Skydiving With A Disability

Hello, my name is Brian and before I begin this story about my skydiving experience I’d live to introduce myself and give a background to my situation.  In the summer of 2014, I went over the handlebars of a mountain bike breaking my neck, to be specific I broke the 4th cervical vertebrae damaging my spinal cord.  Everything from shoulders down is affected movement and sensation wise, I had regained a lot post injury.  I am able to feel and move every part of my body but to varying extents. I am able to walk however, I do use a walker anywhere outside of my house. The ability to move as much as I can has given me a lot of my independence back, however I still need a hand with various activities to more or less of an extent, it varies from one to the next. Now with all this information in mind I am still able to be physically active as I had recently gone skydiving at Skys The Limit, a skydiving center located in Stroudsburg PA.  The first jump for anyone is a tandem jump, a tandem jump is when a first-time jumper is attached to the front of the experienced instructor via a connecting the harnesses, imagine a baby bjorn but for adults. It is the instructor’s responsibility to keep both jumpers safe, the instructor is responsible for deploying the parachute and making the landing as smooth as possible.  Skydiving is fairly simple but requires caution and attention to have a fun safe experience.

For an abled bodied person, one not affected by spinal cord injury, the whole process of a tandem jump is fairly simple. An experienced instructor will fit their own harness and then will fit a harness on the first-time jumper. Both jumpers will board the plane unconnected from each other and on the plane ride up to the jump height, an elevation of 14,000 feet, the instructor will position themselves behind the first-time jumper and connect both harnesses.  Once the plane reaches the jump height both parties will stand and walk towards the exit door, at the door the first time jumper will bring their hands in to their chest and the instructor will exit the plane putting both jumpers into free fall, the first jumper is supposed to arch backwards, tilt their head up, and bend their knees.  Once the instructor signals the first-time jumper will extend his/her arms straight out to their sides as if they are a bird spreading its wings, both jumpers are in an arched position with their stomachs towards the ground.  After a period of free fall the instructor will deploy the parachute greatly reducing the speed towards the ground. The final part is the landing, there are two ways to land: the first staying upright landing on one’s feet, the second is landing one’s butt and sliding in.  To land on one’s feet everything must be just right and depending on the approach speed one will have to run as soon as they touch the ground in order not to fall.  To land on one’s butt and slide in all the jumper has to do is stick their legs straight out with their toes pointed up, the jumper will land softly and slide for a very short distance coming to a complete stop.

For a person with a physical disability the process will be altered, and the alterations depend on the individual’s physical limitations.  For myself very little of my skydiving experience was different in comparison to an able-bodied person.  I went skydiving with my uncle and he had called a head of time explaining the situation and setting up the reservation. The facility was more than willing to work with me as they have experience jumping with people with physical disabilities, they can help with a person in my situation to a person that is unable to walk relying on a wheelchair. I had met with my instructor roughly an hour before it was time to board the plane and he had assed my abilities to determine how to exit the plane and land safely. The biggest challenge in my situation is landing, even though I can walk I do not have the ability to run so landing on my feet would not be an option. I would have to land sliding in on my butt but this would also be a challenge because a previously mentioned you must stick your legs straight out with your feet pointed up as to not get caught on the ground possibly injuring one’s self, even though I can stick my legs in a straightened manner outward I cannot  raise them high enough to be straight out being parallel with the ground. Another problem is that when I straighten my legs out my feet point forward making it even easier to catch the ground. The combination of ot being able lift my legs high enough and my feet pointing forward creates a higher chance of having a bad landing and sustaining an injury. My instructor determined that we would use a harness to secure my legs and land safely as my instructor had mentioned he had made this harness for jumping with people that have no control of their legs.  The harness would secure my legs together, there is a strap around my ankles, a strap around my thighs just above my knees and a strap around my midsection just below my chest. The strap around my thighs has a handle on it. The strap around my thighs and the strap around my mid-section is connected by another strap that can easily be adjusted. The purpose of this harness is to get one’s legs in a safe position for landing, this will be explained later in the sequence of events.

The first step after meeting with my instructor and assessing my ability/mobility was putting on the main harness. I was able to put it on in the standing position with the help of my instructor as my instructor adjusted it to fit correctly.  After my harness was secured, I began my journey to board the plane. The opening of the plane is about 4 feet off the ground and to board the plane a portable stair set is placed at the opening of the plane that passengers walk up. Once in the plane they will walk to their sit.  I walked up the stairs until I was able to turn around and sit on the floor of the plane.  At this point my instructor along with some help slid me completely into the plane against the wall opposite of the door with my feet pointing towards the end of the plane. My instructor now began to put the leg harness on starting with the strap around my ankles moving up my thighs and then mid-section until everything was fit and secured. My instructor now positioned himself sitting on the floor behind me where he began connecting my harness to his harness, at this point it was time for everyone else to board the plane.

