Teaching Unnatural Behaviour: Andy Pointer

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Skydiving is not something a lot of people have done more than once. But Andy Pointer has completed a total of 4,568 jumps to date – and he has no intention of stopping. Andy is a skydiving instructor based in Portugal, taking everyone from total rookies to skilled jumpers out every day. We spoke to Andy to hear more about what it takes to be a skydiving instructor and to understand more about his experiences.

Can I describe what it feels like to jump out of a plane for the first time? Honestly, no I can’t. I’ve tried for years. And every single first-time student that I’m talking with after that first jump agrees. It cannot be explained or described. It needs to be tasted.

I have now completed 4568 jumps and the feeling of falling away from an aircraft remains the same every time. The level of fear gradually changes to a healthy respect, and the adrenaline levels will be adjusted accordingly. But the enjoyment never drops off.

From an early age my parents had to keep a keen eye on me on walks or trips to the park. I was constantly climbing the highest objects I could find, usually with the objective to then jump off it. I was fortunate to spend a few years as a kid in California. Big Sur and Yosemite were the perfect playgrounds for a 5 year old me. I’d climb onto the widest fallen redwood I could find, identify a soft-looking bit of wet ground, and just jump. In that typical, childish, fearless way, without any thought towards the possibility of injury.

When I was 18 and living in England again, my friend Alex asked me if I’d accompany him on a fundraising tandem skydive. I didn’t take any persuading. My mum was initially reluctant, not out of fear for my safety- she trusted that modern skydiving operations must do well to mitigate risk, or they wouldn’t be operating. She was reluctant because she knew, without any doubt, that this would take over my life as soon as I had just a single taste.

Skydiving is 5 different freefall disciplines, 4 different parachuting disciplines, first time students, legends with 30000 jumps, wingsuiting, skysurfing. It is competition for some, professional vocation for others, an excuse for travelling, a weekend hobby. To pursue everything that this sport has to offer takes a lifetime. It’s the variety that keeps me hooked.

The national governing body for skydiving in the UK: ‘British Skydiving’ traditionally train their instructors to teach in a very military fashion. This is in part due to the military heritage of the sport. Brave men were jumping from planes because they needed to long before people started doing it for fun. However, these military teaching methods are still used because they are also very effective. Instructors are taught to repetitively drill new students in an effort to almost turn them into robots. They need to know exactly what to do, in every situation.

In the event of a complication or emergency, there isn’t a whole load to do other than react to the best of your ability. Reacting correctly, while maintaining a calm and clear head, can only really be the result of good training, and an adequate level of experience for the type of jump you are carrying out, the type of parachute equipment that you are using, the size and standard of the group of people you are jumping with and so on. For instance, in the British Skydiving instructor ratings system, you need to have a minimum of 1000 jumps before you can even attend an Accelerated Freefall (AFF) instructor course (which is then a fairly difficult course to pass). The idea is, by this time, you have a decent amount of experience and should be able to remain calm and respond correctly to any situation you are presented with. You should also have the experience to pass this ability on to your student in an effective way. In order to be a skydiving instructor, good training and risk management, remaining calm should come organically.

That being said, there are lots of different types of students that you come across and have to deal with. I have had to be blunt and remind students that the sport they are engaging in can be lethal if not treated with respect. Even occasionally, reference some incident or another that I have witnessed in the past. And on the contrary, I have had to encourage students, reinforce that they should be confident in their ability, their equipment and that they have all the tools they could possibly have to make a safe, fun skydive. At that point I would also remind them that I wouldn’t be allowing them to jump if I didn’t have full faith in them. This all comes down to student consideration. They could be either of the students referenced above, and they can be anywhere in between. They could be reeling from a personal loss, they could be hungover, they could be in a stag party and be utterly fearless. The instructor must have a strong awareness of this human factor and gauge the best way to respond to every student psyche that walks through the door.

For me, the thing I find most fulfilling about being an instructor is helping a struggling student through a particular sticking point. For instance, the fourth jump of the AFF course involves solo flight and making controlled turns in freefall. It can be easy for tiny imperfections in the body position to cause involuntary turns. This can make heading control tricky to grasp for some students. Helping them to iron out those imperfections so that they feel fully in control and (visibly) confident in freefall is a really gratifying process. If they have been struggling for a few jumps and it finally ‘clicks’ into place, you see the relief and confidence straight away, and that is hugely fulfilling for me as their instructor.

Skydiving for me is “it”. I’m so happy doing what I’m doing. The only thing I’d like to progress onto soon is competition. I had planned to move into competitive canopy piloting this year but have been forced to delay those plans. Hopefully by no more than 12 months though! At some point I’d really like to head north into mountainous areas in Europe, as well. Specifically, there is a Swiss event called Mountain Gravity that has been high on my list for a few years. I have beautiful coastal scenery as my day to day ‘view from the office.’ I’d love to mix it up with the mountains.

Of course, plans can change and life can take over. But for now, there is no end in sight. And for any budding skydivers out there all I can say is trust your training – but don’t get tempted into pushing too hard too soon. Extreme sports in high-stress environments need to build up slowly. Your skillset will grow with time. Keep a goal in sight, but remember to enjoy every step.

To read more about Andy’s story, click here.