I remember the day before our first jump. All of us “Rookie Candidates” were corralled into the airplane hanger to have a chat at the jump plane right before the end of the day. Most of what was discussed has long since been forgotten except for this one tidbit:
We were standing outside the jump plane looking up at one of the trainers who was talking to us from the door of the aircraft. He had one profound piece of advice to offer. He said, “If you’re going to freeze-up and decide not to jump you need to make that decision here (as he tucked his body and head just inside the door of the plane-) not here (as he stuck his head and chest just outside the door) because if you decide out here the slipstream is going to catch you and odds are you’ll end up dangling from the tail of the aircraft by your chute.”
Good Advice and not at all unsettling.
That night I must’ve used the doorjamb 100 times to practice my exit. For some reason, I felt concerned that I wouldn’t feel the slap on my calf or that I simply wouldn’t react to it. I had rappelled prior to jumping so I knew to follow signals/commands and to trust in my equipment but I just couldn’t get that thought out of my mind.
The next morning came and I sat in my dorm room slowly eating my cinnamon toast with butter (my standard measly rookie training breakfast to ensure that no PT would bring my breakfast back up) waiting for it to be time to walk across the parking lot and meet my fate.
We went to the racks and suited up in a fumbly, unskilled manner before getting our checks and then waddling onto the jump plane. I’m only 5’4” and 122lbs (just squeaking by 2lbs above the minimum requirement) so being in jump gear is a formidable opponent to oh, I don’t know, walking? Getting up the steps and into the plane is a whole other ordeal. There is a piece of webbing between the crotch of your legs about halfway up your thighs to help ensure that you don’t get racked by a tree branch. That’s nice but not at all helpful for short folks trying to get up a flight of stairs. Regardless, I somehow made it into the plane and seated in jump order.
I drew #3 out of the hat. That meant that I was to be 3rd out the door with 11 rookie candidates total. For the first jump you have no jump partner (JP), only your BK radio turned up to top volume so that a trainer on the ground can offer you some guidance. The trainers throw you a bone on your first jump and offer a jump spot that is completely impossible to miss; it’s roughly the size of Vermont.
As we got settled-in the plane began lumbering down the runway –door off of course– aggressively wafting the overpowering smell of Jet A into the fuselage. Wearing all that jump gear it’s virtually impossible to avoid becoming a sweat ball, which was another fun component to add to the mix.
I imagine the flight to our jump-spot had my head filled with thoughts like, “Don’t f___ it up, don’t run with the wind, PLF, PLF, check your canopy, check your JP, check the jump-spot, don’t f____ it up!” but I can’t really recall.
Before I knew it we were burning circles around the jump-spot and the spotters began tossing out the streamers. We watched multiple sets as they danced through the sky showing us the wind patterns. There was a gaggle of people down below awaiting our descent and there was nothing left to do but start jumping out of the plane.
Three rookie trainers jumped first so that we could see their exits and landings. They stacked themselves up into the doorway as a triple stick to get ready. (A stick is generally 2 jumpers and they jump one directly after the other. The person you exit with is your stick partner and/or JP) I’m pretty certain that all of us rookies stared intently without so much as blinking before being jolted by one of them calling out, “See you on the ground f#ckers!” and then they disappeared from the door of the plane. All the sudden shit just got real.
I quickly learned that I was okay in the plane so long as I didn’t have to fix my gaze on anything. Once I had to focus on something (like say, clipping my pg bag back on) I would start to feel nauseous. The Jet-A, the sweating, and now the fixated gaze were collectively creating a recipe for disaster. It’s basically the worst possible time to feel ill; when you’re about to jump out of a plane for the first time by yourself, having no real idea of what the hell you’re doing. So I kept focus on what I had to do, and what I had to do was hook-up and get to the doorway.
The spotter in the door leaned into me and yelled out the standard questions, “Did you see the jump-spot? Do you have any questions?” I replied, “Yes I saw the jump-spot, no I don’t have any questions, but I need you to hit me really hard. I want to make sure I feel it.” To which he laughed and replied, “Oh, I’ll slap the shit out of ya!”
The next thing I remember hearing was “Get in the door”, then “Turning on final 1500” and then the fate sealer, “Gggggettt Reaaaadddy!” and WHAM! I felt the firm slap on my calf and next thing I knew I was in the air. I heard and felt the distinct snap of the chute as it popped open which was a helpful reminder to begin my checks because for the briefest of moments I remember thinking, “What the hell do I do now?!”
