Plunging toward the earth at more than 100 miles per hour is the easy part. It's the heart-racing moment before jumping, perched in the doorway of a small airplane at 13,000 feet, that I felt my muscles tense, my hands instinctively grab at the edges of the opening. I heard the usually soft-spoken voice of reason in my head screaming, "No! You're a freaking idiot! No!"
Any other final words were lost in the wind as my tandem instructor, strapped to my back, decided it was time to go and gently rocked us both over the edge.
The first second spent falling away from the plane is like a drunken blackout, quickly followed by a snap-to of sheer terror. My only other frame of reference for such intense panic was getting ejected from the backseat of a motorcycle. In this case, though, the cold wind roaring past my ears was a far more welcome greeting than a gravel ditch.
A patchwork of Midwestern farmland lay before me, and as soon as I began trying to spot landmarks, I knew the worst had passed. It became easy to enjoy the rest of my minute-long free fall and, after the chute opened, my slow, earth-bound glide. Touching down, my veins pounded like drums.
"People don't realize how relaxing a sport this is," observes Tom Kuehnele, a 55-year-old skydiving enthusiast. "The rest of the week is in slow motion after the intensity of that 60-second free fall."
Aside, perhaps, from bungee jumping, nothing can quite prepare you for the feeling of literally leaping outside your safety zone. So it was surprising to hear a tandem instructor say that very few students ever back out of a jump. "If you took the time to drive out here, you probably want to do it," says Jason Papke of Vandalia, Illinois-based Archway Skydiving Center.
A quick scan through the phone book reveals only two listings for skydiving facilities Archway and Quantum Leap Skydiving Center in Sullivan, Missouri. Both are about an hour-long car ride from St. Louis. I soon discovered that most potential skydivers, by the time they arrive, are finished asking, "Am I really going to do this?" They've moved on to: "How do I want to do this?"
There are three methods of a first-time airplane exodus that are approved by the United States Parachute Association: tandem, accelerated free fall or static line. Scott Cowan, owner of Quantum Leap, says that the vast majority of new jumpers go tandem, where the student is strapped to the front of an instructor who is wearing the chute and is in charge of deploying it.
Preparation for tandem skydiving is minimal, requiring only about an hour's worth of instructions and $229. The technique, developed in the early 1980s, suits virgin jumpers who want to get a taste of the sport but don't feel comfortable jumping alone, or for those who just want to check skydiving off of their life's to-do list.
The accelerated free fall (AFF) was developed as training for those looking to earn their skydiving license and, at the same time, experience the terrifyingly terrific feel of jumping solo their first time out of the chute. During an AFF jump, students wear and deploy their own parachute packs. Two instructors jump with the student, stabilizing and coaching him or her throughout the free fall and ensuring that the parachute's ripcord is pulled at just the right altitude.
Students are also outfitted with a radio receiver so that instructors can guide them softly onto the landing field. Before jumping, students receive four to five hours' worth of training in all aspects of skydiving from the correct way to pack a parachute to the finer points of a successful landing (i.e. no broken ankles or cornfield touchdowns). Archway charges $289 for the initial AFF jump; Quantum Leap charges $299.
As part of a training program, the cost of subsequent jumps decreases, but still, skydiving is not a cheap sport to pursue. In fact, many skydiving enthusiasts go on to become certified instructors in order to offset the costs of their hobby.
For those on a tight budget, the cheapest jump option is the static line method, which is only offered at Archway, for $159. These jumps are made at the much-lower altitude of 3,500 feet. The ripcord is anchored to a stationary point inside the airplane, so when students jump, their parachutes are automatically deployed. As with the AFF method, students are then guided to the ground via radio.
To commemorate your inaugural skydiving experience (and to prove to all naysayers that you did not chicken out), you can choose to have the entire experience documented on video or film. A video recording on DVD costs $79 at Quantum Leap and $59 at Archway. Still photography is available for an additional $20 at both skydiving centers.
The sport's earliest proponents were former World War II paratroopers still enthused about jumping from planes, and skydiving has come a long way in terms of popularity. Both Archway and Quantum Leap log around 12,000 skydives per year. On clear summer days, it's not uncommon for 100 people to show up at the local skydiving centers. But despite the sport's growing popularity, skydivers often find their sanity questioned by those who've not yet taken the plunge.
"Most people at work think I'm crazy," says Robyn Greenfield, who trains for her AFF instructor's license on the weekends and works weekdays in the St. Louis Public Schools district.
Greenfield says the problem is that people don't understand that skydiving is actually quite safe. Yes, one can be seriously injured or killed if things go wrong as potential jumpers are warned in waivers they must sign. Of the more than 2.1 million jumps logged by the United States Parachute Association in 2005, 27 skydivers died and 962 were injured. Quantum Leap, which opened in 1993, and Archway, under the current ownership since 1999, have reported no serious injuries or fatalities.
"The equipment is safe," says Scott Cowan. "But you have to know how to use it."
The parachute, of course, is of paramount importance. Skydivers jump with two chutes, a main and a reserve. Individual skydivers are in charge of packing their own main parachutes. Reserve parachutes, used if the main chute malfunctions or fails to deploy, are packed and inspected every 120 days by professionally licensed riggers.
Since the 1980s, automatic-activation devices have also become standard safety devices just in case a jumper is still in free fall at a low altitude. Says Jason Papke: "Anyone who thinks their life is worth $1,200 uses one."
Despite the developments in skydiving safety, it's still completely natural to feel just a little bit frightened. Worry not. If, after arriving at a drop zone, you still find yourself doubting your ability to actually go through with it, you can count on meeting other skydivers full of advice and soothing encouragement some of whom will probably say, "Life's too short. Go for it!"
"Maybe you've gotten in a rut or are afraid to try new things," says Greenfield. "But if you start skydiving, it's like you can do anything. It's really kind of a life-changing experience."