The canopy opens and in a couple of seconds the rush was over, the noise disappears. Peace and tranquillity took hold. It so quiet you can speak to your instructor with ease, I think I said “that was amazing” a true failing of my powers of expression, but all I could say at the time. Now you really have time to soak up the view, which as I haven’t said much about yet is always awe inspiring. I feel like I’m being gently lowered to the ground on a long piece of wire. To be honest I didn’t even look up at the canopy, I couldn’t really as my head was pressed against my instructor’s chest. I was too busy soaking up this incredible view. To see the world from this angle never ceases to amaze and inspire me. A comfortable landing and its all over. My Instructor says “welcome to my world” I reply “I want to be in your world.” (Yuck Yuck pukey puke cheesey as hell I know, but that’s all I could say !.)
So I had experienced Freefall and new I wanted more. After this, nothing can compare so there’s only one way to get these feelings again. My first day is ground school for me. I am nervous no doubt about it, I didn’t really sleep the night before, I lay in bed in the dark but my mind was racing too much. Its 9 months since my tamdem so paranoia is back!, but confidence keeps countering and re-assuring me. I spent ages talking to the other students the night before and all of this had helped put me at ease, especially being told it’s normal to be nervous. No one is a natural born skydiver, we all have to learn. Oh by the way…you’ll love it! But this time I HAVE THE RESPONSIBILITY for my own skydive, I’m not a passenger anymore. (yes I know it’s in capitals but it seemed appropriate, I mean, haven’t you ever been in a position where you are responsible for something very important and although you are pretty sure you can handle it, you won’t know till the time comes ?) I’m the one who has to steer the canopy, deal with any nuisances or malfunctions and be in control. So it’s a different nervousness I have as I get to ground school that morning.
AFF Ground School / Level 1
Now I get to learn about skydiving, all the safety elements and skills, the canopies, the freefall stable position, the drills and expectations. My instructor, Barry Maple, is undeniably one of the best instructors / teachers I’ve ever met. (I should know because although I’m now a full time musician, my alter ego is an IT Trainer and I’ve been doing that for 5 years, I also went to university and so have been taught by many different teachers and instructors throughout my life, education, music, martial arts, snowboarding and now skydiving.) It’s all about personality. Barry is definitely a perfect instructor for skydiving. He’s doing the right job. I was very lucky to be taught by him. Regardless of the testimony of the other students I’d met and talked to the night before, this became apparent to me very quickly. One to one instruction, all the other students were at different levels throughout the course, really helped me feel confident. No question went unanswered. Barry’s calm confident professional and friendly manner helped put me at ease. The other instructors here are all very experienced experts too with thousands of jumps and qualifications to boot not to mention British team members or ex team members, cameramen and even James Bond doubles and film stunt advisors! (That’s Barry ‘Bond’ Maple to you.) None of this you find out from them, only through word of mouth by the other students or friends of the instructors. I’d picked the right people to do my AFF with but I’d already worked that out. Barry’s instruction is first rate. The school, the attitudes, the organization is all safety conscious and I soon have complete confidence and trust in Barry. That’s essential as I will follow his every word and direction throughout my training. Ground school takes most of the day, I asked a lot of questions, here’s one you might like to hear about. You can pull your parachute even if you are spinning out of control and the wrong way up. ! You will most likely have an uncomfortable jolt as you are yanked round the right way but you will get a canopy, that pilot chute is being pulled by 120 mph winds so its going to pull out your main parachute and that really wants to, and will, open. (I have since actually seen a video of someone who did this, and was apparently fine.) By the end of ground school I feel confident I know what and how to achieve a good level 1 jump. I still have nerves, heh I’m human, and in these circles they say that if you have nerves you are not right !. Ground school teaches you about all the risks and how they are extremely well managed. I also didn’t come this far to pull out now. I was nervous about being under canopy the first time by myself, as I knew that I’d be with Barry and a secondary instructor for the entire skydive, holding onto me, helping me, directing me, keeping me stable if I struggle to relax into the position myself. But once the canopy deploys, I have to deal with any issues. Although malfunctions are rare, nuisances can occur, and you are drilled to deal with them. The first time the canopy opens will be a major rush. But although by now I have complete confidence in the equipment I am using too (Barry is also the guru of kit!) this will be new to me. I’m as confident as I can be, I’m well drilled and rehearsed, I’m ready.I could just have got onto that last lift that day if I’d wanted but with only a short time to be ready I decided to not rush and wait for the next day. The nice thing is I felt no pressure to go at anyone else’s pace, I didn’t have to rush, the course goes at my pace. I had the night to think about it all and let in really sink in.It turned out to be another night of mostly lying awake in the dark rehearsing the drills in my mind, unable to switch off again. Next morning Fog, we are delayed until lunch time, then“Ok dude, time to run through the jump. “ and its all systems go, all senses to overdrive, its time !.
