Part II: What it felt like to skydive
This essay follows “Part I: The Freefall,” published on Sunday, November 11, 2012.
“Just don’t die.” This was my boyfriend’s response when I informed him on a Friday that I was considering skydiving on Sunday.
Die? I thought. I hadn’t considered that. Death hadn’t felt like an option whenever I had originally come up with the idea.
It had been in 1995, the year the movie Apollo 13 came out with Tom Hanks. I had already been in love with the 1986 Space Camp that my family kept on near-constant loan from my aunt Carol for its thrilling plot about handful of teens stuck orbiting the Earth due to a space shuttle test launch gone awry, and my brother described Apollo 13 as “just like Space Camp but wayyyy more satisfying.” And it was, for the simple reason that this storyline was actual historical. The momentous liftoff! The explosion in the oxygen tank! The tension of the leakage, the carbon dioxide levels, the fuel cells! It was all true!
But somewhere during the movie, my thoughts began to drift. Stranded in space, the astronauts of Apollo 13 were in grave, history-altering danger — this I understood. However, while my brother sat beside me on the couch plotting trajectory angles for re-entry, I was captivated by the way the characters swam through the air between the lunar module and the command module, delicately weightless, pulling in their white-socked feet as to not hit any buttons.
Everything floated in outer space as gracefully as ballet dancers: orange juice droplets, radio, bag of urine. Life-threatening situations aside (we all knew the astronauts survived), I wanted to float, too. I took to jumping on my bed when my brother wasn’t watching to try to snag seconds when there was nothing below me but air. When those moments didn’t last long enough, I needed more air-time, springing spindly-legged off the 9-foot high dive at the pool at Messiah College and managing to count to two before I hit the water. But that moment of nothingness beneath my feet when the pool rushed up to greet me was still too short. What options remained? Puzzled, I sat myself down one day and realized that I had two choices on how to discover weightlessness: I either had to become an astronaut or to go skydiving, which had to be close enough.
I chose skydiving — or so I claimed. I never once looked up prices, locations, lessons, or Groupons, even after I turned 18. Occasionally, my brother and father would drive to the Chambersburg Skydiving Center on Sundays to watch the planes take off and the parachuters land, and I joined them only once. But whenever the topic emerged among friends in the typical “sky-diving-or-bungee-jumping?” conversation that ensues after long hikes in perilous places, I always leaned forward, thumped my fist on a nearby table, and claimed, “Skydiving. I’d do it.”
Seventeen years later, Paulina, a friend from the University of Pittsburgh who is working on her A license at the C2 level with the United States Parachute Association, tells me she is headed to Skydive Pennsylvania for a training weekend and asks to borrow a sleeping bag so she can sleep over in the airplane hanger. I do not have a sleeping bag, but I do have an ego.
“That sounds awesome,” I say, raising my fist. “If I had the chance, I’d — ”
“There are extra tandem slots for Sunday,” she replies.
I stare at her. Politely, I excuse myself, go home, and fret on the meaning of freefall and faith. It occurs to me that declining would prove me a two-decade liar. I do not sleep for two nights straight. And this is how I decide to jump.
At Skydive Pennsylvania — a little set of hangers and a runway off of Route 79 near Grove City — everyone is surprisingly cheerful. I burst through the door panting at 8:30 AM to greet young men rolling brightly-colored parachutes across the worn carpeted floor and a woman who accepts my check for one tandem jump and does not seem to mind that I’ve written in “for LIFE” in the memo line.
“Thank you!” she beams.
I half-giggle, half-snort. “No, thank you,” I say. “You know, for keeping me alive. Well, I guess I haven’t dived yet. Thanks in advance for keeping good equipment, I mean. Well, I’m assuming you do.”
The woman smiles slightly. Either she has seen thousands of reactions like mine before and is holding her tongue, or she has seen jitters so often that she no longer notices them. “Enjoy,” she says.
