Tuesday, March 10, 2015

My First Sky Dive

For the last week, I have been attending the CSUN disability technology conference in San Diego California. Just like as in years past, the conference proved very useful for my work, and it was great to catch up with so many wonderful and smart people in the Accessibility industry, including friends old and new. However, as I had around 6 hours to spare on the final day before my flight back to Australia, I thought I'd make this year extra special by going Sky Diving. What the hell, several other colleagues had done it earlier in the week, and had seemed to return in one piece. I made the final decision to do it at about 2 am on Saturday morning while I couldn't sleep. It didn't take me long to locate the Sky Dive San Diego website, and book in for a tandem dive at 2 pm later that day. The whole experience using Sky Dive San Diego (including the dive itself) was great... accept for 1 issue to do with the booking process. It is really easy to book on the website. Just choose your package, choose an available time, and pay. However, it is only when you receive the confirmation email at the end when some of the most important conditions are clearly laid out. I'm sure they are available somewhere on the website, but neither I or my friend Steve (who tried booking later) noticed them. These were conditions such as the fact you must be over 18, you must be under 230 pounds for tandem, and the "refundable" package (which I chose), can only be refunded up to 48 hours before. I chose this package 12 hours before and the site did not stop or warn me. Although I did not fight this particular point, my friend however did call and ask for a refund due to another condition listed in the email and not made clear on the site. Thankfully the second person he spoke to on the phone was sane enough to fully refund him. My friend and I left for Sky Dive San Diego from our hotel around 1 pm. The trip was supposed to take around half an hour in a cab, but due to a broken tole booth, and a cab driver who would not accept a credit card, the trip took just on an hour, getting us there technically 1 minute late. Thankfully the staff there didn't seem to be in too much of a rush, while we sorted out money for the cab driver. The first thing one must do when arriving at Sky Dive San Diego is to handle some administration tasks. These include showing photo ID, filling out mailing forms for your optional video (thankfully they do know it is the 21st century and also give you a nice link to it on the internet), and filling in your legal forms. The form must be filled in on one of several iPads available in the office. You must stand in front of it at all times, keeping yourself in clear view of the camera. No one else may touch the iPad while filling. Obviously for me being blind, and no means of activating VoiceOver on the iPad probably (I admit we didn't try as we were already a bit late), my friend did all the reading and typed all names and contact info etc., but I still signed each page and checked the I Accept checkboxes... with his help of course. The form is long. Very long. It also seems to repeat itself and asks for your signature multiple times. In short the form pretty much says you can't sue them for anything, and there is no insurance what so ever. All important stuff of course, but just be aware it takes a while. Finally after successfully filling the form, you are given 1 or 2 envelopes. One must be handed to your tandem instructor, and the other must be handed to the camera man, both before boarding the plane. From the feel of them, and from what I think the instructor may have said, these envelopes contain money. I'm guessing this is to ensure that all diving workers receive pay before the dive. After leaving the office, you then wait outside the building, next to a small grassy field where you can already see sky divers coming into land every few minutes. We waited out there until I was called for my training session, which consisted of a training instructor explaining what to expect from here, all the way to landing. He showed me the correct body shape I should assume when my tandem instructor and I leave the plane, and he had me practiced this both standing up first, and then lying on the ground. The position is rather like an upside-down rainbow, or a smile. I.e. head back, bum forward, legs back and up. when you assume this position when first leaving the plane, you must also hold on to the front straps of your harness, until your tandem instructor taps you to notify that you should let go of the straps and start to move your arms out from your sides. After training, you then wait to be called over to get fitted up and to meet your instructor. After perhaps 10 minutes or so I was called over and was helped into my harness. It is a strange configuration of straps that fit over your shoulders down your front, lots of things on the back including 4 places for the tandem instructor to clip himself to you, and straps around each upper leg. It is when doing these bits up that it finally becomes tight. I then met with my tandem instructor, Larry. After giving him his envelope and alerting him to the fact that I was blind, my tandem instructor and I started to walk out towards the plane, while he explained exactly what would happen once we got there. Along the way we also met my assigned camera man who took my second envelope and got to work straight away asking me questions and revving me up to go (while recording). From a long way off I could hear the plane's engine already in action. The unmistakable smell of plane fuel was also very much present. As we approached the plane it became extraordinarily noisy. Pretty much to the point where I could not communicate with people. No problem though, as discussed beforehand, I had my hand placed on the 5-rung ladder which I was to climb to get up into the plane, and another guy was at the top ready to help me get into position on my seat. My tandem instructor climbed up into the plane after me and also took his seat. In my sky diving group there were several members of a family, including a man in his older years. With me, the other family, all our tandem/AFF instructors and one or more video divers, the plane carried around 20 people. We got in to action, taxying to the runway. For some reason I can't quite remember, we taxied all the way with the main door open, and then someone was instructed to close it just as we started to accelerate for take-off. I've been in some smaller-sized commercial planes, for instance when traveling between LA and San Diego or Canberra and Sydney, but I had never been in something this small before, let alone also sitting perpendicular to the plane's direction of travel. Therefore, this was already starting to be a new adventure for me, even before the jump. As we made our ascent over the next 10 to 15 minutes, my tandem instructor explained some more about exactly what was going to happen when we got to 13000 feet. And whenever the video guy felt like it, he would do more question asking and revving me up. My instructor explained that just before 13000 feet, I would slide across and sit on his lap. He would then connect me to him and we would walk squatting to the open plane door. Once on the edge, we would prepare to jump by rocking forward, then back, then finally forward all the way out, at which point we would be lying face down to the