Too Much To Tandem
It was one of those days at work for Mike Driedger. One of those days at the video store when there seemed to be a buzz in the air, but he didn’t understand why. Of course not. He would soon find out that everyone had read the boss’ e-mail... except him.
Later in the day, Driedger’s boss approached him, looked him in the eye and asked, “So, Mike—are you ready to skydive?” Driedger froze, and the blood drained from his face. “Skydive?” he asked. His boss replied, “Didn’t you read the e-mail? The company’s taking everyone skydiving as a reward for doing such a great job!”
Driedger was stunned. For the past 15 years, he had dreamed of skydiving. He listened to stories of a family friend who was a pilot, owned an airstrip and parachuted during the 1950s, the very early days of skydiving. He’d seen all the skydiving movies and videos. He’d talked to people who had jumped. But it was something completely out of his reach and something he just could never afford.
Not only was the video store taking the employees skydiving, but it was paying for each person’s tandem jump. Driedger was on the phone immediately, calling every friend and family member he could think of. Some of the other employees were excited, some pensive, and others a little hesitant. One employee declined to jump. But after 15 years of dreaming and wishing, Driedger felt like the luckiest person alive.
The Stunning News
Mike Driedger felt like he was walking on air for the next three days. The following week was the group’s scheduled jump. But three days after the announcement, Driedger’s boss pulled him aside, asking, “Umm, Mike? How much do you weigh?”
“About 250. Why?” Driedger replied.
“Mike,” said the boss, “I don’t think you can go skydiving. The weight limit is 230.” Once again, the blood drained from Driedger’s face. He stood staring at his manager in shock. “My heart just dropped,” he said, shaking his head. Making a diving gesture with his hand, he repeated, “My heart just dropped.”
The scheduled jump was one week away, and Driedger committed himself to doing whatever was necessary to make it happen. He immediately cut his calories in half. He exercised furiously. In one week, he dropped 13 pounds.
But it wasn’t enough. The group would be going skydiving without him. He would not be able to experience the plane ride with his friends. He wouldn’t experience standing next to an open airplane door, looking two miles down to the earth. He wouldn’t experience the shocking sensation of stepping out of the plane, only to level out onto a cushion of air. And he wouldn’t experience what it feels like when a parachute opens.
Driedger worked the video store that warm summer day while the rest of the employees drove to the drop zone. He didn’t question or argue about the weight restrictions. “I know the rules are there for a reason. I know they know what they’re doing. I did want to understand why, though,” he said.
He added, “Look, I know it’s a business, and they want to serve customers. There’s no business that’s not going to take someone because of the way they look … except maybe a nightclub or something.”
When his co-workers returned from their jump, Driedger barraged them with questions: “What was it like? How high did you go? What does it feel like when the parachute opens?”
When asked if he was resentful that he couldn’t go, Driedger responded, “No. Because I knew that one day, somehow, I was going to skydive, too.”
It’s Nothing Personal
Drop zones must consider the private matters of a tandem student’s weight, shape and body type. So how do potential students react to those types of personal questions? Actually, most people are understanding, according to a jumper who’s worked manifest for four years. She explains that her drop zone discreetly and politely weighs potential students who look like they might weigh more than stated on their waivers. “We don’t make a big scene,” she said. “It’s private, said quietly, and there is never anyone who is resistant.”
Most potential students learn about the drop zone’s weight policy on its website or over the phone, so the majority of people who obviously shouldn’t jump have been screened out. However, there are still people who show up ready to jump who are too heavy or not fit enough. Many students also do not list an accurate weight on their waivers; perhaps they are fudging, or perhaps they really don’t know.
The manifestor added that there are always students she has to turn away after they’ve made big plans to jump and traveled all the way to the drop zone. She sometimes has to go into detail as to why they can’t jump. However, “When we tell them, ‘I’m sorry but unfortunately I can’t let you jump today,’ the majority of people understand and don’t take it personally,” she said.
