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Accelerated Freefall (AFF), along with its sister program, Advanced Freefall Program (AFP), is a leading methodology for learning (or teaching others) how to skydive safely. The two other most popular methods for learning how to skydive are tandem skydiving and static line/Instructor-Assisted Deployment (IAD). Each method is quite different in execution, though in fact any progression of teaching will (should!) impart all necessary skills upon the student before sending them off on their own. However, AFF/AFP combines the long freefall experience and instructor safety of tandem jumps with the student-under-canopy experience of static-line jumps while giving the student more directly responsibility for his or her own safety and progression. It is generally regarded that either program teaches the necessary skills to jump safely.

Disclaimer: Specifics of the AFF/AFP programs are, of course, highly dependent upon the (USPA-certified) instructors! Despite the fact that all instructors of any skydiving program have gone through extensive training and must have a wealth of personal experience, individual instructors and dropzones have their own way of teaching, personal lessons to impart, and idiosyncrasies depending on region, the S&TA, the weather, the DZO, etc. All specifics of the program described in the following write-up are based on my personal experience going through the program at my dropzone. YMMV. AFF/AFP is a program devised by USPA; skydiving instruction outside of the USA is something I have no personal knowledge of. The skills taught in any skydive instructional program should match those taught in AFF and AFP.

The program at a glance

So, what is it, anyway? AFF is a complete skydiving course designed to instruct a beginner from their first jump through to their first license. It was first instituted in 1982 as an "accelerated" teaching course (as opposed to then-more-commonly used static line courses) with more emphasis on the freefall portion of the skydive. By the end of the course, you will have everything you need to complete all of your A license requirements. More importantly, you will have everything you need to save your life in the event of an emergency by the time you make your first jump.

AFF consists of ground school, commonly referred to as a First Jump Course, and seven or eight levels of skydives, each slightly more involved or complicated for the last. Each jump has targeted learning objectives or TLO's that must be demonstrated for the student to move on to the next level. Students will have to repeat failed levels until they are passed. Jumps are made with one or two jumpmasters depending on student experience and jump level; jumpmasters are there to give you instruction on body position, watch you to debrief after the jump, help guide you in under canopy using radio contact, and generally provide peace of mind. In the beginning levels, they'll be holding on to your harness during the entire skydive to help keep you stable, and at later levels will intervene only if you become unstable. Pay attention to your instructors; they know what they're doing and they'll teach you how to skydive. They will pull your parachute if you forget, but do not depend on them to do so! Remember, it's you in the parachute up there. If your instructor pulls for you, you automatically fail that level.

What's the difference between AFF and AFP?

Glad you asked. Almost absolutely nothing! Anybody can start AFF at any time (with some exception; some drop zones require one tandem jump before starting AFF), whereas AFP students have completed a tandem progression before starting AFP. In a tandem progression, a student needs to show basic freefall maneuvers and altitude awareness. In general, a tandem progression is about three jumps, and helps the student be more prepared for exposure to freefall in general. Because of this, AFP students will make their first four levels of AFP jumps with one jumpmaster instead of two.

Which is better for me: AFF or AFP?

That's a pretty personal question. Ask your dropzone about prices for each, including the tandem progression that AFP would require. AFF may be less expensive if you manage to not fail any levels, but the first four jumps of AFP are much less expensive in general. AFP also has the added benefit of extra freefall exposure; you'll need some time to overcome sensory overload, which you might just get out of the way by doing AFP instead of AFF. My advice is to do at least one tandem jump and see how you react to it. See how well you dealt with handling motor skills on that jump, consider how important it is to have control of your finer motor functions while you're hurtling toward the planet, and decide accordingly.

First Jump Course

Ground School or the First Jump Course (FJC) will teach you everything you need to know to survive your first skydive. Expect it to take anywhere between 4 and 8 hours. Rule number one of the FJC is ask questions! If at any time you don't understand something, speak up; this is your life, and if you don't know your pilot chute from your cutaway pillow, its expectancy is about 30 seconds.

Topics in the first jump course include:

  • Equipment, including
    • The rig, and identifying its parts
    • The main and reserve Canopy
    • Main and Reserve packing requirements
    • Reserve rigger's seal and packing card
    • Automatic Activation Device (AAD)
    • The three handles: Pilot chute, cutaway, reserve, and the order in which you use them
    • The three-ring cutaway system
    • The three connection points (chest, leg, leg)
    • Equipment inspection and readiness checks
    • Jumpsuit
    • Altimeter
    • Gloves, helmet, and goggles
  • After landing procedures
  • Skydive flow, including
    • Exits
    • Freefall body position
    • Altitude Awareness
    • Freefall communication; i.e. handsignals
    • Pull sequence
    • Canopy control, including
      • Turns
      • Flares and stalling
      • Landing patterns
      • Landing procedure
  • Malfunctions (and what to do about them)
  • Emergency procedures
  • Off-site or emergency landings, including
    • Water landings
    • Power lines
    • Landing in and amongst trees
    • Landing on buildings
    • Landing in high-wind conditions
  • Parachute Landing Falls (PLF)
  • Weather and turbulence
  • Aircraft safety, including
    • In flight instructions and who's authorized to give them
    • Helmet and seatbelt for takeoff, landing, taxi
    • Aircraft emergencies
    • How not to be killed by a propeller

