The AFF course at Skydive Algarve- from the eyes of Martin O’Sullivan

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Please see the original blog written by Martin O´Sullivan here:

The hum of the engines is loud, louder than what you are used to in a plane. Sitting in your seat, with your elbows resting on the knees of the person sitting behind you, you look out the window at the scenery unfolding below you.  The sun glistens off the sea, the white beaches spread out before you. You can see the golf course next to the runway of Skydive Algarve, Portugal.

Suddenly the drone of the engines reduces and you can feel the aircraft level off and slow down. All eyes move to a space beside the door. It blinks red. Wasting no time the person closest the exit door opens it up. The cold air hits you and your goggles fog up from the change in temperature. As the mist clears the light goes green. This is it; this is the signal to go! As the jumpers leave the aircraft, you move forward in the line. Now you are a few spaces away from the door. The jumper ahead of you goes and disappears into the atmosphere. You are standing in the doorway, looking down at the town of Alvor and the countryside far below you. You count to five, and with a deep breath, you step out into the air….

Learning to skydive is not something that is to be taken lightly. It is a high risk activity, even with all the safety measures in place. Due to this, all courses and instructors ensure that their students are highly proficient in the basics before letting them off the leash and into the wide blue skies on their own. The skydive course is called the AFF, which stands for Accelerated Free Fall, and is made up of Ground School, and seven levels with each one being a jump where you need to perform various tasks.

After deciding to learn to skydive, the question arose of where to do it. After some research, it was decided that Skydive Algarve, Portugal appeared to be an ideal spot. The dropzone is located at Aerodromo Municipal de Portimao in the Algarve region of Portugal. Having good weather, beautiful scenery, and a good atmosphere, it was definitely the right decision!

From walking in on the first day there is an atmosphere, an ambience that causes excitement, maybe it’s seeing all the other skydivers going about their routines, packing canopies, practicing formations, or just sitting drinking coffee. It feels relaxed, and professional. The staff are fantastic, lively and energetic, and they make you feel comfortable and confident, which is one of the main things as being relaxed during freefall is an absolute necessity!


The First Day – Ground School

So how do you go about learning to skydive? After checking in, making sure all the proper insurances are in place, and signing all the waivers, you are given your airfield pass. The school is located on an aerodrome so security protocols still apply for visitors, not as strict as regular airports but you can’t just walk in. If there for a bit of time you will get a wrist band so the security staff will recognize that you are part of the skydive centre.

The first day is all about the ground school. Here you will learn the theory part of the skydive, how to arch, how to turn, and how to fly your canopy. During your lessons you will learn about the opening priorities, landing priorities, and various safety checks you need to carry out before your jump, after opening your canopy, and while landing your canopy. You will also learn about the PLF, which is the landing position in case you are coming down a little hard. Basically crumple your knees and roll, similar to parkour or free-running landings.


Learning about the canopy

You will find out about the workings of your parachute and how the main and reserve canopies work. More importantly, you will learn about the different type of problems you may encounter and how to deal with them. Some are what are termed ‘nuisance factors’ and can be gotten rid of with a little bit of twisting and pumping the toggles, but for the more severe, it’s a direct cutaway. Knowing when to recognize which is applicable is important. Another factor you learn about is the AAD, which is the automatic opening device that activates at 1000 feet in the event of someone passing out or not having proper altitude awareness.

This is the view you want to see after opening! That little orange speck off in the distance is me!

After being shown around the airfield, practicing some exit drills on the mock up, told the procedures and protocols to respect on the grounds, and doing your schooling, you are given your written exam and your first logbook! With the first day over, tomorrow is the day it all begins!


The Tandem Jump

With the course in Skydive Algarve, your first jump is a tandem; this is a good way to learn what the dropzone looks like from above, and to get you to see what your landing pattern will be like. The landing is of course hugely important, and judging where you need to be at a certain altitude ensures that you will land in the correct area and in the correct direction. With the tandem the instructor is in full control, but you will be able to practice a little of the canopy movements once it opens, feeling how it moves and how responsive it is.


Preparing for the First Jump

After this, its time for your first level of the AFF. Being in your jumpsuit, with your altimeter on your wrist, and trying to get into your rig without looking like a complete novice is daunting. Especially when you are standing next to people in wingsuits who have done hundreds of jumps. But you know that they all had to start here too. People are very understanding of this, and supportive, so never feel intimidated or nervous. Once you have your rig on, your straps tightened, and your handles checked for what feels like the millionth time, its time to board the plane!


