Free fallin' for fun

Before they jump out of planes, they strap on some gear: the ?rig,? similar to a backpack with both leg and arm straps; the helmet; the altimeter; a pair of goggles; and even a flotation device. The rig holds two parachutes; the main one, and the one they hope they don?t have to use. As for the flotation device, that?s a bit of government regulation. Canton Air Sports is less than one mile away from a body of water.

After a few hours? instruction, they?re ready to skydive.

Every weekend when the weather permits, Mike Jehn, a graduate of the creative writing program and employee of Carnegie Mellon, tries to organize another two-hour drive to Canton Air Sports so that a handful of students can experience skydiving. At Canton, the students can choose between the jump for ?tourists,? as student jumper Ben Chandler calls it, and more intense jumps such as static line or accelerated free-fall. The tandem jump ?doesn?t require a lot of performance,? according to Jehn. The jumper is literally clipped to an instructor ? or ?jumpmaster,? in skydive lingo ? with the jumper?s back against the instructor?s belly. The jumpmaster pulls the rip cord and helps you through the landing, one of the most dangerous points during a dive.

Jehn started out diving static line and then moved on to the accelerated freefall program. He?s made a miniature career out of his hobby. Since he organizes the skydiving trips from Carnegie Mellon he said he ?feels sort of like an employee? at Canton Air Sports. Jehn is also the ?Vice- President of Skydiving? for the CMU Explorers Club, a group that offers opportunities for students to get involved in outdoor activities. Part of the reason he stays around Pittsburgh is so he can be close to his skydiving base. ?I?m thinking about the Peace Corps ... [or] architectural study in grad school,? he said about his future plans, ?but for the time being skydiving is why I?m sticking around.?

He might be hesitant to leave because the transition is a lot like leaving for college, or moving out of the house. ?Each drop zone is kind of a family,? he explained. ?On the macro level it?s kind of a national family. [And] if you?re in the sport for 10 or 20 years you start knowing people from all over the world.?

Rodger Conley, owner of Canton Air Sports and a pilot for over 30 years, echoed the idea of the tight bonds between jumpers, especially at the professional level. ?They all started out calling me ?dad? years ago,? Conley said, ?And now they?re calling me ?granddad.? I got a lot of friends and I love them all.?

Ben Chandler recently took his first step to becoming ?part of the family.? Not surprisingly, he didn?t take a tandem or ?tourist? jump his first time, but instead chose to do a static line jump. Although he has been out to Canton twice, he explained that he has only gotten to jump once due to poor weather. ?Obviously, you can?t jump when you can?t see the landing zone,? he said. Chandler, who is a junior at Carnegie Mellon, says he?s hoping to do static line jumps until he?s proficient.

Chandler sees the jumpers as the type of people he wouldn?t meet every day. ?They are very interesting people that do this regularly. The image I get is sort of ... a privateer or a sailor from 300 years ago.? He attributes the image to the fact that the skydivers deal with life and death decisions all the time. ?You have to have faith that you?ll be able to make a simple decision very quickly,? he said.

?It is a really amazing sensation to be hanging under a canopy at 3000 feet and knowing you have nothing but five pounds of fabric above your head keeping you alive,? said Chandler. Some might call that sensation ?insanity.? But in fact, as Jehn noted, the sport is actually quite safe, although the idea of it may not seem safe.

?Skydiving, especially in the U.S., is an extremely well-regulated sport. Statistically speaking you have a better chance of being killed in a commercial airline crash ... than skydiving,? said Jehn. He noted that usually injuries happen because of a poor landing and not because of more sensationalized events like ?double failures,? when both the main chute and the reserve malfunction.

The big change in skydiving since Canton Air Sports opened in 1974 has been an increase in safety, according to Conley. He described how at first only ?big green military ... parachutes? were used. These chutes were round, whereas today the jumpers only dive with ?square? parachutes. ?We call them squares; they?re actually rectangular in shape,? Conley explained.

On the whole the parachutes used now are safer, and the AAD (Automatic Activation Device) that deploys your parachute automatically if you get to a certain altitude is ?more reliable,? said Conley. He added, ?Back years ago if you had a malfunction on your main parachute you had to ... go back into a freefall before you could release your reserve.?

The sport may have the safety stamp, but that still doesn?t explain why cash-strapped college kids would be willing to pay as much as $259 for a few minutes in midair. Conley thinks the sport attracts college kids because ?they?re younger and looking for excitement.... Young people are best suited for the sport.? But he cautions against thinking that the sport only attracts one demographic, ?We?ve had 90-year-olds jump. We?ve taken paraplegics, also.?

Just the way it feels to skydive may inspire some to do it again and again. Jehn, who has 20 jumps behind him, said the first time he went skydiving he was so thrilled that he talked about it for days afterwards. His favorite jump was one where he got to do two backwards somersaults in midair. In addition to doing two perfect somersaults, he added that, ?It was late in the day and so the sun was setting and the sky had kind of this beautiful mist.?

For Conley, jumping gives him ?a fantastic feeling of freedom.? Although Jehn says he hasn?t seen Conley jump during the times he?s visited Canton Air Sports, Conley has jumped about 800 times. Nowadays Conley spends most of his time piloting the skydiving planes. Although Conley says his business ?hasn?t been very lucrative,? he does believe that it?s been worthwhile. ?Right now the big appeal for me is that people [are] coming in here and discovering this fantastic sport.... They leave here ... with happy smiling faces. It?s kind of contagious.?

Along the way Conley has seen many people who catch the skydiving bug much the way Jehn did. For business to stay good at Canton Air Sports, more people have to become addicted to diving. Conley told the story of one guy who did ? a former employee named Mike Vickers:

?He got his pilot license at my flight school and he wanted me to let him fly jumpers and I said, ?Oh you got to have a commercial license to fly jumpers.??? But eventually, Vickers talked Conley into letting him fly. ?He went on and [eventually] got his commercial license. He was flying his buddies, and they would try to talk him into jumping. He would say, ?Oh, you?ll never get me to jump out of an airplane.? One day I guess he had one too many beers ... and he said, ?Okay, okay, I?ll make one jump just to get you guys off my back,??? Conley recalled. He said that ?naturally? Vickers didn?t jump while intoxicated, ?But a week or so later he made the jump that he promised he?d make. And now he has over 1000 jumps under his belt.?

For someone like Ben Chandler, who has only jumped once in his life, a thousand jumps might seem like an impossible number to achieve. But Jehn insists it is not at all uncommon for those that make a life in skydiving to have jumped several thousands of times. To Chandler, it is enough to do it just once: ?It?s one of those things that always sounds cool but everybody thinks they should do once. It really isn?t that hard,? he said.

Jehn noted that he meets a lot of people that say, ????I always really wanted to do that, I just haven?t gotten around to it ... I was thinking I?d do it later in life.??? Those people are uneasy about committing to a skydive. Others, he said are ?totally gung ho.? It?s a mixed bag in terms of which students will really take to skydiving. But so far, it?s been a successful venture for Jehn. ?Finding people that are interested in going on the trips is certainly not hard,? he noted cheerily.
So while others at Carnegie Mellon get their kicks from video games, intramurals, or napping, a select group of students looks to one place to have fun: the sky.