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.
In the days of yore, skydivers learned the ropes by jumping with a static line like paratroopers; the line would deploy the chute and the novitiate would only have to contend with surviving the landing. Eventually they would show their instructor that they had the cool to free fall and pull the rip cord themselves. It's still a pretty popular way to train: in 1998, more than 60,000 students left a plane on a static line, though those numbers are in decline. That's because sport parachutists have developed ways to get the student free falling sooner.
In skydiving, free fall is the thing. "It's 70 seconds of freedom. The only thing you're thinking about is the exhilaration," says Wendy Hoogsteden, a Florida-based skydiving instructor with 3,000 jumps, a shock of wild hair and a permanent, toothy grin. "All of the time people ask why I do it," she says, "expecting some great philosophical revelation. It's not all that complicated. It's pure fun."
The most common route to free falling is the tandem jump; some schools offer a course that after fewer than 10 jumps culminates in the student plunging out the door alone. It's very popular: 154,000 students tandemed out the door in 1998. But now, the geniuses who think of these things have come up with Accelerated Free Fall, or AFF. The name's a misnomer: it's not a way to drop faster -- 120 mph is plenty fast -- but a technique to start solo free falling sooner. On your first jump, you go out the door on your own, with an instructor on either side of you to coach you through the one minute or so of free fall. In 1998, almost 49,700 students opted for an AFF the first time out. Remember George Bush's two highly publicized skydives? Accelerated Free Fall.
Hey, if Bush pere can do it, I can do it.
The place to do it is Skydive City, about an hour north of Tampa, Florida. Each year, instructors there put nearly 1,000 students through their first AFF. And each year, those same pros are in the news for taking home the gold at U.S. national skydiving events. Most die-hard skydivers from the northeastern United States head there during the winter. But the best reason to go? Female skydivers are, to the last, hot babes.
The concept of parachuting has been around since Leonardo da Vinci sketched the first parachute in the late 1400s. Centuries later, early balloonists and pioneer airplane pilots would occasionally use a parachute to drop from their flying machines, mostly to thrill crowds at county fairs. While parachutes were known during the First World War, they were seldom a part of the combat pilot's equipment. They were too bulky for the small biplanes of the era. Besides, higher-ups feared that onboard parachutes might encourage pilots to abandon ship at the first sign of trouble. (They needn't have worried, if the summary judgment of my numerous pilot friends is any indication: "I can't believe anyone would jump out of a perfectly good airplane," each has stated, each remarkably coming up with that very clever line on his own.)
During the Second World War, paratroopers and the concept of vertical envelopment came into vogue. The Germans used it with devastating success. On the Allied side, the first troops to hit Normandy on D-Day dropped in from the sky.
After the war, a handful of Allied troopers brought their round silk chutes home and kept on jumping, because they loved it. But then, they were the same guys who had volunteered to leap into combat at night from an airplane flying at 300 feet. Instead of using a static line attached to the airplane like many of their counterparts, they took to leaping out and hurling through the sky for a few manic seconds before pulling the rip cord.
During the 1970s, round chutes gave way to rectangular ones cleverly constructed of cells that filled with air, forming a semirigid wing that the skydiver could control with remarkable precision.
In 1999, there were more than 5.5 million skydives worldwide; 3.4 million of them in the United States (with 29 fatalities). Today, the U.S. Parachuting Association lists more than 34,000 members, a figure that has nearly doubled in the past decade. Much of the credit for this growth can be placed on the shoulders of Bush, who made celebratory jumps on his 72nd and 75th birthdays.
"George Bush has done more for the sport than just about anyone," says Arlo Pace, a 32-year-old former nuclear operations specialist in South Carolina who left all that behind to move into an RV with her boyfriend at Skydive City. She has long, beautiful hair and a Southern accent that even the locals find impenetrable. (On the observation deck, she suddenly freaks and begs me to "Keel the spotter!", which instead of binoculars has eight legs.) Pace has volunteered to give me a tour. More than 30 RVs, trailers and old school buses line the edge of the drop zone, with about as many tents pitched nearby. "There are a lot of people who have been camping here for about a month because their drop zones close for the winter," Pace explains.
