The Beginning of the End of My Flourishing Career: Avoiding the Black Hole
Originally published in the June issue of Blue Skies Magazine.
So last month we touched on how being a chick at the dropzone is awesome because you don’t have to worry about having people to jump with. That is true, until you have like 30 jumps and then you’re not a student but you’re not awesome yet. I think it is this “black hole” in our careers in the sky that seems to put some people off and discourage them from continuing in the sport. So what can we do to make this better? How can we keep people in the sport after they’ve earned their A-License?
Obviously I’m still here, so let me tell you what has kept me around CSC after graduating from student status. No, I’m not going to say that you should start dating your instructor and that will keep you around, though it has helped for me, it’s not entirely realistic. So we’ll skip the part about the convenience of having someone to shack up with on the weekends while you’re at the DZ. That point is painfully obvious. But if you aren’t shacking up with someone, here are some things that kept me entertained enough to stick around.
Have a “newbie” program. For example, Freefall University (the AFF school at CSC) has a bunch of events for newbie skydivers. Wednesdays are the discounted jump days and fun jumpers come out of the woodwork to jump for really cheap – which means it’s a fun day for newbies because we’ve dubbed Wednesdays as F.U.N.days (Freefall University Newbies). On these days, the AFF instructors jump with students, but also organize low-timer jumpers. Mostly belly stuff, but there’s a hula hoop in there somewhere too. Making sure everyone feels included and part of the community is a must. Underlying message: Jumping with newbies is good karma and is good for the sport. We don’t all start with thousands of jumps.
Have “low-timer” organizers. One weekend last season, we didn’t have anyone available to organize the low-timers. One of the AFF instructors took himself out of rotation to jump with us. When you’re stuck in this sub-100 jump group, you’re in between a rock and a hard place – you don’t have enough jumps to be on awesome dives, but you aren’t learning anything if you’re flopping around in the sky with your other sub-100 friends. This is why it’s essential to have a low-timer organizer – we all want to excel in this sport and become better, safer, more alert skydivers, sometimes we just need the chance to prove ourselves. Underlying message: Some LO’s don’t want to organize newbies. That’s fine, but be nice about it. Knock it the fuck off with the SkyGod act and jump with us – you have even more expertise to offer us and you’ll probably learn something too. And to the newbies: don’t be offended if you don’t get on the dives that are beyond your skill level. The organizers have a method to their madness.
Be nice when we screw up. When we’re students, you know what we’re flying, you know you should steer clear of us, you know we may overshoot or undershoot our landings, and that we’ll flare too high or too low and PLF our faces off. Shortly after student status, we’re still developing those skills. I’ve heard horror stories of egomaniac skydivers yelling at students or those freshly off student-status about “I saw you coming and you totally cut me off!” or bashing the newbies after they screw up an exit, etc etc. I will speak for myself, and hopefully a whole boatload of other newbies when I say I am desperate for your feedback. If I can be better, safer, more alert, quicker out the door, whatever it is, I want to be. But I don’t want you in my face yelling at me in front of other students, other staff members, or worse, my friends. Fortunately this hasn’t happened to me. I’ve been greeted with a pat on the back and a “do you like baseball?” when I came sliding in on a landing, followed by constructive instruction on how to improve my landings. There wasn’t a scene in the landing area. There wasn’t belittling on the packing mat. Just offering suggestions for how to be a better skydiver. Underlying message: when you start yelling: our ears turn off. When you approach us in a friendly manner, we listen and retain information. Stop being a dick.
And we all know one or two 100-jump wonders that think they know everything, are ready to start wingsuiting tomorrow and want to BASE as soon as they’re off student status. Personally, I’m in no rush to start trying other disciplines, jump in questionable winds, or downsize. I’m in the sport for (hopefully) the long haul. My line: “I have the rest of my life to skydive.” So how can we, the low-timers, be the best we can be? Disclaimer: I’m probably one of the most conservative, chicken-shit skydivers I’ve ever met. I’ll ground myself if I get spooked on a jump so I have time to process it, I have a very strict wind limit for myself, and I have a list of people that I avoid being manifested with at all costs. That being said, let’s continue.
Be a sponge. Last season I was weathered out for a good portion of the season. Winds were too gusty, clouds were too low, it was raining, or, on the flip side, I was out of money. I can tell you that I learned as much, if not more so, on the ground as I did in the sky. Old timers, instructors, fellow experienced jumpers, all sharing stories over a couple of beers or during a weather hold was as educational as getting up there. When you get feedback, listen to it. If you ask 10 skydivers how to pack your parachute, you’ll get 10 different answers, but listen to what people have to say and then see if it works for you. By nature, we all have an opinion in this sport, but people with thousands of jumps have thousands for a reason. Underlying message: Soak it all in, baby birds. When the winds come up and you’re on the ground, you’ve got nothing but time to soak up as much information as you can.
Don’t be too eager. This is a tough one. There are always exceptions to the rule. There are skydivers who are naturals, who can come off of student status and on to a four-way team, learning to freefly, etc. But we don’t have to rush! For the love of the sky and all things that are holy, learn how to fly your body and on your belly before you get all hopped up on freeflying or the next discipline on your list. For some of us, that may be 10 jumps, others, 100 jumps. Point is, know what you are capable of and fly with some experienced people that can tell you what you need to work on in order to progress. Doing solos and trying to teach yourself how to sit fly isn’t going to benefit anyone. Fork up the cash for some coaching. You’ll be better for it and safer in the sky when you start jumping with other people. I was on the plane with a guy in Texas this spring who had 40 jumps, a full camera set up and no shoes on. Seriously? Get your shit together. Underlying message: I’d rather be having beers with you at the bonfire or local watering hole than visiting you in the hospital. Slow the fuck down and enjoy the learning curve.
Know your limits. Different drop zones have different rules for wind limits, be it a DZO thing, or based by licenses or jump numbers. I heard that “you’d rather be on the ground wishing you were in the sky, than in the sky wishing you were on the ground” and I hold that very close to me. Yes, I need to be expanding on my limits and pushing them as I see fit or I’ll never grow, but at the end of the day, if there is a guy with thousands of jumps sitting it out, you probably should too. This ties back into the “be a sponge” bit – because there is likely a story behind why Mr. Thousand Jumps is sitting it out. Ask them a question. Introduce yourself. Make friends. Underlying message: Nobody is impressed with you suiting up and spanking in. People are impressed when you stick to your guns and play it safe.