The truth is, no one can tell you what skydiving is like, because it’s not like anything else. But with an unreserved recommendation that you try it yourself, maybe I can clear up some of the mystery surrounding the peripheral experience, so you’ll have more time to worry about your impending death. But let me tell you that the skydiving experience—everything short of the jump itself—is shockingly mundane. For you, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. For the people in whose hands you’re placing your life, it’s a day at the office. And that could not be more reassuring.
I arrived at the facility early on Saturday morning. (And you’ll definitely want to get there early. Your reserved slot is basically a suggestion, but it’s first-come-first-serve, and the line backs up quickly. Add in any potential weather delays, and you could be there all day. From arrival to departure, my own experience took just two hours.) It was a tiny airstrip surrounded by hangars, not all of which looked like they’d been used in the last decade. The office itself was a trailer, where my friend and I joined that morning’s arrivals—mostly couples and entire families, all in nervous good humor—in filling out about 20 pages of waivers. The waivers did not fuck around, including phrases like “skydiving is extremely dangerous” and “I understand that I can die.” I respected their bluntness. I also had to be videotaped reading aloud one final statement clearing the skydiving place of liability, and signing away my safety.
That was my first step on what felt like an assembly line. Scores, maybe hundreds of people were jumping that day. Recreational skydiving is a business, and it’s in the business’s interests to get as many people in and out as quickly as possible. This place had it down to a science. After I turned in my waivers, stepped on a scale to make sure I hadn’t lied on my forms (there is a weight limit, though not so firm that it can’t be overcome by paying an extra fee per pound), and turned over my car keys (hopeful that I might see them again someday), I went out back behind the trailer, to a pair of picnic tables, to wait for the van that would take me out to the hangar.
It was on the 90-second van ride that I got the bulk of the instruction I would receive that day, as the driver told us the position to assume when we leapt from the plane. I was, quite honestly, blown away by how little preparation I received for my jump. I had been expecting an instructional video, a lecture, maybe a few exercises to try out what I’d learned. But in retrospect, there really isn’t anything you need to know. You’re not going to be pulling the cord. You’re not going to be steering your parachute. If something goes wrong, you will be of no help, and it’s much better that you dangle there limply and don’t even try. Tandem skydiving is, from the point of view of the novice jumper, the most passive activity in the world.
At the hangar, while we waited for our names to be called, we watched the riggers re-pack parachutes. They looked like stoner college students, chugging Mountain Dew and cracking jokes meant to be overheard by nervous customers. (“Ah, I forgot to pack the backup chute...ah, it’ll probably be fine.”) One was taking a nap, motionless and face-down in a folded-up parachute.
Everyone here was trying to good-naturedly intimidate you. This was just another day on the job for them, but I bet seeing the terror on the faces of first-timers never gets old. How could you not have some fun at their expense? “Is this your first time jumping?” my instructor asked when we first met. I nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “me too.”
If you’ve got a stereotype in mind of someone who works as a skydiving instructor, it’s probably bang-on. Our instructors, Blane and Brock, were bros to the core, liberally using the word “extreme” and never missing the chance to crack a sexist joke. “Can I have her if you die?” Brock asked me about my friend.
I was helped into a full-body harness, Blane telling me to take special care keeping my testicles out of the way. The get-up felt worryingly unsubstantial. It was one of many times during the experience that my brain (“They obviously know what they’re doing, it’ll be fine.”) had to shout down my heart (“There’s no way these shoulder straps are going to hold me!”). If I can give you one piece of actual advice, it’s to listen to your brain—it’s correct—but to let your heart have its say. After all, this wouldn’t be nearly as exhilarating if every fiber of your being wasn’t screaming at you that you’re doing something horrible and unnatural.
Not for the first or last time, I was urged to purchase photos and video of my jump, to be taken with a camera strapped to my instructor’s wrist. It would’ve been nice to have, but not for 150 bucks, more than half the price of the jump itself. Still, the upsell was calming: Again, this is a business. To them, this is no more extreme than riding Space Mountain, right down to the commemorative photograph. I declined. They said they’d film anyway, and I could purchase it later.
I asked Blane what I would need to know about landing. He said he’d tell me after we jumped.
We climbed into the plane, a Cessna 182, me sitting on the floor, facing the rear, between Blane’s legs, with Brock and my friend to the side and behind us. I’d never been in such a tiny plane—I had to take care not to bang my head, and needed to physically pull my knees up with my arms when it was time to move. It felt like we were flying at about 40 mph. The view was gorgeous, ocean and beaches and barrier islands and suburban sprawl and geometric patterns of farmland. I wish I could have enjoyed it.
The ride up would’ve been unbearably tense, if the instructors had allowed it. But they kept up a steady chatter, telling terrible jokes and riddles you could tell they’ve told a million times before, just to keep us from having any time to think. Good thing, too: My brain was definitely not working right. (“Spell ‘pots.’” “P-O-T-S.” “What do you do at a green light?” “Stop?” “You stop at a green light? Remind me not to drive with you.”)