During the FJC, you will be expected to practice and demonstrate emergency procedures in a training harness. There will also be an end-of-course test. After that, you'll prepare for and make your first jump.

The Jumps

Each level of AFF is one jump, requiring about a half-hour to an hour of pre-dive preparation. Generally, a course manual can tell you what maneuvers you will be expected to perform on a dive; know what you need to do! Run through the dive by yourself on the ground before you practice with your instructor. Run through them in your head on the ride up to altitude, and picture yourself doing everything (perfectly) in you mind. Visualization helps.

So you know the dive flow, you've signed up for the jump, and you're with your instructor. Now what? Practice the dive! Tell your instructor what the diveflow is, then dirt dive it. When that's done to your instructor's satisfaction, you'll either get or be given your gear. Do a full gear check before you put it on. Ask about anything that doesn't seem right. Your instructor will do a gear check before you board the airplane and once again before jump run, but don't count on him catching anything you didn't; check everything yourself again, too. Once on jump run, check everything again, take a few deep breaths, and go when your instructor tells you. Skydive and remember to have fun! Land safely, return your equipment, and debrief the skydive with your instructor.

(Please remember that the following dive descriptions are dependent upon your dropzone. Always listen to your instructors!)

Level 1

Level 1 is a lot of new terminology, but luckily, you've just spent roughly six hours in school learning them all. Once the aircraft is on jump run, your instructor will ask if you're ready to skydive. Once you confirm that you are, the dive flow begins.

  • Climb out/Take position
  • Depending on the aircraft you're in, the exit position will be different. For example, on a Twin Otter, you'll be in the door with your hands on the frame, facing forward towards the line of flight. Other aircraft will be different. You'll have practiced this on the ground, so follow your instructor's directions.
  • Hotel Check
  • The hotel check is given to ensure that your instructors are ready and that they know you're about to give the count. Look at your main side instructor (to your right) and yell "Check in!" Make eye contact. After you get an "OK!" back, turn to your reserve side instructor and yell "Check out!" Make eye contact again and wait for an "OK!" back. Start your exit count.
  • Exit
  • The exact exit count depends on the aircraft. Give a count as instructed on the ground and exit the aircraft.
  • Circle of Awareness (COA)
  • It will take you a few seconds to become stable. Once you are, do a Circle of Awareness.
    • Check your heading to make sure you're not turning.
    • You won't have much to do with it just yet, but it's important to start developing heading awareness.
    • Check your altimeter.
    • This is really, really important. Get into the habit of looking at your altimeter about every five seconds. In a stable belly-to-earth position, you fall about 1,000 feet every five and a half seconds. Altitude is your friend, but only for so long - it's very important to know how high (or how low) you are. Check your altimeter after everything you do.
    • Check with your jumpmasters.
    • Check in with your jumpmasters. They may ask you to yell what altitude you're at, or just look at them to check in. Respond appropriately to any hand signals they give you. After you get the okay/thumbs-up from each jumpmaster, move on to the rest of your dive flow.
  • 3 Practice Touches (PRCP)
  • Practice touches are simulation deployments; your goal is to find the hackey connected to the pilot chute that you'll be pulling later. The idea here is to take things as slowly as you need to successfully find the thing so that later on, when you need to find it to actually do something with it, you'll know where it is and can find it in not very much time.
    • Arch.
    • Remember to relax and arch your body. Pull sequences work best when stable.
    • Legs.
    • Putting your legs out a little will help you maintain stability and heading.
    • Reach.
    • Time for some coordination. Reach up and out with your left hand while reaching down to the bottom of your container with your right. Find the pilot chute and grab it; make sure you really have it in your hand.
    After each touch, go back to a neutral body position. After three touches, check your altitude.
  • 2 toe taps
  • Just tap your toes together. The purpose of this is to maintain awareness of where your legs are; make sure your feet actually hit. When you're done, check your altitude.
  • Short circles to 6000.
  • Short circles are COA's without a jumpmaster check. Check your heading, then check altimeter. Repeat. Make sure you still react to hand signals given to you by your jumpmaster(s).
  • Lock on and signal "no more maneuvers" at 6000.
  • Once you reach 6000 ft., shake your head to indicate that you will perform no more maneuvers. "Lock on" to your altimeter and don't take your eyes off it. This may seem a little surprising after all the checking around you just did, but you're only locked on for about three seconds, because next is:
  • Wave off and pull at 5500.
  • Once you reach 5500 ft. (again, about two to three seconds after 6000), wave your hands above your head. This is a signal to any other jumpers in the area that you're about to deploy your parachute, which will (with any luck) make you a slow-moving hazard to anybody in freefall around you. After the wave, do the deployment sequence as practiced earlier.
    • Arch.
    • Legs.
    • Reach.
    • Pull.
    • This is what you didn't do during the PRCP's. Once you've got the hackey in your hand, throw it out into the airstream around you.
    • Check.
    • Start counting while you look up over your shoulder at what we hope is an opening parachute. Parachutes can take five to six seconds to open; if you don't have a good-looking canopy over your head by the end of five or six seconds, something's wrong.
  • Land safely at the dropzone.