Once everyone was one the plane and everything checked and secured the door next to me was shut, this is the door that everyone will exit from, it slides up and down like a garage door, is made up a series of clear plexiglass sheets,  and is about 3 feet to my right. The inside of the plane was no wider than 5 feet.   The plane started its motor and began to position itself on the runway for takeoff, as the plane began to take off, this  was the first time I felt uneasy as I had never flown before and it had become more of a reality that I was about to jump out of a plane.  As the plane ascended, I was able to see everything very clear as there was a window to my left and the door to my right, everything had become small rather quick as the plane climbed in altitude. The second uneasy feeling I had was when the plane had encountered very small turbulence, it had felt like hitting a few speed bumps in a car one after the other. The next thing to really set in the feeling of this happening was when the instructor to my right opend up the door to cool off the inside of the plane on its ascent,  the air came into the plane so fast and was almost deafening, it was like being in a car on the highway and sticking your head out the window, all you can hear and feel is the wind. The plane was below the clouds, then in the clouds and finally above the clouds plateauing at a height of roughly 14,000 feet.

Finally at the jump height the door was opened again and I knew this was it there was no going back, I  am going out of the plane free falling towards earth. I kept myself pretty calm the entire time as I had taken slow breaths. After a few seconds the instructor to my right had jumped and then a group of three had positioned themselves at the door and jumped, the whole time I was watching those people jump I knew my time was coming up, I just did not know when, as in was I the first to jump or the last to jump out of the group at this point.  I should mention that previous to all of this my instructor informed me of what the procedure was to exit the plane, I was to have my hands pulled to my chest and to open my arms up at his signal.  As my feet started to go over the edge of the plane opening I was to try and bend my knees, curl my legs as best as I can and arch my back while keeping my head back looking upwards.   It turns out I was the first to jump, after the group of three had exited the plane my instructor swung my feet towards the door and began to slide us toward the door, this is when I felt the “oh shit here we go”.  As we got to the edge of the plane I looked up the whole time and as I felt my feet slide out of the door I curled my legs as best as I could, now on the edge of the door I was just waiting to feel the push from the plane until I looked down again.  The pause was over before I knew it and we were out of the plane in free fall.  Everything was happening so fast, within roughly 15 seconds we reached terminal velocity, on average terminal velocity for a person falling belly-down is 120 mph. It was a lot to take in, I would look down and see how fast the ground was coming towards me, I would look forward and see how fast I was going through the clouds and then the air rushing over me.  There are skydiving videos but none of them quite capture the speed at which you are falling, generally because the camera is falling with the diver at the same speed in a blue sky so there is no reference to show the speed. Some videos are from the plane showing the diver fall away from the plane, these videos do show how fast the diver gets away from the plane as the distance grows large within seconds but it just does not quite do it justice as feeling it for oneself.  Now just as my eyes and my brain processed all this information and I really became aware of my surroundings and comfortable with free fall my instructor deployed the parachute. From the time I exited the plane to the chute deploying was about 40 seconds, within that time I fell roughly 8,000 plus feet, more than half the total height of the jump.  I was unaware of when my instructor was going to deploy the chute as I did not receive a signal from my instructor during the fall.  The chute opening was a bit rough because of slowing down so drastically and my unawareness of it.

The chute is open and my instructor and I are still moving towards the ground but at a much slower rate.  The view is spectacular although I was still adjusting to being in free fall for the first few seconds.  Now that the chute is open and everything was ok, going as planned my instructor and I adjusted my legs so that I was ready to land. Remember back to how I described the harness that secured my legs with a strap around my ankles, thighs, and mid-section, this is where the harness comes into play and will be explained.  Now I was to reach down to the handle on the strap that was around my thighs and lift thus bring my thighs up to me so that that are now out in front of me parallel to the ground, I am now in a seated position as if I was sitting on a chair. My instructor helped me with this by pushing his legs up with mine as it is difficult with the tone/spasticity to get my legs to initially bend from a straight position, for those that are unaware of tone/spasticity   it is pretty much the muscle firing contracting without your input and it is very difficult to get the muscle to relax so you can go the opposite direction of it, as in my situation my legs want to stay straight the muscle is firing to keep my legs straight so it is difficult for me to lift my legs up as if I was going to walk up stairs, the muscle does not want to relax and allow me to easily lift my leg from a straightened position.  Once I had my thighs up in position, remember there is a strap that ran from the strap around my mid-section to the strap around my thighs, my instructor took the slack out of this connecting strap, once the slack was taken out of this strap I no longer had to worry about holding my thighs up on my own, this process took no more than 30 seconds to achieve.  After this my instructor told me that as we would land, I would have to put my feet out as best as I could and that he would help with his legs undermine. The view was fantastic and I never had an unsettling feeling of the height, I admit I can be uncomfortable with heights depending on the viewpoint and surrounding settings, for example I get a little uneasy on a Ferris wheel but at no time from jumping from the plane to the ground did I get this uneasy height feeling.  As the ground approached, I stuck my feet out with my instructors help and we were on the ground, the landing was extremely smooth we must have slid no more than 10 feet before coming to a complete stop.  The time we were in the air after the chute deployed to landing on the ground was roughly 2 minutes. The time the entire trip took from exiting the plane to landing on the ground was roughly 3 minutes long. The entire experience went extremely well and everything went very smooth. I highly recommend going skydiving to anyone even if it is a one-time experience, it is definitely an experience that is worth it and a great story to tell. I do plan on jumping again and if I had more mobility or if it is possible I would definitely pursue the necessary steps to being able to jump solo, on my own, instead of tandem.  Simply, go skydiving!