If you’re thinking of completing your first skydive, then this article is for you. It will give you a comprehensive guide to every stage of the process, from arriving at the airfield (known as the drop zone) to getting your feet back on solid ground.
There are 6 primary stages to your first Skydive; the drop zone, the plane, the exit, the freefall, the canopy flight and the landing. We will explore each of these in this article.
Stage 1: The Drop Zone
If this is your first time skydiving, at this point you’re probably quite nervous for what’s about to happen. Unless you’re the first jump of the day you will likely see some activity going on around the Drop Zone. You’ll definitely spot people milling around waiting for their jump slot and you may even spot a few parachutes in the air as Skydivers from earlier jumps come into land. Once you’ve found your bearings head on into reception, where you’ll be greeted ready for the next step.
Signing the Waiver (& Kit)
Once you find reception, one of the main things they are going to get you to do is to sign the waiver. This is standard with almost all experiences nowadays but can be daunting knowing you will soon be exiting a functioning plane having “signed your life away”. However, Skydiving is a very safe sport. According to Dropzone.com, in 2019 there were 0 fatalities with over 3 million Skydives completed that year in the US alone.
Once you’ve completed your waiver and done introductions, you’ll get allocated some kit which is likely to be a jumpsuit, some goggles and in some cases a head protector. All of these items are designed to be functional rather than the peak of fashion and the jumpsuits can often look like they were designed in the 80s.
Meeting Your Instructor (& Briefing)
Next up you’ll get to meet your instructor. It’s common for people to want to know how experienced their instructors are, so feel free to ask them and they’ll be more than happy to share their experience. For guidance, in the US all tandem instructors need to have completed 500 jumps, be highly qualified (D-Licence), as well as have been in the sport for at least 3 years. In the UK, you need to have completed 800 jumps with a minimum of 8 hours of freefall, and be nominated by a Chief Instructor. This isn’t a comprehensive list of the requirements but gives you an idea that all instructors need to be highly qualified and highly experienced.
Before you complete your jump, an instructor will also take you through a safety briefing. This will cover the equipment that you will be using, how you exit the plane, what position to be in during free fall and finally what to do when you come to land. After that, it’s time to head to the plane at the time of your jump slot, your instructor will be around to show you where to go. This may not be immediately after your briefing and can be up to few hours, so if you’re nervous it’s a good idea to bring something along to pass the time.
Stage 2: The Plane
The plane ride is the longest part of the Skydive, it takes around 20 minutes to get to the jump height of 12,500ft. The photo below is of me (in blue) getting ready for my first ever Skydive completing my AFF level 1, but it also gives you an idea of what the inside of the plane will look like. They aren’t built for comfort but for the functionality of transporting as many people and kit as possible. If you’re lucky there will be a bench to sit on but sometimes it’s just on the floor of the aircraft and whatever the case, it will be quite a squeeze. The plane will be loaded in order, with Tandem jumpers in first at the back, as you will be last to jump, through to the most experienced jumpers at the front. Your instructor will sit in the plane first and when you’ve sat down they will clip your harness to them so you are connected throughout the flight. Once the plane has reached altitude and you are over the Drop Zone, the jump master, who ensures the jumps are completed in the right location and everyone exits safely, will open the door (the plastic cover on the roof of the photo). It’s at this point that you will feel the cold air whipping into the plane and your adrenaline will spike. This is the moment of realisation that you are actually about to jump out of a plane!
If at this point you’re thinking that a fear of heights will put you off, you’ll be surprised to know that once you’re actually there the height doesn’t feel very real. That may have raised more questions than answers for you, so fortunately I’ve written an article all about whether it feels high when skydiving.
Stage 3: The Exit
The photo above is when we are at altitude and the other jumpers have already exited, hence the space inside, and I am next to jump. As the jumper before you exits, your instructor will give you some final reminders and then it’s time to shuffle to the exit door. Most people reading this will be looking to do a Tandem jump and as you get to the exit it’s going to feel like you’re hanging out of the plane as your instructor sits on the edge. At this point, there is really no turning back but fortunately, your instructor won’t hang around at this point. They’ll push you both off the edge and you’ll begin the acceleration as you free fall.
Stage 4: The Freefall
You may be expecting your stomach to lurch as you start to fall but because you’re exiting from a plane, you exit with forward momentum so fall in an arch rather than straight down. You will accelerate quickly, taking about 12 seconds to reach a maximum speed of 120 MPH, falling about 1500ft in the process.
