Friday, March 04, 2005

Chemist on a High: For Joan Esson, the Sky's the Limit

by Zinta Aistars - published in April 2004 of Encore Magazine; photo of Zinta skydiving for "research"

“Once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward for there you have been and there you long to return.” –Leonardo da Vinci

All week long, as Joan Esson stands at the front of the analytical chemistry classroom, or sets potions to bubbling in a laboratory, or grades reams of student papers, her thoughts wander from time to time to flying. That moment when the plane climbs towards the setting sun, levels off, and then, most adrenalizing of all, when the door opens midair and there is nothing between Joan and earth but the sensation of taking wing. Release, and Joan is floating, falling from 14,000 feet above the earth, weightless and free.

An assistant professor of chemistry at Kalamazoo College since 2000, Joan loves few things more than teaching, but skydiving is her ultimate high.

“Skydivers really live life,” she says. “We are a breed that would rather die doing something we love than not do it at all.”

Joan has been skydiving for approximately four years, taking the leap of faith 10 to 15 times per weekend—she frequently leaves the classroom on Friday to head for the drop zone and jumps on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—amassing about 200 jumps per year. Her favorite drop zone (a place where parachuting operations take place and usually supplies aircraft, instruction, gear sales and services) is the Napoleon Skydiving Center, located on M-50 and approximately 8 miles southeast of Jackson, Michigan.

“I started skydiving in ’97 or ’98,” she recalls. “A friend of mine was a skydiver, and I initially would just go along to watch him jump. But, believe it or not, I’m afraid of heights. When he encouraged me to give it a try, I thought, no, not me! Eventually I did try… and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

As Joan quickly learned, before leaping from a plane, instruction is needed. Various training methods are available, some requiring hours, others only minutes before the plane door opens. Tandem jumps are the easiest, offering an introduction to the sport without a large investment of time. An experienced jumper, called a tandem master, wears a special harness that attaches to the back of the harness worn by the student jumper. With only 15 to 45 minutes of preparation, most anyone can experience the thrill of skydiving while the tandem master assures the jump is done properly (see sidebar for the author’s description of her first tandem jump).

Two other methods are suited for those who wish to jump solo. Static Line (SL) is a method that has evolved from military parachute jumping. After 4-5 hours of ground training, the student is then taken up to an altitude of about 3,000 feet for the jump. A static line attached to the aircraft deploys the canopy as the student exits the plane by standing on the strut of the plane, then releasing. While tandem jumping allows for about 30 to 50 seconds of free fall, the SL method initially allows for only about 2 to 3 seconds of free fall prior to pulling the ripcord. When the student has made a couple such jumps, he or she is ready to pull the ripcord for themselves—or at least a “dummy” version of the ripcord. After few jumps that demonstrate the ability to pull the ripcord successfully, the student may try their first independent free fall. While initially required to pull the ripcord immediately upon leaving the aircraft, eventually the student is allowed to wait longer to deploy the canopy, allowing for a longer free fall.

Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) is the method preferred at Napoleon Skydive Center. Considered an accelerated learning process compared to SL, ground training takes a few more hours, but the jump is made from a much higher altitude of 10,000 to 14,000 feet, so that already by a second jump the student will experience a 50-second free fall. Two experts, called jumpmasters, exit the airplane alongside the student. The jumpmasters grip the student from either side from the moment of departure to the moment the canopy is safely open overhead. They assist in practicing ripcord pulls, monitoring altitude, and maintaining a stable form in the air. The student pulls his or her own ripcord at about 4,000 feet altitude. Completing 3 levels of instruction and practice jumps, the student can then jump alone, but for the next levels of instruction, up to level 7, a single jumpmaster again accompanies the student to teach turns, forward movement in midair, docking (attaching) to other jumpers to create formations, making loops and various types of exits from the plane.

“I prefer the AFF method,” Joan says. “The sense of freedom I feel when jumping is so different from anything else in life. It’s so hard to describe. There just isn’t anything to compare to it. I suppose why I am still afraid of heights is that I associate that with losing control over my descent, but skydiving, I’ve learned, is to be able to fall through the air with control over my descent, so that I can enjoy every moment.”

Joan has made about 600 jumps since she began skydiving, earning a coaching license to teach others. She works with students who are in the intermediate stage, even while learning more herself. In 2003, she joined a competition team based in Napoleon that competes regionally.

