and it was an amazing experience.
Author's Note: This is a first draft and may be subject to change.
This trip started after the identity theft crisis. I don't know whether it's because my credit card company offered a promotion (spend $2000 in three months and get $200 cash back), whether it's because I became more fatalistic about my finances (I could lose all my money tomorrow from another attack), or whether it's because I was saving without purpose and becoming bored to the general, monotonous routine of life, but I decided to go do something outside my usual financial limits. Why not skydiving?
It was also an opportunity to try and conquer my fears. When I was a kid, I was terrified of heights. I tried getting over it by climbing super-tall buildings like the CN tower, the Sears Tower, and the old World Trade Center, but it didn't really seem of help all that much. Funnily enough, living on the second floor of my parent's house when I was a teenager and having to stare out over the loft before coming down the stairs helped, as did rock climbing and hiking. My fears were pretty much gone by yesterday, but I thought skydiving would help with confirming that it was gone for good.
I asked people whether they would consider skydiving, and aside from one friend who wanted to go independently, my offer was met with universal denial. Why not go indoor skydiving? It's crazy to jump out of a plane! I figured that it was their “System 1” that was talking and not them, because statistically, tandem jumping is an extremely safe activity. In fact, I didn't want to do indoor skydiving because an impact with the floor or the wall could be just as devastating as an impact with the ground in outdoor skydiving, if not more so because you have an instructor while tandem jumping who can help correct for you.
I scheduled a skydiving session at Skydive Orange the weekend before my 24th birthday. I thought that was a good enough reason to do something. Since it was 2 hours away, and I didn't know what my schedule would be like after going there, I decided to book a rental car from Enterprise too.
I wake up around 9:30AM and decide to do a few chores before I pick up the car. I do some laundry, eat breakfast, and wash the dishes. I wasn't in a rush because I thought since my car reservation was at 9:00AM and for the full day, I didn't get any messages or underlined warnings to pick up the car at the time specified, and because I scouted out the office and talked to the staff the day before, I could go whenever I want.
I was wrong. Around 10:45AM or so I eventually make it over to the rental car store, where Nick at the front desk says that not only did I lose my reservation because I came over an hour and a half late and they didn't have a car waiting for me, they were swamped with customers and they didn't have any car for me. It was okay, though. After another hour or so, and after a great deal of extra effort on the part of Enterprise's staff, they got a bunch of cars from another branch and I made my way to the garage. I found myself staring at a Hyundai Tucson. I thought I was getting a Toyota Camry, but the details of the reservation said “Toyota Camry, or similar”. I guess a compact SUV is kind of like a full-size sedan. It was a bit stressful waiting, but I was just glad to get a car in the end. After pre-paying for gas and getting some insurance, I got the keys and was on my way.
Since it was 12:00PM and my skydiving reservation was for 2:00PM, and the drive took around 2 hours, I had pretty much no time for lunch. I packed some bananas, some bread, and five water bottles and took off for Orange, VA. I worried that I would be a horrible driver, or that somebody would drive into me, but highway driving during the day was extremely chill and driving is now a muscle memory for me. Driving in the suburbs, and then in the countryside, is an extremely pleasant experience, especially when you havent’ seen farmland in more than a year. Hello cows! Hello horses! Hello barn! I felt like a kid again.
I get over the last hill, and then I see the wide expanse of Orange Airport. It's a small airport with one primary landing strip and a number of smaller planes. I look above me and I see maybe five or six canopies slowly floating down towards the dropzone. That in itself was amazing. I don't think I've seen parachuters in real life before.
I asked for directions from a nice lady and I walked into the hangar. It was packed. There had to have been at several hundred skydivers there. There was a Twin Otter, a larger cargo plane of some sort, and a helicopter, just non-stop ferrying people to the air and coming back down. I discovered that the Big O Boogie 2018 was going on, so there was an abnormal amount of activity.