Right about the time I finished my checks my body was like, “HEY! Remember when you felt really nauseous in the plane but you ignored it? Guess what…” I was halfway between the jump plane and the ground when a good vomiting session became unavoidable.
I truly had no idea what would happen if I let go of my toggles so there was no way that was happening. If I didn’t have use of my hands I couldn’t pull up my face cage and no matter what, I’d be puking on my reserve chute that was strapped to my chest. By this point I had done enough push-ups and flutter-kicks to last a lifetime and I assumed that puking on my reserve was probably frowned upon so I did the unthinkable; I puked (a whole, whole lot) into my mouth and swallowed it all back down, every large, hot, acidy chunk of it.
Directly after that amazing moment in my life, I was essentially blinded by my watery eyes due to the joys of vomiting, which meant I was coming in for a landing and could see, I mean–nothing-. It was a blur of green and then a sorry attempt at a PLF (parachute landing fall) before I popped my head up like a gopher immediately guarding my reserve handle out of (drilled into us) habit. The trainer was right there as I popped up and he offered me a fleeting moment of kindness (a rarity during rookie training).
“Congratulations, how was your first jump?”
I puked in my mouth and swallowed it all back down.
“You what!? When you were up in the jump plane?”
No. Halfway down I got sick and didn’t want to puke on my reserve so I swallowed it. I couldn’t see shit for the landing!
There was a look of amazement and then a whole lot of laughter. Apparently, that was a first. Plenty of people get sick in the plane but feel better once they get out under canopy, well, except me.
Being in the jump spot after our first jump was like a safe haven from rookie life. People were kind and congratulatory as we gathered up our chutes and packed up our jumpsuits. There were high-5’s all around and all the other rookies appeared to be floating on air with genuine looks of happiness strewn across their faces. I thought, “Son of a bitch! I can’t get the taste of puke out of my mouth.” I don’t think I was having the same blissed-out sensation as my rookie bros and sis.
Once our gear was all packed up and loaded into the rigs we piled ourselves into the rookie van and headed back to the jump base to do it all over again, this time minus the high-5’s and overall kindness. Smiles were replaced with stern looks and intense glares as we suited up again. Our 2nd jump had each of us paired up with an experienced jumper to act as our JP. I was paired up with Ray Rubio.
We got back into the plane in reverse order from our first jump. That meant that I was now #9 and I would be in the plane burning holes in the sky for quite a while.
My nausea still hadn’t worn off from the first jump so my fate was pretty much sealed. I had a trash bag tucked into my leg pocket –as they suggested we all do just in case-which I pulled out after about the 10th circle around the jump spot. I got sick like I was getting paid to produce vomit! Seriously violent heaving that just kept on coming. Next thing I knew my turn was fast approaching and so I quickly tied-off my puke bag. As I held it up by the knot trying to figure out what I should do with it I saw one of the spotters smirk at me and tap his leg; essentially telling me that I needed to take it with me in my leg pocket. I was really hoping I would be able to do a PLF on the opposite leg so as not to burst open my bountiful bag of vomit.
We were told prior to take-off to make a plan with our JP once we saw the jump spot so that we could learn about sharing the air. After securing my bag-o-puke I looked to Rubio with eyes as wide as saucers ready to figure things out and with a slightly dismissive look on his face, he said, “You don’t need to worry about where I’m at, I’ll be far away from you. I’m on a test chute and don’t want you near me anyway!” I didn’t know if I should be relieved or more concerned but regardless we had a plan, sort of.
I don’t have any recollection of the exit, but I distinctly remember looking around for Rubio like I was supposed to during my checks and he was right! Wherever he went he was nowhere near me so I just continued on with my strategy of cussing and yarding on my toggles until it was time to land. I yelled out “I’m okay!” (Like we were trained to if you’re not a busted up mess requiring help) as I worked to pop open my capwells in order to detach my chute although, I’m pretty sure Rubio was long gone after seeing I was okay, putting plenty of distance between himself and the “rookie puker”. Once I got detached I was able to check my leg pocket to see just how bad this day was going to get. Big Ernie must have thrown me a bone because my bag-o-puke was still in one piece.
Once all my gear was collected I began packing it across the meadow with my puke bag in hand as one of the trainers yelled out, “Hey Orcasitas! You packin’ a hot lunch today?” Having no words for my circumstance I just held it up like one might do with a trophy when standing atop a winner’s pedestal.
When it comes to jumping I guess you might say I’m a natural.