If you’re a newly qualified AFF instructor or interested in getting your rating, this article is for you. AFF Instructor Julianne Grau shares her experiences on the qualification course and lessons she has learned jumping with real students...
Things I wish I didn’t learn the hard way
Becoming an AFF instructor is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Training courses can vary but I found myself in an AFF course with a very talented examiner who knew me well. This was good and bad. It was great because he knew what I was capable of. He knew what I had to give on every jump and would ask me for more. This created an environment where I genuinely became a better skydiver on every single jump in the AFF course. It sucked because it was hard. Like, really, really hard. It made it feel like I wasn’t capable of doing what was asked of me nearly 20 times in a row. It almost broke me. After “failing” all those jumps I pulled my examiner aside and told him, “with all due respect, I’m done with this course, I’m going live now, and if I don’t make the cut, this just isn’t for me.”
What I failed to see at the time is how the jumps leading up to the live scored jumps were training me to be a better, more aggressive, more confident flyer than I ever thought I could be. I was taught skills to stop spins, roll students off of their back, and fly a slot like you would not believe. I found myself more than prepared for the examination jumps because of how high of a standard I had been held to in training.
That said, I was still not ready for AFF. I don’t know if anyone is. I think becoming an AFF instructor is kind of like having a kid. There is no right time and no matter how much knowledge or related experience you have, you’re never really ready. Students can come up with situations you were never trained for and leave you thinking fast and sometimes scratching your head.
I’m grateful my dropzone at the time (Skydive Spaceland San Marcos) had a transition program where a senior instructor comes with you on your first handful of AFF jumps. I needed them there more than once. I made all the rookie mistakes, lost my grip out the door, released a student who was not stable. Boy, was I glad there was a senior instructor there to save my ass when shit hit the fan. I was able to dial it in and the senior instructors who were here when I was first starting out were so helpful in growing my knowledge base, skill set, and helping me not make the same mistakes twice.
I was lucky enough to learn some mistakes by design watching other instructors struggle with their first jumps too. Chasing students too low, AAD fires, two outs, way too low pulls. I did learn a lot of the lessons by watching others, but not all of them.
Here are the lessons I learned the hard way that I hope can help other instructors not make the same mistakes…
1. Red flags
Always, always, always look for red flags in the air. If your student jumps out on a first jump and forgets to practice touch, they might have forgotten everything. Expect them not to pull if they forget the dive flow. When it’s time to “lock on” if they look over and look away, they’re not locked on. They’re not going to pull. Get ready to pull for them.
2. Sometimes pull higher
Raise up pull altitudes if you need to. If you’ve never jumped with a student or if you don’t know what they’re going to do in the sky, give yourself and them a 500 feet buffer window. If they mess up and don’t pull, you know early and can still get them and yourself a parachute at a reasonable altitude. I’ll also do this on busy days if I think we are going to be in the back of the plane, opening farther away than normal, and possibly need some extra time to get home. Let them know it has nothing to do with their performance. You’re trying to set you both up for success and you’d rather have the altitude and not need it, than need it and not have it.
3. Extra altitude helps
The same goes for the turn and track. If it’s their first time turning away, give them an extra 500 feet for the turn so they have time to get stable and really lock onto a heading before they fly away. It takes the pressure off and allows them to breathe and enjoy a smoother bottom-end sequence. Use words, like “turn and look at something way out on the horizon, then fly at it”. Make sure they’re not looking down, they can fishbowl track and maintain their heading if they’re looking down, I promise.
4. Watch landings
Make students watch tons of landings before attempting to land their own parachute for the first time or in different wind conditions than they’re used to. Talk to them about what people are doing right and what people are doing wrong. Watching 20 landings and getting pointers on all of them is the next best thing to getting advice 20 times on your own landings. It really creates a frame of reference for something the student has probably never done before. I always make sure I’m confident that my student can land themself if something happens to me or our radio before ever sending them up. Radios are great, and usually work, but should always be treated as a back-up for a solid plan agreed upon between the student and the instructor prior to take off.
5. Death grips on exit
GET A DEATH GRIP on the harness for the linked exit. All the way up, on the wrist if you have to. I physically block the door while I get my grip, once I have it, I make room for the student to climb out. Never trust their count and when they do leave, do not jump off the plane, jump at their other gripper (or yoke) and get your second grip right out the door. If anything goes south out the door you have both grips and should be able to outfly your student.
6. Set a weight limit
Have a weight limit! Be realistic with yourself and your flying capabilities. I weigh 125lbs, I’m about 150 out the door. I have a strict linked exit weight limit of 190lbs. I know I can flip, roll, reset, unspin and rollover anyone in my weight limit. 190 with no gear puts someone around 220 out the door. If the shit hits the fan, I need to be able to act, not just get a video of things going wrong. Just because I could fly head down with a student falling fast and get a video of the jump doesn’t mean I can efficiently go in and perform my job should I need to. It works the other way around too. If you weigh 240lbs out the door don’t think you’re going to be hanging out with a girl who’s 120 soaking wet in freefall. Of course, we have tools like weight belts and drag which help, and ideally over time these limits can be expanded, but it’s important to be realistic about what you can do to keep the students and ourselves in a safe and constructive environment to learn.
7. Release slowly
Slowly loosen your grip before release. Don’t just let go of your death grip. First, lighten the grip, then grip with just fingers, then let go of arms, and lastly hip grip. Slowly loosening the grip eases the student into feeling freefall on their own. They should earn their release with stability and responsiveness to signals. Make sure they do one altitude check with the loose grip before you let go to see if it makes them unstable. More than once I’ve seen a super-stable student go into a turn/spin on the first altitude check after being released.
8. Pull time is Show Time!
Be close at pull time. Always. I once had a student pull the hackey three-quarters of the way out on our tenth jump together. Nine times he had executed the pull perfectly and on the tenth, his hand slipped and he panicked. He did not execute EPs, he froze. Thankfully I was close and had raised his pull altitude up so I had time to get his hackey and my own at reasonable altitudes.
9. Fix mistakes on the ground
What happens on the ground will happen in the sky. If your student rushes the count on the ground, they will rush it in the sky. If they have a weird cadence on the ground, they will have a weird cadence in the door. If they hold on to the pilot chute in the practice harness, they will do it in the sky. If anything is a little off on the ground, practice it more on the ground and fix it before you ever get in a plane.
10. Be clear with hand signals
Don’t give students signals to make them think. Tell them what you want them to do. Be straightforward. If you want them to pull, tell them to pull, don’t signal “altitude” and expect them to figure it out.
As I’ve stated many times, being an AFF instructor is hard – really, really hard. I don’t know that it’s something you can really ever master as there are so many scenarios that can be thrown at you. Ive been at it for about 18 months now. I have many more lessons to learn and I still have plenty of growing to do. I hope my experiences can help someone out there have an easier transition to becoming an instructor. It may be the toughest thing I have ever done, but it is also one of the most rewarding and I wouldn’t trade a second of my experience for anything easier.