Sports

A Skydiver’s Progression

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Taken October 25, 2015 at Cleveland Skydiving Center by Rich


  • How do I get into skydiving?” 

This is probably one of the more common questions I get when people find out I’m a skydiver.  There are countless others, ranging from pricing to height/weight/age requirements to how hard it is to breathe in freefall.  In all honesty, pick any dropzone, go to their website, and there’s a good chance you will find a FAQ section that lists all of these.  Sometimes it becomes so redundant that I see people give-up and start writing their own hilarious answers.  Nonetheless, there are a thousand different questions any prospective skydiver might have.  Hell, I probably asked my fair share during my first jump course as well.

As a quick disclaimer, I am not an Instructor, Coach, Rigger, DZO, I/E, S&TA, or any authority on skydiving whatsoever.  I am a newly-licensed jumper, holding an A License, as well as a licensed pilot and aeronautics graduate.  To some people, I’m a “videographer extreme sports junkie,” to others I’m “that crazy guy who jumps out of a perfectly good airplane.”  In reality I’m just a young, ambitious skydiver who loves the sport and loves seeing other people get into it.  So why am I writing this? Because I want people to hear a different perspective.  The one from somebody who just received their license.  Somebody who is fresh out of training, and has a clear memory on what training was like.  I will be avoiding technical discussion as much as possible, and being that I am not an instructor, nothing I write in this article is meant as technical advice in any aspect of skydiving.  If you decide to go skydiving, you make that decision as an adult, and I hope you, as an adult, are able to be patient, humble, and willing to learn and accept coaching from the trained professionals that you go with.


Going for a Skydive

I did my first skydive as a way to celebrate graduating high school, back in 2011.  In all reality, I couldn’t have cared less about graduating high school, and it was just an excuse to go do it.  I did this at Skydive Orange, via a tandem jump.

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Tandem is the easiest, cheapest, and safest method of instruction for a first jump, as well as the most common.  I say “instruction” because you are technically a student, even if you only plan on doing one jump and never coming back. Which is perfectly fine.  Skydiving is not for everyone.  However, I definitely think most people should give it a try at-least once.

On a tandem skydive, you are connected to an instructor via four attach-points on a harness: two at the waist, two on the shoulders.  The instructor wears a tandem rig, with a rather large canopy and a drogue parachute.  As a student, you clip on in front of the instructor, and both of you make the skydive together.  In the heavily paraphrased words of legendary skydiver Bill Booth, on his famous safety and liability video I’ve seen played countless times at many dropzones, “You are considered a student because what you do can have an impact on the skydive.”  In addition, he makes the comparison that this is NOT a theme-park ride.  In my opinion, tandem skydiving is extremely safe, but I am not going to sugarcoat it in any means just to convince people to do it.  It’s an extreme sport.  You should know that when you sign-up.  Now, if I’m going up for a jump, and I see a tandem student in the plane that is obviously very nervous?  I usually try to say something to calm them down and get them excited.  After all, it’s supposed to be fun.  Every single skydive you make should (and will) be fun.

Enough on that, though.  Any respectable dropzone will give you sufficient information on a tandem skydive, and I’m going to focus back on what this article is intended to describe: learning to skydive.


The Background Knowledge

Alright, so you want to learn to skydive.  You’ve seen the videos, heard the stories, and have always wondered how awesome it would feel to be a skydiver.  Maybe you want to take this sport professionally, maybe you just enjoy it and want a fun sport to do on the weekends.  You want to learn how to do it, but you don’t know where to start, and you have a thousand questions.  Or, maybe you have no interest in actually skydiving, but are just curious about it.  Either way, hopefully my descriptions of learning to jump are helpful or at least interesting.

Just for the sake of clarification, let’s throw some quick acronyms out there, to alleviate any future confusion:

  • USPA: United States Parachute Association.  An organization that acts as the industry governing body for skydiving, as well as for representing and growing the sport to the public
  • AFF: Accelerated Free Fall.  A common method of learning to skydive, and the one I did.  A training method where you jump “solo” (as in not tandem) with one or two instructors by your side, holding onto you in freefall but without any mechanical connection.  The canopy ride is done solo, albeit often with a radio.

For many of the technical questions, I recommend referencing the materials published online by the USPA.  Different dropzones may follow slightly different progressions, although many follow the same general standard.  In my case, I believe I did approximately 6 AFF jumps, 4 or 5 coach jumps, a thousand “hop and pops,” and various jumps on solo status.  FYI, in addition to passing all required jumps and meeting all freefall and canopy requirements, the minimum for an A License is 25 jumps.  Other requirements included packing, passing the appropriate knowledge tests, and passing a check dive, among others.  The USPA or your local dropzone can provide more information in this regard.

The USPA offers four levels of licensing: A, B, C, and D, with the latter being held to the highest standard.  Among many other requirements, an A License requires 25 jumps, a D license requires 500 jumps.  All tandem instructors hold a D License.  Once you get your A License and are off of student status, a whole new world opens up to you.  You become a self-supervised skydiver, and much more liability falls on you, as opposed to an instructor or your dropzone.  You are no longer required to wear a helmet, have an instructor check your gear, or be subject to wind-speed limitations.  This doesn’t mean it’s “okay” to not do these things, it just shows that more liability falls on you as a jumper.  In a perfect world, I would like to assume that every skydiver is capable of making smart decisions, even in difficult or pressuring circumstances.  In reality, this is not always the case.  I’m very young in this sport, but I’ve heard some second-hand stories and seem some videos of people making some not-so-good decisions.  I don’t want to be that guy.

