Monday, August 17, 2009

Gravity gear

Yesterday I used the above equipment three times to jump at Skydive Snohomish and play in the air with some friends. Because of the apparent interest in why and how I do this activity, consider this to be a short introduction to what you really need when you jump out of an airplane. This "rig" (what we call our harness/container system) has two parachutes in it, the main and the reserve. There are also three handles visible. The one I use every time is a black hackey on the bottom of the container, in reach of my right hand. It deploys a pilot chute, which in turn deploys my main parachute, 135 square feet of beautiful nylon.

But because any piece of equipment can malfunction, I am required by the FAA to carry a secondary parachute on my back. In 4,033 jumps, I have been under my reserve three times. The most recent (knock wood) was several thousand jumps ago. If I need to jettison my main, I pull the red pillow handle located on the right side just under my chest strap, which causes me to go back into freefall. (I am held into my rig by the two leg straps and the chest strap.) Then I pull the silver handle, located on the left side under the chest strap. If all goes as it should, I will then be under my reserve, which is 150 square feet of nylon.
This is what the back side of my rig looks like. The brand is called a Mirage. They all look a little different, but all modern skydiving rigs function similarly: on the bottom, just above the hackey, is a curved pin that is pulled when I throw the pilot chute (attached to the hackey) into the airstream. That deploys the parachute, and I look up to see if everything looks right and then get ahold of the steering toggles and start my way back to where we took off.
Laying the rig sideways and uncovering the pins, you can see the curved pin on the right, which is released when I throw out the pilot chute, and on the left you can see the straight pin that holds down the reserve. The reserve has a spring-loaded pilot chute, which launches straight out if needed, increasing your chances of having a good parachute no matter what your body position might be. All skydivers intend to deploy with their belly toward the earth, since that is the position in which they were designed to work best. Here's a picture from Skydive Orange's website, showing the parts of the parachute:
People tend to think of skydivers as young adrenaline-charged men, but frankly, we cover the whole gamut of humanity: yes, there are young men and women, but also old ones, even some old women (I am 66 and still jumping, my friend Linny is 61). The guy in the picture above is more typical: just a guy who likes to skydive. There aren't a lot of older women who are still active, for many reasons. The typical time in the sport is around seven years, and most people start when they are young. I was 47 when I made a tandem jump for the first time, so I am atypical to begin with. In the old days, women were less common, and most have not continued, but every year there are more who are still jumping and still getting older. The first time I was in the SOS record attempt (Skydivers Over Sixty), I was the only woman, and now there are more than a dozen.

But skydiving is evolving, as does almost every activity known to humans. With the advent of parachutes that allow you to touch down softly, as compared to round parachutes, more people from all walks of life became skydivers. And there is another wrinkle of late: wind tunnels. These allow people to practice skydiving without skydiving, and to practice other than belly-to-earth positions. When I first started, people pretty much stayed with belly flying and made formations, but now all that has changed. I have not learned how to do these maneuvers. Here is a link to a video showing how one would begin to practice head-down skydiving.
And finally, in the last few years wingsuits have become common at almost any Drop Zone. These suits are designed for maximum coverage over the ground. Where I might spend a minute in freefall, these suits allow as much as three to four minutes zipping across the ground before it's time to pull. (We usually exit the plane at around 13,000 feet above the ground and deploy our main at around 3,000 feet.)

I am a dinosaur in the skydiving world: I don't do all that stuff, I look for people who want to play in the sky with me making different formations. It's a wonderful and very satisfying thing to do, and if I were younger, I might decide to try some of that. I've spent some time in the tunnel and find it to be fun, but it's not skydiving.

If anyone has any particular questions you'd like answered, just send me a comment and I'm happy to respond. Skydiving is still my passion, but I'm expanding into the also-exciting world of blogging!


  1. Honest. I don't mind flying. I have been in some pretty high places but jumping out of an airplane and sailing around is beyond my limits. LOL. I love people who can do it but I am an old guy and have enough problems here on the ground. LOL

  2. Are you giving us orientations before we're encouraged to jump outta airplane? I can jump off a boat, I can swim for a long time, I can run for miles but you can't make me jump out an airplane and play tag in the air!

