"Skydiving dangerous?" Jack Guthrie smiled. "The most dangerous part of your skydiving experience," he explained, "will be driving home from the airport."
And he should know. As chief instructor and operator of Cedar Valley Freefall at Cedar Valley Airport, Guthrie has been skydiving for more than 20 years. My jump with him was his 197th tandem jump.Statistically, the dangers are low - much lower than riding in a car. Of 2 million jumps last year, there were 16 fatalities. Eight of those occurred among students, jumpers who had not yet performed the requisite eight jumps to certify as a skydiver. Eight were experienced skydivers.
Tandem jumping is a newer form of skydiving. It is different from skydiving solo and it offers an initiation to the skydiving experience. For many, it precedes the "assisted freefall, during which the student is secured by two instructors during freefall until his chute is released."
John Coffman, a dual tandem master certified for both the Strong and Vector rigs, believes that the tandem jump is becoming an essential part of training for the beginning skydiver.
"I would recommend the tandem jump for anyone who wants to learn to skydive. I would hope that someone who jumps tandem will want to jump again."
Little is required of the student, but a limited rehearsal lets the student know what to expect during the jump. Climbing out of the plane is rehearsed on the ground, and the student learns to assume the freefall postion with arms crossed on the chest.
The student is attached to the front of the tandem master's body with a specially designed harness. Hooks secure the two individuals at the shoulder and the hip, with the student's back to the tandem master.
Rigs for tandem jumps (harness and parachute) are made by Relative Workshop (the Vector system) and by Strong Enterprises. These manufacturers require that the tandem master train and certify with them in order to use their harnesses. The tandem master is then only certified to jump tandem using that type of harness.
Coffman often photographs Guthrie jumping with tandem students. He jumps with 35mm camera and video camera mounted on his helmet and films the event from start to finish.
Cedar Valley's $85 fee for a tandem jump includes the tandem orientation, equipment, and the flight up to 9000 feet. In addition, the tandem student takes home Coffman's color photos and a videotape of the jump.
Many people who are interested in skydiving don't realize the time and effort certification requires. According to Guthrie, about 300 students begin skydiving classes at Cedar Valley each year, and only about six of those, or two percent, actually certify as skydivers.
Almost everyone is curious about skydiving, but "only about one percent of the population will act on that curiosity," according to Guthrie. "Skydiving is taking your life into your hands. People who do it must trust themselves."
"Tandem jumping, on the other hand, will appeal to maybe ten percent of the population," says Guthrie. "It offers more control and greater safety for the beginner. We try to control all the variables."
Guthrie says that for him, the appeal of skydiving is in the "grace under pressure, and an addiction to the surge of adrenalin that comes with jumping. Once you're hooked, it's hard to go a week without jumping at least once."