“To this day, a wave of relief washes over me as I watch a canopy successfully open above me.”
This is not an article on a tandem skydive bucket-list item. This is an article on how to attain a skydiving license that is internationally recognised.
It started back on New Year’s Day 2017 in a hotel in Clan William. I was escaping the scorching heat outside and was watching a documentary called McConkey. McConkey was a base jumper-cum-alpine skier that created a new craze of combining the two. Essentially, he would snow ski off a cliff, detach the skis, and then skydive through the air before deploying a parachute. Madness, to say the least. I was keen to give it a go.
How do you become a certified sport skydiver? You enrol in a skydive school. I chose Skydive Robertson in the Western Cape of South Africa.
I had two options to choose from: an Accelerated Free-fall (AFF) Course or a Static Line Progression (SLP). The AFF is a faster way to get an A license, with some students completing theirs within two weeks. It requires a larger immediate financial down-payment as well as an intensive time commitment. Living in Cape Town over 150km away, I chose the latter.
My goal was to attain my A license in sport skydiving. Part of an A license is achieved through the SLP course by completing about 37 jumps that include increasingly challenging tasks in the air.
Once I understood the initial requirements, I registered for the first-time jump course. I dedicated a weekend to complete the first-time jump course which would, if passed, allow me to start the SLP.
I arrived at the Robertson Skydive Club early on a Saturday morning and entered a classroom with four other nervous souls. We were introduced to the instructor who would be leading the two-day theory lessons. His nickname being ‘Dodgy’ did little to settle my nerves.
The nuts and bolts of skydiving
For the next two days, we learnt the terminology and rules of skydiving. We practised drills and emergency procedures and were introduced to the fundamentals of the sport: safety and fun. We were further introduced to parachutes, planes, harnesses, equipment, dos, don’ts and the vibrant evening social life of a skydiving club.
Come Sunday afternoon, the low wind speed conditions were approved by the chief instructor. Kitted in farmer overalls to protect ourselves from line snags and our clothes in the event of a fast landing that may result in a parachute landing fall (PLF) i.e. a controlled tumble, we were ready for our first static line jump from 4000 feet above the ground.
The plane allows for six jumpers at a time and we all squeezed in in our allocated jump order. The plane taxied along the runway before having a shakey lift-off. Palms started to sweat.
At 1000 feet above the ground, we all completed our pre-jump safety check. Our panicked voices squeaked out in unison: “helmet, shoulder straps, emergency handles, chest strap and leg straps”.
As we climbed, I couldn’t help but question why I was doing this, so I focussed on my breathing. Deeply in. Slowly out. The climb to 4000 feet took about 10 minutes before the instructor directed the pilot along the flight path.
Once above the drop zone, the instructor shouted ‘DOOR!’. The door screamed open, he clipped in my static line and shuffled me out along the strut of the wing. I found myself hanging from the strut, looking back into the plane at the instructor and giving him my biggest smile before looking forward and letting go.
The objective for this and the next two jumps was to form a hard arch with my body. I only had a few seconds before the static line pulled out my chute. I was under a large canopy gliding towards the drop zone.
Once I successfully completed three static line jumps to the instructor’s satisfaction, my parachute was equipped with a dummy ripcord. The following five jumps were going to prove my competency in finding and pulling the ripcord. No more than one task or skill is added to each successive jump in order to allow full focus on a specific task until it is completed correctly.
I failed a couple of skills and had to redo them until my instructor was satisfied. Once the five dummy pulls had been completed, with the last three completed consecutively successfully, the static line was removed from the jump and I was able to move on to the real live ripcord.
The first of the actual free-falls is completed at approximately 5000 feet. A jumper attains about three seconds of free-fall before pulling the rip to deploy the parachute.
Still, to this day, a wave of relief washes over me as I watch a canopy successfully open above me.
The following jumps, up to about jump 27 (if all jumps are passed successfully on the first attempt), include learning skills such as turns, spins, backflips, 180s, tracks, deltas and beautiful sessions of 45-second free-falls from 11,000 feet.
I gradually jumped from higher altitudes over the period of the course. With each of the jumps, the instructor gave a pre-jump brief as well as a post-jump debrief. Upon completion of the SLP, I had to prove my competence by packing a parachute, as well as demonstrating that I was capable of safely jumping with other skydivers.
Packing the parachute or ‘rig’ is done under the constant supervision of an instructor for the first 10 packs. Different types of rigs need to be learnt including static, ripcord and BOC. An open book theory test must be passed before attempting the final packing practical.
To say the packing practical was the most challenging part of the entire course wouldn’t be far from the truth. I was excused from the packing area while the instructor cruelly entangled and contorted an open rig into a frustrating mess that I had to repack within three hours. I used the full three hours.
More than once I wanted to walk out due to frustration (particularly upon finding his hidden shoe in the canopy!). I sat in the club hanger untangling the lines whilst attempting to ignore the one-liners of harmless mockery from an audience of qualified jumpers who had each been through this ordeal. I passed successfully with tears of joy coupled with Top Gun high fives.
Upon completion of the SLP, I started with my Intermediate Skills Programme (ISPs). The ISP is a series of about seven jumps that train new skydivers how to safely dive with other jumpers in the air.
Jumping with a coach helped me to recognise how I was moving relative to another person. Up to this point, I had thought that I had been falling straight down when, in fact, I was sliding forwards, backwards, or to either side. I was surprised at the challenge of finding another jumper in the air, moving towards them, touching them and breaking off for safety. All this in 45 seconds. I failed a couple of jumps by not completing the task. Even so, ISPs were the most enjoyable part of my training as I was finally skydiving with another person.
Once I had completed my SLPs, packing license and ISPs, I was awarded an A license in skydiving from the South African Parachute Association.
An A license allows me to jump with other sport jumpers providing certain parameters are met. It only took me 17 months. It was worth every moment. Do it.
Ps. I kept the shoe.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
- Once an A license has been achieved and awarded, one can complete another set of skills for a B license (including a night jump), and so on for C and D. A minimum amount of jumps are required for each license, e.g. B requires 75 jumps.
- Booking for a tandem skydive or a static line first jump course is essential.