Becoming airborne qualified takes a different type of person. One who doesn’t fear jumping out of a perfectly good airplane! But static line jumps come with a few set backs. There’s a reason we always joke about bad back and knees! When jumping static line you jump from 800-1500 AGL, unless jumping a MC-6 you have very little control over your direction of flight, and even with a good PLF you are likely going to hit the ground like a bag of rocks. You might be itching for that legendary MFF (Military Free Fall) school slot that is in short supply and high demand. But there are plenty of ways outside the military to live out your dream and become a licensed skydiver!
First of all let’s talk money. How much is it going to cost?
Ask any skydiver out there and they will tell you that skydiving is like crack cocaine. Not only because it is so addicting, but also because you’re going to want to throw a lot of money at it to supply your habit. Skydiving is an expensive sport but it is extremely worth it. Skydiving has a bottleneck when it comes to expenses, meaning the first year will definitely be the most expensive. After the first year it can still be plenty expensive but can be much more manageable. But in terms of money this can’t be sugar coated, you must be prepared to spend at least a couple thousand dollars in your first year. Typically from your first tandem to getting your A license you will likely spend in the ball park of $2,500-$6,500 depending on location and program. This doesn’t include the cost of your own gear which will cost an additional few thousand dollars. Almost every DZ has rental gear available at a first come first served basis. Usually students have priority for rental gear, so after you become licensed it’s in your best interest to buy your own gear as soon as you can. Before committing to start your journey into becoming a skydiver, it is best to have at least $5,000 available to spend to become licensed. I’ve seen multiple times where someone started their training, ran out of money, and had to stop for a few months before they could start again. Just like in static line jumping you have currency requirements. Especially as a student! A good DZSO is not going to allow a student to do their sub-25 jumps when they have taken several weeks away from the DZ because it is not safe for the student or the instructors. You want to have the time and the money to be able to get your training and first 25 jumps in as soon as possible, that is where the real fun begins!
How long does it take to get licensed?
This is another question that is asked frequently. Again this depends on your specific DZ. Some Drop Zones are open all week long, some are opened only on the weekends. Bigger DZ’s might have more students and limited instructors meaning you might have to wait longer for other students. Don’t let that discourage you though! If you do have other students with you use it as an opportunity to study, practice, and rehearse together to keep each other motivated and focused. Skydiving is so much more than the jumping, it’s a community unlike any other. The FAA is the regulatory body for skydiving, more-so over the pilots of the birds you will jump out of. There are regulations on wind speed, clouds, and weather to ensure the safety of everyone. If there are higher winds or clouds over the Drop Zone, DZSO’s often will make wind/weather calls and only allow experienced jumpers with higher licenses to jump. This will ground all students and lower licensed jumpers until it’s safe for them to jump. No one enjoys being scratched, but remember it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the sky than to be in the sky wishing you were on the ground! Typically as a student you can get 1-3 jumps in per day because you will conduct de-briefings after every jump with your instructor to review the footage of your jump and work through some sustains and improves. If you do not fail any AFF jumps and go every weekend, you can usually complete your first 25 jumps in 4-6 weekends.
How does the process start?
Time to get into the meat and potatoes! You begin by reaching out to the DZ you plan on making your home DZ and inquire about becoming licensed. Bonus points if you have a friend that already jumps at that DZ who can introduce you to the DZO. This is a good time to get a quote on the pricing and timeline for becoming licensed.
