Sto dvacet jedna, sto dvacet dva, sto dvacet tří ...
So I’ve started skydiving. Most people think I’m at least a little bit nuts, for a couple reasons. For one, it looks like an incredibly, stupidly dangerous hobby. For another, I will have to jump 35 times or so before I can do anything really cool. Why exactly am I doing this? I’m not sure. But let me tell you about it.
The plane Impact is using this summer is an AN-2 – the Anatov “Colt” – an old Russian biplane that rattles and roars like a cast iron stampede and smells like the fuel is sloshing around your feat. The crew has added Czech labels to the originals indicating latches and switches and emergency information. It’s a wonderful machine that moves unbelievably slow, takes off in 200 meters and is pretty much ideal for jumping out of – you sort of want to.
My favorite part is the instant you jump out the door. Everything is suddenly quiet, relatively. The roar of the plane slips quickly away and you’re left with rushing wind, the flapping sound of your parachute opening and/or the sound of your own screaming.
Jana at Impact gave us very thorough instructions on what to do in zvláštní situace: your main canopy can not open at all or open only partly; there can be tangles, tears and twists; there can be problems with your harness; your reserve canopy can open accidentally. Some of these situations are easily fixed, others mean you have to cut away and rely on your reserve canopy. Thing is, for all the instruction you get on what to do when your main canopy doesn’t open, there’s nary a whisper about what to do if your reserve canopy doesn’t open. Hardly surprising, given that there’s not much you can do. 
Before I started training, I had made two tandem jumps. Tandem is a great way to get introduced to skydiving. You’re strapped in a harness and attached to a ‘pilot’ – closer than you’ll ever be to man with your clothes on. The pilot does all the work. He opens the canopy and, more importantly, jumps out the door.
Of course, that’s the hard part. Instinctually we recoil from getting close to an edge like that, when you look down and there’s a sort of postcard of fields, roads and villages. Maybe a couple clouds. Too far away to look like someplace you would actually attempt to go. And then somebody yells běž, and you jump.
The first jumps you make are static line: your main canopy is loosely attached to a cord that's hooked inside the plane and opens your canopy as you fall. In a static-line jump, it takes the Falcon canopy we're using about four to seven seconds to open. Not really long enough to worry much. Sort of like a really high high-dive.
From my tandem jumps, I know that after about 10 seconds of falling, you feel like someone’s playing a joke on you. You just don’t fall that long. None of your ancestors ever fell longer than 10 seconds and lived to pass on their genes.
I’ve found with some relief that my reaction is to the falling is to laugh. Maybe everyone does. I’ll have to ask around. I have noticed that most of us newbies have silly grins on our faces as the plane goes up, grins that get bigger and sillier as the plane levels off and slows and someone opens the door and points at you and you think Am I really going to do this?
My first jump was a disaster. Well, not nearly, I guess, inasmuch as I can tell you about it. My training had been all in Czech – something which I was alternately proud of and extremely paranoid about. Did I really understand it? Is it possible that I missed something? Do I really just jump out the door and count sto dvacet jedna, sto dvacet dva, sto dvacet tří ... Or is there something I failed to understand, a lever I’m supposed to pull?

Anyway, there I was standing on the threshold of a plane looking at the bucolic countryside when somebody yelled běž, which for some reason was not the word I was expecting. I thought maybe hop would be a more likely choice, or jdi. But běž? I looked at the guy at the door with my best stupid face. He looks back with barely concealed disgust and fury at my apparent cowardice in the face of 1200 meters of air, and yells (with feeling) BĚŽ!
Jsem běhal. Maybe I counted sto dvacet jedna, sto dvacet dva, sto dvacet tří ... I don’t remember. I do remember the canopy opening and having the presence of mind to look up and see if it was functioning properly. It was, mainly, but the lines were twisted around each other spiral fashion. This is not a big deal and in fact it’s happened in all my jumps so far, so it no longer alarms me. I didn’t quite panic, I don’t think, and I reached up to pull the lines apart while kicking to spin myself around while they untangled, like I had been taught. No problem.
Except now I had no idea where the airport was. The yelling man at the door had pointed out the airport from the plane, but I couldn’t really see it. I knew, however, that it along a road between two villages and there was a pond a little distance away. But as anyone who’s flown over any part of the country will tell you, everything is along a road between two villages with a pond a little distance away.
I turned the canopy this way and that, eventually found the canopies of the two students who jumped before me, and steered towards them. What I didn’t know was that they couldn’t find the airport either. (And unless you think we’re complete idiots, the airport has a grass runway, so it sorta looks like another farm to the untrained eye.)
But not to worry, Jarda is on the ground with his binoculars and a radio to give us instructions. Blue parachute turn left 90 degrees. That sort of thing. Which he does. Loudly. In Czech. He speaks so loud, his voice is distorted in our tiny little speakers, so all I hear is žžřřááásslsdsáčžýá právožřělthéé prdele!
Anyway, despite our collective cluelessness, gravity eventually brings us all down. Jarda spends most of his time getting the first two jumpers to the target, which means that by the time he gets to me, I’m something of a lost cause. Or just lost. I landed fairly safely on my face in a muddy wheat field about a kilometer from the target. The only damage was to my pride, but I knew immediately that I could only improve. I remembered how my grandmother used to recommend eating a live toad each morning – your day could only get better after that.
The flight up takes about 10 minutes, and it’s about the same coming back down. The plane’s trip is about 40 minutes, depending on the number of passengers and their destination altitude. On a busy day like last Saturday, the AN-2 made 14 flights. My group jumped three times, which means we spent a lot of time sitting around. But that’s what you do at airports. You sit around. You wait. You get bumped from flights and put on standby. You play cards. You want to sit in the hospoda drinking beer, but that would be a really bad idea in this case. But eventually your number comes up, you strap on a parachute and climb in a rattletrap plane that you're not coming back in. It's fun.
Maybe this is about confronting fear, and once I've overcome that panic at jumping out the door, I'll go do something truly frightening, like karaoke. I think it's more about not waiting until that moment that you're completely ready, a moment never comes.
There was a guy on my third flight Saturday who had just graduated from static-line jumping to freefall. He had made a bad landing earlier in the day and Jarda had given him a hard time about it. The guy was obviously shaken up and looking for advice or instructions from Jarda, who was also jumping from this flight. Jarda thought what the guy needed was to learn to make his own decisions. So when we got to 1600 meters, Jarda just opened the door and turned his back on the guy. The jumper stood at the door for what seemed like forever. Then I guess he heard somebody yell běž.


At 9:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi, i made my first tandem jump this saturday (from 4000 metres, 55 seconds of free fall) in kunovice, czech republic. it was like nothing i had experienced before, it was just fantastic!
so here is the message to everyone who haven´t tried it yet: don´t hesitate and do it, you´ll love it!

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Theo said...

That sounds totally rad, Anon. What school did you jump with?

At 5:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it was Air Hit Ostrava (http://www.tandemovyseskok.cz)

but i´m not sure if it is also a school

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