Lauren Jonik: What drew you to skydiving?
Amy Chmelecki: When I was 14, I remember hearing about two women going skydiving. It put an image in my head of being able to flip and flip and flip and keep flipping for a long time! I wanted to do that so bad. A seed was planted that day. Shortly after I turned 18, I went to a skydiving facility for the first time. The Drop Zone (DZ) scene blew my mind. Everyone was so nice and so happy! I realized that day that skydiving was something you could do as a hobby. I instantly knew I would get my license and from that point on I never looked back.
LJ: What training is involved in becoming a professional skydiver? What is involved in getting your skydiving license?
AC: There are many different ways to start skydiving. There are different programs at different drop zones. The license requirements vary depending on what country you
start jumping in. I strongly recommend doing a tandem jump for your first skydive. The tandem system is when you are attached to the instructor. You face the ground during freefall, but the instructor is there, attached to you the entire time. The training is simple and minimal for the student. It is a quick and easy way to introduce a person to skydiving for the first time. After you do your first tandem, you will know whether or not you want to continue on as a skydiver.
From there, if you want to continue, there are a few options. You can do a freefall progression where you experience freefall on each jump, open your parachute and then fly your parachute to the ground. Or, you can do a static line progression where your parachute is opened while you are exiting the aircraft and then you fly your parachute to the ground. Some drop zones only do a freefall progression, some only do a static line progression and some do both. Programs at each drop zone vary slightly, but the main idea is to learn all about the equipment, how to deal with emergencies and how to fly your body and your parachute. The training is detailed during these processes. I did a freefall progression and this is what I recommend to people who ask me for guidance. However, if the drop zone closest to you only does static line, that is absolutely fine!
Regarding being a professional skydiver, there are a few different avenues to make that happen. Once you get into the sport, certain aspects of it may appeal to you. Most people do not start skydiving with the idea of making it their job. I certainly did not. When you start, it is important to focus on one step at a time. The act of jumping out of a plane takes all your focus—you must focus on the task at hand or the outcome can be fatal. It is okay to have big picture goals, but keep an open mind and let things evolve naturally. Go with the flow and absolutely keep your focus on the task at hand whether it is learning, packing your parachute, navigating around an active airport or flying your canopy.
“Hustle hard, stay humble” is a quote that I think sums up what it takes to be a professional skydiver. You most likely will not get rich doing it, but you will enjoy the ride!
LJ: What is going through your mind before you jump? And, right after you step out of the plane?
AC: Before each jump, I am focused on my breathing. Oxygen in your blood and in your brain is mega important. It sounds like a very simple and obvious thing, but when things get intense, many people start to hold their breath. Focusing on my breath keeps me relaxed, heightens my awareness, keeps me in the moment and gives me the ability to control my energy levels. From the start to the end of a skydive I focus on my breath.
The feeling of being outside the airplane in freefall and under a parachute is difficult to explain. It is different for everyone. It really is one of those things that you have to experience for yourself to understand. I feel free, happy and accomplished when I skydive.
LJ: What does it feel like being in a wind tunnel?
AC: AMAZING!!! I like the wind tunnel because you get the sensation of going up. You also get to fly and fly and fly. There is no plane ride, no packing your parachute—you just fly. The wind tunnel is one of those things that looks really easy, but it is actually really hard to learn. If you have fun learning and have the desire to fly, then you will love wind tunnels.
LJ: What’s been your most memorable jump?
AC: I flew a wing suit formation over NYC with my teammates from the Red Bull Air Force and landed on a barge in the Hudson River. I grew up right outside of NYC, so getting to jump over that epic city was a massive treat for me. We flew right past the Freedom Tower. It was an absolute dream come true.
LJ: How do you direct where you will land?
AC: The first step to directing where you land is getting out of the aircraft at the right spot. To do this you have to take into consideration what the winds are doing and what you are doing in freefall. If you get out too far down wind of the drop zone you may not make it back. Once your parachute is open, you can easily steer your canopy left and right. You should stay upwind of your target. We call this your holding area. Then, you use your steering toggles to guide you through a landing pattern consisting of a down wing leg, cross wind leg and a final approach into the wind.
After you gain more experience you can start to do more high-performance landings. At this point, the parachute almost becomes an extension of your body. You can lean left and right to make turns happen. You can ball up to go faster or get big to go slower. You can make your canopy dive hard or make it float.