The TLO's for level 1 are as follows (bold TLO's must be achieved to move on):

  • Exposure to continuous freefall
  • Heading awareness
  • Focused awareness and attention (COA's)
  • Coordinated body movement (PRCP's)
  • Altitude awareness
  • Solo deployment

A few notes: At this point, being alone in freefall is unsafe. If for any reason you find yourself all alone, pull. If you see your instructor deploy, pull. Finally, your priorities for the end of the dive are:

  • Pull.
  • Pull at the correct altitude.
  • Pull stable at the correct altitude.
  • Land safely.
In other words, if you're below 5500, pull no matter what, even if you're unstable. If you're at 5500, pull no matter what. If you're unstable at 6500, try to get stable before pulling, but pull at 5500 regardless.

Level 2

Level 2 introduces some turning and forward movement. The keys on this jump are to start thinking about arm and leg positions and a stable, relaxed neutral position.
  • Climb out.
  • Hotel check.
  • Controlled exit.
  • COA.
  • 2 PRCP's.
  • If above 6000, maneuvers:
    • 90 degree left turn, followed by altimeter check.
    • Forward movement for 4 seconds.
  • Short circles or repeat maneuvers to 6000.
  • Lock on and signal "no more maneuvers" at 6000. Wave and pull at 5500.

TLO's for level 2:

  • Heading awareness
  • Relaxed body position
  • Trim control: Arm and leg awareness, coordinated movement
  • Altitude awareness
  • Solo deployment

Level 3

Level 3 is hover control: once in freefall, instructors will let go of you. They'll re-dock if you're in trouble, but try to maintain a relaxed body position by yourself.

  • Climb out.
  • Hotel check.
  • Controlled exit.
  • COA.
  • 1 PRCP.
  • 2 toe taps.
  • Short circles and heading maintenance to 6000.
  • Lock on and signal "no more maneuvers" at 6000. Wave and pull at 5500.

Heading maintenance is simple enough in theory; while doing short circles, if you notice a turn, stop it. Keep straight. In practice, this takes good body position. If you notice yourself "chipping" (rocking back and forth), relax and arch. Relaxing is a big part of this; remember to smile during freefall and you'll do a lot better. It's fun! At and after level 3, if you find yourself alone in freefall, do a CIA check. If you are Comfortable, In control (stable), and Altitude aware, continue to your pull altitude. If not, arch and count to five. If you aren't comfortable and stable, pull.

TLO's for level 3:

  • Heading awareness and maintenance
  • Increased leg awareness
  • Hover control
  • Solo deployment

Level 4

As with level 3, you'll be released in freefall, but now you'll also have maneuvers to perform.

  • Climb out.
  • Hotel check.
  • Controlled exit.
  • COA.
  • If above 6000, maneuvers:
    • 90 degree right turn, followed by altimeter check.
    • 90 degree left turn, followed by altimeter check.
    • 90 degree right turn, followed by altimeter check.
    • Forward movement to redock with jumpmaster, followed by altimeter check.
  • Repeat maneuvers to 6000.
  • Lock on and signal "no more maneuvers" at 6000. Wave and pull at 5500.

TLO's for level 4:

  • Start and stop turns on heading
  • Forward movement and docking
  • Solo deployment

Level 5

Level 5 is almost exactly the same as level 4, but the turns are longer in each direction.

  • Climb out.
  • Hotel check.
  • Controlled exit.
  • COA.
  • If above 6000, maneuvers:
    • 270 degree left turn, followed by altimeter check.
    • 360 degree right turn, followed by altimeter check.
    • 360 degree left turn, followed by altimeter check.
    • Forward movement to redock with jumpmaster, followed by altimeter check.
  • Repeat maneuvers to 6000.
  • Lock on and signal "no more maneuvers" at 6000. Wave and pull at 5000.

