Take a dive with the Falling Illini

Don Doll fights with the wind to reel in his canopy after his 387th jump on April 15. Beck Diefenbach

Don Doll fights with the wind to reel in his canopy after his 387th jump on April 15. Beck Diefenbach

By Nick Escobar

It is 7:45 a.m. on a Sunday and Paige Bovard is standing in front of the Union. She should go back to bed – she has two tests Monday – but she’s decided to jump out of a plane.

Paige, sophomore in Business, makes the hour and a half trip, with the Falling Illini, to Vandalia, Ill., a small town 69 miles northeast of St. Louis and home to the Archway Skydiving Center. The Falling Illini is a Registered Student Organization devoted to skydiving that encourages first time jumpers like Paige.

It’s 9:30 a.m. when Paige arrives, eager to jump, but still nervous about throwing her body out of a perfectly good plane.

Within 15 minutes of entering Archway, Paige has to jump.

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Before the winds pick up.

Before anyone else who was going to jump with her arrives.

She’s got to do this jump alone.

She walks past a dozen experienced jumpers packing their canopies after their hundredth or even thousandth jump. She grabs a grey jumpsuit and puts it on. A helmet, gloves and goggles come next. A worker goes over what to do as Paige adjusts her gear. It’s been two weeks since she took the class on what to do when you jump.

“I’m nervous now,” she says. “We took the class so long ago.”

The woman helping her get suited up tells Paige to place her left arm into the rig. If she slides her right arm in first, she could accidentally pull the ripcord for the canopy while trying to put her left arm in.

And like the other first time jumpers who are given the same instructions, Paige tries to put her right arm in first. Apologetic, she turns and gets the rig strapped around her shoulders and tightened under her thighs. Her face becomes flush, and Rachel Hillmer, senior in LAS, tells her she’ll be fine. She just needs to remember to lean back.

She is ready.

“I’m going to land in the landing zone,” she says confidently.

The last time she came, the winds were too strong for her to jump, so Paige sat around for hours waiting. They assured her the winds would die down. She had nothing to do but wait.

Yet 5 p.m. rolled around and the winds still hadn’t let up. It was time to go home. She didn’t get to jump.

But this time Paige is set – she’s suited up and ready to go.

The instruments are triple-checked for safety. Then Paige hears familiar words.

The winds have picked up again and are too strong for her to jump. She has to wait. Again.

The helmet comes off, the gloves are taken off, the goggles go back on their hook and the rig returns to the shelf. Paige walks to a nearby couch and pulls out her homework.

At least she’ll have time to study for those tests now.

The Falling Illini

Paige got the opportunity to jump as a member of The International Illini, an RSO that helps foreign students get acclimated to life in C-U. The group set up trips to skydive with The Falling Illini.

Aaron VanDevender, graduate student, is the president of The Falling Illini, which has existed since the 1960s “pretty much for as long as skydiving has been a sport,” he says.

The core of The Falling Illini is about a half-dozen, dedicated jumpers, who spend almost every available weekend in Vandalia, Ill. But the group really exists for people who have never jumped before. It’s the goal of the group to get as many people as it can up in the air and out of a plane.

Jamil Jamaludin, senior in LAS, chose the tandem style jump, where you are attached to an instructor, for his first jump.

“I always wanted to do it,” he says. “I enjoy roller coasters, the adrenaline rush. It’s one of the things you have to do that you would never do at home. I’m definitely going back.”

VanDevender claims that his booth is the most visited on Quad Day and having 250-300 new jumpers this school year backs up his claim, as does having a 1,600 person mailing list.

“No one gets down and says, ‘that sucks,'” he jokes.

While the club has its few core members, there are currently about 30 people working towards their skydiving licenses, which reduce jump costs but are not required.

The group is a tightly knit crew, but it’s always open to new people who appreciate the sport. In addition to skydiving together, they hang out as well. Every Wednesday they land at The White Horse Inn to relax.

“People have this preconceived notion that we’re exclusive,” VanDevender says. “We’re not.”

He says they have a bizarre section of people who would never meet otherwise, but since they jump together, they have a kind of skydiving brotherhood.

VanDevender said he gets about 10 to 30 e-mails a week from would-be jumpers looking for a confidence boost.

“They’re unsure about the whole thing and are looking for a little bit of assurance.”

No one has ever been seriously hurt or killed in the club’s existence, he adds.

“You’re more likely to die (driving) on the way to the drop zone,” he says with a laugh.

But for VanDevender, skydiving is life.

