Monday, October 4, 2021

Flying without the wheelchair (skydiving)

Flying with Vlad at Skydive Snohomish

I thought that my favorite quote was from Mal Reynolds, Captain of the Serenity (Firefly). Recently, I discovered that his quote was actually a bastardization of a statement by Martin Luther King, Jr. Putting the two together creates my own meaningful sentiment, "If you can't fly, then run; if you can't run, then walk; if you can't walk, then crawl; if you can't crawl, find someone to carry you." Although, based on recent experience, I might just change that to "If you can't walk, then fly!"

I have always wanted to fly and dreamed of flying. Loss of mobility has only strengthened that desire, and I can't wait until jetpacks become de rigueur. In the meantime, though, I content myself with flying down hills in my wheelchair, with occasional ventures into flying down snow-covered hills or across water. I've never had any desire to try sky diving .................... until now!

I am fortunate enough to have access to an Adventure Club at the local MS Center. I call them my adrenaline enablers, since they sponsor adventures for people with MS -- usually including modifications for people in wheelchairs. Several years ago, they advertised an outing to the local indoor skydiving center, and it was open to people in wheelchairs. As I said, I had never been interested in skydiving, but I feel compelled to take advantage of any opportunity given to people in wheelchairs, so I joined them at iFLY in Tukwila, WA, a suburb south of Seattle.

Admittedly, it was a challenge to put on the required flying suit and earplugs, but I had someone to help me, and the staff were very helpful, as well. The flyer enters the transparent vertical tube with the assistance of 2 iFLY staff members. In order to simulate the free-fall of skydiving, a huge fan is turned on, forcing air from the bottom to the top of the tube, holding the flyer aloft. Depending on the flyer's position, s/he moves in different directions. The basic flying position involves arching the back, so that the hips are the lowest point, with the head and feet up high. Those of us with no control over our lower limbs need not fear; iFLY has created a contraption that holds a flyer's legs in that raised position. The flight was short -- only a few minutes -- and I was lucky enough to do it twice. At the end, I was completely exhausted and dehydrated, but overjoyed. In fact, I was so excited about this experience, that I did it another time.

Skydive Snohomish

Fast forward several years. The same MS Adventure Club sent out a notice about actual skydiving, including spaces for people in wheelchairs. There was again this compelling feeling that if someone offered an opportunity for wheelchair-users, I ought to take advantage of it. This was now combined with a love of flying, a memory of a fantastic time at the indoor center, and the knowledge that the free-fall part was not a stomach-dropping fall. Daunted by Covid the first year, I signed up the second year, and I was happily rewarded.

We went to Skydive Snohomish at Harvey Airfield in Snohomish, WA, a town just north of Seattle.
The front door was not wheelchair-accessible, but the staff were waiting for me, and they directed me to a side door, which was accessible. The restrooms were outside, next to the staging area. There were several unisex rooms, and the first one was designated "accessible." I suppose it was, because I could get to and inside of it with my wheelchair, and there was a grab bar on the side wall. However, the room was narrow, so I couldn't turn my wheelchair with the door closed, and I couldn't fit the chair to the side of the toilet.

The first step was watching an video, which went through the basic positions and procedures of tandem skydiving -- including preparation, flying to altitude, free-fall, parachuting, and landing.

Getting strapped in before 
the jump

We then went outside to the staging area, where we were strapped up (we didn't put on the usual flight suits or helmets, due to Covid) by the tandem instructors. For wheelchair users, they had additional straps, so that the tandem instructor could pull up on our legs when it was time to land. My tandem instructor, Vlad, did everything pretty much by himself: lifted me out and back in to my wheelchair, rolling me from side to side on the ground in order to fasten all of the straps. He had obviously done this before. It was quick and easy. Since I am used to people poking and prodding me, it didn't even seem intrusive.

All strapped in,
including the special
straps for the instructor to 
pull up my feet for landing.

The plane and my
team of helpers.

We boarded the plane in small groups, with some people waiting in the staging area. The plane
made continuous trips to transport
jumpers to the sky, making the entire operation seem like an efficient factory. It made me think, "How bad could this be, if all of these people were doing it?"In order to get in the plane, I backed my wheelchair up to it, just below the opening, and two staff members lifted me up into the plane, then helped me to the proper sitting position.

On the plane
We all sat on the floor, in-between the legs of the person behind. I was in the front of that chain, right by the open door, so I would be able to get out of the plane first and easily. The flight itself was noisy, but short.
During the flight, the tandem instructors attached themselves to us.

When we reached altitude, my instructor and I opened the door and rolled out, while the others scooched forward. There was no moment of hesitation, because we were attached to the instructors, and they quickly rolled out.

The free-fall was in fact similar to the indoor skydiving experience, and the tandem hook-up seemed to keep us in position. The only negative part of the experience was that -- despite swallowing and breathing out -- my ears were blocked and a little painful.

After a minute or two, the parachute opened with a jolt, and we spent a couple of minutes gliding and turning under parachute.

All too soon, it was time to land. Almost all of us first-timers landed gently on our butts. My instructor was able to pull on the special straps to raise my legs, so that I didn't get them tangled in the landing.

The staff brought my wheelchair out to the landing spot, and after removing the parachute, they lifted me into my chair. It was a short and level roll back to the building. As with indoor skydiving, I was exhausted, deaf, and parched, yet overjoyed, after my flight.

The entire experience was fantastic! The efficient and smoothly-run organization was staffed by extremely helpful, friendly, and knowledgable staff. I was able to communicate my needs and concerns before the flight day. Nobody looked surprised to see a wheelchair in their midst. Vlad, my tandem instructor, inspired the utmost confidence, with his skydiving experience, positive attitude, and helpful approach. I might wish the restroom were larger (I think I would advise simply avoiding it, if possible), but that was a minor inconvenience in a wonderful day. The only really challenging part for me was the speed and noise which guided the event from the moment the training video ended through the landing. I guess my advice would be to be prepared for that, and to voice any concerns to your instructor before you are strapped in (don't assume that s/he has any prior knowledge). Hopefully, the club will sponsor skydiving again next year, as I am already hoping to fly again.

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