How to Dance With the Nylon in the Pale Moonlight
Setting Yourself Up for a Great Night Jump
If you’re squaring up to the requirements for your D license, there’s a good possibility that those jumps are causing a bit of nail-biting. Steve Woodford—the organizer of many funnel-free, injury-free, collision-free big-way-milestone night jumps—is here to tell you not to worry.
He should know, as he has more experience with night jumps than almost anyone else on the planet. Woodford organized a two-point 42-way at Skydive City Zephyrhills in Florida in 1997, a two-point 49-way at Skydive the Ranch in Gardiner, New York, in 1999 and a one-grip-missing-on-the-second-point 50-way at Skydive Elsinore in California in 2000. Although all these achievements are unofficial (USPA did not recognize night records until last year), the 50-way set a high standard … and one that has stood unmet for 16 years. Woodford also organized the official Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Record for Largest Night Formation Skydive, a 40-way at Skydive Arizona in Eloy in November 2016, once the category was adopted internationally. “No one else seems eager to organize them,” Woodford laughs. “Though there are fringe benefits. On that Ranch [jump], DZO Billy Richards said that if we built it on the first attempt, the jumps would be free. We did it, and he stuck to his word!”
Woodford’s experience with night jumps isn’t just more comprehensive than most, it’s also much, much longer. “I did my first night jump in the Airborne in 1967, a week before my 18th birthday,” Woodford remembers. “It was from a C-47 from 800 feet. There was no moon. I sensed the ground coming more than saw it. I PLF’d, stowed the gear and ran off. I loved it. I received my wings for that jump. I’ve enjoyed night jumps ever since, especially the visuals on the big-ways.”
“They are not anywhere near as scary as people imagine,” Woodford counsels. “If you educate yourself ahead of time, get the right gear together and listen carefully to the briefing, you’ll be fine. Discipline (and sticking to the plan) works.” In that spirit, here are a few facts to help you psych yourself up for the after-dark skydiving experience:
You won’t be the only person on the plane looking a little, well, peaky.
It’s very likely that the other folks on the load are seriously out of practice with their after-hours skydiving game. Night jumps are infrequent happenings, after all, so skydivers are less familiar with (and less proficient in navigating) the new environment. And—since you can’t physically take in the information as quickly and efficiently as in the daytime—it takes more time to react to each situation as it arises.
The world just looks different.
When you’ve been making eight jumps a day at a certain drop zone for the past two weeks (or two decades, for that matter), you start to get to know the terrain like the back of your hand. Even upside-down and backward, you know immediately where you are: a baseball field over here, an L-shaped building there, the way two major roads cross each other at a certain point. You learn to triangulate the colors and corners of the map below you and orient yourself accordingly.
When the lights are out, it’s a whole different game. The colors are gone. The contours of fields and waterways suddenly disappear, leaving you with a general impression of the picture without the detail. (For instance: It’s easier than you think to mistake a creek for a road.) Even if you know the drop zone below you really well, the night visual is likely to throw you off.
When there’s a night jump on, you can expect the drop zone to make special arrangements to help skydivers point out the spot—say, arranging a line of cars, headlights on, to illuminate the landing area—but it’s still something of a challenge to find the landing area when you’re hanging your head out the door at full altitude. Be prepared for that.
You’ll see the world with a whole new pair of eyes.
The way you see the world when it’s bathed in ambient light and the way that you see the world without it are two very different beasts. Those beasts don’t really get along, as it were, and much of the pre-jump prep you can expect to do for a night skydive has to do with making sure that your “daylight eyes” don’t get in the way.
You know how when you take a picture of your cat, its eyes seem to burn from within? Despite what may be much evidence to the contrary, that isn’t a marker for demonic possession; it’s a result of the reflective tissue layer called the tapetum lucidum. The eyes of lots of nocturnal and deep-sea animals have this feature that allows the light that has already been through the retina once to reflect back through the retina a second time, giving the reduced amount of incoming light a second chance to encounter the light-sensitive cells in the retina, thereby increasing the amount of light available for the vision process.
Humans don’t have this. When the lights first go out, we use our scotopic vision processes to see in black and white (and in low-res at that). Think of it as trying to watch “The Godfather” in black and white on your grandma’s first TV … not an ideal way to make a skydive.
Vision at night is never going to be as detailed as vision in daylight conditions, but we need the photoreceptive cells in our eyes at their relative best to make the necessary calculations. To do so, we need to commit to a light-free adaptation period. During that adjustment period, the proteins that drive our higher-resolution vision can regenerate. Any bright light we’re exposed to resets the waiting period.
The photoreceptive parts of your eyes consist of cone cells and rod cells and photosensitive retinal ganglion cells. (Ganglion cells were discovered in the 1990s. They don’t actually contribute to sight; they work the aperture through pupillary reflex and help define the sleep cycle.) Cone cells are able to regain maximum retinal sensitivity in 9-10 minutes of darkness; rods require 30-45 minutes to do so. Even a brief flash of white light can blind you again. Your night-jump prep will certainly require you to sit in the dark for a while without looking at your phone. It’ll be tough. Be ready.