Before we begin discussing my experiences as an first-time skydive up to being a licensed skydiver, there is one last subject I want to touch on, and that is legality.  The reason I do this is because it often seems to be misunderstood. Skydiving is, in my opinion, legally comparable to flying an ultralight.  You are not carrying passengers, and are assumed to take on all responsibility for your participation in this sport.  The main exception is for tandem-instructors, although others exist as well, such as certain exhibition jumps.  Most regulation in regards to skydiving deals with equipment standards, the flight of the jump aircraft, and the safety of those nearby that are not involved in the sport. Unlike flying an aircraft, you don’t need a license to [legally] skydive.  That being said, it would be very unintelligent not to, and extremely difficult, as most dropzones will not allow operations that don’t comply with USPA standards.  While some USPA regulations, or Basic Safety Requirements (BSR’s) as they’re called, are rather frustrating to some of us, they are there for a reason, and conducting skydiving operations safely is critical to both the image of the sport as well as our freedom to do it.  It is important to note, however, that skydiving equipment IS subject to federal regulation.  All solo sport parachutes must be of a single-harness, dual-canopy system, meaning that a main and a reserve canopy are both required.  A nylon reserve must be repacked by a certified rigger every 180 days, and a main parachute must be packed by a rigger, someone supervised by a rigger, or the next person to jump it.  Riggers are licensed through the FAA, and their operations are not limited solely to sport skydiving.

I also find it important to mention that all student gear is outfitted with an Automatic Activation Device (AAD). This is intended as a measure against being knocked unconscious, though in many cases seems to apply when people lose altitude-awareness as well.  If maintained and calibrated correctly, it will fire your reserve parachute at a pre-determined altitude, usually 1,000′ or 750′ depending on the person’s skill level, if it believes that your main canopy has not been deployed.


Getting My License

Most of my jumps have been from 10,500 feet.  A couple of them were from 13,500, and I have done more than my fair share of hop and pops, from 5,500 as well as 3,500.  Either way, you’re pretty high up, and you can generally expect to fall over two miles in the course of a matter of minutes.  Is it nerve-wracking?  It definitely can be.  Is it exciting?  Every damn time!

I live in Northeast Ohio, in Greater Cleveland as well as the Akron-Canton MSA.  The majority of my jumps have been conducted at Cleveland Skydiving Center, and while I am biased because it is my home dropzone, it is one I highly recommend to anyone who wants to either learn to skydive or go on a tandem jump.  The staff are extremely friendly, knowledgeable, and professional, but their upbeat and generally relaxed demeanor will help calm many of your jitters. Believe me, there are actually quite a few dropzones within an easy 1-2 hour drive of my house, and there’s a reason I stay primarily at CSC.

So, how do you choose a dropzone?  Well, personally I did a google search, found a dropzone, checked out their website to ensure it looked professional, sent them an email, and discussed training options with them.  It is definitely worthwhile to have a professional, credible dropzone, and doing research, talking to skydivers, and even visiting the dropzone can all help you make a good decision.  There have been a few times as a licensed jumper I had to face the possibility of moving to a new state, and used skydiving groups on Facebook and LinkedIn to get some opinions as well.

How much money do you need to get your license?  This is a hard one to answer, because we all like the concept of a simple flat-rate, which usually doesn’t exist.  The short answer: I spent approximately $2300 to get my A License.  The longer answer?  I never failed a jump and had to repeat it.  Quite a few people do.  Also, due to the way many of the loads just happened to play out, I did a number of lower-altitude jumps, saving a few dollars here and there.  I budgeted the aforementioned amount of money needed for my license, but I never would have guessed how much some of the extraneous costs add up.  There were no “hidden fees” as far as the training went, but I still had to pay for gas to drive there all the time. Let’s also not forget buying water, Gatorade, and food to keep me alert and functional.  Those weekend hangouts at the dropzone?  Spent my fair share of money on alcohol, pizza, and whatever else.  Every skydiver also needs a t-shirt to show that he is one.  Some of these costs are not exactly entirely necessary to get your license, but in my opinion, you’re shortchanging yourself if you skip them.  Skydiving is all about having fun, and being a part of the culture, making friends, and having good times with other jumpers is a huge part of it.

How did I do it?  Aside from the one tandem jump I did a few years back, I started with an AFF class.  This consisted of around six hours of very hands-on ground school training.  There were five of us in my class, and at the time of writing this, I’m the only one I know of with a license.  One guy moved, another one is on his way to getting it, and the other two I have no idea about, although I heard they got injured (not skydiving related).  I asked a friend who is a dropzone employee one time how many people who go through a first jump course end up getting their license, and she said it’s usually around one third.  Some people realize it just isn’t for them.  Some people don’t make it a priority, and are then unable to complete it in a rather quick amount of time because they either lack money or they miss the “good weather days” because they are busy doing something else.  Some people don’t like it because they are too afraid, some people don’t like it because they struggle with the technical aspects of it, and some people probably just don’t like it for no real reason at all.  Besides, we all like what we like.  Basketball doesn’t scare me, and I don’t find it difficult, but I sure as hell don’t like it.  All personal taste.

Now, in my opinion, the first jump course is not terribly difficult.  It is definitely intensive, and it is a lot of information, but you just need to be able to understand the concepts and practice them until you feel sufficient with them.  Or realistically, until they feel that you are.  Mine was small, and while intensive and professional, was rather relaxed. We made friends, we did things hands-on, we asked questions, and we didn’t sit at a desk.  We also climbed countless times onto a mock-up aircraft, practiced our exits, threw fake pilot chutes, and ran through emergency procedures until you start saying them in your sleep.  Ironically enough, we actually saw them get used during our class.  As we walked outside to discuss landing patterns, a tandem jump had a line-over and cutaway without issue.  What were the chances of that happening?  Pretty damn low.  What were the chances of that happening when it did?  Even lower.  Nonetheless, by the time I was in freefall on my first jump and had to pull, I felt confident I could identify and handle an emergency if it came up.

