Coincidentally, Groupon started running the same offer I bought this morning. Between now and Thursday night, you can buy a deal to go skydiving for less than half price! I strongly recommend it!
“Funny how falling feels like flying, for a little while.” — Bad Blake, “Crazy Heart”
“Never mind, hey, this is really exciting, so much to find out about, so much to look forward to, I’m quite dizzy with anticipation …
Or is it the wind?
There really is a lot of that now isn’t it?
And wow! Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like … ow … ound … round … ground! That’s it! That’s a good name – ground!
I wonder if it will be friends with me?” — Douglas Adams, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
I’d been working for NASA a little over half a year when I took my first business trip with the agency. I’d only flown three times in my entire life at that point, the first when I was too young to remember it. So I was a little nervous. Not scared, just nervous.
As a result, I prayed wholeheartedly as we were preparing to take off, and then again as we were preparing to land. Praying for safely, commending my soul, praying for those who loved me, and so forth.
Over the years, I’ve become a little more confident, and, while I still pray both prayers any time I fly, they’ve evolved to three words each — “Lord, safe flight” and “Lord, safe landing.”
It was very weird Saturday being in an airplane, saying “Lord, safe flight” and realizing that I wouldn’t be in the plane still for landing. OK, that’s different.
This, then, is my skydiving story.
I’ve been thinking about going for quite a while, almost two years now. I tried on and off last year to get someone to go with me. Then, earlier this year, Groupon ran a half-price deal that needed to be used by the end of the year.
My friends Henry and Cydney Thomson said they were going this past weekend, so I decided I’d waited for the perfect time long enough, and it wasn’t getting any more perfect than that.
We met at Skydive Alabama early that morning, and I went through the brief training. I was going to be doing a tandem dive, strapped to an experienced skydiver, so there was very little you need to know. I was constantly surprised during the course of the day at how easy it was.
That’s our airplane. I’ve heard people say of skydiving, why would you want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. Well, if you’ll notice, that’s not a perfectly good airplane. It has a giant hole in the side!
(And, yes, it did have a transparent door that rolled down during flight when we weren’t jumping.)
Next, we suited up in our flight suits and put on our harnesses. For the Thomsons, who are experienced solo divers, that included their parachutes. My harness, on the other hand, only had the connections where I would be hooked to the trainer. I joked with them as they were putting on their ‘chutes, “Hey, should I have one of those?” So we decided we needed a picture of us from the rear, with their parachutes and my empty harness.
“Two out of three people who skydive would do it again!”
Finally, it’s time to board the plane. And, let me say, the skydiving flightsuits (“Jumpsuits”?) were about as flattering an outfit as I’ve worn.
I don’t think I have any pictures from the inside of the plane, but we were rather tightly packed in. Of course, you’re *very* closely connected to your trainer, strapped together at the hips and chest.
I had known that one of my former coworkers in the education department at Marshall was a skydiving trainer, but hadn’t really given it much thought until I heard that morning that he was going to be there. By the time I found out, I’d already been assigned to someone else. And, frankly, I was OK with that. I like Eddie and all, but feel like if I were going to be that intimately connected with another guy, I’d just as soon it be a stranger.
And then, we were in the air, and, soon the door was open.
And at that point, I became nervous. Not scared, but nervous. And here’s why:
Two years ago, I went camping, rock-climbing and hiking with my friends the Sneeds. And during the hiking at Little River Canyon, we came across a pool where there was a rope swing.
See the guy in the red shorts? That’s me. I thought it would be fun to jump into the water from the rope swing, and so I climbed over to it, found it, grabbed it tightly, and prepared to jump.
For the life of me, I just couldn’t do it. My excuse is that I thought I would mess it up, that I would let go to soon and fall on the rocks, or that I would let go too late and swing back into the cliff Wile E. Coyote style. But, for whatever reason, I couldn’t do it.
That moment was in my head when I started talking about skydiving. It was in my head when I bought the Groupon. It was in my head all morning Saturday, and it was very much in my head when they opened the door. OK, this is it — I have to go from being inside an airplane to outside the airplane, over two miles up. Can I actually do it?
And the answer is, I didn’t have to, thankfully.
When it was our turn to go, we made our way to the door. I sat in the door with my legs hanging out of the plane, and my trainer was behind me. Basically, he sort of lifted up so that, since I was strapped to him, I was still on the plane, but no longer touching it, and he was in control.
One second we were on the plane…
… and the next we weren’t.
The first thought I remember was just relief at that; I was successfully off the plane, and didn’t freeze up. It was done.
Next was the awareness of the feeling, the acceleration, the adrenaline, the wind.
Third was the conscious decision to look down and sort of process the fact that I was falling toward the ground through thin air from two miles up. That’s different, you know?
You can see our cameraman in that picture, taken from the plane right after we jumped. He took this next one just slightly later:
Pretty quickly, we deployed the small drogue chute seen in this next picture. Basically, it slowed us down so that we were falling at the same rate as the cameraman, since otherwise we would have the same drag but twice the weight. Once that was out, we were all falling at terminal velocity for a free-falling person through air — about 120 miles per hours.