Changes Over the Years
Skydiving and gear have changed a lot over the years, but so have people. Americans today are taller and heavier than in 1960. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the average height and weight for a man in 1960 were 5 feet 8 inches and 166 pounds, and women averaged 5 feet 3 inches and 140 pounds. As of 2002, the average male height and weight are 5 feet 9.5 inches and 191 pounds, and the average female is 5 feet 4 inches and 164 pounds.
Kevin Gibson, a longtime tandem instructor, opines that tandem students have become more diverse overall. He said, “I think I’ve seen a greater range of people come to skydive over the years. That would include heavier people, but also older … less athletic, less adventurous, more family oriented and female.”
Since it began making tandem equipment, at least one manufacturer has increased its tandem gear weight limit. But it has nothing to do with the increasing size of the population. It was the switch from older F-111 fabric to zero-porosity main canopies and thorough testing under the new gear that determined the higher weight limit was justified.
Some drop zones have strict weight limits for tandems with no exceptions. Other drop zones have limits but will address exceptions. Some drop zones feel they can’t have weight restrictions. One drop zone manager in Texas said, “We have to take big tandem students. This is Texas, after all!”
Of the drop zone where he instructs, Gibson said, “We weigh all students when they sign in, unless they are obviously under the limit for all of our instructors.” His drop zone accepts heavier students, but charges extra. “The extra fees go to compensate the tandem instructor for pulled muscles, abrasions and bruises and for additional wear and tear on the parachute system, jumpsuit, harness, leg pads, etc.,” he continued. “The instructor and the school split the fee.”
The bottom line, though, is the manufacturer’s stated limit for its harness. For most systems, this limit is 500 pounds total, including the gear, which weighs about 60 pounds. The exception is the Racer Tandem System’s harness, which has no weight limit (it is certified by the FAA under a different Technical Standard Order). However, the Racer system is limited by the capacity of the reserve canopy, which is 330 pounds for the 350-square-foot reserve, 400 pounds for the 400-square-foot reserve and 500 pounds for the 500-square-foot reserve.
Even if a tandem student weighs less than the stated maximum, other issues may exist. “I have yet to take a woman pushing 230 pounds that does not complain about the discomfort of the leg straps under canopy,” said one tandem instructor who has been teaching for eight years. “I explain that after opening, they can move the leg straps more toward the knees, but that will only help a little,” After stating that safety is the crucial issue, the instructor added, “Oddly enough, I have not ever had a larger passenger who could not get her legs up for landing.”
Tandem Instructor Steve Phelps of Skydive Airtight in Skiatook, Oklahoma, said that his drop zone has a stated weight limit of 235 pounds but they make a case-by-case determination. Phelps recalls a student he had to decline: “He told us he was 230 pounds on the phone but was 267 when we weighed him. I felt pretty bad, but it wasn’t worth the added risk.” On the other hand, Phelps said, “I have taken a 260-pound man, but he was a 6-foot-9-inch university basketball player.”
Another issue with some larger tandem students is how the harness fits after deployment. If a student has a lot of natural padding, the harness only goes around the outside of his frame, not against his core muscles. On deployment, he’ll sink into the harness. “And now they are 10 inches lower than they should be,” said Phelps. Being lower, this means the student has to lift his feet even higher on landing.
Phelps explained that when a tandem student is 10 inches lower than he should be, the instructor’s cutaway and reserve handles are at the student’s shoulder level. A student who wants to grab or hold onto something could potentially grab either handle. Tandem instructors are fiercely protective of their handles and are quick to grab wandering hands, “but the potential is there,” said Phelps.
The other fear is that students with excess body fat may slip around in the harness in freefall. Some tandem instructors will use a three-step harness tightening method for these types of students to ensure the best fit. They tighten the harness once, allow the student to walk around for awhile, tighten a second time and then a third time before boarding the airplane.
Another issue is steering and flaring. Phelps mentioned that the heavier the student, the harder it is to steer and flare. Landing then requires a lot more upper arm and shoulder strength.
