I've Just Learned to Freefly... Now What?
Jumping out of a plane in any form is pretty good, but for many, it is freefly that really rustles their jimmies. Even after you’ve made your first successful freefly jumps, it takes no small effort—bashing away at complex body positions and safety procedures to reprogram how your brain understands movement—to continue learning. Whether you are approaching freefly as a brand-new skydiver or after years of experience falling on your belly, the important thing is that you are about to access a bonanza of challenges and rewards. Here are some of the key lessons that will help as you progress onward from your first successful freefly jumps.
For many, the initial motivation to get involved with freefly comes from the desire to pile out of an airplane with friends, zoom around and have as much fun as possible. Once you have cobbled together a small group of humans who are able to fly in the same bit of sky in a safe, stable and somewhat controllable head-up position, here are a few things to remember:
• Always have a plan: There is nothing more disconcerting to overhear on jump run than, “We will just make it up as we go,” or some equivalent. Make a plan and stick to it.
• Keep that plan simple: It is very easy to add goal after goal to your skydive. The more things you add, the greater pressure you are putting on the whole jump. Something as streamlined as, “I am the base. Everybody fly to me,” counts as a plan.
• Mix it up: There is much to be said for jumping consistently with people you know and trust, but be careful to not let stagnation creep in by repeating the same jumps over and over with the same faces. There are a great many things to learn, and new people—both more and less experienced than you are—will bring new ideas and perspectives.
There is no substitute for quality coaching with video analysis, but practicing freefly skills on solo jumps has value, and you can use the simplicity of being alone in the sky to build your awareness. Drilling by yourself will not show if you are drifting as you turn or highlight inefficiencies in your body position, but there are some things you can try. However, be aware that solo beginning freeflyers often dangerously zoom around in the sky, so be sure that you can fall straight down or fly perpendicularly to the line of flight before jumping without an experienced companion as a reference point.
• Aim small, miss small: Learn to use the scenery. Proper use of reference points is hugely important in air sports, as your body will naturally fly to whatever it is your vision is fixed on. Using your environment to reference your position will show you how accurate you are being. Can you turn around and finish with the sun in the same position without overshooting? How quickly can you do it without falling onto your back? Can you front flip and finish with the same mountain right in front of you?
• The bigger picture: Learn to use your peripheral vision. How long after exit are you aware of where the plane is and which way it is going without looking directly at it? Did you see the next group get out? Where is the previous group?
As you progress, your awareness will grow. You will start to notice things you didn’t see before. Good awareness and a safe attitude are huge assets throughout the career of any skydiver, so here are a few immediate things to think about:
• Not just you: At the beginning, skydiving is scary and your attention is focused inward on your personal gear and responsibility. As you grow as a jumper you will get more confident and relaxed and can look to others with an eye on their safety, as well as your own. Is all well around you? Develop the habit of scanning other people throughout pre-jump preparations … you will be surprised how often you spot something that requires attention.
• Muscle memory: Always be thorough with your safety procedures. Even if you are jumping in a small group, treat breakoff and deployment with the focus and diligence you would in a larger one. Muscle memory saves lives. In an emergency situation, having trained your habits is what counts, so avoid getting loose and lazy with this stuff.
• You are the grown up: Act responsibly. The further you advance, the more people will come to you for advice. This will start happening sooner than you think.
• Saying no: Don’t be afraid to step out. It takes balls to say no when you recognize things as being too sketchy for you. If a little voice is telling you to walk away, do so. You will be proud of yourself, and people will respect you for it.
Don’t Rush the Camera
As tiny and wonderful as modern cameras are, they are still distracting. Even if you don’t think you are thinking about the camera on your head, you probably are and can miss important things around you or make dubious choices in freefall because of it.
• Go without: Even if you are experienced and comfortable flying with a camera, try taking it off and jumping without it. How does it feel? Did you have more fun? Less fun? The same amount of fun?
• Many chances: Cameras perch on top of so many people that you are not going to miss anything. Chances are the most valuable footage to you will be of you.
Joining an organized group at a boogie or skills camp can be a hugely rewarding and productive experience, a shallow and frustrating one, or anything in between. Load organizing is a definite skill and takes experience and no small measure of finesse to get right. It is a careful juggling of how participants are progressing, group safety and overall fun.
• Do your research: A properly organized event should advertise in advance exactly what it is offering and should state how big the groups will be, what skill level is expected or required and whether the focus will be more toward progression or fun.
• Speak up: A load organizer’s goal is to balance all of the concerning factors to find the place where everyone is achieving something and feels rewarded by the experience. Making everyone happy is no easy thing, but if an organizer is worth his salt, he’ll have a lot to share. Don’t be afraid to question anything and everything that concerns you. Suffering in silence will hold you back.
• Nope: If your load organizer turns out to be a preening nincompoop who is not doing anything other than weighing up how cool he is by how many people he can add to his group, don’t be afraid to call him out on it and seek an alternative.
For the fastest personal progression there is no substitute for coaching from a respected and reliable source. However, one-on-one attention is expensive, and you cannot have everything all the time.
• Homework: Educate yourself about the best way to apply the resources you have available in the way that best suits you. Consuming all available media will broaden your knowledge and help you to make informed decisions based on your desires. Online videos and tutorials, magazine articles, conversations on windy days … everything helps.
• Different eyes: The true mark of quality for a coach is depth of experience. If you are struggling with something, the coach should know another way of approaching it
(if not two or three other ways).
Freefly is complex, and there are many different ways to learn. If a coach keeps you hammering away at something that is simply not working, it might be time to find someone else.
• Don’t take any guff: There is a lot of hogwash out there. Sponge up all the information you can, but always be aware that a lot of it is just going to be someone’s opinion. The more you absorb, the better your B.S. detector will get.
Consider the Tube
The tunnel in an amazing tool for developing personal flying skills. Competition within the industry is making them more affordable, and the rate at which they spring up out of the ground means the distance from wherever you are to a facility is shrinking all the time.
• A spoonful of patience: The tunnel and the sky are not exactly the same. It takes a minute to adapt and transfer your skills from one to the other, so for the best progression be prepared to rein it in a wee bit.
• Head-up for days: Of all the orientations, your rig will affect your sit-fly the most. A rig gets right in the way of the biggest surface you can present to the wind in a head-up position: your back. Although in both the tunnel and the sky, you’ll need to use all of your body to fly efficiently, in the sky the balance will shift a bit more toward using your limbs to get around.
• Do what you enjoy: If you are using the tunnel simply to further your skydiving skills, it can feel frustratingly expensive. Investing in the tube will make you better, but you can learn in the sky, too. If you enjoy that the most, do it. It just depends on what kind of person you are.
Important Things to Remember
• Nail it to the wall: There are a lot of people out there who skimmed across their early skills to chase fancy goals only to get shown up later. Fundamentals feed into all advanced skills. If your basics are solid, you will continue to progress through the more difficult stuff and not have to revisit it. The pull will be strong, but try to resist skipping over things to push forward. Remember, the next step is easier the more thorough you are with the current one.
The Journey is the Destination
There is so much to learn in freefly—and skydiving as a whole—that embracing being a perpetual student and enjoying the process rather than focusing entirely on some final goal is the way to enjoy consistent progression.
About the Author
Joel Strickland is a full-time freefly coach and freelance journalist. He is also an International Bodyflight Association Instructor Trainer, a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Judge and a member of the British national champion team Varial Freefly. Jumpers can reach him through his website, joel-strickland.com.