For too many years, I’d had the strong and persistent urge to try skydiving. This from a person deathly afraid of both heights, and flying in commercial aircraft. But skydiving was one of those bucket list items I wanted to check off before I checked out.
Do Your Research Before Skydiving
Five months after my 50th birthday, I found myself surfing the web in search of a local drop zone manned by professionals who do this kind of thing everyday. I found three within easy driving distance so I went to their websites and started doing research. I also joined an online skydiving forum, DropZone.com where I was able to talk with other skydivers and receive some firsthand expert advice.
I borrowed and read the book, Jump!: Skydiving Made Fun and Easy by Tom Buchanan which has a wealth of information for the first-time jumper. If a beginner has ever asked the question, it’s probably answered in this book.
After days of researching, web surfing and forum posting, I chose Skydive Carolina in Chester, SC as my drop zone of choice. I’d decided to make a tandem jump where the student is attached to the instructor via a harness and shares a common parachute, rather than a level 1 AFF jump with my own parachute and an instructor on each side during free fall. The ground school preparation is abbreviated for the tandem jump and since this was to be a one-time experience, tandem seemed to be the logical choice.
Skydiving is a weather-dependent sport and my first three scheduled jump days ended in cancellation, two due to weather-related events and one to a sinus infection that would never have made it to altitude.
In an extreme sport that only averages 30-35 deaths per year (and very few of those tandems), the unthinkable happened. A week before my second scheduled jump, a double-fatality involving a student and tandem master occurred at one of the local drop zones.
I questioned my decision to follow through with the jump for about 10 minutes, then told myself to proceed as planned. You don’t stop driving every time you hear someone died in a traffic accident, I reasoned. I’d come too far and wanted this too bad to stop now.
When Sunday morning arrived with sun, calm winds, and clear of sinus infection, I set off for the drop zone at the appointed time. The drive took approximately 90 minutes yet something seemed to be missing for most of the way. Thirty minutes out, I realized what it was: butterflies. Not the kind whose migratory passage heralds the changing of seasons, but the kind that flutter about in your stomach when you’re anxious or nervous.
I began thinking “This is not normal. You are getting ready to jump out of an airplane at 2.5 miles above the earth – you should be nervous!” But the nervousness never arrived: not when I pulled into the parking lot; not when I sat through the short 30-minute ground school where they told us we had just signed our life away; not when I was getting geared up; not when we boarded the plane; not on the way to altitude; not even when the door opened and the other jumpers started to exit. As my instructor and I were sliding down the bench to take our place at the door, I did have the fleeting thought, “maybe I should ride this plane to the ground.” But on reaching the door and seeing the view and other jumpers beneath us, I couldn’t wait to be out there.
I’d asked my instructor for a Superman exit and that’s what he delivered. The exit and free fall are feelings that can’t be adequately described in words; you have the fleeting sensation of falling for perhaps two seconds and then it’s as if a comforting and stable column of air takes over and you’re floating, suspended 2.5 miles above the earth. The view is breath-taking, the wind noise incredibly loud, and there’s no sense of ground rush before you pull the ripcord at 5,000 feet.
I wondered if the chute deployment would be painful since you’re decelerating from 120 mph to 10 mph in less than three seconds, but it was incredibly calm and smooth. I kept my eyes on the videographer as instructed, and watched him disappear from view in a split-second as we instantly decelerated. The deceleration was fast but silky smooth as the canopy slowly inflated above us for our trip back to earth.
The canopy ride is a four-minute dance in descent. On deployment, all wind noise stopped and while under canopy, all I could hear was the gentle flapping of nylon in the breeze. Canopy toggles are ultra-responsive and big circles, tight turns, and breath-taking drops are there for the asking. The best way I know to describe the canopy ride is becoming a feather on the breath of God.
Let It Change You
My first jump was an amazing, life-changing experience. For 5 minutes, there was nothing but complete and total joy in the moment, a freedom and aliveness I’ve never felt and never expect to feel again until my next jump.
Be sure to get video of your skydive. A videographer will exit the plane with you, and take video footage of your jump from start to finish. You’ll get a DVD video of your jump set to music, an additional CD of still photos, and memories that will last a lifetime.
It’s been two years since I was in the sky but not for lack of wanting. Skydiving is an expensive sport and most of it’s up front. The AFF program, jumps to complete your A license, and buying equipment, even used gear, can cost $5,000-$8,000. Once you’ve obtained your license and gear, jump tickets in the US run from $20-$40 per jump depending on altitude and location.
For now I’m grounded, but I still dream of the day when I can play in the sky again. Leonardo da Vinci said it best, “For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been, and there you will long to return.”