For decades, many have believed that red light is not as desensitizing, which is why you’ve seen those movies that show military ships using red lights for night operations. However, there is recent controversy about how useful red light really is in protecting night vision. Caution advised.
Oh … and there’s more. Night vision can be quite seriously affected by hypoxia. Night vision acuity can also take damage from carbon monoxide exposure (so watch those exhaust fumes), from deficiency of Vitamin A in the diet and from prolonged exposure to bright sunlight. Also, hypoglycemia (low blood glucose level) makes vision blurry even at normal light levels. At low light levels, it can be a serious added risk for worsened vision.
Your eyes aren’t going to be the team players they usually are.
Stereopsis, the scientific term for the way your eyes work together to allow your brain to perceive depth, is pretty magical stuff. How the brain manages that—combining stereo sound, motion, vergence angle and single-eye cues to sense your motion and object position in a 3-D environment—remains an area of active research in vision science.
As a skydiver, you’re carrying on that research every day at the drop zone. After all, without stereopsis, landing becomes a whole different bucket of fish. On a night jump, suffice it to say, that bucket is going to be dumped right over your head, because when you’re landing at night, your capability for stereopsis is highly impaired. Especially when you’re landing a highly loaded, zippy parachute, the lack of light can create a seriously challenging situation with quite a small margin for error.
All that said, Steve Woodford is right—you shouldn’t let a night jump make you too nervous. Add a few tips to your arsenal and you’re ready to play vampire.
Before you’re on a call:
• Find out how much light—and of what kind—your drop zone requires you to wear. Your shopping list will likely include a bunch of fresh glow sticks (or EL wire), duct tape and one strobe light that can be turned on easily under canopy. (Bonus: You can re-use all that stuff for Burning Man. Whoop!) Oh—and if your altimeter lights itself up, turn it on in a dark space early in the jump day to be sure its batteries are still strong.
• Take extra care in packing yourself a nice parachute. You’ll thank you later.
• Make sure you’re present in time for the night-jump briefing, when the Safety and Training Advisor will go over your particular drop zone’s procedures for riding in the plane, exit, opening separation, behavior under canopy and landing.
• Know the plan for every group in the airplane. Make sure your mobile phone is charged and off airplane mode with the ringer set to high. (Just in case anybody needs to find you in a cornfield.)
As you board the plane:
• Take note of the wind direction. If you’re near a large body of water or a mountain range, you’re likely to see a 180-degree change in wind direction after sundown due to the katabatic effect triggered by the temperature drop.
• Plan for more time between exits than normal to help ensure adequate space between groups. Use multiple passes if necessary.
• Plan for both successful and funneled exits so everyone in the formation has an idea of what to do whether the group is together or scattered about the sky.
• Start with smaller formations and then move to larger formations on subsequent night jumps once you’ve become more accustomed to the new environment.
At pull time:
• It’s not a bad idea to plan a deployment altitude 500 feet higher (or more) than normal to help ensure that all jumpers have adequate time under canopy to figure out a safe descent into the main landing area.
• Stagger the deployment altitudes within each group. Those with the lightest wing loadings should deploy highest and those with the highest wing loadings should deploy lowest, which will assist with separation under canopy through the entire descent.
• Pull at the planned altitude—no higher, no lower. You need all the separation you can get.
• Don’t collapse your slider. That annoying flapping noise works in the sky like loud Harley pipes work on the streets, making sure the whole neighborhood knows you’re around.
• Turn on that strobe light. You’re your very own disco party now, buddy.
• Don’t spiral. In fact, don’t do any maneuvers that lose altitude. Keep that vertical separation as a treasured security blanket, and leave off the S-turns and hook turns in favor of behaving as predictably as possible. (More than a few near misses on night jumps have been caused by one spiral-happy nincompoop.)
• And definitely don’t do any crazy avoidance maneuvers to avoid that black canopy that has suddenly appeared directly below you. Your pre-jump briefing will certainly include a thorough address of the “shadow effect,” when the full moon throws a hapless jumper’s shadow on the ground below, and the jumper pounds into the ground to avoid it, thinking it’s another jumper. Many a jumper has broken a bone in this manner. Don’t let it be yours.
• Be mindful of the light. Most drop zones will illuminate the landing area by facing a line of evenly spaced cars, headlights on, into the wind. Your strategy here is to fly a pattern that passes you over the cars high enough to miss them without overflying the lit landing area. (Since those friendly white headlights will have “reset” your eyes, as we talked a bit about before, overshooting the landing area is generally a bumpy prospect.)
• Look at the horizon not the ground as you’re setting up your flare. Looking down will distort your vision and trick you into mistiming your flare (which will definitely ruin your video and maybe your jumpsuit).
• Check in with manifest. Whether you land on or off, the drop zone needs to know you’re back and safe. Once you’ve done that, rejoice, because the beer light is definitely green now.