The USPA meticulously gathers statistics about skydiving fatalities and reported 21 deaths out of approximately 3 million jumps in 2010, an average of 0.007 per 1,000. That’s one fatality out of every 141,509 skydives when the odds of dying in a car accident are somewhere around one in 6,500 drivers. This is hardly comforting, however, when I’m handed a multi-page document littered with the words INJURY and DEATH that requires my signature after every couplet. Strangely, I find I’m less worried about actually dying than I am about breaking a promise, for I had told my boyfriend that I planned to live and would call him when it was over.
Out of nowhere, Paulina bounds breathlessly in a pale blue jump suit, having just completed her first jump of the day, her 24th jump since 2011. I pause, my pen poised.
“Hey!” she says. “You made it!”
I’m assigned to the fourth plane of the morning and given a brief set of instructions for tandem jumpers on how to fall — belly first, knees bent between my instructor’s like a scorpion — and how to land — legs parallel to the ground. I listen carefully, but since I fell down the stairs in my apartment in Pittsburgh just a week ago, I assume I will be okay. An instructor straps me into a jumpsuit that looks depressingly like the insulated coveralls I used to wear while working winters on the farm, but I’m distracted from the fashion show by Paulina who hands me her altimeter, which I sling between my fingers and strap on my wrist like a watch. She tells me that it will show me how high the plane is and when we’ll jump, which I don’t exactly want to know until I realize that the higher I am the less close I am to hard objects, most notably, the ground. Suddenly, plane number four is called, and I’m told to move toward the runway. I turn to Paulina, expecting her to look me in the eye and tell me gravely to consider my loved ones, but she just waves as if I’m headed to class. I turn solemnly and walk toward the plane like Tom Hanks without an overture.
The plane, which the others call a Hopper, is already running, the engine purring in a hearty, full-pitched hum. I step up into it with seven others, equally suited and strapped, and we duck down and rearrange ourselves on the floor in a space the size of the interior of a small car. I’m jammed up against the knees of my instructor Ron who will jump with me, and another first-time tandem jumper is sitting between my legs. In front of him is his instructor; to my right is a solo jumper named Erica who looks remarkably calm and a couple who just finished stapling black ties to their black suit jackets and securing black hats to their heads so they can jump as the Blues Brothers. Behind Erica is a third man with three cameras mounted to his helmet who will jump with them and be the photographer for the couple’s annual Christmas card. Then the engines rise, and our little plane rumbles forward and wooshes off the runway in the lightweight, jittery way that a small plane always rises, our tightly-packed bodies rising with it.
I gaze out the eye-level window and steady my breathing. The ceiling is so low I could probably touch it if I tried, but I keep my arms tucked tightly around myself, like a hug, trying to melt the fear that’s lodged cold in my stomach. I’m not necessarily afraid of falling; what scares me is the unknown, our collective singularity of purpose. The ascent is a one-way ticket, a ski lift up the mountainside; what next is supposed to be so simple, the option of going down. This wouldn’t be so difficult except for the fact that I once refused to get off a ski life once I reached the top, staying on the chair as it circled the cable and headed back down the mountainside, causing all the ascending skiers to stare and a panicked instructor to ski down the hill beneath me, yelling, “MA’AM! DON’T WORRY! EVERYTHING’S GOING TO BE OKAY!”
Around me, the plane holds the tinny smell of cold fuel and moving air. Outside the world below is small and fading, first to doll-sized houses, then smudges of colors tinged by humidity. My left leg jiggles and kicks the other tandem jumper. I apologize, and he leans back into me and gives me an answer, which I cannot hear. And I realize I plan on not returning to earth by plane.
I try to think of a multitude of things, but I can think about is how the eight of us are in this tiny metal capsule rising above the suburbia of fields and homes and how it’s as isolated as I’ve ever felt in my life. We’re in a tree house, I think. A very high one. If I’m not looking down, all I can see out the windows is white sky. If I weren’t about to jump out of this tiny room, I could maybe start daydreaming.
Ron leans forward over the roar of the engine and tells me how the next few minutes will go: first, I will put my goggles on. I nod. Then he will strap himself to me. I nod again. When we jump, I am to lean my head to the side so our heads don’t knock together.