In the plane

You walk to the plane under the wing of your two instructors, as the first three levels are with two. Taking your place in the aircraft, it’s not long before the door comes down and the plane makes its way down the runway. At 1000 feet you unclip your seatbelt as you’ve been taught. All the ways up your instructor is asking you about your routine and showing you the hand signals you may encounter. You try to focus on these and not on the nerves you are sure you are showing. At 11,000 feet there is a clamour of activity, helmets are put on, goggles are put down, GoPros are turned on, AADs and handles on students are checked by instructors.

And then, the noise drops, and the plane slows. The red light is on. The door opens, and your heartbeat speeds up as you feel the rush of air. The green light shows and the first jumpers leave. This is real; you’re really going to do this! It comes to your turn. No way back now! You check your instructors that they’re ready, you do your count…..and you exit.


The First Jump!

It’s hard to remember the first moments, the feeling of the air rushing against you, the exhilaration of the freefall. As you stabilize, with the help of your two instructors, you start to become aware again. You start to remember your training and what you need to do.


Altimeter checks!

Altimeter check, ok! Turn to one instructor and wait for their thumbs up. Turn to the other and wait for theirs.

Altimeter check! You reach behind you to feel for your deploy handle so you know you can find it. Got it! You repeat this three times and restabilize each time.

Altimeter check! With your first simple task completed your main concern is to monitor your altitude and pull at the right height. For the moment until you get to that height, it’s time to take in the views! The feeling is amazing; it’s like nothing you can describe. It’s a full overload of your senses and you need to keep them in check!

Altimeter check! 7000 feet, almost at the pull height, you keep your eyes on the altimeter until it hits the 6000 feet mark. Then you wave off, reach behind, and release your deploy handle.

With a jerk the canopy releases from its holder and fills out above you. Looking up you see the cells filling with air and you do your safety check. It looks good! You take the toggles and make sure your canopy is maneuverable. All is good!


Calmness in the Air

Now you are in the other extreme of skydiving, the serenity, the quietness, the peacefulness of the skies to yourself as you look around you and admire the scenery. But inside you are bursting with emotions! You shout and whoop your way through the morning air with adrenaline absolutely pouring from you! But you still need to land this thing!



Coming into Land

Guiding the canopy into your holding area while watching your altimeter, the voice coming over your radio tells you that you did good and had a great jump! You beam with pride. You start your landing pattern and guide the canopy in, all the time getting some directions if needed from your instructors who have by now landed and are watching you from the ground. On the last stretch you wait for the moment to flare your canopy and guide yourself down. Likely it won’t be a beautiful landing on your first try, but as you PLF and roll and get back up to gather your canopy you feel on top of the world. You have done it, your first jump is complete and you are ready for more!



The AFF Course

Now that you are back in the dropzone and your canopy is being repacked, you can take a moment to have a coffee and chill with the other skydivers. Because now you are one of them! Telling them how it felt, what it was like, as they listen to you and remember their first times. They have probably heard all this hundreds of times before but they still give you your moment of fame! This is one of the things that are beautiful about this sport, everyone treats you as one of them, it doesn’t matter how many jumps you have, you are all one big family


The first stages of the AFF course

Once you have been debriefed and your gear is ready you will do the next stage of the course. For the first three stages, you are with two instructors, and the main tasks are altitude awareness, heading awareness, and your stability. They will briefly release you from their grip and you will learn to do a 90 degree turn. Your first moments of being free in the air are a little un-nerving, without them to stabilize you, you may feel like a child on a bike for the first time without stabilizers! But don’t fret, the more you do this the easier the movements come and the better you get at it.

Keeping your heading is one of the most difficult parts for the novice skydiver. A lot of people have a tendency to continuously turn to the left or right. This could be because of tension in one of your arms or legs, having your knees too bent, or many other small reasons. If you experience this, don’t fret. It will come to a time where it all comes together and you think to yourself “how was that so hard for me before?!”. It will come as second nature to you and you won’t even have to think about your position as you will naturally readjust yourself to retain your heading.


The second stages of the course

The second stages of the course are with just one instructor. This is where you learn to recover from an unstable position, do forward and back rolls, 180 degree turns, and my personal favorite, the track!