I’m kitted up and ready to go, we make our way to the plane, we’ll be the last to exit at about 12000 feet, me with Barry and Pablo on either side. I’m quiet as we climb to jump altitude, Barry says I look nervous, I am, then he says “if you’re not your not human,” that’s reassuring. I feel a great togetherness on the plane, there’s 9 of us . Just before the first lot exit I am inaugurated into the clan by the skydivers handshakes, the music’s on in the plane (something I now love and always ask for as we ride to altitude) but I don’t really here it now, I focused, I’m going through with it, I’m nervous but I’m ready. The door opens, the noise is suddenly greater and a cool wind rushes in. I love this too now as it gives me a chance to take a couple of cool deep breathes as I ready myself. I watch everyone else exit whilst trying to stay calm and think about the jump. Then it’s my time.
I take a few moments to ready myself and get into position in the door. I take a couple of breaths ….. woah ! then. “Check in” to my secondary instructor, a signal I’m ready to go. A big ok. “Check out” to my primary. Thumbs up. I shout loudly “READY – SET – GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO !” I launch myself out of the plane. I’m pretty sure I closed my eyes as I leapt, in fact I think I still do it (16 jumps later !) then instantly open them again. It works for me.I arch hard! A couple of seconds later I realise I’m pretty stable, I go through the drills. HASP (Heading, Altitude, Secondary, and Primary) (also called circle of awareness) .I get some signals and then thumbs ups from both instructors. I then get a dig in the ribs to remind me to begin my practice pulls. I struggle to find the hackisack to pull out the pilot chute, but Barry puts my hand on the spot, I do my practice pulls, I check my altimeter and I still have a couple of thousand feet to go (about 10 secs). I relax, Pablo actually lets go for a few seconds although without moving the rest of himself an inch. So he is easily able to take hold again. It’s going well. 6000 feet, I lock on, 5500 I wave off, a little too exaggerated. I pull. 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000 . . .
Flying my parachute
I’m pulled up, it’s quiet now, and I take a deep breath and look up. Is it Big? YES, is it Rectangular? YES, can I control it? I detach the toggles and gingerly pull them down together, not a full two flares as I should have done, but enough to feel the difference. Then I do a left turn and a right and YES I can control it. I feel amazing, all those hours on the Nintendo and Playstation playing flight sims and pilot wings now had an application !.
I was flying a canopy and it felt great. I was over to my holding area straight away, I’m at about 4K ft now, I then do a few gentle S turns and I start to feel confident under canopy. Barry comes on the radio, reassuring me, a good dive and looking good under canopy. I check my altimeter regularly I’m in the right place for my 1000ft down wind leg of my landing pattern.
It’s going fine, Barry talks me in, he tells me to begin my cross wind then into wind legs and I’m all set up for landing. I’m ready to Flare, Barry says “Now” and I pull down on both toggles fully in about 1 second flat, not 3 as I should have ! But its no issue, I flared a little high and fast but my landing was no harder than jumping off of a 5 foot wall and I’ve done that plenty of times. I rolled over, elated!I’ve done it. AWESOME!!
Everyone congratulates me, a few hugs etc and I’m jumping around like a mad bunny, Tigger has nothing on me. I bounced back to the packing area. I take about an hour to calm down enough to do Level 2.
Level 1 Debrief
The debrief is great, as you get to see the whole skydive on video. Barry films all the training jumps as part of the course as this is essential for learning and coaching. Trust me, you won’t remember your first jump well. I remembered getting signals but in the wrong order and from the wrong instructor ! I was looking pretty good, a little more even on my legs and I was pretty much there. A little less enthusiastic wave off and I should be ok.
AFF Level 2
Level 2 More of the same as level 1 with signals and practice pulls. We rehearse on the ground, ‘dirt diving’ before we go. Level 2 goes well too, exit same as 1, I got signals but felt comfortable in the position and very stable. Pablo was able to let go and fly round in front of me during the skydive. My Arch was good but I de-arched a little at pull time although not enough to go unstable. A good canopy flight but still flared a little high and rolled on landing. Feeling amazing again !.Exit was still mind bending but the skydive felt more natural.I was rushing so much after the first two levels that I hardly slept again that night !
AFF Level 3
After debriefing level 2 and preparing level 3 (and being sent home to catch a few hours sleep !) I was ready finally for level 3.Same exit as before and then HASP again etc. This time I maintained a good heading and body position throughout the dive and Ule (my secondary) let go early and then Barry for most of the skydive. Same flaring problem on landing but I’m getting there !. When I landed Barry asked me if I had felt any resistance whilst doing my practise pull ? I replied yes, were you holding my arm ? , no he replied, you punched me in the mouth. ! It’s pretty funny really, you can see it on the video. Barry had a tiny splatter of blood on his face. We laughed for a while and then Barry called me ‘Rocky’ and it stuck for the rest of the course and ended up in the credits of my video !.
AFF Level 4
I’d had a two day break and it was first thing in the morning (I’m not great at mornings!) briefing for my level 4 over we are boarding the plane. Maybe it was the break or the fact it was early, but I was a little tense on this jump consequently it didn’t go as well as it could. Exit with just my primary instructor Barry was a little different but still fine. I was able to start and stop my turns on heading but I didn’t relax fully and so got some buffeting as my legs were unsymmetrical. This made it feel unnatural and not as good as the previous 3 levels. I still completed the objectives and even managed to flare correctly and land on my feet without falling over for the first time !.
