About 4 months ago, my kids spent their school holiday in Byron Bay, in northern News South Wales, Australia, with their mum. There, rather unexpectedly, they all went skydiving. I knew nothing of this at the time; rather, I learned of it thanks to the miracle of Instagram, when my son’s feed prompted me to watch a video of him plummeting to earth with a skydive instructor strapped to his back.
Now, of all the crazy, adrenaline-fueled things there are to do in this world, the notion of jumping out of a plane is the one that has always scared me shitless the most. Even the mere mention of a parachute sends shivers up and down my spine. And seeing that video of my kids dropping out of the sky like three teenage-sized stones? Well, I almost fainted.
That said, I was so caught up in my own feelings of terror while watching my son’s video that I perhaps failed to properly express my feelings to my friend who was standing alongside me at the time. Because six weeks later, on my return to Australia from a work trip, she informed me that she had arranged a “little surprise”: the very next morning I’d been booked in for a sky-dive over Wollongong, a town about an hour’s drive south of Sydney.
Suffice it to say, I almost fainted, again. But the jump had been prepaid, and it was a thoughtful gift, so to say “no” would have seemed ungrateful. Also, I didn’t want to look like a complete wimp. I mean, if my 14-year-old daughter could sky-dive, so could I, right?
So I sucked it up, pushed my fears down into the pit of my stomach, and agreed. After 48 years living a blissfully jump-free life, the mid-life crisis Gods had spoken: it was time for me to take the plunge.
We arrived at the Wollongong office of Sky Dive Australia at around 9 a.m., which was located in the middle of a scenic park facing onto the beach. The drive down from Sydney had been an unusually silent one, probably because I spent the whole time (a) trying to quell the rising tide of panic inside of me, and (b) contemplating whether I would look better in an oak or maple wood coffin.
A young lady with a neat pony-tailed logged me in, weighed me, and had me sign an extremely long and wordy legal liability waiver form (“sky diving is a dangerous activity and could lead to serious harm and even death.” No shit, Sherlock). She then handed me over to a lanky teenage boy who proceeded to fit me for a jumpsuit and harness. Although I question whether he was old enough to even buy a beer, much less assume total responsibility for my continued existence. And then another fellow covered in tattoos directed me to take a seat on a bench for a short safety and instructional briefing, alongside my eight fellow jumpers. They were all tourists visiting Australia from China; not one of them would have been older than 25; not one of them spoke English.
Russ – a tall, blonde, rugged surfer-looking dude – came up and introduced himself. He told me that he was going to be my assigned instructor. Meaning that he would be strapped to my back, and to his back would be strapped our parachute (and reserve parachute), and together we would jump out of the plane. In turn meaning that as we free fell to earth, at a speed of over 200km per hour, my life, quite literally, would be in his hands.
“Hopefully you’ve done this before?” I mumbled, lamely attempting some humor.
“Yes of course, I’ve done 7,000 jumps without any problems,” he said.
I smiled, reassured.
“But,” he added with a cheeky grin, “7,001 might always be the one that breaks my streak!”
“Oh great, I got a sky-dive instructor and a fucking comedian,” I muttered to myself under my breath. Although not loud enough for Russ to hear. He was, after all, going to be the one pulling my rip cord.
By 10 a.m. me, Russ, my group of fellow jumpers and an equal number of instructors, were in a minibus on our way to the regional airport, 15 minutes away. There we were scheduled to rendezvous with our plane. It occurred to me that the total induction process – inclusive of gear fit-out, instruction and safety briefing – had taken less than an hour. Which, efficiency be damned, suddenly began to feel like a wholly inadequate level of preparation for what I was about to do.
My fellow jumpers were all incredibly animated, chattering loudly among themselves in Mandarin. They seemed entirely unfazed with the insanity of our pending activity. Meanwhile, when I wasn’t chewing on my nails, I interrogated Russ. In the course of which I learned he had been a professional sky diver for 7 years; he had traveled all over the world to go sky-diving – “it’s my thing”; he had competed in various sky-dive tournaments; and on especially busy days would make as many as 12 jumps.
Russ also gave me the vital statistics for our jump: the plane would take us up to 15,000 feet, it would take ten minutes to reach the drop zone, we would jump out and reach terminal velocity in about 3 seconds, and thereafter the free-fall would be for 11,000 feet and last for roughly 45 seconds. At 4,000 feet he would rip the cord and for about 3 minutes after that we’d slowly drift down to earth, to eventually land in the park by the beach where we had begun.
I noticed that one of the other instructors had some Hebrew text tattooed onto his arm. Out of curiosity, as well as to distract myself from my own fear, I asked him about it. Next thing I knew I was chatting in a mix of Hebrew and English with an ex-Israeli army paratrooper, who had moved to Australia four years before and now jumped for a living. Although any solace I may have got from schmoozing with a “countryman” ended abruptly when he began telling me “war stories” from some of his more problematic jumps, back in the day. Which, amusing as they may have been in a different setting, were absolutely not what I needed to be hearing just then.…
Presently, we arrived at the airport, where a small single-prop plane was waiting for us. It looked seriously tiny, and seriously flimsy – like a children’s plaything held together with glue and sticky-tape. It had been specially purposed for its job of delivering skydivers to their drop zone, the interior stripped out completely but for two long, harsh-looking metal benches that ran the length of the small cabin. The sky-diver-instructor pairs were to sit on these in rows until, at the designated moment, a sliding door toward the back of the plane would open up. Whereupon the waiting pairs would shuffle down the benches until they reached the open door, and then on hearing the word “GO”, throw themselves out into the ether, one by one.
