Jumping from 30,000 Feet

When Leonardo da Vinci so eloquently said, “For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you will long to return,” he must have had skydivers in mind. (After all, he did invent the first parachute.) In any event, the modern-day corollary, in less elegant terms, might go something like, “Have you ever turned your eyes skyward, observed the contrail of an airliner and wondered what it would be like to jump from that high?”

Well, SkyDance SkyDiving in Davis, California—the only USPA Group Member DZ that regularly offers HALO (the military term for high-altitude low-opening) jumps—can show you. SkyDance has received Federal Aviation Administration Certificate of Authorization to fly above 30,000 feet into RVSM (Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum) airspace. Each May and September, it offers jumps from 28,000 to 35,000 feet (and will make special arrangements for groups of three to eight jumpers on other dates).

Last September, three jumpers—Robbie Hill, John Lewis and I—congregated at SkyDance for a HALO weekend. The manifest process was fairly standard: Drop zone staff confirmed the reservations, checked that we had USPA C- or D-licenses, looked at our log books and checked packing data to confirm that reserve repacks were in date. We then received a DZ briefing that covered prevailing winds, obstructions near the DZ, appropriate landing patterns, the location of the primary landing zone and information about the all-important alternate landing areas. The primary additional requirement for manifesting was to hold an FAA Class 3 Medical Certificate. Jumpers can easily obtain these by visiting medxpress.faa.gov and clicking through the prompts to locate an FAA-approved flight physician who can provide a routine medical exam and issue the certificate. The cost is in the neighborhood of $80.

Ground School
Of the three jumpers, I was the only one without previous HALO experience. Lewis is a self-proclaimed HALO addict and may hold the record for the most civilian HALO jumps; he has made no fewer than 52 from altitudes as high as 35,700 feet. Hill is up there with 17 HALOs. That weekend, he was jumping a wingsuit and testing advanced equipment and techniques. Due to their extensive experience, neither Lewis nor Hill participated in the ground school, which gave me the optimal teacher-student ratio of 1:1 with highly experienced jumpmaster and oxygen tech Tad Smith.

Smith has successfully instructed hundreds of HALO jumpers over the years and typically leads three to eight jumpers to altitude per class. The class starts with a physiology lesson and an explanation of the effects on the human body of a HALO jump’s massive pressure change of a factor of three in only a few minutes. Smith explains that to keep the nitrogen that normally dissolves in the blood and tissues from forming gas bubbles (similar to “the bends” in scuba diving), the human body needs to purge it. He notes that jumpers who use proper equipment during the jump and follow proper protocols prior (primarily breathing pure oxygen for an hour) normally don’t find it to be an issue. Smith follows this up by reviewing the oxygen and cold-weather equipment necessary for HALO and explains its operation, fit and integration with standard skydiving gear.

Gear-Check Jumps
After the classroom session, the fun begins with two 13,000-foot jumps. Jumpers perform the first training jump with a subset of the equipment they’ll use for their HALO jumps: a carbon-fiber helmet, balaclava, mask, thermal goggles, oxygen connector and gloves. It takes some time to get used to wearing the gear. The helmet, mask and goggles limit the range of visibility—especially when looking down—and jumpers must feel for their emergency handles rather than look for them. The gloves limit dexterity somewhat, which could cause jumpers to use up valuable seconds when trying to execute their procedures during an emergency.

The second training jump is also from 13,000 feet but includes all of the equipment the jumpers will use on their HALO jumps except the thermal underwear. On this jump, jumpers wear flight suits and oxygen bailout bottles, which they practice switching on and off. The bailout bottle unit attaches to the main lift web of the harness just above the leg strap with the lower end secured to the left leg. In all, several thousand dollars worth of equipment weighing approximately 10 to 12 pounds hangs from each jumper’s body in addition to the regular skydiving gear.

Getting Ready
The day after the training jumps, the jumpers, clean-shaven so the oxygen masks get a good seal, show up at 5 a.m. to gear up and board the Caravan 208B by 6 a.m. to pre-breathe oxygen. Since the body loses water quickly while taking in ABO (aviators breathing oxygen), it is import for the jumpers to properly hydrate beforehand. But after a last bathroom break, once the masks are on and oxygen flows, they must maintain an uninterrupted connection for more than an hour.