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Main canopy deployment on my third jump.  Courtesy of John Dutton

Is it nerve-wracking on your first training jump?  Goddamn right it is.  My first tandem I honestly did not feel very nervous, and after I landed, I was actually told many people feel more nervous on their second jump than their first.  I can attest to this.  I’m not sure why it is, but my main guess is that many people do their first jump tandem and their second one “solo” as part of an AFF class.  In other words, when that canopy opens up, it’s only you flying it, not an instructor.

Many of my early jumps were conducted in a small plane, a Cessna 180, with what we called a “floating exit,” where you climb out onto the wing strut and let go.  Climbing out onto the side of a plane, at 10,500 feet, with an airspeed of around 80mph, is definitely not a normal feeling at first.

I never failed a jump, although I will easily admit that some were performed better than others.  I also had multiple jumps that occurred 2+ weeks after the previous one, allowing plenty of time for the nervousness and the adrenaline to set back in.  Besides, when you only have less than a handful of jumps, your abilities can very easily start to fade away.  But, summer of 2015 in Northeast Ohio was pretty sub-par as far as weather was concerned, and being 22 and in my first year as a college graduate, I couldn’t throw down the same amount of money each week as everyone else.  Now, I came regularly, built up a rapport, and had an outstanding dropzone, so there were times when I was told to keep jumping when I had the chance, and just pay next week when I got my paycheck.  Trust, connections, and relationships go a long way in this sport.

My AFF jumps were completed without issue.  Techniques I had to demonstrate included practice pulls, altitude awareness, stability, and turns, as well as constant review of emergency procedures.

Alright, now let’s fast-forward a couple jumps to the end of my AFF progression.  At this point, I have about five AFF jumps under my belt, and it is time to do my pre-solo check.  In the words of my DZO, “This is the jump that will change everything.”  I was to do a dive exit (my favorite), perform various in-flight maneuvers such as loops and barrel rolls, and, most importantly of all, demonstrate my ability to recover if I were to lose control.  In short, this jump was intended to put me out of control, to show that I could regain it.  While definitely nerve-wracking, it was extremely fun, and passing it allowed me to move onto solo status.

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“Out of control.” My pre-solo jump, courtesy of John Dutton

In my opinion, the freefall aspects of initial AFF training are not terribly difficult.  You need to be able to relax your mind, focus in a high-pace environment, and practice.  Even without jumping, techniques such as properly arching your back, or using your shoulders to turn, can be practiced in your living room.  I’m not an advanced skydiver by any means, but I am a pilot, a skateboarder, and whitewater kayaking instructor, and I have a general belief that all of these types of sports correlate somewhat with each other.  Part of it is being methodical, part of it is finesse, and part of it is thinking in high-stress situations.  The one thing, however, that was rather difficult for me?  Transferring from flying an aircraft to flying a parachute.  Glide ratios are a lot different, and skydivers under canopy can safely and legally fly a lot closer together than fixed-wing aircraft usually should.  That took a minute to get used to.  I also had my fair share of landings in the field on the dropzone, as opposed to the target landing area.  FYI, most early AFF jumps are equipped with a one-way radio to guide you in on landing.

Freefall techniques become much more intensive as you move onto your coach jumps, although in my opinion are still not terribly difficult.  These included docking, altitude changes, tracking, swoop and docks, etc.  In other words, you go from maintaining stability and basic maneuvers in freefall to being able to fly your body, and greatly start to improve your finesse. In addition, the requirements to be a coach are less than that of an instructor, and there tend to be more of them than instructors.  This generally means that it’s easier to find someone to do them with on a given day, and they are cheaper.

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Coming in to dock. Courtesy of Ethan Landry

Now, I’ve mentioned a few times previously that skydiving is meant to be fun, and even the most intensive of training jumps are still fun.  But believe me, these coach jumps are way more fun than your initial AFF jumps.  The learning curve is steeper, in my opinion, but they are not terribly difficult.  That being said, many people fail a jump, or two, or a few, at some point in their A License progression.  It’s not something to feel bad about, or question your potential in the sport.  As with anything, there are going to be better and worse days.  I had days where I was proud of myself because my instructors told me I did very well.  I also had a day where I bumped a closing pin and my reserve pilot chute fired in the plane.

Every jump with an instructor or coach included a briefing and debriefing, and many instructors used video to help show what I did from an outside perspective.  In my opinion, that is extremely helpful.  In addition, being surrounded by a large number of instructors, coaches, and licensed jumpers was of huge benefit.  It was like learning to fly; if you have trouble understanding a concept, maybe somebody else knows a way to explain it differently.  Every person teaches slightly differently, and every person learns slightly differently.  This applies to anything from skydiving to basic subtraction.

At this point, I’ve covered the AFF as well as the coach jump portions of my training, but there were many other things to consider.  For example, part of the required training consists of “hop and pop” jumps, in my case from 5,500 and 3,500 feet.  I’ve been told that the purpose of these jumps is to demonstrate the ability to gain stability and pull, in case it ever has to be done in the event of an aircraft emergency.  Additionally, hop and pops are cheaper, can be done with low cloud ceilings, and, in the case of many of my jumps, done when the load scheduling didn’t allow for a jump from altitude.  In my case, this was due to having a plane with a five-jumper capacity already having two tandems on it.  Due to the necessity to move around and hook-up at altitude, any fun-jumper who went along had to get out lower.  In my opinion, as well as pretty much that of any skydiver, any jump is better than no jump!

