Dropping at 120 miles per hour from two and a half miles above the solid, stable ground, a person starts to think about things.
Like, for example, how the initial view a skydiver sees when falling out of “a perfectly good airplane” seems a lot like how the world must look from the inside of a marble: swirled, nearly incoherent images brought into focus after the initial shock of hitting the air. Or how it takes a minute to come to terms with the knowledge that the familiar horizon is about 10,500 feet below the massive cloud you’re about to sail through with an instructor who, half an hour ago, was a perfect stranger.
In January, inspired by a bumper sticker I saw, I started my search to cross skydiving off my life’s “to do” list.
On Saturday, June 3, a group of four otherwise sane people drove out to Skydive Virginia’s jump site at the Louisa County Airport for our first tandem jump.
Accompanied by Jeff Brown, a friend of mine from Western New York currently living in Orlando, Fla; Connection Newspapers music writer and assistant editor Christopher Staten and his friend Ted Skirbunt from Washington, we took the one-hour instructor class from Skydive Virginia's trainer, Chris Margard.
We joined four other first-time jumpers in the class to learn basic skydiving safety: how to read the altimeter that would be strapped to our left wrists; when to signal to the instructor doing our tandem jumps that we were ready and able to pull the rip cord; how to properly arch our backs when exiting the plane to hit the air; and stabilize quickly to enjoy as much of the 45-second free fall as possible.
Of my group of four, I was the first to suit up, cautiously stepping into the bright blue jump suit. Margard double-checked all the snaps and straps of the harness that would soon connect with his and the parachutes, making sure everything was secure and there was no way my legs or arms would slip out.
Waving to my friends, I climbed into the back of the small silver airplane to begin the long ascent up to the predetermined jump altitude.
IN THE WEEK PRIOR to our jump, I admit there were moments when I thought about the very real possibility that something might go wrong: the chute could malfunction, the harness might come loose, any number of things might happen that could result in my being unable to safely complete my jump.
A scary thought, and in my mind I ran through a list of things I wanted to say to the important people in my life, including my mom, who had been my biggest supporter up to the night before the jump.
“Now Amber,” she began, “they do test these parachutes before you use them, right?”
She asked the question with all the concern a mother would have before her eldest child jumps out of a plane.
As much as I joked with her concern, a small voice in my head did wonder what might happen. After all, when a person is that high up off the ground, one tiny mistake — one little flaw — could make a drastic difference.
On the way up, I chatted with Margard about the hundreds of jumps he’s been on since he started in 1978. An instructor since the early 1990s, he clued me in on how easy it is to skydive; the biggest things to remember are to get solid footing on the tiny metal step attached to the plane and when to pull the cord.
THE STRANGE THING WAS that I wasn’t anywhere near as nervous or afraid of what I was doing during the 20 minute trip up, passing by clouds at the 6,000 feet mark and watching the ground get small and fuzzier to my eyes. The only time I had a passing “what in the world am I thinking” feeling was as I watched the other tandem jumper and his instructor disappear from the doorway and begin their descent.
Margard tapped me on the shoulder and nudged me toward the door. We had been warned that it would be incredibly difficult to get a foot solidly on the metal step — it’s been compared to sticking your hand out of a car moving about 60 miles per hour but much, much faster. The air is moving so fast that my foot appeared to be underwater, a sensation enhanced by the rippling of the blue jumpsuit in the wind.
(A misconception: skydiving has very little in common with diving into a pool.)
Margard counted to three, rocking back and forth, and then that was it — we were out in the air.
Initially, a person’s brain nearly shuts down after leaving the airplane. There’s typically a moment of near shock, trying to sort out up and down when all normal focal points are thousands of feet away.
Margard had said in the plane that he would do some spiral twirls in the air if I got my arch right, and apparently I did, because after a quick turn to the left and the right, he pulled my arms back and we shot through the edge of a cloud.
Glancing at my bright purple altimeter, I could’ve sworn the dial read between 6,000 and 7,000 feet, almost time to pull the rip cord.
I was wrong, and we were closer to the 7,000 feet up, but I was so determined to pull my own cord there was no stopping me.
The only thing more shocking than the silence that comes when the parachute opens was the enormous yank when it catches the air. Talk about pain — the bruises and brush burns on my legs took nearly a week to fade. It was like the Earth and its gravity were trying to reclaim me, but the sky wasn’t quite ready to let me go.
Most of the descent to the ground was uneventful, luckily. While controlling the yellow straps that control the direction the parachute turns, the blood drained out of my arms, essentially making my arms fall asleep. I also lost focus on the horizon and got a little bit queasy, but a few deep breaths and I was just fine.
While on the ground, the instructors told us that before landing, it would be best to pull our knees up a little, then kick our feet out and slide into the ground. Much easier said than done, and as we landed, I let the gravity pull me down and landed smack on my back.
My nose flooded with the smell of the air, the warm earth beneath me. I grasped onto the grass with a brand new appreciation for solid ground. Chris and another friend, Julie O’Donoghue who had come along to watch, climbed out of the chase truck, laughing, snapping pictures and bombarding me with questions.
MY FRIEND JEFF describes his jump as a wave of “sensory overload” followed by a rush of air into his lungs while falling.
“I felt so alive, so calm, so serene and so amazed at such an experience,” he wrote. “The landscapes filled to the horizon and everything seemed o much like perfect shapes and colors, it was beautiful.”
Once they’d returned to the ground, his instructor, Mike Graham, unhooked their harnesses. “I looked to the sky and I knew right then that my life took on a whole new meaning,” he said.
We’re already talking about jumping again next year because it is addictive.
As cliché as it sounds, my perception of the world has drastically changed since skydiving. As Margard said to me, once we landed, I now know why the birds sing. The flying lesson I took back in April was a pilot lesson — I’d never honestly flown before that day. I wonder if anything else, any other adventure I go on, will give me the same kind of adrenaline rush or change me in the same way, and I doubt anything can match it. But I’m ready and willing to try.