For his first jump, he decided to go it alone. VanDevender signed up for the accelerated free fall jump, better known as an AFF jump. He took half of the class at night, slept in a rolled up parachute in the hangar, woke up, finished the class and then jumped from 13,500 feet, with two instructors falling beside him.

He says he had the sensation of not being in control of the situation because you’re overwhelmed by it the first time.

“You get tunnel vision for what seems like a long time but in reality, it’s the blink of an eye,” he says.

He says he remembers thinking ‘I should do that again’ after finding out what to expect. The drop zone was away from the hangar so they had a shuttle to pick up the jumpers.

“On the way back the instructor asked me what I was thinking about and I said ‘my next jump.'”

He jumped again the following week.

VanDevender, around his 350th jump, has logged about 10 hours of free fall time and has even called friends from the air on his cell phone.

To jump or not to jump

Back in the hangar, Paige flips through her notes, concentrating, but still with the anticipation of jumping in the back of her head. As the hours pass, the anticipation fades and she becomes more nervous about her tests than jumping.

At around 2:30 p.m. a female voice booms over the hangar’s intercom, “static line jumpers.”

Those are the words Paige has been waiting to hear for weeks. The books are pushed aside and Paige, with two other members of International Illini, move into the preparation room to be outfitted for their jumps.

The nerves have returned but she’s confident.

“I don’t think it’ll be that dangerous,” Paige says. “It will be fun.”

She repeats to herself what needs to be done when she lets go of the plane’s strut 3,500 feet above the ground.

“(The instructors) want it to be muscle memory,” she says. “The adrenaline could kill you if you don’t have that memory.”

The instructor asks who wants to go first and while the two other boys who are jumping trade glances, Paige perks up.

“I’ll go first!”

Finally fitted with her rig and ready to go, Paige makes her way outside to wait for the plane.

She is the last to enter the tiny Cessna 182, which has been gutted to fit skydivers.

She is soon over the vast cornfields of Southern Illinois and in a mental state where she is alert but not really thinking.

The plane reaches altitude and the instructor yells to Paige to undo her seat belt. But the wind is too strong – too loud for her to hear. He points at her seat belt but she can’t seem to understand his hand signals.

He removes her seat belt for her and opens the door. The wind rushes by the plane and over Paige. She’s scared. “Oh no I have to go out,” she thinks to herself.

She swings her legs out to the small foothold as she’s been trained to do. She reaches for the strut but can’t hold on and falls out of the plane.

Then the static line rips opens her chute and Paige is OK.

“It is so relaxing,” she says with a smile on her face.

At 15 feet from the ground a voice comes over her radio to tell her what to do. The winds are strong and Paige doesn’t pull her canopy in quick enough, getting dragged a few feet before she gets it under control.

“It was awesome,” she exclaims when she reaches the ground. “No twists or anything broken. So on a windy day, anyone can do it.”

Know the gear and slag according to Aaron VanDevender, president of Falling Illini as told to Nick Escobar

  • Helmet – It’s made of a carbon composite and is super strong and super light.
  • Dytter – an audible altimeter in your helmet that tells you the temperature, your speed and your descent rate.
  • Goggles – There are a huge variety of goggles and some people use motorcycle goggles even though they are more expensive.
  • Cypres (Cybernetic Parachute Release System) – If you reach a certain altitude it deploys your reserve chute for you.
  • Rig – This is when you’re talking about everything, the canopy and the harness.
  • Canopy – No one says parachute.
  • Free flying – flying with your head down or in a sitting position.
  • Whuffo – A term skydiver’s use for talking about non-jumpers. It stands for ‘What you wanna jump outta perfectly good plane fo’.’ For example, if someone brings some people to watch we might say, we got a first timer and a couple whuffos.
  • Boogie – A skydiving party or festival
  • Horny gorilla – everyone holds hands in a circle and then locks ankles while in the air.
  • Magic carpet ride – Done out of a plane with a ramp, you line up in lines of three, link arms and grab the legs of the people in front of you, creating a giant carpet in the sky.
  • Mr. Bill – two people jump at once, one opens his chute while the other holds on.
  • Rodeo – One person’s the bull and one person’s the cowboy. It’s fun to do with new people. You tell them stand here, I’ll do the rest. You wrap your legs around someone, flail your cowboy hat and see if you can hang on for eight seconds.

But how much does it cost?

  • Static line (army style rip line that opens as you leave the plane): first jump $129. Each static line jump is then $39.99.
  • Tandem (strapped to an instructor): $159.
  • Accelerated free fall (You jump with two instructors and pull your own cord from 13,500 ft.): $289.

A $10 club fee is required by The Falling Illini. All payments can be made at Archway Skydiving Center. They accept cash, checks and major credit cards.