Why do I mention these hop and pops?  Because, for your first time, they can be kinda scary.  The danger is not overly significant, but it is a bit of a change for a jumper who is used to exiting at either 10,500 or 13,500.  In fact, my first “solo” jump, i.e. on solo status after AFF, was a hop and pop.  After I got that out of the way, pretty much all of the nervousness with jumping at full altitude disappeared.

This brings up another question I’ve been asked: how long until the nervousness goes away?  Well, that’s a hard one, because it is different for everybody, and we all probably define it differently.  Fact is, jumping out of a plane is not natural, your body is not made to do it, and I’ve known many confident, experienced jumpers who still say they feel a little something before each jump.  However, in my case, it was around jump 14 or 15 that the vast majority of the nervous feeling was gone.  In fact, while I definitely got rather nervous before many of my coach jumps and my check dive, it was due to the feeling of “being tested,” and not necessarily out of fear for my safety.  Differing levels of nervousness and excitement will vary per the jump in my opinion.  Different aircraft, different dropzones, different altitudes, different maneuvers, and different equipment can all pose a new feeling of slight uncertainty.  There are also the physiological factors to account for, such as your level of alertness, and the psychological ones, such as external factors in your life unrelated to skydiving that might be in the back of your mind.  In my humble opinion, if you’re having a bad fight with the girlfriend, you might want to consider sitting that day out.

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First group flight after my A License. Courtesy of Jim Prinzo

I’ve gotten a ton of “What if?” questions from aspiring skydivers, and I will refrain from getting into detail regarding these as they will be answered during your training by somebody more qualified than myself.  Off-landings, clouds, malfunctions, etc. are all touched upon, and believe me, emergency procedures are not taken lightly by instructors.  We ran through them before every AFF jump.  Being able to identify an issue, such as a line-over or a slider that isn’t all of the way down, is a key part of training.  Accidents are near-always preventable, and many result from a chain of mistakes, not just a single one.  I covered this extensively in flight school and undergraduate studies with regards to the overall aviation system, and it seems rather similar in skydiving.  In addition, complacence and stupidity cause their share of issues.  I think it is very important to understand and be able to accept that skydiving is an extreme sport, with unpredictable variables, and you can do everything right and still get killed.  The “it can’t happen to me” attitude has no place in this sport.  It’s also just as important to address what is known as “comparative optimism.”  This is the belief that you will not suffer the same mistakes as somebody else, because you are somehow automatically, more careful, more deliberate, or more intelligent just because you are you.  If you plan on being smart, careful, and deliberate, as you should, you need to recognize it is something that takes careful effort as well as the ability to make very difficult decisions, and is not something that is automatically granted to you because you just happen to be you.

How long did it take me to get my license? A lot longer than it should have.  Approximately four months total elapsed time, but still pretty much equivalent to the general time of 1-2 months, if I were jumping every weekend.  All of June and half of May were weathered out, as were various weekends afterwards.  After all, like I said, this is Northeast Ohio.  Early on, when jumps required 1-2 AFF instructors and a ground instructor to work the radio, staffing considerations were of heavy importance.  Let’s also mention the fact that I quit my job, so money was a huge factor that limited my ability to jump.  Most of the season we had one plane available, with a five jumper capacity and a half-hour ride to altitude, which definitely gave us a lower amount of jumpers per hour than say Skydive Arizona, who could do hundreds if they wanted to.  A surprising amount of dropzones rely off one or two Cessnas; not everyone has a nice King Air or Skyvan on-site always at the ready (but, if you get the chance to visit a dropzone that does, definitely do it).  Some places offer courses where you plan for getting your A License in a week, some places offer a general suggestion of a month or two.  Some people take multiple seasons.  Of course, the concept of seasons is a geographic one.  Skydive Arizona and Skydive Deland have more jumpable days than anything in Ohio, or Wisconsin, or the Pacific Northwest.

Now what? Having a license is not a magic master key to the world of skydiving.  There are a number of different licenses and ratings that exist.  Certain aspects of flight, such as flying a camera or a wingsuit, require a minimum number of jumps (200 for those examples).  Night jumps, balloon flight, and other aspects of the sport I have yet to do, have their own unique requirements.  Some dropzones require a B or C License for any jumper, such as Skydive Dubai’s Palm DZ, and some dropzones have various landing areas that are only open to a particular license.  Coaches, AFF instructors, and tandem instructors are each subject to their own unique prerequisites.

Nonetheless, receiving that license still opens up a vast amount of opportunity to continue to build your skill and experience. Being able to do group freefall formations is far more fun than just jumping solo.  Being able to make your own decisions regarding equipment or wind speed is a great amount of freedom, although it requires an extreme amount of sense and responsibility.  In all honesty, one of my favorite parts of having a license is that I am no longer required to wear a jumpsuit. At the time of my writing this it is a rather moot point, since ten thousand feet up in the air in October is all but warm, but I do not at all miss the crowded rides up to altitude, in a small plane, wearing a jumpsuit when it felt like it was a hundred degrees outside in the middle of the summer months.

Having that license opens up many travel opportunities.  Being as you no longer are required to have instructor supervision, it is far easier to travel to different dropzones and make a jump.  You can rent equipment virtually anywhere that offers it, and you having a license puts far less liability on the dropzone itself.  Plus, any licensed jumper can sign-off on your logbook.  Being able to jump without an instructor on-board is a definite plus.  Now, let’s talk about the one last aspect of skydiving, and probably one of the most common things asked.


What does it feel like? 

The classic answer is “it’s like explaining sex to a virgin.”  You won’t know until you do it.  I describe it as taking your girlfriend out to dinner, saying your food is really good, and her asking what it tastes like.  You could try to describe it, probably giving some half-assed, fumbling description, or you could just let her take a bite and taste it for herself.