With the track you really fly, getting the signal from your instructor, you straighten your legs, and tuck your arms back. As you propel through the air you feel like an arrow! You want to keep tracking but you know you have to stop as you need to check your altimeter! Coming back into the neutral position, you see your instructor coming around to your front again and you can’t help but laugh at the feeling of ecstasy you have just had!


The Final Test

With six levels of the AFF complete, you have one more to do. This is the final one. The level seven jump, where you need to prove you can jump on your own. Your instructor will be with you, but they are not allowed to touch you to stabilize you or else you fail and need to redo the level.

Exiting on your own without their support is harder, you turn a little more but all you need to do is to remember to arch and get back to your neutral position. Do this early and then wait for the instructor’s signal to begin your test. In this you will need to do a roll, a 360 turn each direction and a track. If you can pull these off, then just relax and enjoy the rest of the freefall while checking your altimeter until pull height.


Back in the dropzone after bringing in your canopy, over the loudspeakers for everyone to hear it is declared that you have passed your AFF Level 7 and you beam with pride as everyone claps for you. Another great thing about this dropzone is the support that you get that motivates you to go further and keep succeeding.



The First Solo Jump

So you have completed your AFF. You are now free to jump without an instructor! However, you are still a student so before you jump an instructor needs to check your gear on the ground and in the aircraft. But you have left the nest; you are ready to try flight on your own for the first time.

On your own

Once your name goes up on the board with your flight time, you feel a little nervous. Where is the comforting presence that was always there with you on the other flights? With a hint of jealousy you see them with another student. Like a child who has departed home and left their siblings behind, you walk to the aircraft looking behind you waiting for the comforting wave from your previous teacher. But you are old enough and experienced enough now to look after yourself, but as you move towards the plane, you see them give you the thumbs up. They haven’t forgotten you! You know they will be there for you if you need any advice or help in the future. With a rejuvenated spirit, you take the now well acquainted walk to the aircraft.

You take your seat and you like to see the new pupils and tandem guests, you feel like you are the experienced one here and it fills you with a sort of pride. But don’t get over-confident, you still need to respect the skies and practice your safety.

Green light

This time when the green light goes on, instead of being one of the last out, you are one of the first. This is new and you realize that all eyes are on you as you make your way to the exit. Counting down, you get the nod from the jump-master, and you release yourself into the sky! As before the first few seconds are lost to the archives of your memory, but then your senses kick in and you stabilize.

With no pressure on this jump to perform tasks or maneuvers, you are free to do what you want. You can try some turns, tracks, or just simply fall stable enjoying your surroundings. It is good to practice some moves as you will need to do your A-Licence as early as possible to become certified.

After the jump

Coming into land this time you are used to the landing pattern and the zones and you glide in and land on your feet, feeling like a pro. Picking up your chute and walking to the pickup point you notice the other skydivers waiting for you, and you smile at them, knowing that you are one of an elite few who have conquered the skies, and you are proud to be one of them.



Getting your Licence

What happens after your AFF? Well like mentioned already you need to become licensed. For this you need to complete a series of jumps depending on the type of licence you want, as the British and American licences are different. Firstly you need to do 10 consul jumps, which are jumps you do on your own but having your gear checked on the ground and before exiting by an instructor. You will also need to complete a Level 8 jump called a Hop and Pop, which is a low level exit from 5,000 feet.

You will need to do some formation flying and may want to develop your skills more in canopy handling or get to the stage where you want to fly a wingsuit. It’s a large world out there to be discovered from the skies, so there are endless possibilities.

Ensuring you keep up to date

One thing you will need to do however is to jump as much as possible. If you leave it for a certain amount of time you will need to do recurrency jumps to make sure you can still be safe, or in some cases you will need to do parts of the AFF course again including the ground school. These requirements are for your own safety, it’s not like getting back on a bicycle after a few years, or taking a golf club in your hand after not playing for a few months. The sport of skydiving is one where you need to have your senses fully about you and be in full control of your state of mind, making sure you are relaxed but still focused.


Conquering the Fears

One of the most often asked questions is “how many jumps can I expect to have done before I am not afraid or nervous anymore”. The answer to that is that it will probably never leave you. Some jumpers even say it never should, as thinking that you are immortal or perfect can give you a false sense of security. Others say that it is all part of it as the fear and nerves causes the major adrenaline rush and without this it can detract from the experience.

