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Falling For Skydiving

There's a Lot More to the Sport Than Just Jumping Out of an Airplane
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

It bugged me for years that I had once chickened out of skydiving in Arizona. I rationalized it by saying that I had no insurance, but really I was just plain scared. So one day, I showed up at a small New Jersey airport, laid down a credit card and signed away my rights to sue in case of accident, death or dismemberment.

I soon found myself sitting with my knees crammed into my chest inside a battered Cessna with only one seat (for the pilot), harnessed to a laconic Brazilian skydiver I'd met 10 minutes before, which coincided with the length of the training course. Wedged beside us was another pair linked in tandem. My counterpart was 51-year-old Betty Kassteen, who had calmly left her house that morning for work -- as far as her family knew -- but instead drove straight to the airport. "It's just one of those weird things I need to do," she explained. Her tandem partner seemed friendlier than mine. At my feet sat another jumper, with a video camera strapped to his helmet. He was sleeping. Betty paid extra to have him shoot a video to show her kids.

As the tiny airplane lazily spiraled upward into the thinning atmosphere, Brazilian cinched me tighter and once again ran through the instructions: when we reach altitude, we scoot toward the doorway together, I hook my feet over the plane's belly, cross my hands to my chest like a corpse and arch my back like my life depends on it. Once we're out, he'd tap my chest and I'd hold my hands up as if I'm being robbed. That's it. Whatever I do, I don't grab his hands or the parachute controls.

The pilot said, "Two minutes," and the video man stirred and rolled up the plastic door. Brazilian yelled that it was time to go, and I gripped Betty's hand for reassurance (mine; she seemed fine about all this) and the Brazilian and I began scooting toward the door.

Later, Betty told me that I looked serious, and very pale.

At the big precipice, with nothing between me and northern New Jersey 9,000 feet below, I hooked my feet, gritted my teeth and closed my eyes. We rolled forward into the void and plummeted Jerseyward. Dropping -- that was the first sensation, followed closely by blinding terror. We were plunging belly-down at more than 100 mph -- I could make out the tiny runway more than a mile below.

The dropping sensation ceased, then my brain said, Relax and enjoy the ride, and miraculously, the rest of me obeyed. The wind flapped my cheeks with gale force, and I was filled to the gills with pure exhilaration. As the runway grew bigger, Brazilian said that the chute was coming, and I heard a sail snapping in a breeze, followed by a crack and a jerk, then silence. "Wow!" I screamed, thinking, What a ride!

For the next five minutes, Brazilian performed some turns while the ground loomed, then he told me to pick up my legs for landing, which I did. We slid to a halt, my ample ass dragging on the ground. He spilled the remaining air from the chute and released me from the harness so I could run over to Betty when she landed. She told me she was ready to go again.

And so was I. But as the excitement wore off, I realized one important thing: tandem ain't the real McCoy. To really experience skydiving, I knew I must face the void alone.


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