First steps: FJC, Tandems, and Tunnels
Almost every DZ will start your program with a First Jump Course (FJC) also referred to as a Ground Course. This is typically 1-2 day course in the hangar and mockups before you get up in the sky! In your FJC you will learn all about the components and nomenclature of your rig, gear checks, emergency procedures, basic body positions, how to steer and brake your parachute, landing patterns, how to land your parachute, and (although you probably have conducted a million in your lifetime) how to PLF. Your FJC is basically what you wish Airborne School was! Before you begin AFF, most DZ’s typically have you conduct 1-3 tandem jumps connected with your instructor to get the feel of what it is like to be in free-fall and under canopy. Jumping isn’t for everyone, even for some static line paratroopers, so they use this as a tool to ensure you really want to skydive before you sink all of your money into it! These tandems usually consist of learning objectives to complete to show to your instructor that you can focus on what needs to be done to land safely even while falling at 130 mph. Every DZ has slight differences to their programs. Some might not require you to tandem and in the same way some bigger DZ’s have indoor wind tunnels located at the DZ and require students to spend time in the tunnel before they get out in the sky. Programs that require tunnel time tend to be more expensive to programs that do not so keep that in mind.
AFF (Accelerated Free Fall) Training
Another frequently asked question everyone asks: “when can I jump solo without being attached to someone?” Most are surprised to find out that from their very first AFF jump they will be jumping solo with instructors. For the first 2-3 jumps you will typically have two instructors on each side of you holding on to you throughout the first few jumps. You will also be wearing a special helmet that has a radio attached so that another instructor on the ground can direct and guide you while you are under canopy. By your 4th jump you usually will exit on your own without your instructor holding on to you but close by in case anything goes awry. Depending on your program, Your AFF jumps with instructors will be 7-18 jumps with specific learning objectives usually consisting of the basics of altitude awareness, body flight, how to pack your main parachute, and canopy procedures. AFF can be some of the most stressful times in your skydiving career. Not only because it can be a lot of information to take in and a lot of stimulation overload, but because every time you fail an AFF jump due to an unsafe action or failing to complete the objective, you will have to pay out of pocket to make that jump up again to continue to progress. This adds a lot of stress to an already stressful situation. But don’t get overwhelmed. Remember that every single skydiver has been exactly where you’ve been. Don’t stop asking questions and practicing your dive flows even when you’re not at the DZ.
USPA - Proficiency Card and Licenses
The United States Parachute Association is the organization that works together with the FAA to ensure the safety of the sport. Though the USPA is not a government organization and therefore has no legal or regulatory authority, it created the standards for licensing, safety, and procedures to ensure the safety of all skydivers. The USPA wrote the manual on conducting safe skydives known as the Skydive Information Manual (SIM). Becoming licensed through the USPA is the only way to jump at most DZs around the world. You must be a USPA member and keep your yearly membership up to date if you want to jump at most DZs. Your DZO will most likely help you with this. There are four license levels for the USPA: A, B, C, and D. Each come with different requirements. For your A license you will be given a proficiency card with multiple tasks to be completed that must be signed off by your DZ’s S&TA (Safety and Training Advisor). In addition to the proficiency card you will need a minimum of 25 jumps and will also need to complete an oral and written exam. The exams are not particularly difficult but you will need to memorize the information for them, not just for the exams but to have the information that could potentially save your life someday. You can easily find the study materials on Quizlet or Cram (just double check with your S&TA to make sure it's the right information). Some DZ’s will require you to conduct coach jumps after your AFF jumps to work on specific tasks that are required for your proficiency card while others have you complete the proficiency card on your own jumps.
I have my license, now what?
At this point you can begin looking for your own equipment so that you can avoid extra rental fees. I’d suggest working with your DZ’s rigger to ensure you are getting a good deal and more importantly that the gear is safe! Now comes the fun part! One of the most amazing thing about this sport is that there are so many different things to learn! There are so many different disciplines to engage in, always more people to jump with, and new things to try. Always remember that you don’t need to rush. Although skydiving is relatively safe with proper training, it is still an extreme sport and doing things above your experience level can lead to serious injury or even death. Skydiving is also an extremely technical activity that requires a lot of practice and hard work. It also has a steep learning curve so don't get discouraged if you feel like you have a large experience gap between you and the other jumpers! Everyone starts at the same place, and learning to fly better is what keeps us coming back! Continue to ask questions and always strive to get better.