Skydiving

Yesterday, I joined Phil and Cody in throwing ourselves out of a plane in celebration of Phil’s graduation because, you know, he’s afraid of heights, and that makes perfect sense. I had decided to go a few days ago because it was for a good cause and because it was something I knew I was going to do at some point – I guess you could say it was on my bucket list. Facing Phil’s fears with him made it all the sweeter.

As an aside, if you ever decide to face your fears in a dramatic fashion, I will probably be excited to join you.

Anyway, we made a few mistakes in registering ahead of time, most notably that we didn’t pre-register at all, which cost us up to $70 per person in savings, and we were put at the back of the wait list. We also brought cash for whatever reason, and we were told that the weather would be terrible, all of which were lies. It was like Ryan didn’t even want us to come, probably so that we couldn’t uncover the sham that is his skydiving career.

We persevered through the onerous legalese, which comfortingly mentioned INJURY and DEATH on every page. But then, it also mentioned canoeing and horseback riding quite often. We could only imagine what had happened involving canoes, horses, and skydiving that they felt compelled to protect themselves against that eventuality. Regardless, we signed our lives and IMPORTANT LEGAL RIGHTS away to Skydive Chicago. It made for good laughs, and for contemplating mortality and horseback skydiving.

With all the paperwork done, we headed to a training video session that went through most of the legal paperwork again and also walked us through the procedures for skydiving. The man in the video had an amazing beard, which obliterated most of my specific memories of the video. But perhaps most alarming was when Cody pointed out that the video said we would get more training while we were in the airplane and that we would learn to land on the way down.

Finally, our call time was up. The equipment helper handed us our jumpsuits and seemed surprised and eager when I told him that I wouldn’t mind wearing pink, so I donned the Pink Ranger outfit. Phil wore green, I wore pink, and Cody got the black and yellow jumpsuit, Bruce Lee-style. Shortly after, we met our videographers and our tandem coaches, who walked us through the procedures for the jump a few more times and taught us to smile at the camera whenever possible.

I asked my tandem coach if anyone had ever passed out during a jump. The answer was yes, but mostly very large people with poor circulation. When the parachutes engage, the harnesses would tighten up and cut off blood flow. Cody, meanwhile, was investigating the economics of becoming an instructor or a videographer, who get paid per jump. The short story is that you should not skydive if you hope to make a living out of it.

We boarded the next plane. It was little more than a tin can with propellers. I helpfully reminded Phil of this as much as possible during our ascent to 13,500 feet. At about 1,100 feet per minute, it would take roughly 15 minutes. We flew in a half-loop west and came back around east for the drop zone. Later, Phil assured me that he knew exactly how high we were, being a graduate of the Atmospheric Sciences department, but, more to the point, because he was afraid of heights.

Everyone in our flight-enabled tin can was a formation skydiver except for the three of us. “You’re going to watch a bunch of people disappear real fast!” my tandem partner said. I imagine he was grinning, because Enzo was always grinning, but I couldn’t see him. We were jammed in the plane between each others’ legs, leaning back against each other for maximum seating and minimum free space.

The lack of space wasn’t an issue in a moment, when the formation divers waddled over to the exit, clumped up, and then evacuated the plane. In a split second, the plane was empty of everyone but Phil, Cody, and myself. Cody was first, then Phil, and then myself. There was no height to stand, so we, too, waddled forward on our knees to the exit.

Tandem jumping is peculiar because it’s mostly for training and safety, so as a tandem partner, we don’t really get to do much. We were taught to rock back and forth and then at some point our tandem coach would essentially hip thrust us out of the plane. All we had to do was sit up on our knees and arch, placing our head on our instructor’s chest and maintain that throughout the freefall, which accounted for the first minute of the jump.

The freefall was intense.

Enzo, my trainer, had mentioned that skydiving was a great way to get into the moment. I can attest that nothing obliterates thoughts of the past and the future like being 13,500 feet up, staring at the landscape below with the enraged roar of the sky in your ears as you plummet downward. There is nothing to hear but the wind, and nothing to focus on within 10,000 feet other than the photographer. The other jumpers have disappeared into the vast, vast ether that makes up our atmosphere. They and everything around for miles are gone.

I checked my altimeter like I’d been trained to. It read 7,000 feet. I was supposed to pull the chute between 5,500 and 5,000 feet, but it seemed like just moments after checking the altimeter when my coach pulled the chute for me. I’m still not sure whether he was going easy on me, or whether time was dilating in my mind. I felt a jerk and then pulled into a slower, but still quite speedy descent as the chutes deployed. Enzo had me grab the guide handles and started directing me on how to turn. He pulled us into several sharp turns that felt like rollercoasters – only this was under our control! I wooped as we took several sharp descending loops left and right, always checking below us for prior jumpers. I could see Phil and Cody in their brightly colored jumpsuits far below.

Enzo went over our options for landing. The wind would affect whether I would land on my feet or skid to a stop on my ass. I don’t remember which landing correlated with which wind speed, but I think I remember him saying that no wind meant an ass landing. So, up my legs went, and we went in. After a somewhat awkward landing, I set foot on solid ground once more, and rejoined Phil and Cody for a celebratory hug. We would rejoin our coaches for a final debriefing and to get our certificates, but we were skydivers. We had done it.

In retrospect, while our classroom instructor had sold us on the video and photo package, it is probably one of my few regrets on the trip. I would probably get the package again if it were my first time, but it isn’t without downsides. Being told to focus on the camera takes away from the moment. For a split second, I was hyper-focused on the oncoming ground. It would have been helpful to my awareness to just be in the moment, focused on my training, but instead I had this guy recording me and the potential Facebook crowd that I had to appease, as I would no doubt be uploading it to “social,” as they say. Maybe if I hadn’t been distracted, I would have been able to pull my chute on time. Maybe I would have remembered more of freefall than I did.

The photos and videos are valuable in their own ways, regardless of how many photos they took of the plane and of random people’s backs. They were probably a good investment, but it may have been a better investment for someone who would have completely freaked out in the air and had better reactions. I would have liked to remain focused on the jump.

That said, skydiving was an amazing experience and one I’d be open to repeating in the future, despite its cost. The videographer asked me afterward if I’d do it again and, after I froze while thinking about the economics of doing so, he managed to eke a “yeah, probably” out of me.

But next time I want to do it on horseback.