The average terminal velocity for a solo skydiver in a conventional belly-down position is around 120mph.  In practical use, we say about a thousand feet every five seconds, which equates to two hundred feet per second.  In other words, every second you are falling more than the height of Niagara Falls.  However, you generally don’t notice it that way. You don’t always have a frame of reference for relative motion, and if you do it’s usually a cloud or the aircraft you exited from (and believe me, that one doesn’t stay in sight for very long).  Once you hit terminal velocity, which from a floating exit usually takes 9-12 seconds, you are no longer accelerating, and are maintaining a constant speed down.  Some people say it’s like being on a giant fan.  Regardless, in my opinion, it does NOT feel like a roller coaster drop like everyone tends to assume.

Why do we do it?  Everyone has their own reasons, and to be honest, we all probably have many.  If you ask me, I would say you get to experience flight.  Before I flew powered aircraft, I flew a Schleicher ASK-21 glider, and had an instructor jokingly say there’s a difference between flying and driving a plane behind an engine.  Human body flight is an indescribable experience, and as you progress as a skydiver, you see yourself getting better at it and pushing new limits. By the way, through tracking, it is very feasible to fly your body horizontally at 100mph in freefall.  Also, very few people get to experience the pride of body and canopy flight.  Every time you fly, you are doing something many people would never do, or even be able to do.

I don’t think we’re adrenaline junkies, even though I have affectionately used the term before.  The reasoning being is that the adrenaline, the fear, the nervousness, are not consistent, and all but go away in many cases.  Your first skydive is a life-changing experience.  Every skydive you do is an amazing opportunity and an awesome time, but eventually you can land, pack your rig, have a calm demeanor and heart-rate, get in your car, and drive off to work or dinner or class like nothing happened. That overwhelming adrenaline rush and the non-stop jitters might not be there on every jump or every landing, but the pride will.  The enjoyment will.  The sensation of precise, finesse human body flight will.


It’s Jump Time

So, go out there, have fun, and skydive.  If you don’t want to, that’s perfectly alright.  If you have never jumped but really want to, or at least think you want to, fork-out the money and go for a tandem jump.  You might be addicted, you might have little or no interest in pursuing the sport seriously afterwards, but I can give you a 99.999% guarantee that you will enjoy the hell out of it.  If you enjoy it enough to want to do it every now and then, but not do anything crazy with it, there’s nothing wrong with just doing the occasional tandem jump.  AFF courses are intensive, expensive, and time-consuming. Hell, you might even have a hard-time ever getting your parents, spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends, or children to ever understand why you would even want to.  Pursuing a skydiving license is not for everyone, but to anyone who has jumped and has the feeling that they want to take this sport more seriously, go out and do it.  I hope you see it through to the end, but even if you don’t, if you at any point decide it’s not from you, you will have experiences that most people never will.  The times you have, experiences you get, stories you tell, and the friends you make are something that nobody can put a price on.

I’ll leave you with one last tidbit of information, and I encourage anyone to share this with their friends and families who are somewhat interested, but not entirely sure:

People in their 90’s and 100’s have tandem skydived, and blind people have passed through AFF.

Clear skies and calm winds,

Matt Jackson

United States Parachute Association

Finding a Dropzone

Answers to General, First Jump, and Licensing Questions

Skydiver’s Information Manual – USPA

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Ohio Kayaking – Fighting Boredom in the Midwest

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[In addition to writing, I am also an amateur videographer and am working on a feature film of the name “Fighting Boredom in the Midwest.” Expecting to debut late August, 2015]

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The Midwest, like many named regions, has no defined political boundaries, and the true definition of “Midwest” can be rather subjective.  I live in Northeast Ohio.  Is that really Midwestern?  Debatable in my opinion, but generally a “yes.”  Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, are they all considered the Midwest? I’d say so without hesitation.  Maybe one could define it by a process of elimination of sorts. Does it count as the East Coast? West Coast? Pacific Northwest? Southeast? Southwest? New England? If not, then it’s probably the Midwest.  Again, however, these are all pretty much subjective definitions as well, and true boundaries are hard to define.

There is a stereotype floating around that the Midwest is flat, barren, sparsely populated, full of nothing but corn and soybeans, and is a boring, low-key place.  However, from somebody who has not only lived in and traveled all over the Midwest, but is also a licensed pilot and has flown over it extensively, I can very easily say this about the aforementioned notions………they are pretty much on point. This place sucks.  Short and simple.

(People like to throw out counter arguments and reference cities such as Columbus and Indianapolis, both of which are absolutely amazing places in my opinion.  If you ask me, however, they are the exception and not the rule. Also, Summit County, Ohio is a beautiful place worth visiting.)

I grew up in Northern Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington D.C. before moving out to Northeast Ohio to go to school.  To me, it made sense to try somewhere new, far enough away from home to be away, but close enough to be able to return a couple times per year in half of a day’s drive.  I still reside in Ohio, until I can transfer to a different office.  However, instead of complaining about where I am, I’d rather make the most of it, with the amazing friends and resources I have here.  Now, let’s get into the adventure seeking, adrenaline-filled highlights of an overlooked area.