I went to the registration site, and had to fill out some paperwork and watch a video. I thought the video would cover safety tips, but it was just a legal liability video stating the extreme dangers of skydiving. The paperwork was intense; there was a clause stating that if you died, your heirs and executors could not sue Skydive Orange for any reason. I read every line and listened to every word. I asked the front desk if anybody ever died at Skydive Orange. They said “nope”. That was good.
After filling out the paperwork, I was told that my name would be called on the intercom when it was my turn to jump. Great, time for a snack! I ate some bread and bananas and got some water. Then I waited. And waited. And waited some more. It took about 3 hours until I was my turn to jump.
I took this opportunity to look around me at what people were doing and what was happening. It's very comforting to see the planes coming and going. It's a routine, everybody's chill and knows what to do, and everything works. Some of the folks there got they skydiving licenses right when they turned 18. Some got it in their mid-fifties. All of them loved skydiving, to the point where they flew their own private plane from Buffalo, New York to Orange just for the Big O Boogie event (“less hassle than flying commercial”). I was in a different world.
Eventually, my turn came up. I was jumping with a couple doing tandems, an older Latino guy, and some more experienced jumpers (some had wingsuits, some didn't). My tandem instructor was Dan, a military test parachutist turned diplomat. He cuts away his parachute mid-air in order to test things for scientists and stuff. I felt safe. Since I got the videos and photos package too, another jumper, Mario, brought along two GoPros on his helmet to film me: one for photos, one for videos.
Before we harnessed up, we got to choose whether we wanted to go as we were, wear a full flight suit, or wear motorcycle pants, with the understanding that there may be grass stains. I wore my Kinetica t-shirt and wanted to rep it in the air, and I didn't want to leave grass stains on the rental car, so I chose motorcycle pants.
I asked Dan what kinds of injuries people got (there were quite a lot of people walking around with injuries). Dan said since it was mostly competitive skydiving, people do stupid tricks and sometimes twist their ankles or something, but nothing major.
The plane I was jumping out of was a Twin Otter. Since it was pretty late in the day, I believe I was on the last or second-last group (“Otter 19”).
I noticed while circling around the back of the plane that there was a large rectangular door in the side of the plane. Dan confirmed that the Otter was specially configured for skydiving. The inside of the plane was a bit ratty, but I didn't care. No plane ever fell out of the sky because the carpet was mussed up or the lining was peeling, and I trust that Skydive Orange trusted the plane's maintainers.
There's two gray carpet benches along the inside of the plane, as well as some empty space. The door remaining open while we were taxiing, and I asked Dan whether there was a door. Sure enough, there was, made out of plexiglas, and the skydivers pulled it down right before we took off.
Taking off is very much like taking off in a commercial jet. Except you only kind of have a seatbelt. And you're looking at a gigantic hole in the side of the plane knowing you're going to jump. So it's also nothing like flying commercial. The houses get smaller, and smaller, and smaller, and then you start paying attention to the warehouses when you can't see the houses any more, and then they get smaller and smaller and smaller. Pretty soon you're focusing on chunks of farmland.
There were puffs of cloud around and I asked Dan whether he preferred diving with clouds or without clouds. He said it depends on whether you want to see the furthest, in which case no clouds is best, or whether you want to dive through the clouds and experience the whoosh. Clouds look different when you are flying through it, as they all blend together into one layer. That we flew over.
I checked my altimeter. 5,000 feet. 10,000 feet. 14,000 feet. I had the analog one, and like a clock, it turned around once and settled on 2.
At 14,000 feet, the plane leveled off, and the other skydivers opened the plexiglas door. The wind, oh god the wind. It was insane. You could kind of hear what was going on, but most of the pro skydivers ahead of me just stuck their tongues out, made a hand gesture of some sort, and jumped out.
I was gauging my fear the entire ride up. Right when I stumped over to the door, feet between Dan's feet, I did a mental check. I asked somebody out last week. She said no. This was much less stressful.
Maybe I got over my fear. Maybe I don't care for my own life anymore. Maybe since I was strapped in I was thinking that if anything happened at this altitude, Dan would know what to do and it would honestly be more dangerous to stump back to the bench because there were still skydivers behind us and it would be unexpected behavior. But jumping out the plane was absolutely not the hardest thing I've done in my life. That might be telling friends I had depression, or doing my lead climb certification and falling 80 feet from a rock ledge.