As you accelerate your adrenaline will spike and the next 50s to a 1 minute are going to fly by in a blur, to the point it will likely feel more like 10-15 seconds. Whilst you’re falling your instructor may make some hand signals in front of your face to help with your body positioning, which will be to help you stay as stable as possible during the fall. They will have shown you what each one means during your briefing earlier in the day.
If you’ve ever put your head out the car window when being driven at high speed, you’ll have an insight into what it feels like during freefall. The air pushes strongly against your body and the air sounds incredibly loud as it rushes past your face. People can sometimes also be worried about being able to breathe during this stage, which thankfully you can. Clearly, it doesn’t feel like breathing when standing on the floor but you can still breathe as you fall. It also means that it is possible to scream as you freefall although it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to hear you. The airspeed and volume mean that you can’t talk to people whilst falling, which is why your instructor will be using hand signals to guide you.
Your brain will be struggling to compute this adrenaline overload, apart from enjoying the moment, which is why it will feel like no time. It will be one of the most freeing experiences, as you really cannot think of anything else on this first jump. Try and enjoy this time, it won’t last long but is one of the most exhilarating experiences ever.
Stage 5: The Canopy Flight
If you’ve ever seen a skydive in a film this is the point when the parachute (known as the canopy) opens and the skydiver goes shooting up. In reality, the camera person continues to freefall at 120 MPH whilst the skydiver opening their parachute quickly slows down to around 9 MPH of vertical speed. This happens in about 5 seconds and means that you will initially feel a big pull on your harness which can initially (initially twice in one sentence) be uncomfortable, however, that is a very satisfying feeling when you realise it is the positive confirmation your parachute has opened!
Your instructor will do some checks of your canopy, confirming that it has opened smoothly and there are no twists in the lines. Canopies are packed to a high standard in a particular way to get the best possible opening. Once they have confirmed a successful opening, they will take control and begin to guide the canopy into the holding zone which is a pre-defined area in the sky, that is a no go zone for any aircraft in the area. Whilst under the canopy you don’t fall vertically, you continue moving forwards as well as down, and so your instructor will be steering to keep you in proximity to the landing zone.
Whilst all of that is going on you will be coming down from the adrenaline surge you’ve just experienced during freefall and there is an overwhelming feeling of calm as you float above the earth. From the high adrenaline and loud noise of freefall to the calm, serene feeling of being under a canopy. It’s such a contrast and it can surprise people just how enjoyable this time can be. This stage is going to take around 10 minutes and you will get to experience the freeing feeling of gliding around. Depending on your instructor they may give you the opportunity to steer the canopy performing some turns and potentially some spirals. That’s where you do a continuous turn in one direction creating a spiral in the air. This will only happen fairly early in the time under canopy so that the instructor has plenty of time to prepare and position ready for landing.
Stage 6: The Landing
This is likely to be the second most nerve-racking section, after the exit, for most people. Well in advance of coming in to land, your instructor will have taken control and again will be following a pre-approved route for landing, taking into account the wind direction to make it as smooth as possible. In the same way as planes do, you will land into the wind which helps to slow your forward momentum down. There is likely to be a big X marked out somewhere on the airfield which indicates the area in which to land as well as a large arrow that shows the direction to come into land. As you get closer to the floor, you’ll need to remember the briefing from earlier in the day where your instructor will have given specific instructions on where they want your legs to be at this point. As you hang slightly lower than your instructor this is to make sure that your legs don’t trip you both over when you get down to the ground.
Once you’re safely down on the ground, a big grin will spread across your face as you stand up and get unhooked by your instructor, and with that, you have completed your first Skydive!
Bonus Stage 7: Booking Your Next Jump
This is the final additional step where you realise how incredible this sport is and you look to book your next jump. There are loads of different options to choose, from repeating another tandem to becoming a fully qualified Skydiver. If you just want to give it another go head straight back into the office and see when the next tandem slot is available and book that plane ride. If you’re interested in becoming a Skydiver and being able to jump by yourself, the quickest route is to complete your AFF (Accelerated Freefall). This takes you from complete novice, through ground training followed by a minimum of 8 coached jumps where an instructor jumps with you, and 10 consolidation jumps where you jump alone overseen by an instructor. A third option, if you loved the canopy section of your jump, is to complete a static line course. That means reducing your freefall as you’re connected via a cable (static line) to the plane which automatically deploys your parachute when you exit the plane.
After reading everything about skydiving above, you may think it isn’t for you. Well, you’re in luck because indoor skydiving is an alternative that will still give you a rush of adrenaline and I’ve written an article telling you all about it.
Hopefully, this guide has given you an insight into the different stages of a Skydive and gives you an understanding of what to expect before you arrive for your first jump. If you haven’t yet booked your first jump, this is your reminder to do just that!