mardi 29 mars 2011

Adventures in California: Part One

MB and I just returned from two weeks spent in Perris, California. When I left, I had a total of 171 jumps. We were scheduled to make 44 coached jumps over the course of the two weeks – and so I was excited that my 200th jump would be a big-way skydive! But I’m back with a total of only 196 jumps. Skydiving is unfortunately weather-dependent and, well, the weather just wasn’t on our side this time. Who said it’s always sunny in Southern California? We all got refunds for the jumps we didn't make, but would have much rather been going home poorer, with more entries in our logbooks.

We spent most of the two weeks at Perris Valley Skydiving, which is located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, in California. It’s a gorgeous spot surrounded by snow-capped mountains and rolling hills. Apparently it’s usually brown and dusty, as it is considered in the desert, but when we were there everything was green (and got even greener as days went by, from all the rain... I’ll get to that).

The Perris Performance Plus Big-Way Training Camp (and Canadian Record Attempt...that didn’t happen)

MB and I decided to go to the Perris Performance Plus (also known as P3) Big-Way Training Camp only three weeks before the event. The P3 camps are reputed as being a great training experience for those wanting to learn to jump in large groups. The organizers of the camp are all really well-known skydivers who have helped organize huge events such as the 200-way women’s record in 2009 and the 400-way world record in 2006. (They are planning a 500-way record in Dubai in 2013.)

The camps are held several times a year, but this one was special: the goal of this camp was to train enough Canadian skydivers to beat the current Canadian big-way record of 59 people jumping together. When I heard about the record attempt last year, I thought I didn’t have enough experience to be on it. But when one of our skydiving mentors, LM, sent MB and I an email trying to convince us to go, we decided to apply. And we were accepted!

A bit of background

For those of you wondering, a “big-way” is a skydiving discipline that involves a large number of skydivers jumping together and building a formation during freefall. We wear special jumpsuits that have arm and leg grips, making it easier for us to hold onto each other. In formation skydiving, you can have “4-ways”, “8-ways”, 20-ways”, etc., depending on the number of people jumping together. A “big-way” is actually a vague term, as someone coming from a small dropzone (a skydiving center) might consider an 8-person formation “big”, whereas some people only consider 40+-ways as “big-ways”.

A "20-way" skydive. I'm in the top right corner of the photo (with the red helmet).

My experience in big-way skydiving was pretty limited. The biggest formation I had done so far was with 24 people. But the basic principles of big-way skydiving are pretty much the same no matter how many people are there: the “base”, made up of two to six, eight, or even ten people, gives everyone a target to aim towards. They form the center of the formation. Every skydiver approaches the base on their own “radial”, a straight line going from the center of the base outwards, ensuring that there are no collisions between skydivers. (That doesn’t mean they don’t happen, of course.) As in any skydive, everyone separates before opening their parachutes, leaving as much space between each other as possible. In big-way skydiving, jumpers usually track away from the formation in “waves”, with the outside leaving first, then the next group, and finally the base separating from each other last.

I first learned about “radials”, “approach angles/stadiums” and “tracking groups” in 2009, at the Canadian National Championships at Burnaby Skydiving in Ontario. With only 70 jumps, I participated in 20-way formations organized by Carey Peck and Ginger Kuhlmann, who were on the World Record 400-way in 2006. That same week, Doug Forth, one of the P3 coaches from Perris Valley, was on site to give a 40-way camp. He wouldn’t let me jump with the group because of my limited experience, but I did attend all of the “ground training” he gave; all the jump briefings and debriefings. He told me that I should wait until I had at least 150 jumps, then attend one of his camps. When I wrote to Doug explaining that I wanted to attend the P3 camp this March, I wasn’t sure if he would remember me from then... he said he did.

Canadians from all over the country were there, representing almost all of the provinces – and even one territory! Most people there had several hundreds, if not thousands, of jumps. Matt and I, along with our friend Céline from Montreal, had the lowest number of jumps. But we did pretty well, considering that! If it wasn’t for the fact that I made a fool of myself on the first few landings (more on that later), I don’t think I looked like too much of a “junior jumper”.

We arrived in Perris a day before the training camp started so we could familiarize ourselves with the dropzone and do a few jumps “to get the rust off”. (Most of us Canadians hadn’t jumped since last summer.) Getting there earlier also meant we had time to settle into the motel room we were sharing with LM. We thought about camping on the dropzone itself, which would have been free, but then decided to take LM up on his offer to share, thinking that a warm bed and lots of uninterrupted sleep would be important during an intensive training camp. LM, MB and I got along really well for people living in such close quarters – and Larry got a kick out of telling everyone I was his daughter!

Getting our money’s worth

Training started at 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Our four coaches introduced themselves (these guys are superstars in the skydiving world!) and gave us an overview of how the camp would work. Unfortunately, they had to break the news to us that very first morning that we might not have enough people there to break the existing Canadian record. A few weeks before the camp, a dropzone in Montreal announced that they, too, were organizing a Canadian record attempt that summer. I guess many people decided to drop out of the P3 camp and just participate in a record closer to home instead. Yes, they saved a lot of money (no flight, hotel, world-class trainers to pay), but they missed out on an amazing learning opportunity.

I had already told myself that I was going to this event mainly for the training camp – and if I managed to help break a record, all the better. I suppose it was because of that mindset that I wasn’t too crushed by the news that all these people had dropped out of the event.