The propeller started up and the plane began its taxi out to the runway. During which time the Israeli instructor put on a black full-face helmet with a reflective visor that looked totally bad-ass. By contrast Russ slipped on a pair of plastic sunglasses. Concerned at this lack of equipment, I asked him why he didn’t have a helmet.
“The helmet doesn’t do anything,” he shouted over the throbbing noise of the plane’s propeller, “apart from protecting an instructor’s face from vomit flying up from the sky-diver underneath. But I don’t see you as the vomiting type, so I’m willing to risk it for this jump!”
“I’m not quite sure how to take that!” I shouted back.
Russ just laughed. “Once we get to the drop zone everything will happen really fast. Just don’t think too much, try to enjoy it, keep your eyes open, and it’ll all be over in 15 minutes,” he said matter-of-fact, entirely oblivious to the fact that I was literally shaking.
Honestly, I don’t think I have ever been more terrified.
And then, the most amazing thing happened.
The plane lifted off, up into the air. The instructors took this as a signal to begin huddling up close behind their designated sky-divers, clipping buckles and pulling straps and otherwise generally making sure that diver and instructor were securely attached to one another. In the process, the cabin full of Chinese tourists finally woke up to the fact that they were about to jump out of a plane, because a cacophony of nervous chatter began, fear appeared on more than a few faces, a couple of the girls suddenly went very pale, and one looked very much like she was about to throw up.
Which, to be honest, is exactly what I had thought would happen to me.
So imagine my surprise when instead, without warning, a wave of utter calmness came over me. The anxiety and terror I had been feeling magically disappeared. The clench in my stomach released, and a most unexpected sense of serenity enveloped me. The cabin of the plane seemed to go quiet, never mind the noise and the bumps, and I barely registered Russ shouting final instructions into my ear as we approached the drop zone.
Before I knew it, the door had opened, wind was rushing through the plane, the Israeli instructor and his Chinese passenger had tumbled out, and then it was our turn. We were perched right on the edge of the plane’s open door, looking down onto Wollongong, and ready to jump.
“GO!” someone shouted.
“You ready?” Russ screamed into my ear.
I nodded, and without any further ado, simply tipped myself forward, out of the plane, rolling through the air for a few moments as we dropped. A few seconds later we stabilized, such that I was falling, belly-to-earth. Russ tapped my shoulders, which was the agreed signal for me to let go of the shoulder straps, and spread my arms out wide, like I was a bird, or Superman.
And that was it. I was flying!! My eyes were wide open. The air was rushing past my head so fast it sounded like we were in a wind tunnel. I couldn’t hear a thing, and the skin on my face was being contorted into weird and wonderful shapes. I wasn’t screaming, but rather whooping with joy, occasionally giving thumbs up signals to Russ who was photographing everything on the Go Pro mounted on his wrist. Far below, the earth seemed distant and utterly harmless – like I was looking down onto a miniature toy set.
Contrary to everything I had imagined might happen, my heart wasn’t pounding. I didn’t feel any sinking feeling in my stomach. I didn’t feel any panic. I didn’t feel any rush of adrenaline. And I didn’t feel any fear. Rather, I just felt exhilarated. Calm and at peace, and awash with a sense of total freedom unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.
The next 45 seconds passed in a blur – on the one hand it seemed like we were falling forever, but on the other it also seemed like the whole free fall was over in the blink of an eye. All too soon there was a sharp jolt as Russ deployed the chute, and then abruptly the velocity of our fall slowed, the noise from the wind immediately stopped, and everything became totally quiet.
Apart from Russ, who was yelling, very loudly into my ear: “How awesome was that!?”
Slowly, we drifted the last 4,000 feet back to earth. Russ showed me how to control the parachute and our direction, by pulling alternately on the cords he held in each hand. As we gently descended, Russ pointed out landmarks which looked completely wonderful from on high – the beach of Wollongong; the blue sea out to the horizon; the parched Australian landscape leading to the Blue Mountains in the very far distance. We chatted; Russ cracked a few jokes. And as we approached the landing, he told me to lift my legs up, which I did, allowing him to take the full brunt of our return to earth.
Back on land we unclipped from the parachute, and Russ shook my hand. “Mate – you’re a natural! You were born for this shit! Seriously, you were so calm and collected – I really wasn’t expecting that!”
“Neither, to be honest, was I!” I replied. “And thank you for not killing me.”
Then I turned and left, pumped up and elated. I had done it – I had jumped out of a plane, and survived. Every cell in my body felt alive; I was light and happy and incredibly giddy. And, for the next couple of days, even the ground beneath my feet seemed, well… different. As if I really was walking on air.
So there you have it – the blow-by-blow account of my inaugural sky-dive. Where (thanks to my kids, a surprise gift, and misplaced machismo) I unexpectedly found myself doing something that I would never, in my wildest dreams, have thought I would (or could) do. And where in the process I was able to wow myself completely, letting go of my fears and instead getting to experience the most sublime, delicious moment of Zen imaginable.
Sky-diving was absolutely never something on my bucket-list. But now a second sky-dive most definitely is. Who knew?
Special thanks to Christina Blair for arranging this truly unforgettable experience.