When I arrived at the drop zone, I felt surprisingly calm, but when I leaned against the check-in desk, I felt how hard my heart was beating.
I had signed my waiver and watched the instructional video two days earlier, but heavy clouds had made it impossible to jump. This time, I knew that if I wanted to, I could jump out of a plane — I kept the if attached; I still hadn’t committed to telling myself that I was going to be jumping out of a plane. The skies were bright blue, hardly a cloud in sight. It was a gorgeous, calm morning. Damn it… This was happening…
Skydive Spaceland Dallas offers discounts for booking a skydive for a weekday, and so I had opted to jump at 8am on a Wednesday morning. Other than a handful of staff, the building was empty. This meant that there was no waiting and no feeding off the fear of other first time skydivers. It also meant that there was no chance to watch anyone land safely…
Because I had already filled out the giant stack of paperwork releasing Skydive Spaceland Dallas of all responsibility in the case that I fell to my death, and I had already watched the safety video further reminding me of all the ways in which I could die, the check in was a really quick process. Within minutes of arriving, my instructor was picking out a jumpsuit for me and a “hopefully-lucky” parachute.
My tandem instructor, Ernie, had jumped out of a plane and survived over 20,000 times, but at no point did he ever give any guarantee of safety or downplay the risks associated with jumping out of a plane. He did tell me that he had a vested interest in me landing alive, and that was the closest to a reassurance of survival that I would get.
Jumping out of an airplane sounds completely crazy, and so I was not completely without a fear of death. However, I had read the skydive statistics and knew that I was far more likely to die on the drive to the drop zone. I was more likely to drive riding a bike or flying in a commercial plane. In fact, I was better off jumping out of the plane than trying to land in it.
My two biggest fears were fear of chickening out and fear of rupturing an ear drum from the pressure change during the free fall.
I kept telling myself that the first fear was ridiculous. I was afraid of being afraid. However, I had told everyone that I was going skydiving, and the last thing I wanted to do was go home and tell people that when the plane door opened, I froze and could not go through with it. Judging from my friends’ and family’s reactions of “What were you thinking? I could never!” I probably would have been met with understanding had I decided that jumping out a plane was just too terrifying, but still… my pride was on the line!
The second fear was a bit more legitimate. My attempts at scuba diving have been unsuccessful because I’ve been unable to equalize my ears on the descent. I had also read that ear pain when skydiving is not entirely uncommon. Ernie told me that unless I was having sinus congestion issues while on the ground, it was unlikely that I would experience extreme discomfort, but that it could happen. He showed me ways to clear my ears after the free fall, should I have issues. I took a decongestant beforehand, as an added precaution, and ended up having no issues.
As we waited for the plane, Ernie explained about the skydiving body position I would need (back arched, arms out and bent at 90 degree angles to act as my wings). He explained about reading the altimeter and pulling the chute once we dropped to 6,000 feet. We were about to jump out of a plane at 14,000 feet (nearly two miles up), and drop 8,000 feet in 60 seconds at a speed of 120 miles per hour. To give this some perspective, Ernie told me that every second in free fall, we would fall 18 stories!
Far too quickly, we were standing outside watching our plane taxiing toward us.
I kept muttering that this was the craziest thing I had ever thought to do, and that I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this. However, while I was nervous, I was not overly scared. I was more excited than anything.
Because I had opted to skydive first thing in the morning on a weekday, there were only four of us headed up to skydive: myself, Ernie, Nick the cameraman to capture my photos and videos, and one other skydiver who was doing a low jump from 5,000 feet.
The plane was a rickety little metal box, and being in that plane was unsettling and unsafe feeling.
When we reached 5,000 feet, the plane leveled out, the door opened, and out jumped the fourth guy in the plane. Then the door closed and we kept going as if nothing had happened.
I watched my altimeter and before I knew it, we were at 14,000 feet. Ernie started sliding us toward the door, and I felt surprisingly calm. It all felt too surreal to be scary. I had spent about a month visualizing that moment, and watching YouTube videos of people skydiving for the first time. As I scooted toward the door, I kept thinking “I’m actually doing this,” rather than “I’m going to die. Get me out of here!”
