Friday, September 21, 2007

Skydiving: It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's ME!

So back in June I jumped out of a plane. It was easily the craziest thing I've ever done. I went with five other people: Paul, Weijian, Kenneth, Gene, and Phyllis. It all started the previous October, when I wanted to take Paul skydiving for his birthday. A bunch of us drove to the skydiving place on a brisk, windy day, but the gusts prevented us from ever going up in the plane. We'd waited around all day, to no avail. Is there a clearer sign from God than winds that refuse to die down? It seemed we weren't meant to jump out of a plane. I was immensely relieved.

Then in June Kenneth started emailing about it again. Damn Kenneth. In the space of a few months, I'd completely lost my nerve to do this and didn't really want to go. But Paul did, and I wasn't about to let my husband plunge toward the earth at 120 miles an hour by himself. So I booked an appointment for the six of us at Skydive the Ranch in upstate New York.

The three weeks leading up to our appointment were grueling. I spent many nights imagining that moment when I would peer out the airplane door and wait for my cue to leap. My palms got moist at the thought. I imagined what people would say at my funeral if I didn't make it. "Well ... she asked for it." Was I crazy? Who would take care of Nermal if the plane went down? What if I was being really stupid? I made Paul write out a joint will with me.

Saturday, June 30, 2007, was a sunny, mild, warm, and all-around wonderful-looking day. Guess there would be no last-minute reprieve from Mother Nature this time. The drive up to the ranch was tense. Gene looked like he was going to pass out. He kept asking, "Are we really going to do this?" Weijian had written goodbye letters that read like suicide notes to each of his family members. Even Paul seemed nervous. For a bunch of thrill-seekers, we sure weren't acting very thrilled.

Arriving at the ranch brought some relief. The site consists of an airplane runway, a large grassy field, and a hangar that serves as the ranch's office and prep space. Out of the sky, dozens of skydivers were floating down like snowflakes and landing in the grassy field. No one was screaming. No one was plunging to their death. And the prep space in the hangar was completely filled with other people who were packing their parachutes and getting ready to make the jump. In this place, leaping out of a plane seemed a completely normal thing to do. I relaxed a bit.

The first time you go skydiving, you must do it tandem, strapped to an experienced partner. We were each introduced to our partners, and mine, Steve, was really great. He kept telling me that he has thousands of jumps under his belt and he explained everything that was going to happen. He spoke very calmly and was very reassuring. I guess he deals with a lot of wide-eyed people. He also told me that since he's so much taller than me, I wouldn't have to worry about the landing, he'd do all the work. The guy was like 7 feet tall. When I was strapped to his chest, I think I resembled a baby in a bjorn.

The ride up in the tiny, rickety plane was an experience on its own. After taking off safely, Steve whispered to me, "We just made it past the most dangerous part of skydiving." All my friends were silent, probably feeling stupid and regretful, like me. There was no turning around now. We ascended really quickly, and before I knew it, we'd broken through a line of clouds. (Paul would later fall through one on his way down.) I began to hate Kenneth intensely, for getting the ball rolling on this trip. Then suddenly we were informed that we'd reached a suitable elevation, and would begin jumping.

The door opened. I thought incredulously, "I'm getting out of this plane, but it's still in the air." Phyllis was the first to go. One second she and her partner were perched by the door, the next they was gone. Then Gene went, then Kenneth, then Weijian (that's him in the photo below). It was all happening so quickly. Before Paul made his way to the door, I gave him a kiss and told him I'd see him on the ground. I hoped. Then he was gone, too. "He's not the most important man in your life right now--I am," Steve joked. I smiled weakly. When it came my turn to approach the door, I just started laughing hysterically. I seriously couldn't believe what I was about to do. Looking outside, the ground looked like a two-dimensional map. And before I knew it, Steve was pushing away from the plane, and I was going with him!

The fall was amazing. For about two or three seconds, you feel like you're falling, and all you want to do is get your footing. But then you hit terminal velocity, which means that you stop accelerating, and then it feels like you're riding in a convertible at 120 miles an hour. There's no weird feeling in your stomach, like on a roller coaster, just a lot of speed and wind. I stopped feeling nervous and was really enjoying myself. We fell for 8,000 feet, which took about 50 seconds, and then it was time to deploy the parachute. Steve guided my hand to the cord, and I pulled--but my hand slipped off! Before I could panic, Steve pulled the cord for me. I felt a yank as the parachute opened and caught, and then we were floating. We drifted down, down, down for the next 7 minutes. It was like parasailing, but more exciting, and you could make turns using a pair of string handles.

The landing was really smooth--well, for me, anyway; Steve bore both of our weights since I was dangling off his chest and not touching the ground. Once I was down I wanted to do it again. My friends and I were all laughing and crying and high-fiving each other. I drove everyone back to my house, and on the way, everyone zonked out in the backseat--I guess the adrenaline really takes it out of you. I was feeling really tired myself, and kept thinking, "Wouldn't it be ironic if I fell asleep and we all died in a car accident after surviving skydiving?" But we eventually made it home without incident. Then Paul and I spent the next day participating in some less-exciting activities: gardening and finishing up a jigsaw puzzle!

So I'd recommend skydiving for anyone who's ever considered doing it. It was definitely the biggest thrill of my life, and I doubt anything will ever come close, but it's totally worth it--once you're back on the ground, at least.