Features | Oct 01, 2019
Surfing the Skies

Keith Snyder

Skysurfing has experienced a comeback in recent years, and fortunately, the drop zones of the world are helping to keep our skies safe by not blindly allowing just anyone to grab a board and attempt it. Most DZs insist that new skysurfers receive proper guidance from those with experience … and for good reason. Skysurfing is entirely different than traditional skydiving, and therefore jumpers must climb an entirely different set of steps to prepare. Those who approach it logically and with a value for life can do so safely, but as with any sport, it’s wisest not to get ahead of yourself and assume you need no guidance.

Make Sure You’re Ready

The first major consideration before making a skysurfing jump is your canopy. You will be launching yourself from an aircraft with your feet bound, so you’ll want a canopy that is docile and has good openings. You’ll also need to execute a conservative, safe landing. You are not going to perform any rail slides or swoops with the board on your feet, so get that “hold my beer and watch this” mentality out of your head. You want to be 100 percent focused on the landing, and that means getting rid of the deck that is binding your feet together. When landing from your first skysurfing jumps, you’ll want to drop the board at about 50 to 100 feet off the ground. As you become comfortable flying with a board, you can then bring the board in lower to the ground.

Before even thinking of strapping a board to your feet, you’ll need to dial in your upright and backflying skills. You must be able to:

  • fly standing up for an entire skydive
  • flip from your belly and back to a stand
  • consistently demonstrate controlled flight in the upright orientation
  • fly on your back
  • spin at high speed on your back in both directions

Going for a Spin

Before you decide whether you really want to pursue flying with a board, you need to experience a flat spin on your back. If you do not like the idea of spinning on your back or belly in what can be an out-of-control situation, the board is definitely not for you, because you will eventually experience it, like it or not! Being comfortable spinning on your back is an integral part of the approach to learning to fly with a board, so practice high-speed spins in both directions before strapping a board to your feet. You are going to benefit from this experience.

When you jump to experience a spin, do so alone and pay attention to the line of flight so you don’t drift near other groups. Approach the spinning threshold point willingly and in control. During this orientation period, stairstep your exposure levels to the spin. Soon, you’ll be operating with a learned awareness, often without consciously deciding to do so. You’ll become accustomed to the sensations created as your eighth cranial nerve, known as the vestibulocochlear nerve, transmits sound from the inner ear to the brain, affecting your equilibrium. Spinning yields an intense operating environment and learning to operate within that environment is of the utmost importance so that you can accurately assess any situation and safely handle it.

The Short Board

It seems ridiculous to have to state this, but before you make a board jump, make sure your effing shoes are tied! Boards come off your feet for two reasons: because the binding straps are not tight enough over the back of your shoes or because your shoes come off your feet.

You won’t get oriented and comfortable with skysurfing in a single surf. True orientation takes places after about 30 surfs. You should make these 30 or so surfs on a side-stance short board before moving on to a long board with in-line foot-attachment points. Using a short board gives you the ability to recover from any orientation using body-flight skills that are similar to those you already use without a board strapped to your feet. On a side-stance board, you’ll also be able to arch and pull the board in line with the airstream.

You’ll want to deploy your canopy at 5,500 feet for your first few surfs and, after several jumps, gradually bring that down to a hard deck of 4,500 feet. You’ll need the extra altitude since you have an additional piece of equipment to negotiate in the event of an emergency. Malfunctions involving the board require you to cut away the board first, which expends valuable altitude and can cost you your life if you do not account for it.

You should entirely dedicate your first surf to flying in a stable, belly-to-earth position, making right and left 360s and practicing flying in the pull position. At deployment time, it’s important to keep your eyes on the horizon as you fly with your head and upper body above the body’s center of lift. Fully extend your arm 90 degrees from your body to place the pilot chute into the clean airstream. A lazy pull can cause the lines or bag to deflect off the end of the board.

Building Skills

Gradually begin to build your skills, one at a time, just like you did when you were a student skydiver. The first one you’ll need to master after the pull position is performing a front flip to stand on top of the board. To build a strong foundation, thoroughly expose yourself to all orientations while thinking about the axial planes you are surfing. Your goal on the short board is not mastery of form, it is being able to throw a move in any line or direction, recover and fly back on the board.

Before moving to the in-line long board, you’ll want to perfect the following moves on the short board:

  • Face-to-earth, 360-degree flat spins
  • Standing 360s, switching stances
  • Front layouts (single and consecutive)
  • Back layouts (single and consecutive)
  • Back-to-earth, 360-degree flat spins

The most important experience to have on the short board prior to advancement to the in-line long board is the back-to-earth flat spin. Just as you did before you put a board on your feet, spin as quickly as you can in both directions. This will help prepare you for a spin (intentional or unintentional) on the long board, which will be much more challenging to fly out of than on a short board. 

A good foundation in spins and other skills will help you intelligently and safely experience the intensity of long-board skysurfing. No matter your skydiving experience level, getting coaching from an experienced skysurfer will make your learning curve steeper and the experience safer.

About the Author

Keith Snyder, D-18630, has instructed skysurfing since 1996 and has taught more than 250 people how to safely surf the skies. He jumps at Skydive Arizona in Eloy, where he is currently training to break the Guinness World Record for speed and duration mak-ing helicopter (inverted) spins. Those who have questions about skysurfing or who would like to sponsor his record attempts can reach him through his Facebook page under the name Kēbē San.

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