“If at first you don’t succeed- skydiving is not for you.”
A couple of weekends ago, the topic of skydiving came up several times with co-workers and friends. One of my craziest adventures to date was when a group of friends wanted to go skydiving and invited me to go along. “Jump out of a perfectly good airplane? Sure!”
So the day before my 23rd birthday, we all schlepped out to Titusville to Skydive Space Center located at Arthur Dunn Airpark. Before coming over we were asked not to wear collared shirts and to remove anything that would come off easily in flight. We also had to let the center know how much each person weighed so they could be paired up with an appropriately-sized diver.
Once we arrived at the skydiving center, the first thing we all needed to do was fill out some paperwork. The paperwork included a number of waivers that basically stated “if you die, we’re not liable”. After all the paperwork was taken care of, we headed outside to the hanger with a jumpmaster who walked us through what would happen during the flight.
Next to the hanger was a mockup of the door on a Beechcraft King Air, which is the type of plane we would be jumping out of. The jumpmaster demonstrated how we needed to exit the plane for the jump. One thing that surprised me is that there’s no actual jumping involved. Instead, all I would need to do is step off and gravity would do the rest. Another part is how the landing would go. Since we were all doing tandem jumps where we would be strapped to a jump master, all we need to do is stick our legs straight out and let the jump master do the work.
As we waited for our turn to go up, I watched the parachute riggers do the work of packing the chutes. It’s a job that has to be done carefully, as a poor packing job can lead to hard openings of the parachute, tangled lines or possibly cause the chute to not open at all. If the main chute doesn’t open correctly for whatever reason, divers can cut away the main chute and use a larger reserve chute instead. And if for some reason a diver doesn’t open his chute, there’s a backup device called the Cypres comes to the rescue. The Cypres is basically a small computer with an altimeter, vertical speed indicator and a razor blade attached. If the device detects that a diver is falling very fall at a certain altitude (usually over 70 mph at 2000 ft. above ground) the device cuts away the main chute and deploys the reserve instead. Even with these safety devices, skydiving is still a risky sport. But the introduction of better chutes and devices like the Cypres has made the sport safer.
As the time to jump drew nearer, we got rigged up with harnesses and met the people we would be paired off with. While we waited, a videographer asked me why I wanted to skydive. I said it was because I always wanted to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. The videographer replied “oh, but you haven’t seen the airplane yet!”
The plane landed and we all hopped aboard. I then understood what the videographer meant about the airplane. The “seats” on the plane were nothing more than two long benches that everyone straddled facing the back of the plane. As one skydiver eloquently put it, we packed “butts to nuts”. Trust me, after sitting in that arrangement, I wanted to get out as quickly as possible! Fortunately, that didn’t take long. Once the group was settled in the plane, we took off and started heading up to 15,000 ft. Getting up to the jump area took around 20-25 minutes.
As we climbed to altitude, the reality of what I was about to do hit me. I was about to jump out of a plane, strapped to a guy that I had just met 10 minutes ago- and he had the parachute. I admit I almost lost my nerve at that moment. But I decided that I would go down, and I was taking that guy down with me.
Next to the plane door was a red light that the pilot would change to green when he reached the drop zone. As we got close to the zone, all the jump masters made one final check of everyone’s straps and rigging. And then, the moment came. The light turned green. Because of where I was sitting, I would be the first out of the plane. The videographer in front of me got up, opened the door and then straddled a rail on the outside of the plane. My jumpmaster and I got up and awkwardly crab walked to the door. Then I stepped up to the threshold and stepped out.
Wooosh! The first thing I noticed was the wind roaring past me. I felt like I was in a wind tunnel. It was now obvious why skydivers communicate through hand signals- I couldn’t hear anything my jump master was saying even though he was strapped to my back. The second thing was that I didn’t feel like I had dropped at all. I had thought I would feel like I had gone down a steep drop on a roller coaster. It turns out that since the plane was already moving at over 100mph (and thus so was I), I wouldn’t feel much additional acceleration from stepping out of the plane. So I never really felt like I was falling beyond seeing the ground get closer.
After getting over the initial shock of feeling the wind, it was time to do some fun tricks like spins and hamming it up for the camera. The videographer that got out ahead of me had caught up with me and it was awesome to do things like grab his hand during freefall.
But the freefall portion of the dive soon ended. Since we were falling around 110mph, it only took about 60-90 seconds to burn through 12,ooo ft. of altitude. So the jumpmaster pulled the chute around 3,000ft. Whump! We flipped from the horizontal position to a vertical one. I galanced up and saw a large beautiful rectangle of fabric. All was well. The next few minutes were quite relaxing compared to the rush of freefall. It was nice just to glide and enjoy the views of the coast and landmarks like NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building. During our slow spiral down, I watched as our jump plane landed on the runway below. What an odd sight seeing the plane I was on getting back to the ground before me. The glide down lasted around 5-10 minutes. As we got near the ground, the jumpmaster executed a flawless flare and put us down not far from the small cheering crowd sitting in the stands.
Looking back on the dive, I have absolutely no regrets doing it. It was a thrilling experience and one I haven’t forgotten. It was so fun to get out and do something so few people have done. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I recommend others do it? Absolutely, as long as you’re aware of the risks involved. Really, if George Bush can do it at the age of 85, anybody can.