What it’s like to jump out of an airplane

I hope it's softer than it looksYou pile into a van with a bunch of friends and drive up to an airfield in Maine.

You’ll be making a “tandem dive”, which requires less training time than a solo jump. In a tandem dive you’re harnessed together with an experienced skydiver, the newbie wearing the pro like a backpack, and the pro wearing the parachute in his.

For a tandem dive you watch an instructional video, listen to a lecture, then sign a lengthy form explaining how you’re going to die and it’s not their fault.

Seriously. They say out loud – You not only MIGHT die, you probably WILL die. Then you have to put your initials next to every sentence on the form. Ripcord could break, chute could be defective, etc etc. Not their fault.

They teach you how to land — assuming you aren’t dead by then — a tandem jump: You glide in at an angle, and when you get to the ground you’re really going forward as much as downward, so you’re supposed to raise your feet & legs and slide in on your butts on the grassy landing field. They do this to keep you from stupidly spraining your ankles or tripping the instructor.

Then you wait around on the ground for your turn, meet your co-jumper, and clamber into an airplane with twenty other people. The only seats are for pilot and co-pilot; the body of the plane is an empty cargo space. Skydivers sit on the floor facing the rear of the plane, each leaning back into the knees of the person behind them. It’s crowded but by sheer happenstance, they pick you to sit in the co-pilot seat. So you’re more comfortable than the cattle section and you can see out the window as the plane takes off from its small landing strip. And your tandem will be the last people to jump.

Going up is pretty boring (except that you keep thinking every foot you go up, you’ll be falling through on the way down). Even the pilot gets bored, ’cause he’s just flying in a slow upward circle. So he looks out the window on his side, and when he does this, the jumper sitting closest in the back reaches up and pushes the flight control stick forward. So the plane stops going up and starts gently heading down. The pilot thinks you did it. You just shrug.

It’s incredibly loud, between the motor and the wind, and it’s extremely cold.

Then people start jumping out of the plane. When it’s your turn, your instructor clips you together and you shuffle on your knees to the door that you’re going to jump out of. And one of the things you’ll never forget about it is this moment – the incredible crispness of the cold air. You look down and the earth is so far away that you don’t perceive it as dangerous.

So you follow your instructions. Looking down, you just fall forward out of the door.

And your instructor has told you that as you fall you should try to look back upwards through your legs to see the plane. This puts the two of you into a somersault. Head over heels you spin out of the plane and into the air, and when you’re tired of spinning he’s told you to put your arms out to the side and he will stop the spin.

Then you fall a long, long time, lying flat facing the Earth, with your arms out and your knees bent and the wind absolutely howling in your ears.

And at the appointed time, your tandem jumper warns you and together you pull the ripcord, and this is another moment you’ll always remember.

Because there’s a cannonshot noise above you

and abruptly your fall starts slowing

and you are jerked from your face-down position to fall feet-first now

and this pulls your view upward

and you’re looking at the horizon

descending in relative silence

over the massive curve of the Earth.

10 thoughts on “What it’s like to jump out of an airplane

  1. Yes well, I have a fear of heights to conquer before I skydive, though I’m trying to conquer a fear of spiders first. It’s taking longer than I thought.

  2. Restrictive clothing sandals or open toed shoes should not be worn…If you want to try skydiving and have never done it before your first jump will probably be a tandem skydiver. It is also a very safe way for you to take your first skydiver…Not everybody should do a tandem skydiver however. The low air pressure can cause various tissues in your head to expand or contract and can cause neurological damage.

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