"At first, my stepdad expected it to be ?communal living' -- he had the perception of people with colored hair and hippies jumping out of airplanes," she adds. "But when he came down here, he was pleasantly surprised. There are professionals here, people who work for a living -- it's not a cheap sport." She shouts out an unprintable greeting to a gentleman sporting a tie-dyed jumpsuit and a Wavy Gravy hairstyle. "He's a Muff Diver," Pace says, explaining that the so-christened group will occasionally jump wearing earmuffs; when they initiate a new Muff Brother in the afternoon, drinking will result that night. I don't imagine that George Bush has been initiated into the Muff Divers yet.
Pace lets me in on some of the lingo. Deploying the chute is called dumping (as in, "All students dump at 5,000 feet"); a cutaway (ditching the main chute for the reserve) is known as a chop; and a crash landing is frapping, apparently from the sound it makes. It only follows that a crash helmet is a frap hat.
I find myself hoping that I don't have to chop after I dump, and if I do, I pray I don't frap. As if that tiny frap hat is going to do me any good.
Like my tandem, the AFF process begins with my signing away all legal rights to sue if, when walking away from my big leap, I'm making wheezing accordion noises like frapmeister Wile E. Coyote. Then I meet the instructor, Charlie Hotze. Hotze has a ruddy face, a humorless smile and at least 6,000 jumps under his harness. He questions me about my motives and state of health (I lie about my crummy knees), and silently assesses my state of mind. Somehow I pass muster. There is one other student in the class: Chris Jenkins, a young, chiseled athletic sort who's made two tandems and seems stoked to go solo.
Hotze leads us to the packing tent and unravels a packed chute for our viewing pleasure. There's the rainbow-colored canopy, with cells that fill with air; scores of guylines leading to the harness; the harness; a little hackey-sac with a small drogue chute attached by which you deploy the main canopy; the toggles, or controls; the reserve chute; and a red handle that lets you chop the main canopy and deploy the reserve chute with an old-fashioned D-ring rip cord.
What follows is a grueling five hours of instruction inside a claustrophobic, airless hut. Hotze drills us on the gear, the hand signs and the dive flow -- the order in which events will happen during the dive. We go over what to do in freefall emergencies, what to do if the canopy malfunctions, what to do if it looks as if we're going to land on sharp, pointy objects. As the list of possible malfunctions grows, so does my anxiety. Hey! This isn't a joyride like the tandem! This is a lot of responsibility! I could end up a sack of bloody gristle!
The training isn't like in those war movies, with men jumping off towers and rolling in the dirt. It's more like being taught to drive without getting behind the wheel. They show you the car and tell you how to drive it and the actions to take in most common emergencies. Then, they send you out alone on the New Jersey Turnpike during rush hour. Only in a car, you aren't dropping your exposed, tender innards 120 mph towards the hard ground below, which is littered with sharp, pointy objects.
Having passed a written test, Jenkins and I are deemed ready to get behind the wheel. Outfitted with parachutes and pastel blue jumpsuits that look like leftovers from the "Brady Bunch Variety Hour," we are marched out to the runway with about two dozen skydivers. We all climb aboard a DeHavilland Twin Otter in reverse of the order in which we'll be exiting: tandems first, AFF next and experienced formation people last. All of us sit on the floor jammed between one another's legs, backs to the cockpit. I hear people buckling the airplane's safety belts to their jump harnesses.
We roll down the runway and as soon as the wheels leave the ground, the women in the rear cheer, "Fly, baby, fly!" Behind me, Hotze orders me to unhook the safety belt and run through the jump sequence again verbally, then to envision it silently a couple of times. "We wouldn't be letting you go if you weren't ready for it," my other jumpmaster, Paul Fairbanks, shouts over the engines. I must look even paler and more serious than during my tandem. Fairbanks is Pace's boyfriend, and he has logged 4,000 jumps, so I must be in good hands, I think. Unless he's the psychotically jealous type. Then, I'm so screwed.
My wrist altimeter shows the airplane climbing faster than a Saturn V. We're dangerously close to 13,500 feet. The jumper nearest the door rolls it up and everyone in front of me rises to their feet, smiling and chattering and checking one another's gear like monkeys grooming at the zoo. Me, I am almost apoplectic with terror. This must be what it feels like to go into combat.
