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After recently celebrating another birthday (if you can call slowly creeping toward an ever looming death reason to celebrate), I—like many of the almost middle-aged folks I know—took a bit of time to sit back and take stock. Take stock of what has now been a more than 20-year run in our sport of kings and crazies.
It hadn’t dawned on me until quite recently that I’ve now pretty much split my time in skydiving right in half between my two sport careers. A good friend asked which half I’ve enjoyed the most and which was more difficult. Tough question to answer really, as I’m sure any of my jumper/pilot compatriots will agree.
The first half was as a full-time, very active and enthusiastic jumper. I went from student to fun jumper to camera flyer to competitor to tandem instructor to AFF instructor to S&TA in a very short period of time. Like most skydivers who were as active as I was (more than 1,000 jumps a year when I was really going), I’d managed to have a few scary situations, a few close calls, seven malfunctions both with and without tandem students and even a couple of self-induced broken bones, but again like most, nothing that ever made me actually think “Fuck, this could be it …” All in all a great run over an amazing 10 years!
Then in 2004 I started actively flying as a pilot again, having done nothing (because I was a moron) with the license I worked to earn when I was all of 16. In a much shorter period of time than I ever would have imagined, I went from next to no time as pilot in command to a commercial license and an offer to fly jumpers in a 182. Literally as soon as 1,000 hours of flight time appeared in my pilot logbook, my training in the PAC750XL—my first turbine and my first true aircraft love—began. It was then that I officially changed hats from “Instructor” to “Pilot” to start the second half of my skydiving life. And it was then I had a little chat with my father.
Now that I had officially changed over from full-time skydiving instructor to full-time stick, my pop felt he could confide in me how relieved he was. He—like the majority of non-skydivers who know almost nothing about the sport—assumed that if I continued, eventually the phone would ring, delivering to him the news that his son’s remains could be found scattered across the fields where I’d leapt to my death from miles above. He and a number of other family members were beyond happy that I’d decided to fly the plane instead of leaping from it, knowing they would sleep much better in the knowledge that I was safe and sound at work. I just didn’t have the heart to tell him the odds of getting myself killed sitting in the front of the damn plane (especially back then) were so much worse than in the back with a rig on!
In the 10 years since I’ve been flying full-time both for work and for entertainment, I’ve had more scares, more emergency situations and more stress than I could have ever imagined as a jumper! To almost any skydiver this fact seems to make perfect sense, but of course to the rest of the world, jumping out of the plane is the crazy bit. If you ask most pilots, I believe they’ll agree the old saying about flying is pretty dead on: “Flying is 98 percent repetition and boredom, occasionally punctuated by 2 percent sheer terror!”
For most of my career I’ve had it pretty easy. I’ve had weather issues where I’ve been forced to work my way through mountain wave turbulence rated at “extreme”, spending 45 minutes trying to keep from slamming my head into the roof or my plane into a mountain, or two hours through a rainstorm so severe it took the paint off the nose cone, but for the most part, I simply stayed the fuck away from Mother Nature when she was being bitchy; but where I haven’t been entirely “lucky” has been in the aircraft department …
The little maintenance things that pop up occasionally like minor electrical issues, or a rough running engine are a bit like a stuck slider or a toggle fire. They may get your pulse going for a second or two, but they’re usually quick and easy to fix. The ones that really get you are the ones where you don’t have time to get scared until they’re done. Unlike a malfunction in skydiving which not only happens quickly, but is usually over just as quickly, aircraft emergencies can last quite some time and be infinitely more involved. To date, including countless “minor” maintenance issues and a few not so minor, I’ve managed to have seven aircraft emergencies which required landing a Twin Otter single engine, which can, if I’m totally honest, be quite fucking interesting! On most of these occasions I’ve managed to toss the jumpers out over the DZ and land with no real issues, but on two of them, I had no choice but to land with a full load of jumpers on a hot summer day, and I’m not ashamed to tell you that the five or so minutes it took to get her back on the ground safely and in one piece were seriously fucking intense! Both were the type of experience where you’re locked in concentration while it’s happening, but you look back on hours later and freak the fuck out, safely on the ground, reliving it over a shot and a beer.
A few other emergencies in my career have, in retrospect, scared the living shit out of me (like landing an Otter with the nose-wheel steering detached … Fuck me!), but compared to quite a lot of pilots out there, I really have had it easy. We’ve all seen the Cessnas in formation go down in flames (big fucking stones on those guys!), or read about the PAC that was forced into a water landing not all that long ago, off-field landings due to engine failures on single-engine planes, jumpers bending the fuck out of aircraft tails the pilot still had to control, nasty stalls from an ass-loaded plane, and many many more incidents where everyone managed to walk or at least limp away. But of course there are also way too many that didn’t have outcomes nearly as successful
I’ve been very fortunate in the aircraft training I’ve received both in and out of the sport, and like most pilots out there I realize that the training for us—just as it is for jumpers—is the true difference between life and death. But I also realize that just like being a jumper, a fair amount of good old fashioned fucking luck comes into play too.
After having put a fair amount of thought into it, I’ve decided I have no idea which half I’ve enjoyed more, because there is still so much more to come! My “career” as a skydiver is far from over, as I—like most skydivers reading this—will be a jumper for life! Even though I’m not likely to strap on a tandem rig again or shoot much video, with any luck I’ll be a fun jumper for many many years to come. As for the flying, well it’s true that flying jumpers is what I do for a living, but with that I fall back on the very old and very true saying: “If you do what you love for a living, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
So, in or out? Why choose? I still get to do both, just hopefully never on the same load!
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