Strong Enterprises, maker of the Dual Hawk tandem system, suggests tandem instructors let the students help steer. For those students willing to assist, this not only helps solve the problem of wandering hands, but it also allows the student to be more of a participant on the skydive, which makes it more enjoyable. “Also,” added Strong Enterprises, “heavier students equal more heavily loaded canopies, which require more energy to steer and land. Tandem instructors should conserve their energy during the canopy flight for landing. An easy way to do that is to allow the students to help steer.”
On the Other Hand...
On the other hand, said Phelps, “In freefall, heavier people are easier than very light people. Heavy people tend to have a built-in arch. Skinny people can act like the feather on a badminton birdie.” However, Phelps stresses that students being able to lift their legs and land safely is far more important than the instructor enjoying an easy freefall.
And although heavier students make steering and flaring harder for the instructor, sometimes the extra weight is helpful. Gibson said, “On windy or turbulent days with thermal activity, I feel more comfortable and confident landing with higher wing loadings.”
Most tandem instructors will agree that it’s not the weight they are concerned about but whether the student is athletic. Phelps said, “I’d rather take a fit 225-pound person than a sedentary 190-pounder.”
In its “Tandem Harness Notice” (available under the Support tab at unitedparachutetechnologies.com), United Parachute Technologies stressed the importance of fitting the student harness correctly prior to boarding the aircraft and made clear that there are no exceptions to this directive. UPT added, “If the student is ‘wide,’ it is important that the main lift web be moved further to the sides of the passenger. If the main lift web is too forward it leaves a bigger hole for the buttock to slide out. Make sure all straps are tightened, including the horizontal back strap and the diagonal back strap, prior to boarding the aircraft.” The company added that use of a Y-strap (an additional strap on the back of a student harness) increases the effectiveness of a poorly adjusted harness, but only somewhat. The company stated there are people with certain body types who cannot safely make a tandem jump. “Not everyone is capable or physically suited to make a tandem skydive,” said the Sigma manufacturer. “You can say ‘no.’”
Via e-mail, Strong Enterprises stated its student harnesses were not designed for average body types, but for small to extra-large sized people. The Y-strap modification that keeps students from slipping in the harness is required on all Strong passenger harnesses. (Kits sell for $45, or they can be installed at the factory for $140). Strong Enterprises concluded, “The limitations of the harness should be obvious when dressing the student.”
The size of the average American is getting larger, but this doesn’t hold true for all. Gibson shared the good news that he has had three students on separate occasions who went skydiving as a reward for losing 100 pounds. One even went on to make more than 500 jumps.
And the story of Mike Driedger also has a good ending. He found a drop zone that has weight restrictions but carefully considers exceptions. Driedger, who is 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 250 pounds, was checked out and deemed fit to jump. He and a few other employees who couldn’t jump earlier drove to the drop zone together.
Was Driedger excited during the trip to the drop zone? “No. I thought for sure something else would come up to prevent me from jumping,” he said. Understandably, Driedger didn’t want to get his hopes up so high again only to have them crushed. But soon enough, Driedger and his co-workers geared up in their harnesses.
During the whole ride to altitude, Driedger had many questions for his instructor. “I was interested in what the handles were for and how things worked. The whole thing was so cool I just wanted to know.”
Probably the only thing Driedger was not ready for was having his legs dangling outside the aircraft while his instructor was still inside. Putting his complete trust in his instructor, he said, “I turned my head to look at my instructor, and I thought, ‘Oh, OK.’” He smiled and shook his head as he recalled the jump. Obviously the experience made a deep impact. Interestingly, it wasn’t just the jump that utterly struck Driedger. He was incredulous of the job of tandem instructor, the technical knowledge of a complex rig, the skill of flying a canopy and the privilege of jumping repeatedly and getting paid for it!
And Driedger witnessed a phenomenon he could not believe: the turn-around load. He commented, “I couldn’t believe that right after we landed, my instructor got a different parachute, put it on and went up again with someone else! They have the best job in the world.”
About the Author
Musika Farnsworth, A-20569, has been jumping since 1992 and has a Bachelor of Arts in social sciences. She lives in Vancouver, Washington.