Above: Photo by Kristian Caulder.
If you’re a new jumper, you’ve probably had an instructor or other experienced skydiver tell you to slow down and focus on the fundamentals on your belly before you start exploring other disciplines. You should listen. Although being told to focus on belly skills can feel like a roadblock, once you realize that they are the foundation for every type of skydiving, you’ll understand that belly skills are more of a stepping stone.
Want to be an angle flyer like those in a cool formation you saw? Learn to fly relative to others on your belly first. World champion skydiver and longtime instructor Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld summed it up best, asking, “If you can’t fly relative to someone sitting still, how are you going to fly relative to someone who is moving?” The skills you learn on your belly—how to fly relative, approach a formation with patience and take a dock—will translate. And if you can’t approach a formation safely at 120 mph, why would you want to try and do it at freefly speeds? Learn it on your belly. Get really good at it. Then take that foundation with you to the next thing, whatever it may be.
A common misconception is that once you’ve earned your A license you have mastered belly fundamentals, but that’s not the case. Getting a skydiving license is more about safety than performance. While safety should always remain number one, you now have to learn how to perform around other people in the sky. This starts with the exit. Learn to utilize the relative wind and actually fly out the door. Whether performing a linked exit or “freeflying the exit” (exiting unlinked), you have to fly; you can’t just fall out. Tumbling out of the plane can burn a ton of altitude and get you really off level with the other people on your jump.
Make sure you can perform stable, confident solo exits before chunking (exiting linked with one or more people). When you do start launching linked exits, understand that everyone has a role and specific way they should fly their slots from the door to the first point. You don’t just hold on for dear life on exit, you learn to fly the hill. If you find yourself with door fear, try to think about it as entering the sky, not leaving the plane. Now, confidently make your entrance!
The next thing you’ll need to work on is levels. Matching fall rates can be a challenge for new jumpers. The instructors you flew with probably have a wider fall-rate range than most fun jumpers, and they probably were meeting you halfway. If you are a bigger person and were falling at 135 mph during your AFF program, you’re going to have to learn to slow it down by wearing clothing that increases drag or changing your body positioning (usually both) to fly with others. The opposite is also true. Lighter individuals will have to reduce drag, arch harder, wear weight or use a combination of the three to increase their speeds and fly with a wider range of newly found friends. Always dress for success.
Next comes docking. Now that you know how to fly at your fall rate and match other people’s fall rates, you will begin to take docks differently than you did in AFF, and with more people. Don’t rely on holding onto others to keep you in the formation. You are responsible for flying your own slot. If you drop your grip (let go of the formation) you should not move horizontally or vertically in your slot. Here’s a great exercise: build a formation, drop grips and see if anyone backslides, sinks or floats, then adjust fall rates or body positions if needed, and rebuild.
Learn to dock correctly before diving and chasing a formation. It is easier to dock on a group or break into a formation if you’ve learned how to dock properly from nearby. One way to practice this skill is to make a linked exit, let go and then fly back. Another is to fly the exit unlinked and let the experienced jumpers make the approach. Set a stable base, let them build on you and then break out and fly to a new slot, staying as close to the formation as you can without getting in anyone else’s way.
Once you can get to your grips from close to the formation, then learn to dive. If you’re a first diver coming out next to a linked exit, dive toward the wing, keeping your head high to maintain altitude above the group for an efficient approach. If you are one of the last divers or no one is linked, dive toward the tail, keeping your eyes on the base with your head low and feet on your butt (like going down a slide head-first), because the formation will be lower and farther away. Note that you will build up speed in a dive, so you will have to slow down long before you get to formation level. Use a “stadium approach,” where you get close but stay a little high and outside, then slow down or stop to evaluate where you are and the speed of the base and everyone around it. Stay above the formation and slowly move closer to level the closer you get to the base.
Once you are next to the base, utilize LSD: level, slot, dock. First get on level, then fly to your slot, then dock. This allows you to stay on your side of the formation and avoid crossing paths with other divers so you can make a safe approach with a smooth dock.
Next comes practice, repetition, taking a variety of grips (arm or wrist, outside of the leg, inside of the knee), varying formation size and different people on the jumps. Take turns being the base and getting to the base. Once you can perform your job on every jump in a belly orientation, you can think about moving on to other disciplines like tracking or freeflying.
Moving on before you understand and can actually perform the fundamentals will hinder you later on if you decide you want to teach, get on big-ways or compete in a belly event, as you won’t have the fundamental flying skills required to do so. You may also find yourself in a position where you can physically hurt yourself or someone else if you don’t safely know how to make an approach or take a dock on a formation and you start trying to do so at faster speeds on freefly or angle jumps.
Slow down, have fun, learn the fundamentals and allow skydiving to be part of your life for a very long time.
Julianne Grau | D-40369, Coach and AFF Instructor
San Antonio, Texas