More than once I had to consciously peel my clenched fingers back from around whatever was in grabbing distance. When we neared 10,000 feet, I was told to shimmy back and sit on Blane’s lap as he clipped our harnesses together and strapped goggles tightly over my eyeglasses. There was no point in pretending it wasn’t awkward. “I wish we were alone,” my friend said Brock told her as she sat on his lap. After a joke about women drivers, she said she was annoyed, but wasn’t about to say a damn thing about it to the person whom she needed to keep her alive.
And just like that, they kicked the door open. Literally kicked it. Holy shit! Doors aren’t supposed to open on airplanes while you’re in the air! Right up until then, everything had been grounded in normal experience. Everything made sense. Now I was completely out of my element. Now my brain decided that rather than try to decipher the surging neurotransmitters and blaring fight-or-flight klaxons, it would just shut down for a while. (My shameful secret: When people have asked me what I was thinking when I jumped out of a plane, my only true answer is, “Nothing.”)
My friend went first, because she was the closest to the door. I later found out she had asked if she could jump first, because she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to do it after watching me go. I’m glad it worked out this way, because I’ll never forget the look on her face as it happened: her jaw slack, her eyes wild and rolling like a panicked horse. I knew her brain had failed her. I also knew my face must have looked the same way. She and Brock went out the side, and it was my turn.
Blane swung his left leg out. I place both my legs out the door, resting them on a step. I felt a little nudge from behind and leaned forward—and then he grabbed my shoulders and pulled me back in. A little joke of his. I would have been furious if I’d been able to feel anything but uncut fear. Then he pushed us out.
My mind was incapable of thought, but at least it knew it was incapable. It knew there was nothing useful for me to do but assume the position—all my seconds of training had built up to this. I crossed my arms, clutching my shoulder straps, leaned my head back and arched my legs. At a tap on the shoulder, I put my arms out. That was, oddly, the most mentally difficult part of the whole jump—it would be the first time I wasn’t clinging madly to something, even if that something was my own harness.
Later, after our parachute had opened with a jerk that wasn’t half as intense as I had been expecting, I asked my instructor how long we had been in freefall. It had felt like five seconds. He said it had been about 30. Much of that time remains a blank for me. (Your mileage may vary. My friend says her mind was working clearly and furiously, reeling off “a ticker-tape of expletives overlaid on the distinct sensation that I was going to die.”)
There was no fear for me, only a little bit of pain. The shoulder straps that had so worried me before were fine; it turned out most of my weight was supported by the straps on either side of my groin, and that I hadn’t taken enough care to make sure my right testicle was clear. Well, I had been warned.
Now with nothing to do but float down to earth in my grown-up Baby Björn, I made small talk with my instructor and admired the view. I could see beachfront mansions in the Hamptons, and where Hurricane Sandy had breached Fire Island. I could see the clouds billowing up—and had the very distinct thought that I’d never seen the tops of clouds without a thick airplane window in the way. We made some sharp turns, which unsettled my stomach briefly (my friend said she was nauseous the whole way down, and for about an hour afterward), and after about three minutes, it was time to land. I was told to keep my feet up and out of the way, unless told at the very last minute to “run,” “walk,” or “stand.” Our landing was smooth, I guess, because I was told to stand. I planted my feet on the ground, which was a shock to my ankles—I would read later that most skydiving injuries come on landing, and most are to the ankles—but I was down. I was inordinately proud of landing on my feet. My friend had come down on her ass. The ol’ Drew Magary landing:
And then it was back to the hangar to be unharnessed. Our instructors handed us comment cards that doubled as envelopes in which to leave a tip. They then met their next students, and within five minutes were back in a plane on the way up to do it all over again. The assembly line never stops.
My adrenaline had never been so high. I spent the next hour wanting to punch through walls and fighting the urge to see how fast my rental Dodge Dart could go. But when the adrenaline wore off—just as our instructors had warned it would—I crashed, becoming tired, lightheaded, and nauseous. Apparently, there’s no way around this: Every hormone in your body, every evolutionary adaptation you possess, says that skydiving is bad and wrong and that you’re going to die. If there’s bravery involved—and there’s not, not really, this is so pedestrian, hundreds of thousands of boring people do this every year, you’re not special—it’s overcoming your own good sense for long enough to poison yourself with adrenaline. The next day, I ached all over. I could only guess that my every muscle had been fully clenched from beginning to end.
I didn’t end up getting the DVD package. That means I was a good customer, but not a great one. But if you’re still not quite sure if you’re ready to do this yourself, it does help to think of yourself as a customer instead of a daredevil—and any business just wants its customers to leave the store happy and alive.
I did get this neat certificate, though. And if I bring it back, I can get $20 off my next jump.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
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