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Published: December 10, 2018
You've read all the articles about what skydiving feels like; what you should wear; what you should eat; what to expect; why you should sign up for this crazy adventure in the first place. But what is the experience of a first-time skydive really like? That, my friend, is best explained the way humans have been talking about experiences since the invention of the campfire: in story format. A skydiving experience description is a first-person kinda thing.
So here it goes.
I've been awake since 2 a.m. when I first spring up from a panicked dream about a parachute malfunction. It doesn't matter that I have no idea what a parachute malfunction looks or feels like; my dream invented it, and it seemed real enough to zap me awake. I trundle off to the kitchen to get a glass of water and calm my nerves. I had no idea I'd be this nervous. After all, thousands of other people around the world are in the same position I'm in today, getting ready for their first skydive. I wonder if they're all this scared.
When I get to the dropzone, I'm surprised by the serenity of the place. I'm trying to pretend I'm not freaking out, but everyone at Skydive Long Island -- from the people working the office desk to the person announcing the next "load" to take off -- are incredibly easy-going, calm, happy people. A few folks off to the side, all wearing pro-looking jumpsuits of varying colors, are laughing together and doing a funny dance that I eventually realize is practice for a jump. They clearly don't think they're going to die. I relax. A little.
From there, I'm invited to "ground school." It's not that formal; I'm shown, with the other tandem students (Not passengers! Students!), what the equipment is and what each part does. We're shown the simple physical stuff we're going to be asked to do in the air. It's not, like, yoga class. It's really simple: In the door of the airplane, we just need to cross our arms, lean our heads back, bend our knees and jump. One tap on the shoulder is the signal to open the arms. A second tap is the signal to bring our arms to the chest as the parachute opens. Finally, on landing, we have to keep our legs up. (Yay core!) It's a lot easier than I thought. Apparently, the skydiving experience is just a little like swimming. I love swimming. I'm feeling even better about this madness.
While we wait, I pop in my earbuds and play Danger Zone from Top Gun at full blast, six times. I'm ready to high-five my instructor and call her Goose by the time she comes to invite me over to the gear-up area. It's almost go time.
Once I'm in my harness and walking out to the airplane, the reality of the situation has sunk in a little bit more. Yeah, I'm still scared. I've never gotten onto a plane using a ladder, and each rung feels like it's escalating the seriousness of the situation. I look around, and all the other tandem students on the plane have the same look on their faces: that here-we-go-oh-god-okay kinda look, with a big smile that might be a little crazy around the edges. Was this really a good idea? I want my mommy.
But here we are. And the door -- a clear plastic one that rolls down from the ceiling, totally foreign to any other airplane I've been in -- slides shut behind us. It's loud in this plane, and it's loud in my head, but I start to get that feeling of focus that everyone always talks about when they talk about skydiving -- how it seems to make all the stupid little frustrations of everyday life fade into the deep background.
I like it already.
The solo skydivers in the plane drift off, one by one, into what actually looks like sleep. A couple of them lean across and talk to each other, helmets close enough together for short sentences to carry through their cool-looking, stickered-up helmets. I guess after you've done this a few hundred times, you don't have this, like, whirling dervish of terror careening around inside you. I close my eyes, reach deep into my heart and grab the dervish by the collar. Cut it out, dude, I think to him. Everything's obviously okay. Look, the guy across from us is snoring.
I open my eyes when it suddenly gets very windy. The door is open, and the first group of sport skydivers has peaced-out into the big, blue void. A few more go, and my instructor nudges me gently towards the door from which they just disappeared. Finally, I get there. For a moment, I stare at my goofy cartoon socks against the background of the entirety of Long Island. Then I realize I'm not getting back into the plane behind me. I cross my arms, tilt back my head... and jump.
Once I'm out the door, I realize that nothing could have prepared me for the sensation of skydiving. Nothing I have ever done before in my life could have given me a hint as to what it feels like to be falling-but-not-falling, flying-but-not-flying, supported by a column of the strongest wind I've ever felt in my life, holding palms full of it, pressing against it with my belly and my thighs. It's SO FAST but it's SO NOT and everything is in hyperbole: biggest, loudest, wildest, craziest, freest, MOST inspired, MOST joyful, MOST incredible. Freefall even makes me a hyperbole: ME-est. Up here, doing this, I am the ME-est I've ever been.
Suddenly, I feel the taps. I cross my arms as the parachute opens and my harness hugs my legs. Everything slows down to the pace of meditation, with the New York City skyline alongside us and a smattering of clouds from a perspective I thought I'd never see aside from behind a little oval of glass. My instructor asks if I want to steer. I tell her yes, and she helps me grab the fabric loops that control the brakes. I turn this way and that. It feels easy; natural.
I realize I stopped being scared when my feet left the plane. I smile, realizing it's probably just like that for everything else I'm scared of, too.
Finally, I see the dropzone underneath us. It feels like a lifetime ago that I took off from there, terrified and uncertain about what came next. I wave at the others on the ground. I see them waving back.
When I land, I feel like a new person. I get a hug from my tandem instructor, who's looking at me like she knows exactly what just happened to me, in a way that I'm not sure even *I* do yet. I feel like there's nothing I can't do. After all, I just jumped out of a plane.
As I walk back into the hangar, I pass another student on the way to the plane, the dark circles under his eyes and the grim line of his mouth making his inner monologue more than obvious. I give him a big smile.
"See you back down here," I say, giving him a big high-five. I know, somehow, he won't be quite the same after his skydiving experience, just as I landed from my own jump a slightly different person. But I'm looking forward to getting to know the post-skydiving person I've become, and I can't wait to share her with the world.
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