An Open Letter to New AFF Instructors

Posted on June 30, 2014 by lowequality in Instructor’s Corner.
by Melissa Nelson Lowe, Ben Lowe & Barry Williams
(as seen in the Blue Skies Mag issue #54 May 2014)


The three of us became AFF instructos in different times, at different places and for different reasons. What we have in common is a love of teaching students and desire to help other AFF-I’s be the best instructor’s they can be. We’ve seen skydiving change a lot over the years, including the quality of mentorship and continuing education opportunities for AFF-I’s. We wanted to share our experiences and tips, the quesitons we get asked as AFF-I mentors, and the things we wish new AFF-I’s would ask.

Take your time for the student

AFF students are committed to become skydivers and deserve the time of a dedicated instructor. Students do not benefit from being rushed as they’re not learning, and in turn not gaining any confidence for the jump. Be present with your student, it may be the jump that gets them stoked about skydiving.

Speak the language of a teacher –“Show me” and ask questions

The language we speak to our students is an instructor’s essential tool.

Being a teacher also says you are an expert at what you do. It means you know how to explain what things are and how to perform maneuvers as well as do what you teach. Once a topic has been explained and demonstrated, the student needs to be able to put it into context and demonstrate what you want them to do.

Once an instructor has explained and demonstrated a topic, the important language is, “SHOW ME.” Have the student SHOW you what they’ve learned. The only practice and feedback a student can get is on the ground. Other than a wind tunnel, there is no other relevant daily movement that mimics what we do in the sky. Perfect practice on the ground instills good knowledge and confidence in the air.

In addition, it’s important to ask your student a lot of questions relevant to the objectives on their level. For example, “Do you know how to do a gear check?” If they say yes, then say, “Great! Show me.”
“Do you know how to roll out of bed?” “Great! Show me.”
“Have you checked the winds and figured out your landing pattern and holding area?”
“Great, show me!”

Then ask more questions of your student than the statements that you make. Asking open- ended questions requires the student to dig deep and think about what they are about to do. The other benefit of asking open ended questions is that you will get an insight into their thought process and to be honest, it can be very entertaining because the stuff that you will hear come out of a students mouth will amaze you.

The language that is used is critical for the positive mental attitude of your student. It can make the difference of them coming back to repeat the level or quitting the sport.

Take the lead

You’ve earned your AFF Instructor rating. Be confident in your knowledge and your skills. Part of being an AFF-I is also being a good teacher. That means, taking the lead! If you’re student isn’t reciting the correct information or not demonstrating something perfectly, fix it!

The patience exuded and time spent on the ground perfecting exit and body position, the dive flow, emergency procedures, canopy control, landing pattern, etc., the more confident and relaxed they’ll be under the stress of the skydive.

You are in charge, take control!

Get to know your student

When working with a student for the first time, be sure to assess their abilities. This is a perfect example of being a teacher – discover what skills a person has before performing them. This is where asking the student questions like:

“When/where was your last jump?”
“How did that jump go – exit, freefall, canopy flight, landing?”
“What did you learn from that jump?”
“Can I see your logbook (or video)?”
“Do you know what we’re doing on this next level – for exit, freefall, canopy and landing?”
“Do you know how to do a gear check?”
“Do you remember how to do a flight plan?”
“What size parachute did you jump last?”

It’s important not to assume you and the student are “speaking the same language,” especially if they’ve learned at another drop zone. Most students spend a lot of time away from skydiving, so it’s important to see how much the remember and how much they remember correctly.

Being able to assess their skills will help identify what you’ll need to work on prior to getting in the air. This will also help freshen their memory, boost their confidence, and hopefully move forward.

More than just freefall

Student’s need more information about a skydive than what to do in freefall. Freefall procedures are important, however there’s so much more to the skydive: how to exit the plane, instilling good body position for the pull sequence, instilling what to do when the canopy opens, canopy drills, landing pattern, landing, teaching how to figure exit order, exit separation, determining line of flight, etc.

Each new level, the student should have something new to learn in order to keep progressing. Each level is getting a student closer to their first solo. Therefore, it’s essential the student show and tell you more so you know that they’re ready to be on their own.

Think about the things that are important as an experienced jumper? Students are committed to learn, teach them!


Having the time with the student should allow for time to cover getting to know the student, explaining and demonstrating the new objectives for freefall and canopy training, that dirt diving several times will further instill confidence and comfort in the student.

Since instructors are essentially preparing their students to become licensed skydivers, it is also equally important to continually go over gear checks. The first overall gear check is when the equipment is checked out to jump, before boarding the plane and before jumping. Consistency in repetition and thoroughness will inspire good actions.

Facilitate success

Here’s the bottom line: if you’re student didn’t do well, it’s because of their lack of training. The student doesn’t fail. Period.