That was the jump. Then came turning around and seeing the plane leave me. “Oh God the plane is leaving". Then I remembered my training and arched my hips back and dug my feet into Dan's ass, as he said. Kind of, I didn't do it very well. My senses were overwhelmed, you had air rushing past your head and through your ears, your brain is firing signals to tell you how stupid a person you are right before you die, and you can kind of see things through your goggles because the air is also dicking around with your face. It was total System 1 at that point.
I noticed Mario was filming me. I was trying to smile and grin for the camera but my mouth kept running dry.
The freefall lasted about sixty seconds. Then the parachute opened, and I went from horizontal to vertical, just like that. The harness felt nice and tight, and maybe for the first time I took a great look around.
It was beautiful. Blue Ridge mountains in the distance, farmland, and the airport right below us. You couldn't get that view in a glider or from a skyscraper. You could only get it jumping out of an airplane.
I asked Dan to do a spin. I pulled both my arms up and pulled down on the side I wanted to spin towards. I pulled down on my left. OH MY GOD THAT WAS TERRIFYING. The most terrifying part of the entire trip. It was like if you were skiing down one of those dual black diamond slopes, but even steeper. My stomach came into my mouth.
Then nothing happened. And we did it again. And this time, I opened my eyes and cheered. There was nothing to worry about!
We did another few spins in order to establish a pattern for landing in the dropzone, and as instructed I pulled up my legs as high as I could go. I stuck my legs out, which wasn't supposed to happen, but the landing went extremely smoothly.
I stood up and my legs were shaking. I think my brain hates me just a little bit. But I ended up walking back to the hangar just fine, where I got my certificate saying I'm a qualified jumper (“one of us”), a nice bumper sticker, and a $90 coupon for when I wanted to jump again.
After the jump, I bought a $7 burger and a $2 water from a food truck called Blackwater Beef. They stayed open late because of all the late jumpers and the guy messed up my payment, but he fixed it and offered my chips. I declined and offered to tip as appreciation for staying open (I have no idea where the nearest food joint would be). The guy stared at me for five seconds and said no. Maybe I become nicer after having an adrenaline-fuelled experience. Maybe it's just me. The burger was nice.
I drove home and got back around 9, whereupon I promptly ate the rest of my bananas and bread, filed away habits in my habit app, and went to bed.
All in all, the experience was amazing. If I had to do it again, I think I would tweak some things about my adventure:
Remember to pick up my rental car on time. Otherwise not only will I have it late, but I might have to wait even longer.
Close my mouth while falling at terminal velocity. The air sucks all the saliva out of your mouth and my mouth became extremely dry. I ate a bunch of bananas afterwards because I was afraid of getting a sore throat. I bet drops of my spit are still floating over the airport, or became part of the clouds.
Correct my posture after jumping out of the plane, such as letting go of the harness with my hands and arching my back more. Dan mentioned this during the briefing on the ground and on the ride up, and I think Mario gestured to me about it while we were in freefall, but due to sensory overload and a bit of sheer terror I forgot about it. Opening my arms would be important if I did an accelerated free-fall (AFF) since that would be how I balance. That meant the camera didn't get my shirt in the air as well. I could also open my eyes more; they were open, but due to the air and being Asian it looks closed on the pictures.
Bring a friend (if I can convince anybody to come)! It's much more fun jumping together because you get to talk about the experience afterwards (or really, you can't stop talking). Tandem jumping is not dangerous and it's not scary. It's also a great way to cheat your FitBit (I think I got at least a thousand steps on the way down) 😄
I don't know if I would jump again, since it is kind of expensive, and some of the experienced jumpers did say it becomes routine after a while and you're jumping to get the next certification (can you imagine jumping out of a plane as routine?), but it was an experience of a lifetime, and I have a new answer to my remaining fears: I'll conquer them by just doing it.