Hoogsteden checks the front of my harness and smiles and says I'm good to go; Hotze checks my back and tells me to stand and get limbered up. Without so much as crossing themselves, people start leaping out. It's my turn. Hotze asks in a radio announcer's voice, "Are you ready to skydive?" and I say, "Yes," while my brain screams, What? Are you kidding? Can we at least talk first? He swings his butt out the door and pauses. I face forward in a crouch. I glance over to Fairbanks and say, "Check in," as I was trained, then over at Hotze and say, "Check out." Then, forcing myself to be heard, I say, "Ready, set, go!" and, feeling little else but grim resignation, I barrel head-first out the door.
Maybe they've leapt with me. Maybe not.
Space. My vision's white, my heart's pounding. Panic and confusion. I tell myself to arch. I sense their presence. I'm not level -- I'm higher in front. It's not supposed to feel like this. I have to do something, run through a mental checklist that I can't remember. I look left toward Hotze, who signals me to extend my legs. I look at my altimeter and then to Fairbanks, who gives me a signal I am no longer able to understand. He pulls my arm back, and I level off. Then, he pulls my arm to the hackey-sac. Yes, I have to practice deploying the canopy. I touch the ball three times, which calms me -- that little ball, my ticket out of this nonsense, is so very there. I'm supposed to check around again, and I do, but I'm just going through the motions, killing time till I can clutch that glorious little ball. Hotze points at his altimeter. It takes me a second to comprehend my own. We're below 5,000 feet. I look ahead and wave them away, and reach for the ball and pull. Suddenly I am vertical, rocketing skyward like a comic book character. The guys drop away in my peripheral vision. See ya!
The canopy explodes overhead, and though the force has bruised my rib cage and stretched me six inches, I have never ever felt such happiness. I dangle there for a few seconds, basking in utter and total relief. It is completely, unequivocally rectangular, a pink and healthy baby with all its fingers and toes.
I know not what to do next. Yes -- of course -- fly the canopy. I reach for the toggles and pull down three times. Each time, the chute stops its gossamer descent and I feel that sickening weightless feeling. It seems to be working. I pull right and swing 90 degrees to the right; pull left and turn 90 degrees left. It's a keeper, all right. I set up for my attack run on the landing area, now about 3,000 feet below. I step-turn the canopy so I'm gently lining up with the west side of the zone, inside the line of trees that marks the edge like I'm supposed to. I look around and see no one else in the sky. The radio cackles -- it's Hotze calling me. Go away, I think, but answer, "Yeah?" instinctively, then laugh because it's only one-way and he can't possibly hear me. To see if I'm listening he tells me to turn right 90 degrees. He does the same to Jenkins, whom I can't see. Then Hotze begins shouting out orders. "Give me a break -- I have it under control now," I say out loud.
I've established a landing pattern in my mind already, and I decide to extend my downwind leg a bit, but he shouts at me to turn left 90 degrees. This I do, cursing him, and then I make my final turn and line up with the target: a circle of pea gravel. It comes and goes beneath my feet. I would have had it if Hotze hadn't made me turn in so soon. He now screams for me to "Flare! Flare!" and so I do, but not hard enough and I settle onto the ground, ignominiously skidding on my heels and ass. Grabbing the left riser, I spill the air out of the chute and walk over to gather it up. Then, I'm unsure of the proper procedure and hesitate, worried I'll do something wrong. But no one's rushing out to help -- where's Hotze when I really need him? -- so I think Screw it, if I do something wrong now, at least I'm not frapped, and bunch up the fabric and lug it to the packing tent. My legs feel like Slinkys.
On the way over I assess my performance: I didn't blow chow, I didn't start running or flailing maniacally as I jumped, I maintained nearly perfect bladder control, and hey, I got down alive. That has to count for something.
But would I do it again? Sure -- if somebody pays me first.
Phil Scott is the author of The Pioneers of Flight (1999, Princeton University Press).
For more information, contact Skydive City Inc. at 4241 Skydive Lane, Zephyrhills, Florida 33540. Tel.: 800-404-9399, fax: 813-782-0599.