Two-and-a-half miles seems like no big deal. A couple roundtrips from North
Campus to Susquehanna Hall, right? But as I peered beyond the doorway of an
airplane last Saturday, about to make my first skydive and feeling the force of
80 mph winds across my face, two and a half miles made a completely different
Of course, as a first-timer, it seemed strange to me why someone would
voluntarily jump out of a moving plane. But for many members of the Maryland
Skydiving Crew, skydiving is an addiction. About 13 experienced members have
accumulated more than a thousand jumps since the club formed in 1998, spending
thousands of dollars to partake in the skydiving experience.
Last Saturday, I accompanied 16 university students on their trip to Skydive
Delmarva in Laurel, Del., to skydive from 14,000 feet, fully expecting to be
surrounded by pierced and tattooed risk-takers. But the skydivers didn't fit my
initial stereotype. Despite the obvious dangers, members of the Maryland
Skydiving Crew are not lacking in common sense. After making hundreds of jumps,
the skydivers become increasingly more confident in their abilities.
I was also surprised at how relatively "safe" skydiving is. Skydiving caused
only 33 fatalities in about 3.3 million jumps last year, according to the United
States Parachuting Association. The numerous precautions include a reserve
parachute packed by a Federal Aviation Administration certified parachute
rigger, which divers are trained to deploy in case of malfunctions. Student
jumpers are also required to jump with CYPRES, an automatic activation device,
which will deploy the reserve parachute at 1,500 feet, if it has not been
Freefalling for about a minute at 120 miles per hour, skydiving was quite an
experience. Still, I was surprised to learn that skydiving never loses its
thrill for many of its participants.
President Dave Bekinski, a junior aeronautical engineer and licensed
skydiver, said he has never made a boring jump. And to broaden his experiences,
he made one from 23,000 feet - an altitude that requires an oxygen tank.
Such quantity of jumps is no small feat considering the costs involved. Only
after an investment of several thousand dollars in training and equipment does
skydiving become relatively inexpensive - costing about $18 per jump - a price
many jumpers are willing to pay to satisfy an addiction.
"Sometimes I run prohibitively low on funding," said Mike Schmitt, a
fifth-year computer science major and a licensed skydiver who has made about 240
jumps. "This summer I went [to Skydive Delmarva] with less than $20 to my name
and I packed parachutes all weekend, earning nearly $200. When you're addicted
to it like I am, you learn to make do."
Initial skydive training is more expensive, however. First-time jumpers
choose between two jumps. In a tandem jump, costing $175, participants are
harnessed to an instructor in a less extensive but more affordable introduction
to skydiving. During an accelerated freefall, costing $260, two instructors
stabilize, but are not harnessed to the jumper during flight. Completion of
seven levels of AFF is required to receive skydiving certification which allows
jumpers to self-supervise. Video and a roll of photographs cost $79.
"Thinking back, I would have paid double for my first jump if they wanted me
to," said freshman biomedical engineering major Bobby Gill who is currently
pursuing his license. "You can't really put a price on that first taste of pure
The AFF experience for myself and five other first-timers began Saturday
morning with about five full hours of training on the ground, going over safety
and freefall techniques and proving our skydiving competency.
There is an hour to kill until the jump, a tense and nerve-wracking hour
which I used to make a phone call to my worried mom. Others spent the time
mulling, sometimes fearfully, over what they were about to do.
Twenty skydivers boarded the plane and made the 20-minute ascent, a trip much
longer and much higher than I had expected. I definitely had time to consider
what I was about to about to do, especially since I was last in line to jump.
The plane's ascent levels out just above the clouds, at which point jumpers
begin coordinating their departure with instructors.
Although instructors will not force jumpers out against their will,
instructor Tracey Eckersley said they will consider any response as a desire to
jump, whether it be a resounding "yes" or hysterical whimpering combined with
reluctant movement towards the door.
"You can see the tandem [jumpers] line up in the door and very literally see,
very often, abject fear," Eckersley said, having accumulated over 9,000 jumps.
"After two seconds of leaving the door, you can see that change into a really
Once in freefall, jumpers have several responsibilities to demonstrate
competency at AFF level 1, including periodically checking the altimeter for
height readings and instructors for position adjustments, before pulling the
parachute at 5,500 feet. The parachute pulls you away from instructors and
mental debriefing begins. Amidst laughter spurring from the realization of my
actions, a one-way radio assisted me to landing.
The life-altering revelation I was expecting during freefall never really
happened but it temporarily put life into perspective. I plan to go for my
second jump next month, most likely with members of my AFF Level 1 group, and
maybe then that life-altering revelation will come, though I'm not quite sure
where the $170 will be come from.
"Skydivers are a different group of people," Eckersley said. "There's just
something in there somewhere that makes them slightly different that makes them
want to come on a skydive."
I've joined a family of "different" people.