    But got some real guts! I admire you're bravery! No I don't have any questions about skydiving. Just carry on and I'll be fine here on the ground waiting for photos and blog!

  3. Abe and AL, I just thought you might be interested in how it all works (sniff). I wasn't trying to make anybody jump, other than me.

    Just goes to show how normal it all feels to me, and how abnormal to others. I guess I needed the reminder.

  4. I am so impressed with what you are doing! You mentioned before that you are not sure how much longer you will do this... what next?

  5. No. Thanks. Scared. of. heights.
    But I am so glad you love it.

  6. Cindra, I have no idea how much longer I'll be doing this. I stopped instructing when I moved up here, but I'm not ready to stop altogether. However, I don't want to wait until I have another accident like this one because I kept going when I should have stopped. This is one reason I'm blogging about it.

    Retired One, I hear you! Being scared of heights is a real phobia that I believe comes from our mind trying to keep us in one piece!

  7. YOU ROCK SO HARD MY head hurts!!!! You are so amazing. Over 4000 jumps?! Are you kidding me? I think I told you before, Bo wants to jump. I am serious when I tell you that when she does, I am bringing her up there. Would you please go with her?! I will be the on-the-ground film crew unless I ever get skinny. Then, uh, maybe! Can't wait to show this article to Grizzly when he gets a second. :) I am inspired today and you don't know how much I needed the boost you gave me!!!!!!!!!!!! mmmmmmmwaaaaahhhhh!

  8. Wow. I am so impressed. What an adventure. It's odd that I have such a fear of heights yet I think the ability to soar like a bird would be awesome. You are an inspiration.

  9. No details about the three times you were under your reserve chute? No VHS tapes converted to digital format and posted on YouTube? I remember the tape from Gainesville, Texas, when you deployed your main chute and then that other guy flew right into it and got tangled up in it. Wow!

  10. Buz, I sure wish I had some of that old video, but I don't. I forgot you were there when I had to use that reserve! It was almost sunset, and I remember being happy that my main parachute was retrieved so quickly, so it didn't sit out in the elements all night. All's well that ends well, right??

  11. Great post DJan... also read about your accident! Man! You are one feisty chick!!!!

    I am pretty certain that I will never do this, but even if I were remotely inclined, I would want you as an instructor!

  12. Hello Djan, I'm catching up today. I think I'll call you Batman from now on, cos that suit looks like a bat doesn't it! I enjoyed reading all about the suit. It is a lot more complicated than I thought it was. Yes, I do have a question, I would like to know what it costs? What does the suit cost and what do the lessons cost and what does each flight cost? Just for interest you understand, I'm not intending to try it out myself.
    Blessings, Star

  13. Hey Djan

    Respect! From one skydiver to another, I'd like to say that you are an outstanding ambassador for the sport and you portray the fun, yet 'not quite so crazy' side that most of us in the sport can identify with.
    I've been working on putting this across in but I must say that in your case 'nobody does it better'.
    Way to go Djan, keep blogging and I hope to meet you in the blue fields someday.
    Accelerator (aka rob)

  14. Star, I'm sorry it took me so long to respond, but when I got home from my long hike yesterday, I learned our provider (Clearwire) had lost our signal! The two people in apartments next to us also, so we are hoping today it might be fixed. They said, "Tuesday afternoon" and I am now sitting in an internet cafe doing my important stuff!

    The wingsuits are pretty expensive, near US$1000, and if you decide to make a tandem jump, you'll pay anywhere from US$120 to $200. This hooks you up to another person and you jump together. If you decide you want to get certified, it'll cost you around US$2000, and THEN you need to buy your equipment (around $5000 if purchased new). All this was much less expensive when I bought mine for around $1500 for everything.

    But now that I have everything, I pay between $25 and $35 to make one jump, and every six months another $65 to have my reserve repacked and the system inspected for wear. Hope this answers all your questions! And thanks for them, although Star, I really don't expect to see you in the sky! :-)


I really appreciate your comments! If you see a word verification box here, just ignore it. I don't use the darn thing and Blogger is trying to get us to use it, I guess. Ignore it and your comment will still appear.