But what if those feelings are so strong that you think you can’t get on the plane? Or you are making up excuses not to go up again? My advice, and believe me this is from first hand experience, is to talk to your instructor.

My own experience

I went through a day where I wanted to go up but felt so nervous that I couldn’t bring myself to put the rig on my back. It wasn’t the jump, or the fact I wasn’t confident of my abilities, it was something still unknown to me. I spoke to one of my instructors, and he sat down with me for almost an hour between his various jumps and told me that skydiving is something that is not for everybody. These are feelings that everybody goes through. Some people come out the other side and don’t let the fear rule their lives or push their dreams down. Others decide that the fear is too much that they cannot enjoy the jump. He told me to take the day off, go and relax, and if I wanted to, come back tomorrow and see how I felt.

A new feeling of perseverence

I came back the next morning with a new feeling, a feeling that I wasn’t going to let fear rule me. After having done many jumps I trusted myself and the equipment. Once I took to the skies, I perfected my jumps and having returned to the ground I couldn’t wait to get up again.

I was lucky; I managed to conquer the fear even though it is still nerve racking standing in that door 15,000 feet up! But you just have to take the leap of faith and trust in yourself. However, if you are one of the people who decide it’s not for them, then you can still be proud that you have tried, and more importantly, that you have landed your canopy safe every time.

But trust me, if you do decide to go up again after having a near panic attack, you will be so proud of yourself that you have done it; it will bring your confidence to a whole new level.

Still shouting with exhiliration even after coming back to the hanger


Thanks to the Staff at Skydive Algarve

To all the staff at Skydive Algarve, we want to say a HUGE thank you! During our time there we had an absolute blast! When not jumping, the atmosphere on the ground kept us wanting to stay there all day even when jump limits came in and there was no way we were going to be jumping again that day. From the instructors to the manifest crew, the safety crew, the packing crew, and the front desk crew, you all make this dropzone one that we will look forward to returning to.



A special thank you to the following;

Maud and Bruno;

My instructors during the week and who showed great patience and perseverance with me. Thank you for taking so much time with me to guide me through the correct positions and for explaining the little things that I was doing wrong. Also for giving me the confidence to know that I was so close to perfecting the techniques if I happened not to get everything right on a certain level. Thank you for your reactions when I did eventually get it right! Seeing your instructor be as excited as you are because they could see their hard work paying off was the icing on the cake!


For the words of advice and for the long pep talk, for giving me the courage and the confidence to realize that I was capable of jumping on my own. I was so proud when I made my first solo and to think that it was something I could have missed if I had let my fear and nerves overcome me. Being an instructor is not just all about teaching technique and being able to teach. It’s about being a good listener and motivator too, so thank you.

Patrick and Mauro;

Who jumped with Misha on her tandem. For making her feel so relaxed, and able to enjoy it, and especially for bringing her back to earth safely. She has been full of praise about the way her nerves were done away with and how she wants to jump again. To me, it was the first time I’d really taken notice of how the tandem instructors were with their clients. I really felt at ease knowing she was in good hands with you guys. You really made her first skydiving experience one that she will always remember and cherish.

To all the staff;

Your friendliness, positive attitudes, and amazing personalities all make this dropzone something special and no words can describe how truly great and special it is. From the attention to detail that you get in the morning refresh, to the confidence boosting high fives and smiles you get when you return to the hanger, it all makes each day a special experience.


Final Thoughts

You leave the dropzone and get your flight back home to wherever you came from. Nothing can match the adrenaline you have been pumping the last few days or weeks. You feel yourself looking to the skies longing to be up there again. Counting down the days till you can. You remember the rush of the air, the thrill of the jump, the calmness under the canopy, and the camaraderie of the dropzone and those you met there.

People from all walks of life and from different nationalities will now be in your acquaintance. You look forward to meeting the new friends you met again, and to hopefully one day jumping with them again.

With Rishabh who is part of a skydiving family and was there with his mother and brother

Leonardo da Vinci once said; “for once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return”. You will find yourself proving this statement, longing to remove the shackles of gravity, and take to the air once again. Until you do, you will always walk with your head held high, and be proud to call yourself a skydiver.


Booking your AFF course:

If you wish to book the AFF course- please do so via the “Book Now” button on the home page. Our course run every week starting on a Sunday with the Ground School. We can also help you with your accommodation, car hire and airport transfer needs. Just email where we can assist you with your booking needs.

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