Monday, February 24, 2014

From 14,500 Feet

I wrote the following in August 2013, a few weeks after I went skydiving with my brothers-in-law.  Even now, months later, thinking about it gives me a huge adrenaline rush and puts a huge smile on my face.  It's a little lengthy, so click the link below to get the full entry.


Tuesday.  A beautiful August day--not too hot or humid, with a nice breeze, and a bright, blue sky filled with cottony, billowing white clouds... clouds that I just so happened to be flying over in the tiniest plane I’d ever boarded.  I was strapped up securely and tightly to the front of my tandem instructor, A., who, in a few minutes, would be pushing me out of said tiniest plane.  All too soon, we leveled off and the solo skydivers moved into action.  Then the door opened.

Holy.  Shit.  What am I doing?!

It had been only fifteen or twenty minutes earlier that I was standing on solid ground.  We were in the hangar, changing into jumpsuits and harnesses, waiting anxiously and chatting nervously.  Somehow, some way, an hour and forty-five minutes before that, we found ourselves pulling into the parking lot of Skydive Midwest, because we were going to jump out of a plane.  We’d made the reservation only hours before and even as we sat and filled out four different packets of paperwork we still couldn’t believe it was really happening.  I was so very terrified and also incredibly excited--I had no idea what to expect.

After turning in the forms, it was time for the training class, in which we were given the basic rundown of what we were getting ourselves into.  “This is the harness.  The harness you’ll be wearing is actually much newer than this.  This is the parachute, but the one your tandem instructor will be wearing is a newer model.  It has a computer in it so if you reach a certain altitude and the parachute hasn’t opened, it will deploy it for you.  It is a machine, and it can be prone to mechanical error, but it’s nice to have a little additional security.”

It was a little nerve wracking and even though about half of the class had skydived previously, a certain sense of trepidation and anxious energy hung in the air.  In a way, I was just ready to get on with it, to get it over with, I guess.  Though I knew the odds were in my favor--statistically speaking, the most dangerous part of the whole thing was the drive there--I still couldn’t help but be slightly nervous.

Our teacher told us that he was hoping we’d be out soon, but that the clouds were a little too heavy.  So I sat and waited, chatting with my brothers-in-law.  I definitely did a little bit of pacing, too, wandering in and out of the building, to the car and back inside, and out to the fenced in patio that faced the drop zone.  We were in the second group that would be jumping and suddenly, I was concerned and worried that I might not get to jump after all.  This was such a change from before, of course, but the longer we waited, the more I actually found myself somewhat wanting to do it.  It would be a shame to get to this point and miss out on the experience, I thought.  I had talked myself into doing it, and I suddenly really wanted to make it happen.

An hour passed and we were still waiting.  Then, finally, the sky cleared up enough--I heard the engines on the tiny turbo-prop airplane begin to roar and I suddenly felt that anxiousness creeping in again.  I didn’t have much time to think about it, though, because they were taking out the first group and it wouldn’t be long before we would be called to enter the hangar and get ready.

The plane flew off and we watched it until we couldn’t see it anymore... then we waited what felt like forever before, one by one, the skydivers (tandem or otherwise) began appearing in the sky: first as tiny points of dark against robin’s egg blue, then as canopies of bright color floating like leaves through the air.  One by one, they landed, all exhilarated and excited and high fives.  Each and every person I saw had a huge smile on their face, a look of relief and pure bliss--they had just experienced the ultimate in adrenaline rushes, after all.

I met my tandem instructor, A., and I told him that I was freaking out, but that I was more excited than I was scared.  He barely batted an eyelash, appearing very relaxed and chill about what we were going to do.  After he got me all strapped into the harness, he went to help another jumper and I shifted my weight from left to right, unable to keep still.  When A. came back, he gave me a smile and I nervously smiled back.

“How many jumps have you been on?” I asked him.

He looked at me thoughtfully.  “One... two?”  My eyes went wide.  “Oh, you mean total.  Not just today.”  He checked the small digital bracelet he wore.  “Over 1,500 jumps.”

“How many times have you had to deploy your reserve chute?”  I wasn’t sure if I even necessarily wanted the answer.


“That’s pretty good odds!”

“Yeah... but it doesn’t really matter about my odds.  What about you?  What about your luck?”

I gave him a look and grinned.  “I’m going to have very good luck today.”  He nodded in approval.  Only a few minutes later, we got the go ahead and he started leading me over to the airplane.  It was at that point that the adrenaline really started flowing...  oh my god, I’m actually doing this, I’m actually going to jump out of an airplane!  First the tandem skydivers got in, and then the solo skydivers (the videographers and those just heading out for a jump on their own) piled in behind us.

They closed the door, and the plane started moving towards the runway.  I tilted my head back towards A. slightly.  “I suppose I can’t turn back now, can I?” I asked.  A. laughed.

“The higher we fly, the more embarrassing it gets.”

“I thought so,” I answered with a sigh.  We both laughed (though mine was admittedly much more nervous than his) and I directed my gaze towards the window to my right.  I forced myself to take slow, deep breaths as the plane ascended into the air and watched as below, the ground got further and further away.  My heart was pounding in my chest and my palms were sweaty.  My mind was racing, too, almost unable to comprehend what I was about to do.  Everything will be fine...  We kept climbing higher and higher and for a few seconds I really wanted to give up, I could barely help it.  A. and I chatted for a few minutes on the way up, a discussion that served as a nice distraction from what we were only moments away from doing.  Higher and higher still, and then he said, “Alright, let’s review what’s about to go down.”

Only a few minutes later, it all happened as he described.  We reached our jumping altitude, somewhere around 14,500 feet.  The blue light came on and I put on my goggles.  Then the red light lit up, the door opened, and, one by one, each of the skydivers made their way up to the door and promptly jumped out.  I watched them and swallowed nervously--it was all happening so fast!  “If you get scared, just scream as loud as you can,” A. said; I could only nod in reply, still taking deep, long breaths.