The saying, “Those who can’t do, teach,” does not hold true in skydiving. As an AFF-I, you need to be able to do both. Anyone can deploy a pilot chute for a student, but teaching is an art. There are several different types of students and “learners” in the world and an instructor needs to do their best to facilitate an environment for the student to learn.

Having multiple training aids on-hand and knowing different techniques will help an instructor reach their student.

Along with taking your time with the student, repetition of the jump (including gear checks, emergency scenarios, etc.), a proper debrief is also in order to facilitate success. An instructor should be able to identify what a student needs to improve on from the jump, but before an instructor gives their feedback, let the student talk it out. Guide the student’s memory from recalling the jump from exit, beginning to end of freefall, the pull sequence, canopy descent, pattern, then landing.

A jump is more than exit to opening it’s, “gear check to landing.”
Then try to have the student identify what they need to work on by asking more questions. “How do you feel the exit went?”

“What do you think you can improve on the next one?”
“Great, let’s go to the mock-up and let’s review what happened.”

Video is a great tool, but can be an instructor’s crutch. Make sure the student reviews the jump from memory, answers key questions from the instructor, walk the dive with improvements, THEN watch the video to reinforce what was learned.

You will never have the exact same experience with two different students. This is what makes AFF so exciting.

Sometimes you aren’t the right Instructor

If you aren’t able to reach a student, it doesn’t mean that the student can’t learn or that you’re a bad instructor. Understand that all students will react and learn differently from person to person – and that’s great! Some students gel better with other Instructors due to their personality, lifestyle or teaching method.

Sometimes, it is best to get advice from another Instructor or just step aside and let someone else take the lead. Consistency between the Instructor/Student relationship can be a very powerful thing, but sometimes getting a fresh perspective from another Instructor is what is going to make the difference for that student.

Find a mentor.

A fresh AFF-I has just the basic knowledge and experience of being an Instructor and may have a hard time finding work straight away. Though you passed the AFF course, what you experienced cannot be compared to what you’ll see in real life!

Many seasoned AFF-I’s have incredible experiences that could have not been foreseen. Therefore, it is suggested to shadow experienced AFF-I’s to start stocking teaching techniques, learning the program taught at your DZ, and continuing to see what you can improve on. And begin by doing reserve side jumpmaster on Level 1’s and 2’s.

This license is no joke.

Respect the sport, the rating, the student and yourself.

Always keep learning.

Earning a rating is just the beginning of a new and exciting journey! Since techniques and equipment are always changing, it’s wise to continue to learn all you can.

Traveling to different DZ’s and seeing how they teach, observing AFF classes, learning a new discipline to improve your own skills, structured tunnel training are just a few ways to keep learning.

Stay current.

The U.S. Parachute Association defines instructor currency in the Instructor’s Rating Manual, AFF Section 1, part H, defines a current AFF-I as having done the following the past 12 months:

  1. acted as instructor on 15 AFF student jumps
  2. attended a USPA Instructor seminar
  3. conducted training or complete review training in Category A for AFF
  4. acquired the signature of a current S&TA, I/E, or member of the USPA Board of Directors on renewal requirements to verify that the renewal requirements were met

If you haven’t jumped in the last 6 months, you are also uncurrent as a D-licensed skydiver, not just as an instructor. Uncurrent skydivers are unsafe to themselves as well as the student. Do your due diligence to get back into the sport safely, then review Instructional procedures.

You are a mentor for life.

Everyone has a person in their skydiving career that kept them motivated, smiling and learning. Be the person that did that for you. This is when you will really reap the benefits of being an AFF-I. Be responsible and enjoy it!


Barry Williams, aka “Chandler” (from the movie “North Shore” which he recommends all students watch) is the S&TA and shaman of Skydive Elsinore. With his impressive 8,000 jumps (7,000 of which are instructional jumps), zero cutaways and no tandem rating, Barry recently donned the new title of “School Manager”.

Ben Lowe is the “professor of skydiving” with all of his Instructor/Examiner ratings and 7,000 skydives. He won the 2011 Chelsea Judy Award at Skydive Chicago and has currently moved his school of bad-assry to Skydive Utah.

Melissa Lowe is the former Missy Nelson and keeps changing her name to totally confuse everyone. She is the legendary badass with 11 world records in 3 disciplines with over 10,500 jumps. She recently authored the hair-raising tale of her late father called, Sugar Alpha and blogs at

Personal Advice from the Instructors

From Barry Williams: “Keep asking questions, keep learning, expect the worst and train for the best.”
From Melissa: “I always teach a student as they’re going to be the next world record holder or world champion. The skills I instill in them in the beginning will help them be more knowledgeable and hopefully, safer.”

From Ben Lowe: “ I teach a student to be the next examiner, they are the future of the sport.”