Ohio Creeking

Whitewater kayaking gave me a sense of purpose in an otherwise difficult time of my life, in addition to some of the best friends somebody could ask for.  But wait, Ohio is flat and dry right? Wrong. Remember, we are on the gray area boundary of the Midwest and, in my opinion, definitely not in the Great Plains yet.  Ohio is definitely not a good state for whitewater, but it has it’s crown jewels, including, yes, some steep creeks and other fun rivers, including:

  • Cuyahoga River (Upper and Lower Gorge)
  • Tinker’s Creek (Often considered the most fun in Ohio)
  • Sagamore Creek
  • Chippewa Creek
  • Rattlesnake Creek

Cuyahoga River Upper Gorge/Sheraton Section – Class V, 75fpm*

*Per American Whitewater, and my own observations, this section drops 60′ in just over 1/10th of a mile

AW Description

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Second Drop

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First drop

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Entrance to the first drop

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Nearing the lip of the first drop

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Eddie on river left to scout the second drop

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Second drop

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Ian running the river right side of the second drop

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“Staircase” line on river left, skipping off of a shelf then running the left line of the boulder garden at the bottom. The more common line

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The end of the whitewater, in a beautiful gorge. Following the falls there is a nasty boulder garden followed by two very easy holes

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Midair on the first drop

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A hole above the first drop has flipped the occasional boater

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What the whole second drop looks like. Staircase line is on far river left, the boulder garden “The Jumble” present downstream. The far river right line is a sieve that loves to collect wood and can have dire consequences. The Jumble can be run on the left or right side, with the left side being easier and less consequential. These rocks are always changing, and as myself and many others can attest, this is a very terrible place to swim

There are many things that contribute to the awe of the Sheraton Section.  First off, it is located right in the heart of Cuyahoga Falls, alongside the Sheraton Hotel from which it gets its name.  95% of the time, you will have some spectators cheering you on from a balcony.  Secondly, the gorge is beautiful, and even hiking it can be a very fun, somewhat technical, and physically demanding hike.  Third, it is runnable at a wide range of flows, and as long as there isn’t ice (ice in this section gets bad), it is runnable the majority of the year.  Runs at extremely high water have been done successfully, but leave no room for error, and are not recommended.  Fourth, there are bars and restaurants all within walking distance.

2014 Short Video Compilation

Tinker’s Creek – Class IV-V, 120fpm

AW Description

Unlike the aforementioned Sheraton Section, Tinker’s Creek rarely flows (save for spring snowmelt; in 2015 it flowed for a week straight).  Additionally, the “main” section of Tinker’s Creek can be run below recommended levels, resulting in an easier run, sometimes Class III/III+.  Tinker’s Creek flows over Tinker’s Falls, a Class 5.1 20+ foot drop with a rather fine line and a shallow pool that requires a definite bit of water to get flowing, through a bending tunnel, into a series of rock gardens before opening into a few miles of easier waves and holes.

When Tinker’s Creek flows, it’s a big deal.  There is something else about the mystique of Tinker’s that somebody once pointed out to me.  “A lot of the big name pro kayakers have probably never paddled this.”  An extremely fun creek, that is very demanding, but flows so unpredictably and drops faster than anything I have ever seen.  Somebody once jokingly told me “If you want to paddle it at 500cfs, gather your gear and start driving to the put-in when it’s at 900cfs.”

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Tinker’s Falls at below runnable level

I paddled this river at mid-December last year, and portaging the falls might have been one of the sketchiest parts of the trip.  The ground was frozen over with ice, and the guard railing that you need to climb over was frozer over with ice.  Luckily I was only carrying a Wavesport Fuse at the time, not a nice fat creek boat.

All of the aforementioned photos were taken at around ~520 cfs, mid-December 2015.  On the lower side of runnable (per AW, 400 is the general “minimum runnable flow.”) , but still class IV/IV+ to keep you on your tows. Not to mention the delightful mid-winter water temperature.

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Upstream entrance to the tunnel

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The tunnel empties into a slide which empties into an intimidating hole. Good times; definitely gives you quite a bit of speed

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The aforementioned hole is friendly enough to give you full stern squirts without any effort

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If only it was easy to take out, hike up, and run the tunnel multiple times

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Fun river, with some fun slides, slot moves, holes, and avoiding being backendered here and there

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With it’s fair share of surf spots

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The gorge is absolutely stunning

Climbers may enjoy the gorge almost as much as kayakers do.  Trees also like the creek, since they seem to fall into it all the time, creating a little bit of an inconvenience or, if you’re not being observant, danger.

Sagamore Creek– Class IV

AW Description

I have been dying to give this creek a try.  I only know of it being run once, in late 2013, and have talked to a few of the people that ran it. Looks like a blast, comparable to Tinker’s (even has its own tunnel!), but it’s never really run.  I have a few guesses as to why:

  • Since it hasn’t been run much, it hasn’t been very advertised or talked about much
  • It takes a LOT of water to get it flowing. I was told 700cfs and rising on the Tinker’s gauge. Extremely difficult to plan for in advance
  • If Tinker’s is flowing, people generally tend to want to run Tinkers. I opted to try out Rocky River once instead of Tinker’s, and I wished I ran Tinker’s (save for the end of the day when two of us ran a section of Rocky at relatively higher water with some small drops, a slide, a river-wide ferry, and very good food at a local bar.  Rocky River scrapes by as a Class III and isn’t something I’m going to touch on much in here)
  • In line with my first point, many people just haven’t heard about it

I will give this place a good scouting sometime soon, just to see what it’s like and somewhat familiarize myself with the location.  Fortunately, one of my friends and I have talked about running this when we get the opportunity, possibly for its second descent ever, and it should be a great time.  Besides, I cringe when I see an American Whitewater article with few or no pictures of the river, and I take it upon myself to fix it.

Chippewa Creek- Class V+*

*Probably unrunnable these days in my opinion.  Maybe would turn into “questionably runnable” after going out there with some chainsaws to get rid of some strainers.  The falls at the entrance, however, are runnable

AW Description

I’ve scouted this once at low water (Tinker’s wasn’t flowing, Cuyahoga was reading around 1000 I believe).  Holy sieve fest.  I know of a few people who’ve ran it, and know one or two of them personally.  To the best of my knowledge, it’s been close to a decade since it’s been ran.  Additionally, I’ve been told it’s changed since then due to flooding, and somebody I know who has ran it in the past said it very well might not be runnable now, save for the falls at the entrance.

