In preparation for Saturday’s jump out of a plane, I imagined the scenario many times. I visualized it all: from ground training to landing. Other than imagining myself having a great time, I got it all wrong!
Ground Training. I thought this would be overly technical, a little boring, and leave me terrified to board the plane. The short video we watched explaining that there was a chance we could die and that we had just signed away our heir’s right to sue was both boring and terrifying, but the following session with our instructor was not. She was entertaining, but dead serious (even chastising students in the back for chatting with one another instead of paying attention). I wasn’t a bit bored as she reviewed the “container” (the parachute backpack) and demonstrated a step-by-step mime of our tandem student jump experience. I committed the upcoming actions to memory and left the training ready to JUMP!
Plane. I pictured something roomy, with seats along the side. Instead, we were spooned front-to-back, straddling two benches running the center of the tiny, noisy, smelly plane. It was loud enough to make conversation difficult and smelled of exhaust. The ascent was uncomfortably (but understandably) rapid. The plane was so small that I could feel the craft rebound as the other jumpers left at 9,000 feet. At 13,500 feet, I was glad to also exit that unpleasant tin can.
Jump. This was the portion of my fantasies that started my heart pounding and my adrenaline pumping. Would I walk to the edge of the door, look down, and chicken out? It turns out that the jump was the least scary part. There isn’t much choice involved when you’re strapped to the instructor. I was pushed along the bench to the edge and watched the videographer crawl out the hatch and position himself just outside the door to film my exit. Then, I followed the directions from the training. I hung over the edge. I looked down. I smiled. I looked up and arched my back and prepared to fall. My tandem instructor pushed off and we were free!
Freefall. This was also so much less scary than I expected. I imagined sheer terror as I plummeted towards the earth. I considered soiling myself a serious possibility. Instead, I felt the terror for only a fraction of second. The dropping sensation lasted barely long enough to register in my mind. (The body doesn’t register the “falling” feeling after reaching 50 mph in freefall.) Then, my instructor deployed the drogue chute used in tandem jumps to extend the duration of the freefall and it just felt really windy and really fun. Other than the wind, I had no sensation of movement. The ground was too far away to be a useful frame of reference. The feeling was like both flying and swimming at once and totally exhilarating. I felt the “free” more than the “fall.”
Parachute. I neglected to imagine this part. In my fantasies, I went directly from terrified falling to a rough landing. I left out the best part! At 6,000 feet, I grasped the red knob on the bottom right of the container and, at 5,000 feet, pulled it forward (with a little help from the instructor). The parachute takes a few seconds to fully inflate, so the transition from free fall to controlled fall isn’t overly sudden. And, then, we were in the most peaceful place. In ground training, we were told that we’d be above the birds and above the bugs and that it would be incredibly quiet. That was entirely true. The only sounds were our voices and the rush of air across the canopy as we turned left or right. Again, there was no terror in watching the earth approach. Instead, I was mesmerized by the landscape and the peace of being above it all. I watched our shadow track across a field. I felt the sudden warmth as we sank into a warmer layer of atmosphere. I spotted Beefy and waved. And then I was sad because it was almost over. (I must note that there was one aspect of the parachute ride that was unpleasant: when my instructor demonstrated to me just how sharply the parachute could turn in circles. I’m extremely sensitive to spinning and I asked him to stop before I barfed on us both.)
Landing. I’ve always imagined the landing in an uneven, grassy field. I was sure that this would be the point at which I was injured. I imagined catching my foot in a rodent hole, twisting my ankle, and pitching forward onto my face. I figured it would be difficult to land in a precise area, so we’d be landing anywhere within a large, unmaintained area with a long walk back to the hanger. I had it all wrong. First of all, every landing I saw (including my own) was incredibly precise. Secondly, the drop zone had a small, but dedicated landing area with three different surfaces (none with rodent holes) and was just across the road from the facility. Lastly, as a tandem jumper, I didn’t make contact during the landing. Instead, I lifted my legs and allowed the instructor to take the (minimal) impact. No sprained ankle for me! (Ankles are the most commonly injured body part in the sport.) I also didn’t expect how heavy I’d feel once I returned to earth. The instructor had to ask me twice to stand up. I had gotten used to near weightlessness and supporting my own weight was a drag.
Video. My skydiving package was a gift from Beefy that included photos and video. I assumed this meant I’d be wearing a camera on my helmet and that the tandem instructor may have some sort of camera attached to his wrist. I did not expect a dedicated videographer following me around (to include jumping out of the plane with me) like my own personal paparazzi. My videographer had a GoPro (maybe two) attached to his helmet and he filmed everything but my parachute ride. (I assume it would be too dangerous to parachute so close together and it would also have prevented him from filming my landing.) I had a prejump interview, footage on the ride up, a great capture of my jump and freefall, a record of my landing, and a postjump interview. And it was all edited, set to music, and handed to me within 10 minutes of removing my jumpsuit. I’d recommend the video to any first time jumper. (I only wish I had worn makeup!)
My skydive was an incredibly intense and rich experience that my imagination couldn’t begin to predict. I’ve replayed it over and over in my mind and I’ve watched the video a few times. I already want to go again - to observe the things I missed. I couldn’t possibly take it all in the first time. I wish I had paid more attention to the others’ jumps, to the horizon, to the receding plane. I thought the jump would be all screaming terror and exhilaration, but the experience was more about trust and exploration. I want to see all the bits that I missed the first time because I know my imagination is a poor substitute for the real thing.