I really wish I could do justice to that almost-minute of free-fall. It went by so quickly, and I was so focused on logistics, and then the cameraman, that I never really acclimated. Next time I do it, my goal is to really focus on what that experience is like, beyond being incredibly exciting.
I’ve talked to people who say they couldn’t do it because they’re scared of heights, but, for me, at that altitude, it really doesn’t register as heights. I find there’s a point where there’s a disconnect. I can get nervous driving over a really tall river bridge, but be perfectly fine flying in a plane over the same bridge. Jumping out of the plane, we were so high that it didn’t feel like we were that high, and by the time we got low enough that it registered as a height, I’d been on the chute so long I felt safe.
The camera man came right up to us to get some close-up shots of us, and got close enough that we were actually able to do a high-five as we were falling, permanently giving that term a whole new meaning for me. In fact, it’s probably safer from here on out to just never talk about high-fives to me, lest I make some snarky remark about how we need to be another couple miles up.
I love this shot, it and one taken at almost the same time are my favorites. That said, it bothered me at first how much you can see in these pictures, like the high-five one, that the skin on my face is being blown around, particularly considering that the other guy seems completely unaffected. Do I really have that much more fat or loose skin on my face? I don’t notice it normally. Thankfully, as I was getting self-conscious watching the video later with the Thomson, they pointed out that he’s in my wake, and I’m blocking the wind from his face. Whew.
And, of course, despite the fact that I’m free-falling for a mile toward the ground at 120 miles per hour, I can’t resist hamming it up for the camera. Raise your hand if your surprised.
Finally, at 5,500 feet, the trainer pops the main parachute, and we immediately slow down. At that point, I feel completely safe. I mean, I felt safe before, having faith that it was going to work, but that was the point where I felt like, “OK, it worked.” The funny thing was, he had told me ahead of time that when that happened, he was going to loosen me up a little bit from him. Until then, we needed to be very closely and tightly attached, but at that point, we could be a little more comfortable. That said, even though he told me ahead of time, and I intellectually knew it, it still took me a bit by surprise when the chute deploys, we slow, and he starts unhooking me. First thought, “OK, we’re safe.” Second thought, “Uh, well, he’s safe.”
The descent from there was pretty nondescript. I had wondered ahead of time whether skydiving was parachuting down from a minute of free-fall, or free-falling for a minute so that you can parachute down. And I would imagine that for most people, it’s parachuting down from a minute of free-fall, that the first part is really the focus. Certainly that was the case for me.
One of my regrets is that I don’t have any really good pictures of me under the parachute, the pictures pretty much skip from when we’re deploying the chute to when we’re landing. I’m wanting to do it again — possibly this weekend — and hope to be have somebody go with me that could take some pictures from the ground. If you’re interested, let me know.
I was impressed by the precision of the landing. That was kind of the focus during the parachute descent, was getting closer to the landing spot. I had figured it would be much more of a “somewhere in this area” thing than it was.
As we were coming down, I looked up, but because of the way we were attached, I couldn’t turn my head to look straight up. So I asked my trainer, “OK, since I’ve been looking for a job, a friend of mine gave me a book I need to read on finding a new career, and I’ve gotta know — What color is my parachute?”
Answer: Green and gray.
I took that last picture, by the way, with my first-generation iPhone, which I carried inside my flightsuit during the jump. I wanted one with me in case I wanted to take pictures before or after the jump (I don’t think I could do it during), and I took my first one instead of the current one for two reasons — it would be less of a big deal if something happened to it, but also because I had carried that one on my Zero-G flight four years ago, making this the second time it had been in free-fall. (I’ve been asked how the two experiences compare, and my initial reaction is, they don’t. Despite the fact that they’re basically the same thing — free-fall in the sky, the only difference being which side of the airplane wall you’re on — they feel completely different, presumably largely because of the air resistance.)
After we were done, the Thomsons invited me over to their house to watch each other’s videos, and while I was there, I also got to swing on the trapeze they have in a barn behind their house. I mention this solely because I got to fall out of an airplane and fly on a trapeze on the same day, and that’s kind of cool, and gave this blog post its “Crazy Heart”-inspired title.
It was kind of amusing, though, that I was relieved that they said they didn’t let other people use the trampoline from the raised platform that Henry swung from; relieved because I didn’t want to have to be chicken if they offered. It was very odd, though, being too nervous to want to climb to and leap from the platform — wearing a safety harness, no less — after having just fallen from an airplane two miles up. But, there’s that height thing I was talking about. Fifteen feet, scary. Two miles, no problem.
Last night, I watched videos with my friends the Sneeds; Jill having gone skydiving for her 21st birthday a while back.
Her video ended with this quote, which I loved:
If riding in a plane is
Then riding in a boat is
To experience the element
Get out of the vehicle.
I made my jump using Skydive Alabama in Cullman, and I heartily recommend both the experience and them. I was amazed at how easy and safe-feeling they made the whole thing.