However, this is an absolutely amazing place to hike.  I highly, highly recommend it.

Video of low-water scouting

(Video disclaimer: I had no intention of making a video when I went out there; just happened to have my GoPro with me at the time and brought it.  It’s a little shaky, and since I didn’t plan on making a video, I didn’t bring any sliders or tripods)

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In the aforementioned video, many angles of the creek’s last drop are shown, which even at low water, creates a hell of a sieve that empties into a cave.  In other words, it’s a very fun scout and hike, but don’t fall into that.  The top of the drop is a pool, where water flows down a narrow slow between two rocks.  When I was there, it was very serene, with almost completely still water at the top and a beautiful view on all sides.

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Appears smaller in the photograph than in person. Not a place I’d particularly want to be

Rattlesnake Creek- Class IV 

AW Description

A 20′ waterfall. Takes a LOT of water to get flowing.  Has been run by my friends who live in the area at very low levels, but when you have a 3 hour drive to get there, “very low levels” isn’t really worth it, especially when I have the Sheraton Section nearby.  From what I’ve heard, as far as 20′ waterfalls go, this is notoriously easy and fun, and can be a park and huck if you set ropes.  I’ve been dying to run this thing.

The Outer Circle

Now, what if instead of only focusing on local creeks in the Northeast Ohio area (plus Rattlesnake, which is on the other side of the state), we broadened our horizons slightly, and considered other areas within an hour’s drive? Or a couple hours?  I’m not going to touch much on these.  Everybody’s familiar with the Lower Yough and the Gauley.  Slippery Rock Creek and Stoneycreek Canyon aren’t as well-known nationwide but are still extremely popular spots for those not more than a couple hours away.  As kayakers, we don’t expect to walk out our backdoor and into a park and play or a steep creek.  Driving long distances and setting up tents for a few days is a part of the sport.  I’ve driven from Northeast Ohio down to central West Virginia and back, four hours each way, on a single day by myself while sick to buy a boat and get out on some new whitewater and went to work the next day.  I’ve taken day trips often on 2-3 hour drives each way with a group of people, and I’ve had whitewater trips where I’ve camped out in what was basically a torrential downpour, enough to bring the Lower Yough up significantly over the course of a single night.  That’s the beauty of kayaking; paddling the river is only part of the overall experience.

I yearn for the day I can move permanently to the Southeast, where rivers such as the Tallulah Gorge, Ocoee, Gauley, etc. are much more feasible as far as time and logistics goes.  For those that aren’t familiar with Western PA, or parts of West Virginia, I’ll throw a few more pictures into the mix.  Just for fun.

Kayaking Ohiopyle Falls, September 2014

Falls Fest 2014, Ohiopyle Falls. My Wavesport Fuse never lets me down!

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One of my favorite photographs I’ve taken; the top of Ohiopyle Falls

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Middle Meadow, West Virginia, 1400cfs

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The mill at Slippery Rock, around 3 feet. Beautiful place when there’s snow on the ground

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Someone getting swallowed at The Slip

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The Slip

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Lower Slip 2,800 cfs

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Lower Slip 2,800 cfs. Fun wave trains

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The classic seal launch at The Slip

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Lower Yough: got to the put-in and realized one of my screws was came loose and disappeared. Was advised to jam a stick into the hole, with the reasoning that it would swell up and plug it. To my surprise, it held tight all the way up through river’s end

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Snow just adds to the beauty

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KeelHaulers Canoe Club April, 2015

I highly recommend checking out the Keelhauler Canoe Club.  A great bunch of very talented paddlers who I am proud to be a part of.  Far more whitewater rivers exist in Ohio than just those that I have mentioned.  In addition, there is some outstanding hiking in my area.  Brandywine Falls, Brecksville Reservation (Chippewa), Upper and Lower Gorges in Cuyahoga Falls, just to name a few.  Drive a little further, and you have beautiful areas such as Hocking Hills State Park, Mohican, and Allegheny National Forest, just to name a few.

Sure, this isn’t the Southeast or the Pacific Northwest, and I yearn for the day when I can move permanently to the Southeast.  Nonetheless, wherever you are, there is always something else to do, somewhere else to be explored.  You don’t need to be a whitewater kayaker, ice climber, or BASE jumper to get outside and have an adventure.  Get out, travel, explore, and see what the world has to offer!

Written by Matt Jackson.  If you wish to use any words or photographs from this article, by all means feel free to contact me.  I also wish to bring recognition to organizations such as Team River Runner, American Whitewater, and Friends of the Crooked River.  Whitewater kayaking has an amazing community, and over time many barriers to entry for this sport have been mitigated.  If you are wanting to learn but unsure how to go about doing so, feel free to contact me and I’ll see if I can point you in the right direction.  In addition, be on the lookout for courses offered by the American Canoe Association and the Nantahala Outdoor Center.  Lastly, even though I mentioned you don’t need to be a whitewater kayaker, ice climber, or BASE jumper to have an adventure, extreme sports bring out a feeling that nothing else can!!

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Professional Lessons from Extreme Sports

“It’s the passion that keeps us alive”

There’s the old saying that goes, “find a job you like doing, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  It is entirely true. However, in reality, we don’t always find such an opportunity, and no matter how much you may enjoy your job, you do everything you can to set aside time for your own recreation and hobbies.  Some of us find ourselves investing heavily into our own interests, with time, money, and even risk.

With the right talent and know-how, some people can successfully turn a hobby or interest into an investment, even to the point of making significant return.  Many of us do this on the side, pursuing it for our own passion more so than any financial return.  As of right now I am a senior in college, an outdoor sales representative, and an up-and-coming aviation professional.  I am also a whitewater kayaker.