After giving us some theoretical classroom training, our coaches split us up into groups of twenty skydivers and we went to work applying the principles they had just taught us. The P3 camp organizers are all highly experienced skydivers and coaches – and it showed. Our jumps went really well, even if we didn’t always manage to build the formations fully on those first few jumps. During the video debriefs, after each jump, they pointed out what was done well, and (gently) what wasn’t done so well. Everyone seemed to be getting better and better each time. I worked hard at just “doing my job”: trying to be exactly where I was supposed to be on all our skydives so I wouldn’t stick out on the video! It worked well, because they made me the last one out of the plane – a slot usually reserved for the most experienced jumpers! I had a blast on all of those jumps, feeling like every one was better than the last.

Canopy Crash Course

I wrote periodic updates on how our training was going on Facebook, but I didn’t write anything about my botched landings because I didn’t want any of my “Moms” to worry about me. I have never had any problems with controlling my canopy – from the very start of my skydiving “career”, I’ve been able to land the canopy on my feet, almost exactly where I want, all the time. Which is why I was so frustrated that I kept sliding in, covering my jumpsuit and rig with grass or mud... After my fifth such inelegant landing, a few people came to see me to ask if I was ok. I was a bit bruised up, but mostly embarassed at my inability to land on my feet. This had never happened before! Had I forgotten how to land in six months? What was going on?

Finally, LM pulled me aside and explained that because the site we were on was about 1,200 feet above sea level, it was normal for my canopy to fly a lot faster. He also pointed out that I was wearing a ton of lead to be able to fall faster – which also made me come in for landing faster. I felt a bit better, but still embarassed – especially when the organizers came to see me to offer to lend me a bigger, slower canopy to jump with. They thought I had a tiny, high-performance canopy... when I really already have a big (for my size), slow canopy! Someone then suggested I talk to Les, the resident canopy piloting expert. Les told me he’d film my next landing and then go over my technique with me. (Of course, I landed hard – again. Even more embarassing since I knew he was filming.) He pulled me into a training room and started drawing on the board, giving me a crash course in canopy landing. Turns out I was still flying my parachute like a “student” canopy – and once I had learned the principles of flying a faster canopy, I had no more problems landing. I landed on my feet every single time after that. Phew!

Side trips to San Diego and Temecula Valley Wine Country

After 18 jumps and three days of training, we were given a day off, so we decided to drive down the Pacific coast to San Diego. We saw a lot of surfers and gorgeous places with names like Oceanside, Torrey Pines and La Jolla. Once we were in downtown San Diego, we picked up a few pamphlets from the tourist office and decided to go visit an aviation museum that was on an air force base just outside the city. MB was like a kid in a candy store there, of course! Then we drove back into town and walked around the shops, visited an outdoor shopping centre (first time for MB), and had some gelato on a patio (even if it wasn’t that warm). Happy day.

The next day became another day off because of the torrential rain. And then the next day was off too, so we decided to visit a nearby winery – my first time. In fact, there were a lot of “firsts” on this trip for both of us: first three-plane formation, first four-plane formation, first time jumping out of a plane with a tailgate instead of a side door (Skyvan), first-time jumping from 16,000 feet (with oxygen!), first time having to climb back into the plane after hanging on to the side of it (eeeeeep!)...

In the skydiving community, the tradition is that when anyone has a “first” something, they have to buy beer for everyone else. So, yeah, we bought a lot of beer on this trip! We didn’t drink that much of it, though, because we wanted to be in good shape for the 8 a.m. starts to training.

A 20-way that became a 10-way

During the camp, we were given the chance to try out several different slots (in the very centre, middle area, or outside of the formation) and several different exit positions. Someone my size is typically one of the last ones diving out of the plane and docking onto the outside of the formation. The reason for this is that as more and more people hold hands, they start flying slower as a group. So the last person to dock onto the formation has to slow down their fall rate to keep up – which is usually harder to do for a bigger, heavier person.

On this dive, I was given a “floater” exit position. The floaters are the ones that hang onto the outside of the plane, then just launch themselves off and “float” up to their position in the formation. (No one actually “floats” or goes “up”; it has to do with the position of the relative wind as you exit the aircraft. Everyone falls at around the same speed of 200 km/h.) I don’t like floating as much as diving because... well... it’s COLD on the outside of the plane, 13,000 feet in the air! I also find it hard to fight against the wind to hold on. But then again, floaters get a pretty cool view: they look up and watch everyone exit the plane after them.

When the green light comes on, I climb out of the plane, looking over at the other plane and watching for the other half of our group to go (which is our cue to follow!). I see the plane for half a second, and then... it dives down! I look back at the people behind me, who are still getting into position along the side of the aircraft. We are all looking at each other, looking around the sky, then back at each other. I’m starting to wonder how much longer I can hold on before just dropping off. I mean, I have a parachute, I would be ok if I fell off, but the idea is to jump as a group!

Then, all of a sudden, I feel myself being pulled back into the plane. I’m out of breath and my heart is racing, so I move to sit down. Everyone on the outside is pulled back into the plane, looking a bit dazed. As LM wrote in his version of the events, “Brett [a fellow skydiver and friend] decided it was time for somebody to take charge and suddenly put himself nose to nose with Kim and shouted "Sit down and relax!" Kim was already sitting down, and seemed pretty relaxed to me. At least, she was until Brett started shouting at her. Somebody needed to relax, but I don't think it was her.”

That’s when our pilot shouted back “why didn’t you guys go?”. We still didn’t know what had happened to the other plane, but our plane captain (the one in charge; not Brett) smiled to all of us and said (well, yelled, over the plane’s engine), “we’re just all going to jump together and make a big circle, ok?” So we did. It was fun.

Turns out there was a slight communication problem between the two pilots, and the other plane got the “green light” to go way before we did. They had already jumped when we started climbing out and getting into position (which is why I saw the plane dive away). They were pretty confused too when they built their part of the formation, looked around, and realized half of the people were missing!

To be continued in Part Two...

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