Sitting in the door of the plane, I wished I had taken a moment to look around and take it in. I was really just focused on proper body position (hooking my legs beneath the plane, and tilting my chin up). I took a second to look over at Nick who was latched to the side of the plane so he could drop at the same time at us, then I tilted my head back and waited for Ernie to toss the two of us over the edge.
Once we started falling, my first thought was “Here we go. I’m doing this!” Then, almost instantly Ernie tapped my shoulders – the signal for me to put my arms out – and I let go of my harness, and we stopped flipping and stabilized
There was no feeling of dropping. No stomach-in-my-chest feeling. We were tumbling, then we were stabilized, and everything felt really still and blissful. It was as though we were just floating up there in the sky.
I looked over at Nick who was slightly below us, reclined on his back with his arms out and the earth this giant globe miles beneath him. It was what I imagine it must feel like to look out at Earth from space. I remember feeling complete awe, and thinking that I was witnessing the most beautiful moment of my life.
I also remember trying to breathe, but the air was so thin and we were moving so fast, that each lungful of air felt barely sufficient.
The 60 seconds felt more like 6 seconds, and before I knew it, I was watching my altimeter creep toward the 6,000 mark, and I was feeling around for the golf ball to pull the ‘chute. I couldn’t find the parachute, and so I waited for Ernie to pull it.
I had worried that the parachute opening would be really sudden and painful, but it wasn’t. I noticed a gradual deceleration, and though “Oh good, the parachute opened,” and then we were floating much more gently toward Earth.
This was when I noticed that my heart was hammering inside my chest, and I commented on this. I have never felt my heart beat that hard before. Ernie started talking about how to control the parachute, but as the adrenaline came down I felt really suddenly dizzy for about 30 seconds. Ernie explained that this is also a result of the inner ear pressure changes. I took those thirty seconds to breathe and enjoy floating with the parachute, and then I was ready to learn more about controlling the flight down and the landing.
The parachute ride down to earth takes about 4 to 5 minutes, but it too was over way too quickly. It was the most incredible, completely unobstructed view. It was gentle and relaxing, and there was absolutely no fear during that part of the jump. I watched as the little cows and horses gradually came into view, and then people in the landing area ready to help us land safely.
Before I knew it, I was back on the ground, wishing I could turn around and jump right back out of the plane. I would go skydiving again in a heartbeat — In fact, I made sure to buy the discounted 2nd tandem jump before I left.
I am so glad that I bought the photo and video package, because the entire rest of my day was spent trying to convince myself that the skydive actually did happen. The whole thing is such a sensory overload that the memory has this adrenaline-haze fuzzy lens to it.
Before skydiving, I had watched countless YouTube videos of people’s first tandem jumps and they all looked so calm, excited even. I was sure I’d be a crying ball of fear… if I was even able to make the jump. Watching my video, I can see and hear the nerves, but I also look relatively calm and excited.
It was without a doubt the most adrenaline I have ever felt. Jumping out of a plane elicits a really big physiological fear response. However, I didn’t feel fear on the cognitive level that I expected. I wasn’t telling myself I was going to die or thinking about the things that could go wrong. In that sense, I’ve done many things far scarier. I’ve been more scared on certain roller coasters, before white water rafting, or before zip-lining.
When I visited Zion last year, I discovered that I have an intense fear of heights. There were many hikes that I could not do because my legs were shaky and I was scared of falling to my death. At one point, I had to sit down and scoot down a set of stairs on one of the trails. Skydiving did not bring out that same fear. The ground is too far away from an airplane for the brain to even comprehend. I know many people who are scared of heights and avoid high rises but can fly in a plane no problem. Even with the plane door open, I didn’t look down at earth two miles away and think about how high up I was. It was too high to process.
At the end of the experience, I went home feeling like I could do anything. If I can jump out of an airplane, then what can’t I do?
I would say to anyone who has ever thought about skydiving but hesitated because of fear, to just go for it. It was incredible, and worth every second.
Now I have to decide when I’m going to go back for my second jump, and what my next bucket-list item will be.