She says, “I’m competitive by nature, so I really enjoy the competitions. We compete by trying to get more points, and by points I mean patterns we create, how fast we connect midair to make points, how well we line up. The higher the level of the competition, the more complicated the maneuvers.”

When the teams initially decide upon a formation, they practice first on the ground. “We call that a dirt dive,” Joan says. Once the maneuver is perfected on the ground, the team goes up to practice in the air. Competitions are then judged for style and accuracy, and those who win at the regional level may proceed to the nationals. Joan and her team are hoping to move up to the nationals within the next year.

“Another thing I love about this sport is the relationships we build with other skydivers. It’s such a diverse group of people. There’s a minimum age requirement of 18 for a first jump, but after that, well, the sky’s the limit. Just a little while ago, I met someone well into their 80’s doing a jump for the very first time! And I meet with many men with a military background of parachuting who return to skydive in later years, to recapture something of a time in their youth.”

Prospective skydivers must be in general good physical shape, strong enough to carry 35 pounds of equipment, flexible enough to maneuver a canopy, sturdy enough to take the shock of landing, and healthy enough to endure sudden temperature changes of about 30 degrees along with atmospheric pressure changes. Weight restrictions in general top off at 230 pounds, with most drop zones unwilling to risk higher weight due to increased risk of injury, but some allow jumps at higher weights if using special gear.

Fatalities? Equipment malfunctions? Pshaw! Joan, like most skydivers, worries little about such probabilities, although they do exist. Statistics show that most skydiving fatalities are due to the jumper not opening their parachute with enough time for a safe landing. Altitude awareness is critical, but it is not always easy to determine how quickly a jumper is losing altitude while in the air. After making many jumps, an awareness of altitude develops, but for those who have not yet developed such awareness, as well as for those who have, an altimeter is an absolute necessity as part of a skydiver’s equipment.

A skydiver jumping from 12,500 feet above ground will accelerate from 0 to 110 miles per hour in about 10 seconds. As dramatic as that sounds, however, keeping in mind that the plane was moving at about 100 miles per hour, the jumper gains only about 10 miles per hour upon jumping. Air pressure quickly balances against the pull of gravity, so that the sensation is not so much one of falling, but rather of flying. Expert skydivers try to increase their time to free fall, before pulling a ripcord.

The second cause of most skydiving fatalities or malfunctions is body position. The principles of free falling are a matter of dealing with two factors: your body, which serves as an airfoil, and the wind. A perfect, relaxed arch with your body parallel to the ground, head and shoulders back, legs bent back at about a 45 degree angle, presents a curve to the wind that will make for a stable fall. To anyone jumping alongside, the skydiver appears to be nearly stationary, as if floating on air. Making turns is done much as an airplane might, by banking to one side or the other, one arm down slightly, the other slightly raised, or by lowering one knee in respect to the other. To speed up, arch more; to slow down, flatten your body.

“Yes, I have had malfunctions,” Joan grins. “Jump enough times, and it will come up at some point. But that’s why we have reserves, and almost every time there is a malfunction of some kind, it is because the skydiver neglected to do something that should have been done,” she admits a little sheepishly. “Scared the hell out of me, though.”

Proper packing of equipment is another “must” for a safe skydiver. When Joan experienced a malfunction, she realized it was due to packing her gear herself and not checking it carefully before going up.

“It was the first time I packed my own gear,” she says. “Most skydivers rent gear, since it can be so expensive, but with all the jumping I do, I finally invested in my own. When I pulled the ripcord, I discovered bad line twists, so I flipped over in the air trying to get the lines straightened out, but… it wasn’t happening. I had to cut away and use my reserve. I thought to myself, ‘I’m not allowed to die today,’ and once I landed, I made sure to go right back up again for another jump. Otherwise I might have frozen up. I did have another malfunction at another time, but I learned from my first malfunction that it was no big deal. That’s why we have reserves.”

Skydiving gear includes what is called a “rig” or sport parachute, which includes two canopies, a main and a reserve, a deployment system of pilot chute, bridle, and bag, canopy, suspension lines, steering lines, toggles, risers, and a harness. Deployment is initiated when the container opens and the pilot chute is carried up into the wind, acting as an anchor while the jumper continues to free fall. The bag is pulled open by the chute’s deployment, and the suspension lines are pulled out and extended at that time, followed by the canopy. Today’s square design of a canopy has no known inherent design malfunctions. The malfunction rate is about one in every one thousand, and nearly all of those are preventable. When a malfunction does occur, a reserve saves the day.

