Falling from Space: Skydiving Made Easy

The following was written during the winter of 2000 as an “According to Mike” article.  Good thing I’ve already done this; my cardiologist would never go for it.

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I only had three full days to get mentally prepared for my first skydive, the ultimate test of bravery/sanity.  I assumed it would fall through over the weekend. Either the weather would be nasty, I would have to work or would chicken-out.  But once Sunday evening came around and the morrow’s skydiving plan was still afloat, anxiety hit hard.  Sleep was evasive.  Sitting wide-eyed in bed, I decided to read some Hemingway to either get sleepy or find some 11th hour injection of manly nerve and bravado. The ironic fact that Papa Hemingway was an eventual suicide wasn’t lost on me.

On the day of reckoning I was up early to rendezvous at The Waffle House with my follow jumpers. So I sat in the parking lot and penned a brief will.  Being a natural worrier, this seemed to be the right thing to do. Details on who was to get what—it’s difficult to sincerely divide a goose egg—aren’t important, but here’s a snippet: if for some reason my chute fails to open and I go splat sometime later in the day, know that I love you all.

As it turned out, only six out of a rough list of 40-something potentials showed up.  We had our coffee and smoked our cigarettes and broke the yolks of our eggs while exchanging nervous laughter. We were really going to do it. While most people were or on their way to work or mulling over their vote in what was to become quite the newsworthy election [2000], we were preparing to leap from a mechanically sound airplane somewhere over St. George, S.C., wherever that was.

On the convoy out to the jumpsite, I pondered the gray band of sky and pictured myself tumbling rocklike through its expanse.  Adventure on land and water can seem unsettling and foreign, but to taunt gravity and trust sheer fabric and rope with your very life seemed pretty dumb, the more I thought about it.

We arrived at Blue Sky Adventures in St. George late in the morning. The business, which is four years in operation and hosts thousands of jumpers annually, was basically a small private airport with a cozy office sitting just off the tarmac and a nearby hangar holding all of the jump gear. Owners Wally and Melissa West were extremely friendly and accommodating, but the undercurrent of danger was obvious. The doom factor, which we were trying to forget about, started with the reams of release forms alerting us that the recreational activity we were about to participate in could leave us, “seriously and permanently injured or even killed.”

But while we were literally signing our lives away, skydiving videos were running on the television and confident, steely-eyed jump studs were there to assure us that everything would be okay.  They were also playing guitar-rock anthems to get you pumped. The nervousness settled into a spirited team camaraderie as we ventured out to the hangar to meet our jumpmasters and learn the basics.

What shocked me most was the brief nature of the instructional speech.  Since we were jumping tandem, there really wasn’t much to explain. Roughly, here’s the orientation: meet your jumpmaster (the complete stranger that you will be hooked to provocatively and who holds your life in his hands), squirm into some sleek pastel flight-pajamas, stuff your body into the torture device of a harness, decide how you want to exit the plane, get on plane. Very simple, very efficient.  It happens so quickly that you can’t dissuade yourself from following through with it. I’m not implying it was unprofessional or that our physical safety was compromised, but it is wise planning on their part to expedite the fundamentals and get you off the ground and up in the air.

And up in the air you are with a target jump elevation at over 13,000 feet.  So the gutted two-prop plane carries the wad of brightly-colored bodies to elevation, with Aerosmith blaring from the boom box seat-belted into the rear of the plane, and your jumpmaster reiterates the gameplan and makes sure you’re not completely freaked out with fear or vertigo.  Together, you check the altimeter, secure yourselves together, discuss again your proper body position for the 45-second freefall, then wait your turn at the hatch. My jumpmaster was “Robbo” Dunn and you can’t imagine a more laid-back, pleasant person. But beyond another’s personality, you really can’t imagine the instantaneous bond that is established between two people as they tumble backwards out of a plane together.

And that’s how it happens. No matter if you exit forwards or backwards, there is an immeasurable length of time that is the pinnacle of chaos.  You don’t know up from down, the wind is deafening, you’re laughing and screaming at the same time but nothing is really coming out because your mouth is eating air at 100+mph, your jumpmaster is moving your limbs around like an action-figure to achieve perfect form, and you’re simply falling out of the sky.

But when he pulls the cord and the chute opens, it’s like you’re completely frozen in space, then all is serene.  Your heart-rate is still off the charts and you’re still tearing up, but the chute has opened and no matter how clumsy your eventual landing will be, you will survive.

You were expecting a rush but the actual rush exceeds all your expectations a thousand times over.  And that rush comes with firm ground, high-fives, draft beer, better friends, indelible memories and a crazed staring contest with your own mortality.  I can think of no better present to give someone than the gift of a first skydive.  Keep that in mind when you’re shuffling through the malls over the next few weeks and every store, every yuletide sentiment, is the same as every other year.

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