Center Snapshot: Steve Riddick
Image above: Steve Riddick works from his office in Building 1232 with his two of his loves on his computer screen, Fiona Blackman-Buurns and his 2001 Jeep Wrangler. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
By: Jim Hodges
All week long, Steve Riddick works to make airplanes safer with NASA Langley's Flight Dynamics Branch.
On weekends, he bails out of them.
Riddick has done so 209 times in the past 21 months as a member of Sky Dive the Point, a club housed at Middle Peninsula Regional Airport in West Point. He carries a "coach" rating from the United States Parachute Association, allowing him to refine the skills of student jumpers once they are cleared for self-supervision in freefall. He also holds the FAA certification of Senior Parachute Rigger, allowing him to pack reserve parachutes and minor repairs.
With each jump comes an additional degree of comfort. "Very quickly, I've gone from, 'oh, I'm jumping out of an airplane' to 'oh, I hope I don't embarrass myself in front of my friends,' " Riddick said.
From that first dive, taken in tandem with an instructor, he has advanced to an 11-diver freefall formation to help celebrate his 200th jump. Also, he managed a jump on which he held a special Mother's Day gift last year.
"She prays about my risk tolerance," Riddick said of his mom.
It's acceptably small, at least to him, and in that, his avocation and vocation bond. Much of aeronautical research is about risk management. "It's interesting how they play off each other," Riddick said. "Granted, I'm not doing equations in my head during freefall."
In skydiving, "you analyze your risk, you make plans to mitigate it and you try to do it smartly. That's as opposed to just taking chances, where you're about half-blindfolded out there, jumping and taking it lightly."
Jumping out of an airplane is nothing to take lightly. Riddick made his first jump in July of 2007, lured in part by former NASA Langley employee Ray Whipple.
"There was definitely nervousness," Riddick said of that first leap. "Once I got out of the plane, it was all about the fun."
From there came graduation to jumping solo and a different primary problem.
"Once I got out of a plane with my own 'chute, I didn't have a lot of fear," Riddick said. "I had some nervousness, but not a lot of fear – until I pulled and waited for the canopy to deploy. I thought, 'I hope this works.' They say count to three before you worry about it."
That's not all they say.
"One of the quotes I've heard is that skydiving can be done safely," Riddick said. "It's just extremely unforgiving of mistakes."
After that first jump came more challenges. Primarily those challenges involve working with other people in the sky, sort of an acrobatic act but without the net, falling at 1,000 feet every 5-6 seconds until it's time to open the parachute, which he equates to "an inflatable wing."
Those canopies get smaller as a jumper gains experience. After starting with a 280 square foot canopy, Riddick currently jumps with a 230 and soon wil jump with a 190. The smaller parachutes make it easier for the diver to go into the wind to make adjustments.
A decent used canopy-harness setup with a reserve parachute chute and a pressure device that – as a last resort – automatically opens the reserve at 1,000 feet costs $2,500 to $3,000, Riddick said.
"One of the ways I realized I was addicted was when I got my license (issued by the USPA after 25 jumps and skills demonstrations) and got my own gear and became a skydiving coach (after 100 jumps and more training)," Riddick said.
A coach teaches skydivers to work with others in the air.
Each jump costs about $23, and he makes four on a cloudless day in which the wind behaves itself.
Another sign of addiction is the regimen on Saturday afternoons, when his alma mater, Virginia Tech, is playing football.
"I still jump during football season, but we have a clubhouse with a widescreen TV," Riddick said, laughing. "So we take a jump, come back and check the score, then take another jump. Watch a bit, take another jump."
When he's not jumping out of airplanes, he's offroading in his Jeep or on his motorcycle. They're faster than the J-36 sailboat on which he was part of a crew.
An adrenaline junkie? No, he insisted, then paused and laughed, "well, not really. The adrenaline rush wears off after your first 30 jumps or so."
More a man in search of exhilaration. He finds it in the air.
"The appeal of skydiving has more to do with the challenge of flying your body," Riddick said. "One of the neat things is that when you jump out of that plane, the only thing you're thinking about is that jump. You're not thinking about cutting the grass at home, or chores or stuff you have to do at work.
"You just kind of clear your mind and think about the jump and about your next point in the formation. You get to a point where the mechanics get to be second nature and you can actually spend your time enjoying it, just having fun with your friends in the sky."