The sport is safe enough that Joan regularly takes groups of her students at Kalamazoo College along for group jumps. “About once a year I take students interested in giving it a try,” she says. “Usually, that means about 10 to 15 students. Although more will always sign up than actually jump!” she laughs.

According to Joan, one of the greatest benefits she sees in those who try skydiving is an increase in confidence. She sees it in her students, and she sees it in herself. “Getting over your natural fear of jumping from a plane at 14,000 feet boosts confidence like few things can. I have seen emotionally withdrawn people open up in their lives after they try skydiving. Any time you conquer a fear, confidence is the reward. That’s why I enjoy teaching so much. Whether in a chemistry lab, or a classroom, or on a drop zone instructing people to skydive, if there’s any thrill nearly as wonderful as the jump itself, it’s seeing my students get excited over taking a risk and trying something new. Even if it is a little scary.”



Zinta's Leap of Faith--It's As Easy As Tripping Over Your Own Feet

Fourteen thousand feet above the earth, the door of the tiny Cessna plane opens. Winds at 220 miles per hour push me with breathtaking force back into the plane, but I fight the push and place a tentative foot onto the small step that juts from the side of the plane.

Nothing but air and clouds below that step.

With a tandem master—an expert parachutist—harnessed to my back and a second parachute, I get ready to take the leap.

Far below, Joan Esson, assistant professor of chemistry at Kalamazoo College, already dove into the clouds, just as she has nearly 600 times before. This time, she brought along 8 students from the College—and me. This is my first jump.

Anything for a story!

Earlier that morning, we stood in a group at the Napoleon Skydiving Center in Napoleon, Michigan, eyeing the sky. We pulled on our jumpsuits and harnesses, strapped canopies to our backs, chattered nervously, and watched the propellers of the Cessna whir into readiness for flight.

“I’ve been jumping for about five years now,” Joan said earlier this morning. “My mother still thinks I’m nuts. It’s taken her this long to be able to just talk about it in casual conversation. She refuses to come out to watch.”

I consider this as I watch clouds underfoot, bracing against the wind, counting the seconds before taking the leap. This is the day my parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, and my own mother was in a horrified snit when she heard about my mad venture. I’m a journalist, I told Mom, this is research. I thought you worked on a computer, she wailed, and you’re going to ruin our anniversary by getting yourself killed! My father was almost too angry to speak to me. I understood the anger was but a father’s fear for his little girl’s safety. I assured him life is full of risks, even when just taking a bath in a slippery wet bath tub, or crossing the street in traffic. He huffs something about “unnecessary and foolish risks” and makes me promise to call as soon as I hit the ground. Softly.

But we all know: children never listen, even when in their fourth decade of life, and so here I stand, on the edge, secretly praying I will not ruin my parents’ anniversary.

I grip the bar from the wing of the Cessna as the tandem master has instructed me and wait for his signal to let go. It comes. We fall. We backwards somersault, and the wind carries us away from the plane that quickly shrinks to a dot overhead. For forty seconds, we free fall, then the tandem master taps my shoulder to indicate it is time to pull the ripcord. I pull. With a stomach-churning wrench, our bodies soar upwards as the canopy opens, and then we are suddenly floating, floating, weightless, free and untethered among the clouds, and the ground below is a beautiful quilt of green and golden fields. For this moment in time, I am suspended in air, feeling the freedom and exhilaration of a bird in flight.

Too soon, we approach ground, and the tandem master signals for me to pull on the toggles at my right and my left, connected to the canopy, and with a gentle tug, we float slowly down towards the grass, landing with a surprisingly gentle touch to the earth.

The students, Joan, and I eagerly compare experiences. Some in the group have jumped already, while others listen with wide eyes, anxiously awaiting their turn. Joan is preparing for yet another jump; her face is as flushed with youthful enthusiasm as those of her students’. During the week, she teaches analytical chemistry, but today she is teaching the chemistry of adventure and flight.

Peeling off my jumpsuit and harness, I prepare to make a call to my parents to let them know I have not ruined their anniversary. Someone hands me a cell phone. My father answers. The relief in his voice to hear mine is palpable. But then, he has bad news: Mom has taken a spill and broken her arm. What?! I howl. How? And on your anniversary yet! He hems and haws for a moment. It seems she tripped on her own feet and took a spill in the kitchen.

Is that a touch of embarrassment I hear in his voice?

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