As I said, I chose to learn skydiving using the AFF course (see below). This is certainly not the only way of learning, and I wouldn't recommend it for everybody. It all depends whether you want to spend time learning all the techniques and procedures, and do it yourself, or if you'd prefer to relax and let someone else think about the difficult stuff while you look around at the scenery. I'll try to summarise the options, although it is by no means definitive and each jump centre will have its own rules.
This is a very popular way to do the first one or two jumps. Indeed, some places insist that you do a tandem jump first before starting your AFF course. In a tandem jump, the back of your harness is fastened to the harness of your instructor, so you are physically attached to someone at all times. During freefall, you are more or less along for the ride, and can relax and enjoy the scenery rather than worrying about altitudes and remembering reserve drills. Once under canopy, depending on the instructor, you may be allowed to try steering and playing with spiral turns, but safe in the knowledge that the instructor can guide you or take control.
Advantages - you get a great freefall experience with very little ground training
required (typically under an hour). It's usually quite a lot cheaper, and is a great
introduction for those who are not sure if they will like it or not. There is
little pressure, and I am told there is not so much of the 'daze effect' which I
had on my first AFF jump. It is also often the only choice for partially abled students.
Disadvantages - Not quite the same solo experience, a lot more passive. And if you want to continue skydiving, you have to then choose between Static Line or AFF.
Before the advent of AFF courses, this used to be the only method of learning, and is still popular for training the military. Unlike the tandem jumps, you don't share your parachute with an instructor, you have one all to yourself. You're alone in the air. But for the first jump, your parachute release is attached to a long cord on the plane. So you get almost no freefall time at all, just as long as it takes for the cord to become taut and open your canopy. As a result, the exit is a lot lower, in the region of 5,000 feet instead of 12,000 feet.
Subsequent jumps use gradually longer delays before the canopy opens, so you get progressively longer and longer in freefall. Most places now use square (rather than round) parachutes for main canopies - round mains are only really of historical interest now, as they are more difficult to control than square ones, and can only be used if the wind is very light.
Advantages - you get the solo parachuting experience for less cost, and
without as much training requirement as the AFF course. You also have less to
worry about on your first jump, as the canopy-pulling bit is done for you.
Disadvantages - You don't get any freefall experience on your first jump, so it's not for the impatient. If you want to do the whole course and get your licence, it takes more jumps and a much longer time this way, rather than AFF.
It stands for Accelerated Free Fall, but it is the course that is accelerated, not the freefall (phew!). It just means that you can learn faster and get your licence with fewer jumps than with static line. Jump zones have different rules, and may require one (or up to four) tandem jumps before you may go solo. The organisations I went to did not require this, so my first jump included solo freefall (which for me was getting the best out of both worlds).
The AFF course consists of seven levels, and each level must be passed before you can progress to the next level. Often this means that you can become qualified in only seven jumps, although some people require repeat jumps. The first few jumps (again, this depends on the centre you choose) have two instructors per student in freefall, and then subsequent jumps only require one instructor. More manoeuvres and skills are introduced at each level, as you will be able to see from my skydiving diary.
Advantages - You get solo freefall on your first jump. This is for the impatient
ones who are fairly certain they want to continue skydiving. And the sense of
achievement from doing it all yourself may be what you're looking for.
Disadvantages - It is expensive, and it requires you to concentrate fully all the way through the training and constantly during the first jump. There is an awful lot to think about, from the equipment checks, to the plane exit, to the freefall body position, freefall drills and signals, emergency drills, canopy control, all the way through to approach patterns, wind direction, and landing. You may not want to do all that on your first jump.
Yes, that's right, indoor skydiving! Basically it's a powerful wind tunnel, blowing air straight upwards. With a mesh that you can stand on, and a lot of strategically placed padding around the walls, you can float on the wind and practice a lot of the techniques you will use in freefall. It gives you a lot more time to get your body position right, practice keeping stable, practice turns, loops and even relative work, so you get more value out of your real airtime. And if you're not doing something right, it's a lot easier to just stop, get advice, and have another go immediately - a lot easier than when you're plummeting towards the Earth!
On your first "flight", you get to watch a video and get a bit of instruction, to give you the basic ideas. You'll also get to practice the basic body position and how to exit the airstream safely. But apart from general advice to arch your back, try not to be tense, and don't try to put your hand out to break your fall, there's not a lot to talk through. There's plenty of opportunity to watch others in the tunnel first to get more of an idea. The equipment is quite simple - a very baggy jumpsuit, gloves, goggles and a crash hat are all you need. Then when it's your turn, just lean forward into the airstream and start flying!
The experts will be flying upside down, doing spins and flying right up to the roof, but on the first lesson you'll be concentrating more on keeping stable and enjoying the floating. If you get that right, the instructor will get you to try and control your height - more arch makes you float lower, less arch makes you gain height. And you'll probably be able to have a joint flight, where the two of you fly together, going higher and spinning round a bit. It is the most amazing feeling, but all over too soon.
So those are some of the ways you can learn skydiving. Now you can check out my skydiving diary, or follow the links to the drop zones and official organisations, or check out some photographs from Texas. Or you can go up to the main Skydiving page.