The needle on my altimeter is approaching 9,000 feet, then 10,000. Outside the glass and down, the houses are pinprick-small.
For the first few seconds of our fall I am to hold onto the straps over my chest so my arms aren’t in his way.
“I’m afraid — ” I yell. It’s the first time I hear my own voice since the plane has left the ground. My stomach’s quivering, but my voice, strong as a high school teacher’s, hits my icy stomach like a cup of coffee after a morning out in the cold: warm like strength. “I’m afraid I’ll forget what to do.”
“That’s fine,” Ron said. “I’ve got everything under control.” And suddenly, at 13,000 feet, somebody opens the door.
A spinning wooosh of cold air floods in. The engine’s suddenly louder, splattering against the senses, filling my pores, my stomach, my eyes. My view of the horizon is surprisingly larger now that it’s unbroken by windows, and more rapidly than I’m ready for, we mobilize. The camera man swings out and holds himself against the side of the plane. Erica springs out the door without hesitation, like all those kids in elementary school who trusted a pool enough to cannonball into it; the Blues Brothers follow her and the camera man lets go, all of them zipping down and away from the plane in an instant so breathless I don’t understand how quickly they have fallen. Every other time I’ve been a plane this high, our goal has been to somewhere other than straight down. I high-five the other tandem jumper and he grins, but out the door they vanish, too.
The last ones in the plane, Ron and I sit on the edge of the door and dangle our feet out and pause for a moment. It’s exactly like sitting on the edge of a swimming pool. I remember that I hate swimming pools — the 9-foot high dive had been my one exception. The world is splayed out before me even wider than before, broad like a Google map, a breathing patchwork of fields. Beyond my feet, there is 13,000 feet of empty space and then the view, pale green and scratched with roads and hazed with humidity. The horizon is easily visible. The wind tugs on scraps of my hair. Ron leans us both forward gently and then tilts us back — it’s the signal. He leans us forward again and we bellyflop out of the airplane.
I scream. The acceleration rises in my chest like a roller coaster, but only for an instant. The next thing I know is we’re stabilized, Ron pats me to allow me to loosen my hands, and I hold them out at 90 degree angles as taught. We’re falling into a thick nothingness that continues and continues. It’s windy, and the view is everywhere. I breathe, check the altimeter, whose needle has dropped rapidly, and check the position of my legs. It’s windy. If I remember anything from physics, we’re hit terminal velocity and we’re falling — 120 miles per hour falling — but without a reference point, I cannot tell; the houses beneath me have remained unchanged from small to small. Impressions flick like opening shutters: It’s windy. I breathe. The world is green. We’ve dropped 8,000 feet in 30 seconds. It’s windy. I breathe. The world is beautiful. Ron signals, and he and I pull the parachute.
The sensation of an opened chute is the same as putting on your brakes in a car — head thrown forward, your heart jostling with it — but suddenly the world is very calm. The houses spring before you, noticeably bigger, the horizon is lower. When did we get so close? Instead of watching the world from above, I am entering into it, floating gracefully. It’s the moment when the roller coaster comes to the stop and you’re screaming, breathless, dizzy, suddenly realizing the extent of what you just did, your mind flooding open with sensation, piling up your throat and into your mouth.
I’m screaming stuff. I don’t remember what about. Ron lets me steer the parachute, and we twirl, not unlike a ballet dancer, in the sky. He points out landmarks, major roads. On a clear day from the max height you can see Pittsburgh, Cleveland. The hanger and the runway reemerge and enlarge, and my understanding of life emerges with it. I think slowly about Paulina, still on the ground. I remember with some shock that I have a PBJ sandwich in my car.
Paulina tells me later, “Skydiving gives you perspective. For one moment, you can’t worry about anything else; you just have to focus on that one thing, which is, well, not dying.” But she’s right. The dream had felt complex, but falling was simple. While falling, I looked at the world, I breathed, and life became as beautiful as human worries laid out before me in a map of pinpricks, meaningless before the power of the wind.