So the other day I went skydiving for the first time (and hopefully not the last). It went a little something like this:
For about a year or so I have had a slight hankering (one of those back-of-the-mind-but-always-there deals) to skydive. A few weeks ago I heard of some plans at the little cafe where I work that the front of house crew was planning a trip to do just that. I inserted myself into the group by letting the ringleader of this trip know that I wanted to attend. So she put me on the list with about 15 other names. About two weeks before our skydiving adventure (aren’t you glad I didn’t write catastrophe?) said ringleader (also called “Destiny”) collected the money for the trip from the dwindled down list of seven stubborn adventure-goers, including myself.
The time came for the lovely adventure and our small little group from a nice little cafe in Birmingham, Alabama caravanned to Cedartown, Georgia to jump out of some nice little airplanes.
Being the thoughtful person that I am, I spent most of the day sort of making friends but mostly pondering this very odd experience. It goes somewhat as follows:
We arrive at the “Skydive Georgia” airport a little after 11am on a mostly sunny, slightly damp, and definitely chilly Sunday of February morning. My excitement level maintained at “nervous excitement” from car ride to arrival. As we enter the building, several of the older, more professional skydivers (we assume) are making remarks about the high level of danger and possibility of death all of us non-certified skydivers are facing. It’s all in jest, but I have to keep reminding myself not to take it seriously. …or at least too seriously. I think that I insightfully infer these professional people are trying to scare us (probably pretty obvious but at the time I feel a slight amount of relief that I am aware of the real game in some small way. The whole what I’m doing here, skydiving business bit I haven’t quite figured out). We watch a video, briefly addressing the possibility of impending death or serious injury, but mostly addressing the importance of purchasing the “Professional” photography package of your minutes long journey from atmosphere to earth, which I, of course, purchase.
We have the opportunity to watch other, earlier-arrived skydivers glide back down to ground zero as we wait for our individual instructors to strap us into tandem harnesses and explain the details of skyfalling.
After about an hour my name is called and I meet a man named Charlie, on whom my life will depend for the next 30 minutes. He is my skydiving instructor and tandem partner. He straps me into the harness and I meet my camera man, Frank, who will also be skydiving with us to film and photograph my experience (“Professional” package).
Charlie informs me that all I need to know he will tell me at just the right time, which I don’t consider enough to question. We take some pictures, my photographer asks me a few questions and soon we are off with a few others of my cafe crew to board a very small passenger plane. There are two bench rows on this small plane. We sit straddling the bench, instructor behind student, with four student-instructor pairs on the plane. It’s a tight fit. Once the plane takes off, each instructor attaches the student’s harness to his own. I am at the front of the second row facing the three photographers, one of whom is a woman – the only one of the pro group. I mostly keep my eyes on her, distractedly deciding she must like hot pink as most of her gear is in the color and there must be at least enough female skydivers in 2014 for the female skydiving jumpsuit market to have varied color and style selection.
I’m maintaing my “nervous excitement,” flagrantly not considering the possible negative outcomes of what can happen and generally feeling confident in the scenario. I and my instructor, Charlie, are to be first off plane. As we make our ascension to 14,000 ft, Charlie, gives me a basic plan of action. His first instruction is that he will tell me when to put on a pair of goggles and gloves that he hands me. I internally wonder why I can’t simply put them on at that moment but, I think, based on the fact that he has made 8500 jumps before this and that I have made none I don’t voice this observation. I am definitely slightly past nervous feeling at this point, but stubbornly refusing to admit that to my brain. I probably am experiencing more a sense of confusion as to why skydiving is actually an activity people do and how I have come to take part in it. The camera guy – Frank – asks me if I have any last words. I don’t and, because I am unprepared for his addressing me, bringing me up out of my inner thought world, the only response I manage is, “Can’t think of anything.” Charlie explains to me about four times that when we jump out of the plane I need to arch my back, bend my knees behind me and look up. Since all my friends have already explained this to me before boarding the plane because their instructors pre-informed them, I simply nod and practice the motion instead of freakout trying to interpret this new information under the stress of facing my current reality. Even having the pre-warning on the whole “arch your body” thing, I am concerned at what will happen if I forget this step. I think that neck breaking could be the answer so I rehearse my arch as much as possible while sitting on the row attached to my instructor. He also tells me I will need to cross my arms and place my thumbs in two loops on each strap at my underarm. I practice this too. I think I start to feel a sense of instinctual survival replace nervousness because I am rather calm, though, I feel more prone to slowness in reaction than alertness.
In a matter of seconds we have arrived at 14,000ft and my instructor is moving us toward the open door of the plane. I look down to see clouds and land far below and then lift my head as instructed as we step forward, and he jumps, out of the plane, followed by my assigned photo-skydiving fellow, Frank.
At some point in the fall I realize I have forgotten to breathe so I instruct myself to do so. I release my thumbs from their slots at the motion of the instructor and let them rest on the force of the air, keeping them pretty close to my body. I cannot scream and I cannot determine if this is because of the breathing issue or if it is because one doesn’t scream falling at a speed of 120 mph in the sky. Frank is trying to keep me interacting with the camera. This is a relief because, as far as I can tell, my body seems on the verge of panicking. It feels strange to fall and not brace oneself for a landing. You are more so embracing… falling.
Pretty soon the free-fall is near over and Charlie signals to Frank that we are releasing the chute. Frank continues falling and suddenly I feel a jerk as we come close to a sudden halt. We begin to unnoticeably glide down. I feel we are suspended in midair but the landmarks below getting bigger by the second tell me otherwise. It’s nice to be able to talk to Charlie at this point except that I now notice that whenever he speaks my ears buzz and his voice is very dim. He tells me to plug my nose and blow out which solves the problem. After landing I ask him if this happens to him every jump. It does.
He next instructs me to stand on his feet as he loosens the harness which has been rather tight throughout the fall. I do but whine a bit for fear at him dropping me. He does it anyway, comfortingly exhorting me that I won’t fall. Loosened up we continue to glide down to the ground. The scenery is beautiful and Charlie hands me the cords attached to each parachute wing (I might be missing it on the lingo here). I steer us at his direction. Pulling the left cord we circle left. Pulling right we turn right. I wonder what has made this man I’m attached to want to do this for a living but I’m not surprised at his desire to do it as we continue to glide. Landing, the part I’ve been most nervous about, is a welcome event as the final instruction of lifting my legs straight before me to slide onto the ground comes. Our landing isn’t as smooth as one being filmed would hope, but I’m happy to be bearing my weight on my feet.
On the ground I simply want a quiet spot to contemplate what has occurred when Frank charmingly asks what my favorite part of the ride was to which I respond with an unintelligible explanation. I traverse off of the field at the instruction of my instructors (I think I would unquestioningly do whatever they say) to the very nearby waiting station to meet my work friends. We all share our individual wonder at the experience and different falling stories and eventually make our way back to Birmingham.
Four days later my wonder at the experience is still first on my mind (a big deal for a distracted 21st century quick to forget woman like myself). I think I have more curiosity about the experience than I did before and I feel my only consolation will be in making the jump again.
Click the top picture to view my skydiving photos 🙂