Notice the lower pull altitude. The turns all stop facing your instructor, so you can use him or her as a reference.

TLO's for level 5:

  • Start and stop turns on heading
  • Forward movement and docking
  • Axis control (Stability, turning)
  • Solo deployment

Level 6

Now we're getting into the fun stuff. You've managed to prove yourself pretty stable in freefall, but now you've got to prove that you can get that way from an unstable position. This is actually a lot of fun.

  • Climb out.
  • Hotel check.
  • Controlled solo exit.
  • This is your first exit where your instructor won't hold on to you. It'll be a lot steeper than your previous exits. Arch and keep your eye the airplane; not only does it make a heading reference, but keeping your head up is important to maintaining stability.
  • COA.
  • If above 6000, maneuvers:
    • Backloop, followed by altimeter check.
    • Track for 5 seconds, followed by altimeter check.
  • Repeat tracking only to 6000.
  • Lock on and signal "no more maneuvers" at 6000. Wave and pull at 5000.

Backloops and tracking are aggressive maneuvers; your fall rate will be increased while doing them. Remember to check your altitude!

TLO's for level 6:

  • Pre-jump equipment inspection
  • You should be doing this for every jump, but you'll be more thoroughly checked to make sure you know what shape your equipment is in.
  • Student spotting
  • Spotting has to do with determining jump run and exiting the aircraft over the drop zone. Your instructor will still check the spot, but start checking things yourself.
  • Solo exit
  • Subterminal control
  • A fancy way of saying "stable exit."
  • Recovery from instability (backloop)
  • Tracking
  • Solo deployment

Level 7

More instability, and fall rate exercises. Fall rate is very important to learn, but it shouldn't be that hard to pick up at this point.

  • Hotel check.
  • Solo diving exit.
  • A dive exit is a little more unstable than the poised exits you've done previously. Dive out at the wingtip and catch as much air as possible.
  • COA.
  • If above 6000, maneuvers:
    • Frontloop, followed by altimeter check.
    • Instructor demonstrates slow fall rate. Student matches. Check altimeter.
    • Instructor demonstrates fast fall rate. Student matches. Check altimeter.
    • Track for 5 seconds, followed by altimeter check.
  • Repeat to 6000.
  • Lock on and signal "no more maneuvers" at 6000. Wave and pull at 5000.

Fall rates are used on every jump you'll make with other people. De-arch and catch air with your body to slow fall. Punch out your arch to fall faster.

TLO's for level 7:

  • Complete equipment inspection
  • Student spots (conditions permitting)
  • Solo exit
  • Recovery from instability (frontloop)
  • Fall rate exercises
  • Solo deployment

Level 8

Graduation dive! Have fun - this dive is proving to your instructor that you can safely skydive unsupervised. If you graduate, you're cleared to jump solo, so make sure you earn it; keep yourself stable and altitude aware.

  • Climb out. (depending on exit)
  • Hotel check.
  • Solo exit. (dive or poised, instructor's choice)
  • COA.
  • If above 6000, maneuvers:
    • Backloop, followed by altimeter check.
    • 360 degree right turn, followed by altimeter check.
    • 360 degree left turn, followed by altimeter check.
    • Track for at least 3 seconds, followed by altimeter check.
  • Repeat to 6000.
  • Lock on and signal "no more maneuvers" at 6000. Wave and pull at 5000.

TLO's for level 8:

  • Complete equipment inspection
  • Student spots (conditions permitting)
  • Solo exit
  • Subterminal exit control
  • All maneuvers completed
  • Track to gain separation
  • Solo deployment

I graduated! Now what?

Congratulations! Now, start working on your license; you've got everything you need to complete every requirement (except canopy packing) for your A-level license. You still need to work on landing accuracy, canopy maneuvers, and skills you'll need to safely dive with other people. Most of all, keep having fun and keep learning. You've got a long way to go, but it's quite a trip getting there.

Final notes:

Just in case you have any disillusions about it, people die skydiving. It's still very safe in terms of probabilities, and a lot of safety in skydiving is risk management; maintain your gear and don't do stupid things and the odds are in your favor. That being said, you're still throwing yourself at a giant rock from two miles distant. Be careful. In that vein, don't rush anything. If you're uncomfortable with something or think you don't know something as well as you should, stop everything until you're satisfied. Rushing leads to mistakes. In my entire AFP program, there was one malfunction and reserve ride. It happened to my instructor after we rushed to make a 15-minute call. Did our rushing directly cause the malfunction? Maybe not, but it certainly didn't help.

Have fun, but be careful.

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