Empowering wounded warriors by teaching them to skydive!
Being an AFF instructor and teaching people how to skydive is a gratifying experience. But some things are more gratifying than others. Teaching previously wounded soldiers that are now facing challenging disabilities to skydive by themselves is one of those things.
The act of skydiving with these amazing individuals is a challenge in itself, to which I will elude later. To get these people ready to jump is a whole separate and challenging endeavor.
When you and I would like to learn how to skydive, we sign up for AFF at a DZ, show up, follow the First Jump Course, get handed the right size gear and off we go. That is not the case with the people we get to jump with in this program.
Operation Enduring Warrior
Operation Enduring Warrior (OEW) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to honor, empower and motivate wounded military and law enforcement veterans through physical, mental and emotional rehabilitation. One of their programs is skydiving. Talk about physical, mental and emotional rehab right?! As we all know, the feeling of skydiving is amazing, magical, fulfilling, super special, liberating, challenging, gratifying… the list goes on and on.
OEW facilitates skydiving training for these individuals at different locations in the country, but the physically most challenged skydivers-to-be get sent to AXIS Flight School located at Eloy AZ. Their exciting journey starts with the expert instructors and founders of AXIS Flight School, Brianne Thompson and Niklas Daniel.
Preparation – Tunnel
The journey starts with tunnel. Lots of tunnel. Brianne and Nik are very experienced tunnel instructors and usually spend hours in the Skyventure AZ tunnel with the students, figuring out the unique challenges each student has.
We have students without legs, without arms, with parts of their limbs missing, having prosthetics and all kind of variations. That creates flight characteristics of their bodies that are hard to predict and need to be analyzed and corrected.
After it is deemed possible to jump (usually after the first day of tunnel) the search for gear begins. Sometimes standard gear is used, but most often the students need customized gear. Imagine putting on your gear without legs or executing your emergency procedures with one arm. These challenges are handled by AXIS, OEW and companies like UPT and PD who graciously help out providing AND customizing gear as needed. When the gear arrives, it is usually first used in the tunnel to see how it interacts with the student in freefall.
Tailored First Jump Course
Before the First Jump Course starts, we as instructors have some things to figure out, based on the unique challenges each student brings to the table. For instance, Nik spent numerous jumps figuring out how to unstow both toggles, steer and land a canopy with only the use of his right arm, in preparation for teaching one of our students how to do this. Every First Jump Course is unique and tailored to that specific student and his needs.
And then the jumping starts. (Huge thanks to Skydive Arizona who donates all the jumps.) That’s where I join fulltime. An exciting time. Not just for the students but for us as well. Upper body weight and shape usually tells us a lot, but with (partially) missing limbs the drag and fall rates are extremely difficult to predict. As Dan BC wrote not too long ago in his piece for AFF instructors; err on the light side!!!
And then there is the (unwanted) horizontal movement or staying stable at pull-time with one arm. The backslides the students without legs produce are sometimes at crazy speeds. Lots of hard work for us. All in all, these jumps are some of the most challenging jumps I’ve made as an AFF instructor.
But they’ve also been the most rewarding. The hurdles these guys cross are amazing. And the joy of overcoming their physical disabilities in the challenging sport of skydiving is the best reward for us as instructors.
As a professional soldier myself I can relate to some of the mental scars these men have endured, because of the wars they’ve been in. To help them heal by introducing them to the joys of skydiving and that feeling of ultimate freedom when they finally graduate AFF is nothing short of AMAZING.
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