AFF Level 5
On the debrief from Level 4 Barry pointed out that really all I did was tense up a little and although I was arching I was stiff like cardboard and so fighting the air rather than finding my natural path through it. All I had to do was relax a little more and it’d all come together. It did. Level 5 was Fantastic, a real breakthrough level for me. During this skydive I did two 360s and stopped on heading, it felt very comfortable and I was relaxed with no buffeting.That was a great confidence boaster, I really felt like I had it after this level. I had twists on opening, I new because I couldn’t look up, but by the time I started to reach for the risers I was already unwinding. This is no nuisance at all really. Nice to have had it. I now felt comfortable with dealing with them. The adrenalin rush lasts no where near as long now, for levels 4 and 5 I was calm after about 30 mins. It felt amazing still but no longer new. I was learning, my mind and body where getting used to it.
AFF Level 6
Great debrief from Level 5 and briefed for 6. I was soon back in the air. Dive exit (alone) for the first time, this felt more natural to me than the previous exit, I stayed stable and just bought my legs up in time to avoid a forward roll. Then I attempted the back flip. Mine was certainly no ballet manoeuvre but I went all the way over and regained stability almost instantly. It felt great. I realized then that I could get stable just by arching and relaxing. Something Barry made me promise is the only way I’ll try and recover from instability. I still had plenty of altitude so I was able to track (although not on heading all the time) which I loved, the feeling of speeding across the sky like a bullet or a missile is great ! and still time for another 360. I was feeling great, confident, I could do it, it was feeling natural and easy now. I still didn’t land on my feet again !, but I didn’t care, I was now feeling euphoric. This was what it was all about.
AFF Level 7
Barry called Level 7 a show-off level. He said all I had to do was go up there and show him everything I’d learnt. He was just there to film it so I was to ignore him, no signals this time. I just run through it all in my own time. This is the unstable exit. I had thought ok, this ones going to feel strange, holding a tucked ball position for 3 seconds as you roll out the plane but Barry said it’s absolutely fine and most people actually like it a lot. All I had to do was arch and hold that arch until I was stable no matter what angle I popped out of the tuck in. The plane ride this time was different. I felt cool, calm and ready for this. No real nerves of sort except for the “ “ bit on exit. But heh my closing eyes thing was working so I was ok about that too. This time I kept my eyes closed as I rolled out of the plane, I kept them closed the entire time I was in the tuck. It felt wonderful falling out like that, it was definitely my favourite exit. So I thought I’d turned over about twice but it turned out to only be one and half as I was upside down when I popped. I arched hard and opened my eyes, and realized I was upside down, so I arched a little more and ‘pop’ I just flipped round into the stable position almost instantly. This was the final piece of the jigsaw slotting into place, I now realized I could get stable from any position. I now had the confidence to leave the plane any way I wanted. And I could play in the air to my hearts content and always be able to get stable for a good deployment. I was free. I did my tracking (this time on target) and 360s and grinned from ear to ear. Barry flew in and gave me a ‘high five’ in mid air to congratulate me. I’d done it. I had twists and end cell closure on this jump but again by the time I realised, it was almost cured. It was the best feeling to land… on my feet this time (and every time since…16 Jumps now.) I new I had qualified the AFF course.
AFF Level 8 and beyond.
I have now done 8 consolidation jumps. After perfecting my stable dive exit for 5 jumps I then did my level 8 which was a doddle !. I’m looking forward now to completing my A licence requirements and then taking the FS1 course so I can jump with other people. Then some free flying coaching….and a rig ……..mmmm this is going to get expensive.
I’d done what I came here to do I had set myself free, free and into what is now a much better world. Personally I now feel I can do anything I put my mind to. “If I can do this I can play to 70,000 people at a festival or Wembley stadium” I told myself before doing the course. Well I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to find out if I can but I know one thing. If I ever get the chance I’ll take it. Skydiving is a bit like gigging. I get nervous before hand, The getting up on stage bit is the Exit but you just have to do it because like skydiving, when you play that first chord or sing the first note and its all going well, that’s what its all about, that’s the rush of the skydiving part, and when you finish, in between songs, that’s the quiet beautiful canopy bit. So gigging is a lot like skydiving, its all Mental, you just have to go for it and Relax. Skydiving has shown me that I can conquer my fears and paranoia and be who I want to be and live my dreams. I’ve now done 16 jumps and I loved them all. I’ll be back at FFU soon to do some more.
A great big thank you to all the staff, students and fellow skydivers that helped make my 10 days so good. Barry of course -cheers dude you really did good. Lamorna – thanks for being so welcoming and friendly throughout my stay, I miss you guys and Sidney too. Andy, Martina, Nick, Matt, Steve, Paul, Peter, Bryan, Ule, Andy, Sue et al. Thanks for all your support and good company. Hope to see you all again soon. (-B)
skydiving account diary