I fell in love with the sport about a year ago, and as with anything, its had its ups and downs.  I do instruction, whitewater photography/videography, and have multiple sponsorships.  I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel around the country and co-run a collegiate club with a high level of financial and administrative responsibility.  I’ve also suffered various injuries, had equipment broken or lost, and been in situations that made me question my love of a sport that tries so hard to kill me.  Nonetheless, some of the most important friendships and interpersonal relationships I’ve had have come from this “side passion,” and there are a number of difficult life lessons I’ve learned through sports:

1. Fear doesn’t go away. But you need to push through it

Surprisingly, whitewater is a bit of a spectator sport.  People will line up on riverbanks and observation decks to watch you.  A number of them probably think we’re crazy.  After all, enthusiasts of all kinds love to show up to view and photograph waterfalls, then are awestruck to see people climbing up to them with plastic boats and drysuits.  We give off this impression that we are not afraid.  But in many of our first descents, we are.

If we let fear stop us, we would be robbed of the feeling of pride and accomplishment we gain after.  We would be robbed of every benefit this sport could potentially give us.  I say robbed because not only do we give something up, we let it be taken. Many people seem to let fear get in their way.  The fear of failure.  The fear of rejection.  The fear of loss.  Everybody seems to dream of starting that business, pursuing that promotion, making that big investment, making that big move across the country, but always stops short of doing so, for fear or uncertainty.  Very rarely does reward come without risk.

2. Reward comes from risk. But risk needs to be calculated

Unnecessary risk is a risk where the potential negative outcome outweighs the potential benefit.  Risk itself can be defined as the product of the potential severity of a negative result and the probability of its occurrence.  We all take various risks in our attempts to be successful, with different possible results.  We won’t huck ourselves over waterfalls without checking flow rates, scouting drop zones, and ensuring we have appropriate skill and equipment.  If you want to start that business you have always dreamed of, and you think it can give a very high return, go for it.  But don’t go for it until you have analyzed the market, ensured you won’t under-capitalize it, etc.

3. You absolutely do not know your own limits

I once heard somebody say “whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.”  Yes, to some extents you may need to realize that some things are beyond your limits; see my aforementioned statement on calculated risk.  However, this is not a precise science, and we’ve all done many things that we thought we couldn’t do.  Most of us can agree that it is easier to get an effective workout by working with a trainer, being on a sports team, or through being in the military than by just going to the gym on your own without a plan.  It’s easy to give up when you’re tired, and think that you can’t go any further.  Which is fine, if you decide to lose your ambition and not have any desire to gain anything further.

4. The boat doesn’t make the paddler. The situation doesn’t make the person

It’s easy to try to blame failure or poor performance on external factors, such as lack of resources.  However, think of the opposite.  What would happen if you managed to succeed, despite a poor situation?  What if your manager saw that you could expand a program despite a lack of funding?  I’m a playboater, which in non-kayaking terms, is a kayaker that likes to do tricks in the water.  Maneuverability and stability are a trade-off; you can’t have all of both.  As such, these boats can be squirrely and unstable in the water.  It can be very frustrating, especially at first.  However, you get good, and you get good fast.  Sometimes your own skill and determination can take a less-than-desirable situation and bring out results better than you’ve ever seen.

5. Work ethic, work ethic, work ethic….don’t quit

Some things take practice and repeated attempts.  It’s especially annoying when failed attempts place you in an inconvenient and physically demanding situation.  However, you can take the possibility of negative results as either a motivation and deterrent.  There comes a time when you’re underwater and you think you might not be able to hit your roll.  It’s cold, you can’t breathe, and you’re tired.  You want to just pull out of your boat and swim.  However, what is worse: the temporary pain and difficulty followed by pride and glory, or the inconvenience (not to mention the danger) of swimming through swift-water, possibly losing equipment, then having to re-mount, re-launch, and get back in the mental game? Perfection comes with patience and perseverance.  I guess you could call that the “Rule of P’s.”

6. Stop and THINK

See my aforementioned comparison to being upside-down in dangerous whitewater and wanting to just pull out of your boat. People like to panic, then overreact without thinking.  That results in poor decisions and sloppy execution.  When I was in flight school, somebody told me that when they first learned to fly, they were told to look at their watch and count to three during emergencies.  Panicking can, and will, kill you.  In some situations physically, in other situations it can cause serious detriment or embarrassment.  Being able to keep calm under pressure is what makes somebody a leader, its what causes people to look to you in tough situations.  When I first learned to kayak, sometimes I couldn’t hit my roll, and I would pause, think, then go through the process slow and methodically.  Next thing I knew, I was upright and breathing again.

7. Somebody was always the first 

We like to look for precedents.  If somebody has done something successfully, how did they do it?  If somebody tried and failed, what did they do wrong?  After all, the phrase “tried and true” has its merit.  We study history for a reason, and that is to learn from it.

However, hasn’t somebody always had to have been the first one?  And if they did it successfully, what results did they receive?  If they were an entrepreneur, they are probably rather rich right now.  If they were a kayaker, they might have a rapid named after them, and maybe some media recognition.  Don’t be afraid to try something new.  As a civilization we grow by pushing our boundaries and discovering new things.  Not to mention, trying something new that nobody has successfully done before can teach you a lot about both the subject and yourself.  It may require analytical skills, research abilities, constant determination, etc.  Just because nobody has done something, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Everybody has something they love and are passionate about, and maybe tomorrow you’ll find something new.  Regardless, whether we take something as a hobby, side business, or overall lifestyle, it is important to be proud of what we do, and see what can learn from it.  By learning and teaching, you may very well benefit yourself and society as a whole.

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