earth, free-falling. We must assume the correct upside-down rainbow shape at this point. Before long it was time for me to slide across and get connected to my tandem instructor. Oddly it was at this point when I really appreciated how steep our ascent angle was, as sliding across to him (towards the back of the plane) was far from a horizontal move. I never really felt nervous at any time during the flight or jump. My adrenalin probably started to kick in a bit as we took off in the plane, but it really kicked in when someone again opened the plane door, signalling that we were at 13000 feet. I travelled on my instructor's lap connected to him for a little while longer, and then someone shouted: "Video Out!" which I guess meant that my camera man diver had jumped. My instructor and I then slowly walked squatting across the few feet to the plane door. As we got very close, someone put their hand on my head so I didn't hit the top of the rather low door. I was also instructed to hold on to my harness straps on my chest. I could hear a wall of wind in front of me. The air was much colder than on the ground. I remember feeling that the very tips of my shoes were off the edge of the plane. Probably due to noise, there was no longer any verbal communication between me and my instructor. I was sort of in my own world at this point. Then I felt it: rock forward. "is this it?" I thought. Rock back. "Think so. I better remember to assume my correct shape pretty quick." Rock forward... The clear feeling of falling… and then pretty quickly stabilizing lying horizontal to the earth. "aa yes, asume correct shape". Even there and then, I was somewhat surprized that I was still able to think easily. For almost the next minute, we were in free-fall. However, the feeling of falling (downward acceleration) was only felt for the first 5 seconds or so, as after that we were at terminal velocity because of the atmosphere. The majority of the fall really just felt like not moving, lying horizontally with this massive wind blowing straight up at you. And although I could feel down from up, and I knew that the earth was below, my mind's vision was painting a picture like falling into the sky. Still down, but obviously with no vision, I had no sense of the land below. It was a strange feeling. Pretty quickly after stabilizing in free-fall, my instructor tapped me on the right shoulder which signalled to me that I could let go of my front straps and move my arms out from my body. I slowly did so. During the fall, I remember my instructor sometimes slowly moving my arms around a bit. Possibly for aerodynamics, but possibly for a better video. It wasn't terribly hard to breathe up there for me, though I did feel the pressure on my chest from the wind, and I'm pretty sure my face was locked in some kind of hideous expression for most of the time. I remember making some quiet groaning noises as well. As we got further and further in to the minute of free-fall, my memories start to get a bit jumbled. I vaguely remember thinking about the length of time and altitude etc., but also always coming back to the thought that I am completely helpless here. There is absolutely nothing I can do right now but to simply live the experience. It was really quite relaxing and freeing for me. I also noticed that I could feel temperature gradients. It ever so slowly got warmer as we fell, but a couple of times I did feel some slightly warmer spots along the way. But then my mind was suddenly brought out of its wondering by this intense feeling of... turning inside out! My instructor had obviously pulled our Parachute chord, so very quickly we started decelerating and assuming more of an upright position. it was a really strange feeling. It started so fast. It was really like someone had suddenly pressed rewind. Of course deceleration is really just acceleration in the opposite direction. So it feels like you suddenly get pulled up. Yet at the same time, as you feel you get pulled up, that wind coming up at you takes some time to die down. Rewind, inside out, liquid... it is very hard to describe. After a few seconds things calmed down and we were left quietly gliding along. The first thing I needed to do was to fix my ear drums. I could hardly hear anything due to the sudden increase of air pressure while we fell. I blocked my nose and mouth and did the blowing thing and then swallowed. Yes, I know it is bad, but I've always done it on planes. My ears were all fixed, and I could now talk with my instructor, and just enjoy the quiet ride. My instructor seemed quite ecstatic about the success of the dive so far, and complimented me several times on my ability to assume the correct shape accurately and quickly. For the next 5 minutes or so, we slowly drifted towards earth, while my instructor described our surroundings. It sounded beautiful enough, but it was already good enough simply to be hanging 3000 or so feet in the air, occasionally turning, to be at various angles to the wind and to move toward our grassy landing area. Soon we were around 1000 feet and my instructor reminded me that soon he would tell me to lift my feet up for the landing. 300, 200, 100, "lift your feet now."... and bump. Surprisingly not a hard landing, though enough for us to both fall backwards. My instructor disconnected himself from me, and I stood up. I was feeling great. No shaking, no adrenalin anymore, but, darn I was happy. I profusely thanked my instructor for the ride, and we started to walk the 50 yards or so back to the building. My video guy was there along the way of course and did his usual question asking and revving again. I finally got back to my friend, and I got my harness off, collected my instant photo CD and went inside. We were able to take a quick look at the photos on a computer to double check that they had burned correctly. Oddly the first 150 photos were of someone else, but the last 100 were all me. The video however takes up to a week to be edited, so even at time of writing this is not yet available. After checking the photos we requested a cab, and sat outside and waited. We finally got back to the hotel with a good hour and a half before I needed to head to the airport for my flights back to Australia, so I bought dinner for my friend to thank him, and we had an enjoyable meal catching up with several others including 2 who had Sky dived earlier in the week. My sky diving experience was one I will never forget, and most certainly something I would do again. The only time I felt nervous was just after I had booked my sky dive at 2 am that morning. After that, I had fully resigned myself to doing it. I seem to be very good at relaxing and surrendering myself in situations where I have no control. I find it an extremely freeing feeling. This could be both a good and a bad thing of course. Obviously choosing to sky dive is a personal thing. You must way up the risks, no matter how small these days, but if choosing to dive, I would highly recommend Sky Dive San Diego. All the instructors were very friendly, keeping it as enjoyable as possible, yet still keeping safety at the top of the list. Obviously the form was a little hard to fill out as a blind person, but other than that, both my trainer and instructor did their utmost to ensure I received all detail in a way I could understand, and ensured that I was always where I should be and doing what I was supposed to be doing. An extremely enjoyable experience.