The first bad moment came when it occurred to me that I wasn’t wearing a parachute. Here I was on my way to jump out of an airplane, and all I had on was a dirty blue jumpsuit and a body harness. Tremors of raw vulnerability washed over me. I worked through the moment, telling myself that Tim—my quiet, but quick-to-smile instructor —was wearing not one, but two parachutes. Any moment, he would hook our harnesses together in five distinct places. It was in his best interest to have me arrive safely, I told myself. I breathed deeply and asked him how many jumps he’d done.
“One,” he said with a straight face.
I laughed nervously.
“Oh, I thought you meant today,” he said, followed by that quick smile. A few minutes later it was time to turn around for the hook-up. My 6-foot-5 husband managed the maneuver quite gracefully despite the fact that four of us were crammed into a seatless plane with less elbow room than the family van. A clear-plastic pop-up door provided the instructors with visibility and served as a constant reminder of where, ultimately, we were headed.
I watched behind me as Tim made the last two connections. It’s in his best interest for me to arrive safely, I told myself again. And again. It became my mantra.
We were all on our knees now, ready and waiting for the moment. Dave and Tim searched the sky, looking for an opening in the clouds. The day had started out bright and blue, and I’d felt blessed to have such gorgeous weather for my 40th birthday jump. But as we’d driven to the airport and worked through an hour of instruction, the clouds rolled in. Dave—the talkative half of the Wright brothers—had assured us he’d find an opening. Suddenly he shouted.
I looked away as a huge hole appeared in the side of the plane. The wind was deafening. Adrenaline flooded my chest, and my heart bobbed up and down in a sea of panic. To escape my own fear, I focused on my acrophobic husband crouched next to the opening, wondered how he was handling the sudden contact with space at 10,000 feet. My concern was quickly interrupted.
“Let’s go!” Dave shouted over the roar. There was only had a small break in the clouds and we couldn’t afford to miss it. Steve swung his feet out the door and scooted his rear to the edge of the opening. Then whoosh! He was gone! Sucked down and away from the plane. My stomach tightened with a sickening sense of loss. That was the worst, watching him go. He didn’t look or act scared of course. He’s a big tough guy. But I know him well.
There was no time to dwell on it.
“Go, go.” Tim nudged my back. I scooted quickly to the door, trying to focus on the details instead of the plunge. Bravely, I shoved my feet out onto the wheel, feeling the wind whip my pant legs. I gripped the harness on my chest tightly with both hands, determined to be a good student and not hang on to the plane. A cold dampmess licked my face.
The last bad moment. Sitting in the open door at 10,000 feet, knowing that the guy behind me was going out —that, in fact, it was the only way he exited the plane—and that I was going with him.
I looked down into the cloud and thought, “This is insane.”
“Ready.” Tim rocked me forward.
“Set.” Tim rocked me back.
My heart pounds as I relive the moment of rocking forward into nothingness. As it does every time I think about it.
My memory of the next few seconds is a bit fuzzy. I distinctly recall wet cloud on my face. I vaguely remember rolling sideways before ending up facing straight down. Brain freeze is typical for first-time jumpers. The mind cannot accept what the body has done. It takes a few seconds to orient and begin to function. When the brain does kick in, the first thing it does is panic. Which is why when Tim tapped my shoulders, I tensed, and thought, “Oh no. What does that mean?”
My natural instinct was to reach for the rip cord. But I caught myself. No, too soon. He tapped my shoulders again. Oh yes—I began to recall the training—arms out. He hooked his feet around mine and pulled up. That’s right, knees bent, back arched.The free fall began.
Plummeting toward the earth at 120 mph is a bizarre experience. Falling for a few seconds in the fog was disturbing, but once we came through and I could see the land patterns below, I was all right. Even now it seems unreal, to be moving that fast, without a chute open and not be petrified. But I was relieved to have survived the exit and surprised at how close the earth seemed. All I had to do was wait for the signal to pull the cord.
It was a long wait. Thirty-five seconds can take forever. The ground kept coming closer and closer, and still we plummeted. The wind was ice cold and as loud as a freight train. I remember thinking that I should be scared, but I wasn’t. After what seemed like minutes, I became anxious to get the chute open.
Finally, the hand in front of my face, telling me it was time. I looked down for the orange ring and didn’t see it. Damn! My jump suit flapped wildly, obscuring my view. I groped around frantically, determined to get the cord before my three seconds were up. That’s all they give you. If you don’t perform, the instructor steps in. Dave had told us during training that half of all first-time jumpers don’t get the cord. Even plenty of second-time jumpers don’t succeed.
But I found it! I could see Tim’s hand there, waiting, ready, but I beat him to it. I gave a good pull and held on. (Another thing first timers do is pull and throw, tossing away a $20 cord that must be paid for.)
Whooff! whooff, whooff. The chute opened, in a series of quick gusts. A powerful draft jerked my body upright and suddenly I was floating instead of plummeting. Silence and stillness washed over me. Heart and brain slowed in unison. I was at peace, floating gently toward the earth.
The canopy ride was glorious. Floating gently down, down, circling toward the ground. The closest I’ve ever come to flying. Yet, it was odd too. My arms were straight above me and I felt like I was hanging from a huge kite with very little control. Changing directions was a rush! Sky sailing.
It goes by all too quickly. Especially on a cloudy day with very little wind. The stillness makes for a fast landing too. We we’re doing fine until my feet hit a ditch and bam! We stopped and fell over. But nothing hurt, and I stood up, expecting my legs to shake like they do after a near accident. They were rock solid. I looked over at my husband about fifty feet away, and he grinned like a kid just getting off a carnival ride.
His experience was different from mine in subtle ways, but equally incredible. Neither of us could stop thinking or talking about it for days. We’re both eager to go again. It’s a clique, I know, but the reason people race cars and climb mountains and exit airplanes mid-flight is for that heart-stopping, chest-tightening, adrenaline rush that accompanies possible death. But skydiving is more than that. My husband said it best: “I look at the sky differently now. It’s someplace I’ve been.”