When my dear friend Pam told me she had just gone skydiving for her 50th birthday, I told her she was nuts. There was NO way I would ever consider such a thing. My lifelong fear of heights had forever convinced me that me going skydiving could ONLY be accomplished if someone put me in a straitjacket and threw me out of the airplane. But . . . the seed was planted, and it proved to be a determined little seed.
Four years later, thanks to Pam’s inspiration, along with the enthusiastic support of my friend Cera, I shockingly committed to “celebrate” turning 50 by jumping out of an airplane. (And yes, it appeared to be a perfectly good one, in case you were wondering.)
Cera is my personal trainer/personal therapist. “Therapist” isn’t one of her official job titles, but it may as well be. Poor girl hears more than she ever bargained for since taking me on as a client. Anyway, when I “celebrated” my 50th birthday this past November (I know, I know, I only look 35 . . . ), I told Cera that I’d been mulling over the idea of doing a 50-year-old birthday jump like Pam had done. But as much as I wanted to believe I could be brave enough, I wasn’t really sure I could ever actually do it.
A few months passed, and any thought of skydiving had been safely tucked away deep in the back of my mind, where it likely would have remained had it just been up to me. Then this past May, Cera told me that she wanted to go skydiving for her birthday, and asked if I would go with her. I must have randomly lost a gasket in my brain at that moment, because I only hesitated a second before saying, “uh, yes!” Somehow, I never found the gasket in time to stop that runaway train plane. Plus, by then, I didn’t want to waste the deposit, you know?
Cera invited her sister Jenn to come out from Kansas City to take on the challenge with us. and on Monday, June 27th, we headed out to the Hurricane City airport, home of Skydive Zion! Rick, the tandem skydive instructor, was there to greet us, along with the pilot, Scott. Rick has this amazing way of convincing you that skydiving is just the greatest thing ever, and that jumping out of an airplane is completely normal. And even though I’d spent the past few weeks fluctuating between the slightest hint of excitement and total panic, I was actually feeling fairly confident when we arrived at the airport.
In fact, I managed to stay feeling pretty calm throughout the entire “training” session. Our training began by watching a 10-minute video, which appeared to have been taped sometime in the early 90’s.
It featured one of the founders of ZZ Top, who apparently was also the developer of the tandem skydive! (Ok, he wasn’t really in ZZ Top, but he could have passed as a body/beard double.)
Tandem skydiving is where you jump out of the plane with the instructor attached to your back. Rick said he’d completed over 8000 total skydive jumps, with over 5000 of them being tandem jumps. It definitely appeared Rick was truly still alive and kicking, and since Skydive Zion touts a zero % fatality rate (so far), I knew my chances were pretty good.
Next, he went over detailed instructions about exactly what would be happening at each phase of the jump. He had us practice the correct position to be in during freefall, how to make turns with the parachute, and how to land safely, which I assumed was pretty important to know about. So I paid good attention to that part.
I called dibs on going second out of the three of us. Because the one good thing about being the oldest person in a group is that you can pretty much do whatever you want. I mean, who’s going to tell the oldest gal in the room no, right? So, I informed Cera and Jen that I would be going second. Fortunately for all of us, they seemed to understand the whole “oldest-dibs” policy and didn’t fight me on it.
Cera was first up, and miracle of miracles, she came back down!! Attached to a parachute!! And lucky for Rick, she hadn’t dropped him off her back on the way down. They both landed safely, and all appeared to be right with the world. Now it was my turn.
Rick and I took our designated places on the floor of the plane, and off we went. And yes, I said floor of the plane. I paid darn good money to do this, and it turns out that the only person who even had a real seat on the plane was Scott the pilot?? What kind of plane IS this? I’m building confidence by the moment.
Anyway, I have always been terrified of small planes. (Ask me sometime about the poor SkyWest pilot who had to make an emergency landing to let me off in Cedar City. My mother still doesn’t appreciate that I forced her to have to drive there to pick me up.) But this time, the plane seemed like a pretty safe place to be. Very soon, my options would either be the plane, or the sky. The plane felt like safety. But the sky? Ummm, not so much.
Although I started out fairly full of enthusiasm, as the plane continued to climb higher and higher, intense fear and panic began to set in. The plane is a little Cessna something-or-other, with the “something-or-other” being another term for “very-small-plane.”
I asked Rick how many people had gotten up in the plane but then were unable to go through with the jump. He said that out of over 5000 tandem jumps, he’d only had TWO people back out. Nobody wants to be the third.
We took off from the airport, and up until about 5000 feet, I was almost enjoying the view. But I knew myself well enough to realize that there just might come a moment when the fear would take over, and that I might even want to chicken out. So shortly after we took off, I told Rick and Scott that I was officially giving them permission to do whatever it took to make sure I got out of the plane. BEFORE it landed. It wasn’t long before I wished I could eat those words.
At about 5000 feet, something flipped. Or maybe, reality finally caught up with me. I could have almost handled thinking about jumping out at 5000 feet, but we were not even half-way to our final altitude. I realized that we were going to be a whole lot higher than I had ever imagined come jump time. So at that point, I purposely stopped looking out the window, and started doing deep breathing exercises. Those old Lamaze classes totally came in handy. And let’s be honest, I sure never thought I’d be using Lamaze again at 50.