Pilot Jason Payne, Smith, the two other jumpers and I make ourselves comfortable in the plane and start breathing ABO. This is a good time to rest and get into “the zone.” During this time, Smith measures the jumpers’ blood-oxygen-saturation levels and double checks equipment and connections. The jumpers feel a slight oxygen buzz after a while, and the time goes by quickly. Initial indications are that the upper winds are from the west. Finally the hour is up, the engine roars to life and off we go.

During the ascent, Smith continually checks equipment, connections, pressure readings and jumper awareness (mostly with hand signals and handwritten notes, as it is difficult to communicate verbally wearing the masks and headgear). On a clear day, the Golden Gate Bridge is visible from SkyDance, but on this day it’s buried in coastal fog. At about 20,000 feet, the interior of the aircraft starts to get cold and the gloves go on. It takes approximately 40 minutes to reach final altitude. There, the outside temperature is negative 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and the windows are iced over. The jumpers bring their goggles down and check fit one last time. About a minute before launch, Smith turns on the bailout bottles, checks flow and disconnects the onboard regulator.

The Door Opens
When the door opens, a blast of polar wind enters the plane. Lewis quickly moves to the door and exits. The wingsuiter Hill will go last. I stick my head out the door, spot the landing area (not directly below but to the east, looking rather small from this altitude) and go. Leaving the plane, there is an instant feeling of exhilaration. Even belly to earth, I’m traveling at 160 mph because the air is only about 30 percent as dense as at sea level. I’m wearing two analog altimeters on my wrist. My normal Altimaster Galaxy topped out at 18,000 feet and is presently useless. The other one, a military Altimaster II provided by Smith, had rotated two and a half times around the 12,000-foot mark and continues to give proper readings. After what feels more or less like a normal jump time, I check and find myself near 20,000 feet! The grin on my face widens, and I think, “It’s like the Energizer Bunny; the freefall just keeps going and going.”

The DZ looks suspiciously far away, so I track aggressively in that direction. The temperature rises remarkably around 15,000 feet, and the world below starts to look more normal. Both my audible altimeters promptly beep at me at my normal breakoff setting of 5,500 feet, although on the ground later, I notice that they were a little confused about the max altitude. Then I observe in the distance that Lewis just pulled. After more than 25,000 feet of freefall, I also pull high to have extra time to remove the goggles, shut down the bailout bottle and enter a safe landing pattern. Total freefall time was nearly two-and-a-half minutes.

Lewis and I land short of the primary landing zone in the large alternate landing area adjacent to the airport runway. Hill nails the primary landing zone. Shortly after everyone gathers up their gear, two SkyDance trucks pull up and provide a short ride back to the DZ. The skydive was spectacular. The camaraderie formed with new friends and joining a small group of jumpers with HALO experience made all the time, effort, training and cost very worthwhile.

Jumpers who wish to make a HALO skydive can find more information at SkyDance SkyDiving’s website, tandemskydivingschool.com.

HALO Jumps at SkyDance SkyDiving

Jumper Requirements

  • USPA C or D license
  • FAA Class 3 Medical Certificate or equivalent
  • Clean-shaven face for proper seal of oxygen mask
  • Must not be pregnant
  • $650 for first HALO jump
  • $525 for experienced HALO jumpers
  • Reservations required one month in advance

Equipment

  • Versa carbon-fiber helmet with adjustable liner
  • MBU-20/P oxygen mask
  • Thermal goggles
  • Balaclava
  • Airox VIII oxygen regulator
  • Twin-bailout-oxygen-bottle assembly
  • CRU/60 P mask to bailout connector
  • Masley cold-weather-flight gloves with Gortex liner
  • Flight suit and thermal underwear
  • High-altitude altimeters
  • Onboard oxygen console connected to Cru 79 regulators that supply 100-percent oxygen to each jumper (in aircraft)

About the Author
FEATURE201512-10Hal Streckert, C-35945, is from Rancho Santa Fe, California, and is a frequent contributor to Parachutist. As a weekend funjumper, he has logged more than 500 jumps in the U.S. and fivor other countries: Austratia, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand and Uruguay.

Comments

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Amos Kohn
Thu, 08/25/2016 - 20:14

Hi Hal,
I would like to attend the next HELO ump in SkyDane. However I will be traveling abroad abroad leaving on September 15 and will be back on October 4.

When do you planing the HELO jump? Would be the package include renting all the necessary gear?

Thanks,
Amos

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