He and I were fixed together tightly by four heavy-duty clasps (one on each shoulder and each hip, each designed to hold an insane amount of weight) and I could barely move; he was practically pushing me as we made our way from the front of the plane to the back.  The roar of the engine outside got louder and louder the closer we got to the open door.  Despite this, I could still hear my heart pounding wildly in my own ears.  And once again, I found myself questioning the very actions I was undertaking, even as they were happening and I was doing them.  Oh.  My.  God.

A. held onto the bar that crossed the opening of the door and leaned forward--which meant that I suddenly found myself half-in and half-out of the plane, feeling the cold rushing breeze and looking out at nothing but blue sky and clouds... the very same blue sky and clouds that I had previously been viewing from below, steady on solid ground--solid ground that was now over two and a half miles from where I currently found myself.

I held my arms tightly across my chest, trying not to hyperventilate.  This was, in fact, the scariest part of the whole jump for me...  the anticipation and trepidation were almost overwhelming, and it seemed as though time stood still.  Holy shit, holy shit, this is--  “3... 2... 1!”  A. let go, jumped forward, and then I screamed louder than I ever had before in my life.

We were falling through the sky at a rapid pace and it held steady when the drogue chute (designed to slow down the speed of a tandem skydive) opened up, though I did feel a slight resistance.  We entered the clouds around the same time I stopped screaming and I lost my bearings completely, in free fall and unable to see anything but an opaque, foggy, puffy whiteness.  I focused on taking deep breaths, knowing that eventually we’d have to break through on the bottom.

I’d ridden plenty of roller coasters before, so I had a few ideas of what to expect when experiencing zero gravity.  However, I very quickly realized that they didn’t even hold a candle to what it was actually like to fall through the air and reach terminal velocity.  It was unlike anything else and during the minute or so that we were falling sans parachute, the adrenaline rush that was coursing through my veins started to peak.  I had resigned myself to what was happening, what I was actually doing, and tried to soak it all in, every second.  Ahhhh, I just jumped out of a plane AND I’m falling through a cloud!  This is AWESOME.

A. and I finally broke through the clouds and the clarity on the other side was astounding.  The ground was getting closer and closer, although we were still thousands and thousands of feet above.  We fell a little further and, almost a minute after we’d first jumped out of the airplane, jerked violently from horizontal to vertical.  Above our heads, the multi colored parachute flew open, blooming as it caught hold of the air.

I let out a gasp, then burst out laughing.  The difference between free fall and a deployed parachute was astounding, and I struggled to take it all in.  “This is absolutely incredible!” I exclaimed, looking around at the sights below.  It had been so loud and almost violent before... the rushing air and winds that we had only moments previously been subjected to had been instantaneously replaced with quiet and calm.  A. and I were able to converse without yelling at one another, and I was immediately overcome with simultaneous peace and sensory overload.

I looked around as we drifted through the air, turning in slow circles.  Below us, the land was stitched together in a natural sort of quilt, the squares of farmland and industry tied together by the threads of pavement and concrete.  We were drifting in slow circles and I was totally bewildered by it all, totally overwhelmed in a (mostly) good way.

At one point, A. told me that he was going to release the lower clasps because, now that we were no longer in free fall, they weren’t necessary and we only needed the top ones.  “It’s gonna feel like a drop.”  I was a little nervous about it, but it really wasn’t that bad at all, and we were still safely and tightly secured to one another.  Off to the left, Lake Michigan lay vast and almost teal in the haze we were falling through.  I was filled with complete wonder.

A. let me have control of the parachute and showed me how to steer; we also went through the landing procedures again.  It had only been three or four minutes since we jumped out of the plane, but it felt much longer than that.  “See that, over there?  That’s the Dragaway,” he said, motioning off to the right.  And when we turned clockwise again, I could see Milwaukee up to the north.  We were flying right over Interstate 94, and I took it all in… varying shades of green and brown and the lake, steadfast and sure.

As we got closer and closer to the ground, he took over flying the parachute and I did my best to enjoy every second of what remained of this completely unexpected and completely fulfilling adventure.  We also started twisting and turning as we fell lower, and I did start to feel slightly dizzy (but it wasn’t unbearable by any means).  I could see the drop zone below, the hangar, my car in the parking lot.  Lower and lower we descended, until A. was pulling down on the parachute and we were both lifting our legs up into a seated position, sliding right into the grassy pasture...

...back to Earth, back on solid ground.

My heart was racing and I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my whole body, my shaky limbs.  I couldn’t help but let out another incredulous laugh as I started to get my bearings again.  I went skydiving, and it IT WAS AMAZING!  A. unclasped the shoulder hooks and I stood up, a little unsteady for the first few moments.  He got up and gathered up the parachute and then he looked at me with a huge smile.  “Holy shit, I just jumped out of a plane!” I yelled.

“Hell yeah, you did!”  He held out his hand for a high five, which I returned enthusiastically.  I thanked him profusely for such an amazing experience and he told me that I’d have to do it again.  And then, after an apology, he was off prepare for another jump, the last that would go out for the day.  I thanked him again as he ran back to the hangar, completely understanding the importance of clear blue skies.

I walked (almost ran, really) back to the hangar and met up with my brothers-in-law, who were both as eager as I was to share our experiences.  They were in agreement with me--skydiving was, and is, one of the coolest things we’ve ever done… it was so goddamn scary, but so much more amazing and exhilarating and invigorating than I thought possible, and I cannot wait until I have the opportunity to jump out of a perfectly good plane again.  It was the experience of a lifetime.

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