About 20 minutes after we’d taken off, we reached our final jump-altitude of 14,000 feet. Some people don’t know this, but 14,000 feet is also known as “oh-heck-no-I-won’t-go” feet above sea level. According to Rick, it was time to tighten the straps, slide to the front, and “get ready.” My brain at that point: “Huh? Get ready for what? Where am I? Who are you? And what the heck am I doing on the floor of this darn airplane?!! Somebody get me a seat here!”
But apparently the correct answer was that it was time to get ready to jump.
OUT of an airplane.
IN THE SKY.
I was basically like “David after the dentist” and had to ask myself, “Is this real life?” And “You’re positive I PAID good money to do this??”
Before anyone would answer my questions in the way I wanted them to, Rick opened the door of the plane, and revealed a view that should ONLY be seen from inside the triple-insulated window of a sturdy 747. And then that crazy Rickster told me to go ahead and climb out. That Rick, what a card.
At that point, I would have tried to hide under the seat . . . if there’d been a darn seat to hide under. I would have gladly eaten glass or sung the National Anthem on live television in exchange for a teleporting pass off that plane. But short of becoming the dreaded #3 (which we all know is only slightly worse than being the dreaded #2), there was only one way off that plane. And it was out that darn door.
Thanks to Rick’s trusty GoPro, which was capturing my every move for all of eternity, I knew I couldn’t have a total nervous breakdown on camera. My alter-ego (I’m still working on a great alter-ego name, check back with me later) apparently took over my body, because the video footage shows that I moved my own body to the edge of the plane. Not only that, but I even put my own feet outside on the little launch step. Don’t believe it? Check the film. (That’s what I had to do. Because I have absolutely ZERO memory of anything that happened for about 20 seconds around this point.)
But I can tell you one thing for sure — there wasn’t a chance in the world I was going to proactively launch myself (with Rick attached) out into that wild blue yonder. I would have likely remained frozen on the edge of the airplane from now ‘til eternity if Rick hadn’t applied the non-contractual verbal approval I’d given him to get me out the door (aka, a “gentle push”). Suddenly we were moving, and for a split second, I saw that the plane I was supposed to be glued to was getting smaller and smaller against a deep blue sky.
And then, just a split second later, we were flying face down at 140 miles per hour. That’s only about 10 miles per hour slower than my husband drives when no one’s looking, so you KNOW it’s fast.
I might have more recollection of this part of the jump, if it weren’t for the fact that my goggles were too loose. They’d slid up to where the bottom rim was now mostly covering my eyes, which is a sure-fire way to kill the view. When I finally figured out what was going on, I managed to pull my arm in just enough to move the goggles into place. I now had about 10 seconds of viewable freefall left before Rick gave me the ripcord pull signal.
I reached for the ripcord, and was able to abruptly bring an end to the craziest 40 seconds of my life.
The parachute did just what it was supposed to (See? Boy Scouts really DO come prepared!), and within mere seconds it snapped us out of freefall and into what felt like a nice slow glide. Funny thing, even though we were still at an elevation of around 5000 feet, it felt like we were home free! I have never been so relieved in my life. I burst into a mixture of laughter, tears, and pure relief that was literally overwhelming.
From that point, it only took about 5 more minutes to get back down to the ground. Using the attached parachute handles, I was able to make a few small turns, and tried my best to take in the views. And before I knew it, it was time to prepare for landing.
Rick said that the best skydive days are when there is a slight breeze, because it helps soften the landing when you’re coming in so fast. Well, we had NO wind at all, and we were coming in hot. And I’m not just talking about the temperature.
I did just what I was told, and held my feet straight out in front of me, prepared to slide into the gravel landing pit. But with no wind to slow us down, we had what Rick later called a “plop landing.” Meaning, we literally were just plopped onto the ground after falling out of the sky. And dang, it hurt. I was able to get up and carefully walk away, but I’ll admit that I promptly ordered a coccyx (tailbone) pillow with overnight shipping. If a sore tailbone is the price I have to pay for skydiving glory, then so be it. Sigh.
When I landed, Cera asked if I would do it again. Right now, it’s hard to say. It’s undoubtedly THE scariest thing I have ever experienced, and if it weren’t for Rick’s “gentle push,” I’m not sure I would have been able to get myself off that tiny platform on the side of the plane.
But, the truth is, given the right circumstances (large sums of money??), I just might. Because as I told Cera just moments after I landed, I now know I can live through it. And in spite of what felt like debilitating fear, I had to prove to myself that fear will NOT beat me or keep me from living life to the fullest.
My friend Pam, who inspired me to make a 50-year-old skydive jump, tragically passed away just one week before I made my own jump. This only served to make the experience even more significant and meaningful for me. I hoped that Pam was watching from the other side, and I knew she would have cheered me on had she been there with me.
I also wanted to remind myself and those I love that life is worth living! Pam lived her 54 years on this earth with gusto. I plan to do the same.
~P.S.~ Now that you know the whole story, watch it all play out on the YouTube video! Because as we all know, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a video has sound effects! (I promise you, watching this video is the best way to experience skydiving without having to actually do it!)