OK, so I'm a novice. But I got the bug in Texas, and am now itching to do more. The method I chose was to go for an AFF course (see the different methods of learning for the alternatives).
Sensory overload. Complete 'bunny-in-the-headlights' mind-freeze. Still a spectacular experience, and if I can use the cliche, it was definitely an "adrenaline rush". My mind was so bombarded with conflicting and incomprehensible signals, that it just couldn't understand what was happening for most of the time of the freefall, and although I performed all the drills OK, and opened my own chute OK, I was in a bit of a daze.
I did this jump in England, at a military base near Stonehenge (see links for more details on the drop zone). The ground training took a whole day, from about 930am until 5pm, at the end of which we were scheduled to jump. This training was excellent, covering everything, over and over again, right through from entering and exiting the plane, freefall body position and drills, equipment, canopy control, reserve drills, landing approach patterns, slow and fast landings, and more. We were totally ready to jump at the end of the day, but unfortunately the winds became too strong and the light failed us. On the second day, after a brief refresher, I was again ready to jump, but conditions were again poor until right at the very end of the day. So it was getting towards dusk when I eventually jumped, giving another slightly ethereal feel to it all. I left the plane at 12,000 feet with my own parachute, and with an instructor on either side of me, holding on to my jumpsuit as we fell. As we accelerated to roughly 120 mph, I went through the drills of reading off my altitude to each instructor, following signals to alter my body position, and performing 'practice pulls' to get used to the sensation of reaching for my ripcord. Once I pulled the ripcord (at about 4,500 feet), the roar of the wind disappeared and I was left alone to wonder at the view and scare myself rigid with over-exuberant swings on the canopy's steering lines. I had a radio to receive instruction from the ground during my descent under canopy, and came in to an extremely gentle tip-toes landing. An unforgettable experience.
Fast forward to 10 months later, and skip across the Atlantic Ocean over to Texas. Because of the long time gap between jumps, it was understandable that I had to repeat level 1. So again, I jumped from 12,000 feet with my own parachute, again with two instructors during freefall. And again this was after almost a whole day of training. But the weather was almost perfect, and I could jump as soon as I was ready. (Again, see links for more info on the drop zone). When I jumped, I was a whole lot calmer and a whole lot more aware of what was happening. I did all the drills a lot quicker and more confidently, and so had more time between 7,000 feet and 5,000 feet to just look around and go "wow!". As in the first jump, I pulled my own ripcord, but if for any reason I hadn't been able to (some people just 'freeze'), either of the instructors could have opened my chute for me. I think my canopy was larger than my first jump though, because the turns weren't as dramatic or as instantaneous, and there was a more noticeable lag between input and reaction.
All in all, it wasn't as stupefying as the first jump, because that was just an incredible experience. But it was more enjoyable, in a different way, because I was far more aware and could begin to appreciate how much fun the sense of control would eventually be. The difference was that after my first jump I was standing there and saying "wow". After the second jump I was jumping up and down saying "I want to go again!". By now I've really got the bug.
One week later, on another Sunny Texas morning. I was allowed to combine levels 2 and 3 into the same jump, so after exiting the plane with the two instructors, I did a gentle tracking move (straightening the legs to tip the body forwards and move across the sky) followed by a 90 degree right-hand turn. I still had plenty of altitude after this, so the instructors let go and I was completely solo for the first time! I was grinning from ear to ear by this stage, so I put in an extra 90 degrees right turn just for a laugh, before pulling the ripcord at about 4,500 feet. And they gave me a smaller canopy this time, which means faster flying speeds and twistier turns (and hence some swearing). It just gets better and better.
Hot on the heels of the previous jump, and still grinning, I was again whisked up to 12,000 feet for my level 4. I only had one instructor this time, who was facing me in freefall, and the simple brief of 'right 90, left 90, check altitude', repeating all the way down to 5,000 feet, trying to make the turns smooth and tidy. Unfortunately, my poor excited brain couldn't quite cope with that many instructions, so once I had started doing my turns and grinning, and trying to concentrate on balancing and making the turns smooth, I completely forgot to check my altitude. Until I got the signal from my instructor, looked down at my altimeter and read 3,500 feet. Oops. Time to pull, I think... But apart from that, I improved on a few things. My exit from the plane was better and more stable, my body position during freefall was more relaxed, and my landing was almost spot-on. Just got to remember to check my altitude next time.
Another week later, another perfect jumping weekend. The jump zone was very busy this time, with lots of tandems coming and going, so it gave us lots of time to chat, eat muffins and cake, drink soda and just generally hang out. My first jump was level 5, which was just a 360 degree right turn, grin at the instructor, 360 degree left turn, grin, then check out the view down to pull altitude. But I was determined to make my exit better, my body position more arched, check my altitude regularly and run a good landing pattern. And I did all of those (especially the grinning), and had a near-perfect tippy-toes landing within 20 feet of the windsock. And I didn't even swear once under canopy!
After nourishing home-made burgers for sustenance (thanks Tim!), we went for level 6. This was the first time that I exited the plane solo, without the instructor holding onto my jumpsuit grips, and I got the exit just right. Then as we faced each other at some frighteningly high Earthward speed, she swung her arms down and her legs forward and just did a back flip in mid air! Amazing to watch, but even more amazing to try and do - and it's not as difficult as I thought it would be. I did, however, have a bit of a problem with the next task - front flips. It looked easy when my instructor did it, but somehow once I'd rolled a little way forward, I got really unstable and just rolled over to the side instead. After I'd got myself stable again, and turned round to face her again, she did another back flip, and so did I, <check altitude...> , then she did a front flip (that looks easy...) and then I did a kind of rolling-around- the-sky-type-thing. But everything else was fine, and hopefully I'll get plenty of practice over the next few weeks to get my forward flips sorted out.
Last jump of the AFF course. Barrel rolls in each direction, followed by wave off and track. Fantastic fun. And now I'm cleared to fly solo! (And I also owe the fridge a large amount of beers).
Whatever I want. I spent a few jumps practising my flips, because they are just the best fun, and also practising slow and fast turns. And barrel rolls. And doing the "James Bond" thing with the arms tucked in for extra speed. And then Chris told me that if, instead of arching, with your lowest point being your belt buckle, you do an inverted arch, so that your body is bent the other way, your stable position becomes bum to Earth instead of belly to Earth, and you hurtle towards the ground on your back. And if you look 'up', you can see the horizon all around you. Very odd, and surprisingly good fun.
I was also fortunate in that Marie, a very good skydiver from Maryland, was around just after I'd finished my AFF, so I was able to start on the long long road of learning how to do "Relative Work". This is freefalling in formation with other people, and manoeuvring and docking with them, which I found almost impossible. But very cool when it works. For starters it's hard to fall at the same rate, and then if you're not careful you end up orbiting each other and over-correcting differences in orientation and speed. And then ending up passing over the other person and getting caught in their air burble, which is somewhat interesting. So that's the next thing to learn, probably. On my next jump...