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Accelerated Freefall Program

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RECOIL Signs Up to Achieve Terminal Velocity in an Accelerated Freefall Program

I’m trying to move my right foot onto a small step, but it keeps getting buffeted by the wind. When I do finally manage to make contact, the step proves to be a bit wobblier than anticipated — I make a mental note to be careful of it, otherwise I might fall off and plummet 12,000 feet to the desert below. Which is ironic, because that’s exactly what I’m committed to do next. For years, I’d managed to avoid ever having to exit a functioning aircraft in flight. That was all about to change, as I signed up for the American Parachute Association’s Accelerated Freefall course, in anticipation of having to jump into the northern Rockies, later this year. While the motivation for undertaking this particular adventure might’ve been unusual, the methodology for achieving it is conducted by thousands of Americans each year. So if you’re still looking for a challenge in 2020, here’s a valid contender.

Photos by Caylen Wojick

Feeling old, beat up by years of abusing the meat Popsicle that serves to carry around the barely functioning brain that produced this article, I had serious misgivings concerning the wisdom of this whole freefall venture. And still do.


Former Marine sniper Caylen Wojick approached me at SHOT Show in 2019. He came up with the idea of doing a parachute insertion into the most remote area of British Columbia he could find, in order to hunt for mountain goats, before paddling out on a whitewater river, and he was looking for a media partner to tell the tale. The initial response of, “Oh, hell yeah!” was tempered a bit when I realized that this wasn’t something that could be delegated. Never ask your guys to do something you aren’t prepared to do yourself.

So I signed up to learn how to freefall parachute, from scratch. And if I can do it, anyone can.

The Only Way is Down
My journey to terminal velocity began on a Friday in Phoenix, Arizona. After exchanging texts, Rob Pelon and Marty Rhett met me in a parking lot in a suburban retail development; two dudes I didn’t know from Adam quickly talked through what was about to happen next. I’d signed up for a few expensive minutes in a wind tunnel, to mimic the effects of airflow over the human form. Without the necessity or risk of falling to earth, a giant fan pushes a huge volume of air into a 12-foot-diameter, vertical polycarbonate tube, into which the student and instructor prostrate themselves while a windstorm whistles past — as fan speed increases, the miracle of weightlessness manifests itself. And then you slam face first into the wall.

Ground school was conducted over beers in a local microbrewery, and then all three reunited the next morning at a local drop zone, west of town. Pelon very diligently ran through all the ways in which the parachute system might fail, and how to address those failures so as to mitigate the risk of becoming a small, moist divot in the earth’s crust. Inevitably, this information had come by way of someone experiencing those failures in a first-hand, fatal-ish way, so it found an attentive audience. Fear has a way of concentrating the mind, and despite feeling like drinking from a fire hose, at least some of the huge quantity of information somehow found its way into my gray matter.

Running through equipment checks and getting suited up came next, and as with most human endeavors, there’s a certain style hierarchy when it comes to equipment. My instructors, who between them had well into five digits worth of descents in their logbooks, rocked full-face helmets and jumped in the clothes they arrived in. Students are expected to wear fashion-crime, ’80s-style polyester jump suits, along with goggles and piss-pot lids, no doubt as an added incentive to pass their exams and become qualified skydivers, so they can then trade up for less cringey gear.

After rehearsing how to actually exit the aircraft and what to do in the dive, the three of us clambered into a Pilatus PC-6 and began our ascent over the brown desert. At the designated altitude, the door slid open and we moved into position. As I looked at the assorted feed lots and roads below, every fiber of my being was telling me that this was a particularly bad idea. As humans, we’re hardwired to avoid situations in which we might fall to our deaths, and yet, here we were, about to trust our lives to a few square feet of thin nylon and some string.

On getting the thumbs-up from Rhett, I made a small sideways hop and began accelerating at 10 m/s/s, which is like being on a high-octane rollercoaster when it goes down the long drop. Flanked by my instructors, I went through the checklist we’d previously discussed in the calm and safe environment of the hangar, forcing myself to ignore the fact we were hurtling toward the ground at 120 miles per hour and would impact it in less than 30 seconds if I didn’t get my head out of my ass. At 6,500 feet, I locked onto my altimeter and watched the needle creep down — at 5,500 I reached back to find the handle and flung it sideways, and for the first time in my life, wound up under a parachute.

Fellow RECOIL staffer Tom Marshall wrote of his experiences in Florida, where he underwent a law enforcement jump school, deploying from a Quest Kodiak using round, military static line parachutes. Freefall rigs are square, offering the user much more maneuverability due to their aerofoil shape, which generates considerable lift when passing through air. All the considerations of winged aircraft come into play, apart from the absence of the “up” control — there’s only degrees of down. Flying the canopy requires as much of a data dump as freefall; in many respects, there’s a lot more to learn and more ways to die, as the wind affects them every bit as much as a rifle bullet in flight. According to the stats, more people bite it with a good canopy deployed above them than auger straight into the dirt at a buck twenty.

The next few jumps passed without incident, each one bringing its own set of new challenges. The most difficult part of the process isn’t so much remembering everything that’s been taught (and there’s a lot to learn) but committing to a realistic schedule. Ideally, your first dozen or so jumps should be in a fairly compressed time frame, so that each builds on the one prior, allowing you to see evidence of progress. “It takes about 10 jumps before you start seeing the world around you,” Rhett says. If you can knock them out in a week, great. However, if you find that career and family obligations result in big gaps in the calendar, then you may find yourself doubting your own abilities on the drive to the drop zone, which makes launching yourself out of the aircraft door that much more challenging. Visualization helps greatly.

Once you’ve completed eight jumps with an AFF instructor, he or she may then place their stamp of approval in your logbook that you’re ready to solo. Up until this point, there’s at least the perception of being in the capable hands of someone who knows what the f@ck they’re doing. Afterward, you’re on your own, kid. I celebrated my newfound freedom by screwing up my landing and hitting the ground hard. Stupid should hurt.

With 25 jumps in your logbook, you can then take a test and prove to the world you’re sufficiently competent to parachute anywhere on the globe. The USPA “A” license is meant to be a stepping stone to bigger and better things, including night jumps, formation freefall, and all the cool stuff you see in Chive videos. Total cost to achieve competency? Between $2,500 and $3,000. Challenging yourself to master another skill: priceless.

I’m just happy to have come to terms with the innate fear of falling to my death. It’s still very much there, but in the next few months, I’ll work on adding finesse to flying the canopy, which our small team will need when we jump into the wilderness later this year. Our drop zone will likely be small, hard to hit, and surrounded by trees, pretty much everything you don’t want to see from 5,000 feet. Assuming all goes well, look for an account of the trip in a future issue, as well as video on RECOILtv.

Freefall Resources
U.S. Parachute Association >
Skydive Buckeye >

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1 Comment

  • BCD says:

    Great story & linguistics! Encouraging to be reminded that if one sets their mind on something & has the resources, you can overcome your fears of failure & achieve a dream. Envious…

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  • Great story & linguistics! Encouraging to be reminded that if one sets their mind on something & has the resources, you can overcome your fears of failure & achieve a dream. Envious...

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