Canopy progression should be treated with a lot of respect. Most skydiving accidents happen when people are safely under perfectly good parachutes, but they fly them poorly. It is just like driving a car, you have to remember you are not the only one on the road—the faster the car, the harder you hit. Drive defensively and always stay focused on the “road.”
LJ: You’ve set numerous world records—huge congratulations! Can you share a bit more about what they were for?
I think I have set around 15, but I only currently hold 3 world records. All the records I hold have to do with building the largest formation possible while in freefall. One of the records is the 164-way Vertical World Record. That is 164 people in a head down orientation holding hands in free fall. The other records are similar to this, just in different orientations. One of the records is only women. World records are great because you get all your friends together from around the world and you become a giant team for one week. It is hard work, but the reward is priceless.
LJ: Have you ever been afraid during a jump? If so, what were the circumstances?
AC: I am afraid during all my jumps. Skydiving is scary. I take a logical approach to dealing with my fear. I do my best to manage risk versus reward. I let the fear fuel me to do my best.
LJ: How does a professional skydiver make a living while pursuing her passion?
AC: Like I said earlier, you need to “hustle hard and stay humble.” I feel I walk the line between living my dream and ending up living in my mother’s basement. Throughout my career, I have taken some hits—all kinds of hits, physical, mental and financial. If you want something bad enough, you have to roll with the punches. On the other hand, breaking a bone and getting back on the horse may not be for you. I personally never considered stopping. Any setbacks only pushed me harder.
Skydiving is not only my hobby, but it is also how I pay my bills. I coach, work with sponsors, do demonstration jumps, do Hollywood stunts and do special projects for social media. I am a big fan of the concept of never thinking you are too good or above cleaning the toilets. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do to get by.
LJ: You’ve jumped in all kinds of locations. Do the weather and climate conditions impact how it feels to jump and what needs to be taken into consideration in terms of safety? For example, would jumping in a desert climate require any adjustments as opposed to one with high humidity and vice versa?
AC: Weather definitely makes a difference in whether or not you can jump. You need to be able to see the ground when you jump. If there are too many clouds, you should not jump. Jumping in gusty, turbulent winds is also a bad idea. Blue skies and steady winds are the way to go! High altitude landing areas cause you to have a faster landing. Also, dryer climates cause you to have a faster landing. This has to do with how dense the air is. I really like fast landings, but you have to fly your parachute accordingly. Some days, you just can’t get the jumps in. The desert is the best place for skydiving.
LJ: What advice do you have for people who may want to skydive, but who are intimated by the thought of it?
AC: You do not have to skydive, not today, not ever. If you don’t want to do it, then don’t do it. However, if you kind of want to do it, just go to a drop zone and do a tandem. The fear before you jump is part of the reward.
LJ: How did you connect with the Red Bull Air Force? What does your involvement entail?
AC: About 18 years ago, I was in the right place at the right time. I met the skydivers that made the Red Bull Air Force what it is today. That part was pure luck! Mix my good luck with experience, positive attitude, situational awareness and persistence—then bam, I got on the team.
My involvement on the Red Bull Air Force entails representing the company in all that I do. I do some jobs for them like demonstration jumps into air shows, concerts, sporting events and many other big events. I do special projects for them that are either proposed by me to them or by them to me. I also represent them during my normal day to day activities as a professional skydiver at skydiving events and drop zones and when coaching and traveling.
LJ: What obstacles, if any, have you faced as a professional skydiver in a sport that leans toward being male-dominated?
AC: This is a tough question for me to answer because I am not sure what my life would be like if I was a man! There have been some obstacles, but there also have been some benefits. I have done my best to rise above the obstacles and take advantage of the benefits. In the end, all I know is that I feel really lucky and I am grateful.
LJ: What are the top three things a novice skydiver should remember when first starting out?
AC: Listen more to your instructors with all your focus. Be a good student by checking your ego at the door. As you continue in the sport, stay humble and never ever forget that skydiving is dangerous and should be respected.
Lauren Jonik is a writer and photographer in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in 12th Street, The Manifest-Station, Two Cities Review, Amendo, The Establishment, Bustle, Calliope and Ravishly. When she is not co-editing TheRefresh.co, she is working towards her Master’s degree in Media Management at The New School. Follow her on Twitter: @laurenjonik.