I now have conclusive proof (anecdotal, sure, but personally true) that drinking is more dangerous than skydiving. You see, Monday night, at a party for the opening of IFP Independent Film Week, while drinking a beer from a bottle, I somehow managed to chip the bottom of my front tooth, which also happens to be a crown from a biking accident when I was about 12. Meanwhile, last Saturday (Sept. 13), I jumped out of an airplane and landed with no injuries whatsoever. Jumping might actually be a misnomer. Rather, I fell (deliberately) out of an airplane. There wasn't much actual jumping involved. And the falling happened from roughly 11,500 feet.
Few people were more surprised than I that I chose to partake in such an activity. I'm not what I would consider the extreme sports type, and skydiving was neither a lifelong dream nor even a huge fear I decided I needed to overcome. I don't have problems with heights or airplanes, in general.
The first question most people asked me when I explained that I was planning to do/had done this was, "Were you planning to do so for a long time?" Nope. In fact, I vividly remember one of many San Francisco to Los Angeles drives down Highway 5, this one with my younger cousin David. It was probably about 15 years ago, give or take, when I was in my early-to-mid 20s. Somehow, the topic came up, and David (four years younger than I) mentioned that he had gone skydiving. He told me all about it and how great it was, but my response was essentially, "Wow, that is something I seriously don't ever see myself having any interest in doing."
And then, out of nowhere, a year or two ago (probably due to way too many episodes of The Amazing Race), I suddenly had this urge to jump out of an airplane. This year, kind of out of nowhere, as people began asking me about my summer plans, I found myself responding, "I'm not sure, but I'm thinking of going skydiving." Of course, that was easy to say, especially without any plans or any friends who might go with me. And then, suddenly one day in the midst of an IM chat with my friend Jill (which one of us brought up the topic is an ongoing debate), we both realized that we had been thinking of doing it.
That was in May. The entire summer went by with no action but plenty of threats to each other: "Are we going to do this?" "Yeah, of course." "When?" "I don't know. You tell me." Labor Day approached; Time Out New York listed skydiving as one of the 25 things to do before the end of the summer; Jill had her birthday dinner; and we picked a date (along with a third jumper, her friend Jess.) But we waited too long to make our reservation, and our original date was all filled up. We chose Sept. 13 instead, the weekend after I would return from the Toronto Film Festival and before my birthday.
I came home from Toronto with a horrible cold. Thursday and Friday, I barely got out of bed, hoping that I would feel better enough to drive 90 minutes out to Calverton, Long Island, sign away all liability, step into a harness that would make me look waaaaay heavier than I am, attach myself to a person who has jumped out of planes thousands (probably tens-of-thousands) of times, and then see what it was like to fly, or at least fall.
Below, with somewhat cheesy music and plenty of proof that I should never ever ever give thumbs-up or devil horns with my hands again, is what happened:
Obviously, I survived. A more complete description after the jump ....
The other question everyone asks me repeatedly is, "Were you nervous?" Surprisingly, no. In fact, I expected to be much more anxious than I ever was, especially once it was actually time to jump. Yes, I was a little nervous, and the 10 minute ride up to altitude was the most nerve-wracking part, but when people started jumping, it all just happened so fast.
Actually, the long wait, coupled with my overactive brain, probably helped me immensely. We had a 2 PM reservation at Skydive Long Island in Calverton, about 90 minutes east of my Brooklyn home, out on the Island. Jill, Jess and I hopped in the Zipcar and left at Noon, arriving in the middle-of-nowhere around 1:30. We had called earlier in the morning to make sure that the potentially nasty weather wouldn't somehow inhibit our ability to jump. The woman at Skydive Long Island actually couldn't say, but she thought the weather was clearing up enough that they'd be able to start taking people up. No guarantees, and we might have a delay as all the people who had earlier time slots would be going first, but she thought things looked positive.
Well, waiting is just what we did. About three hours. Luckily, there was a small fundraiser happening that day for a local Autism support group. There was a lot of donated food. Even more fortuitously, having to wait so long allowed us to see many other people jump first. Actually, we couldn't really see them jump, but we saw them land. The jumps are so high and the plane so small, when people did start going, it looked more like the plane was taking some weird little pebble shits than anything else.
The first person I saw land was one of the video guys. If you choose to have your jump photographed and captured on video, that actually means that three people are jumping at the same time: you and your tandem instructor and a third daredevil with two cameras -- one video, one still -- on his helmet. Since they jump solo and need to come down first (in order to get you landing), they come down fast. We were watching the first group of jumpers coasting down under their chutes when all of a sudden, I heard this noise. It sounded -- no joke -- like Batman. A loud fluttering. Like a loose sail in the wind. It was getting louder and coming closer ... and fast. I looked up and swooping over the little hut which houses the office and bathroom came one of the video guys. He was dropping so fast, I wanted to duck. He crossed the runway to the grassy field on the other side, looking like he was about to go splat. And then, no more than 10 feet above the ground, he did something with the chute and seemed to almost stop in midair, float up a little bit, and lightly drop down, landing lightly on his feet.
Over the next three hours, I saw lots of video guys swooping down, doing similar maneuvers. I also saw at least 25 people come down and land, all excited and nary an injury. No twisted ankles, sore butts (for those who had to slide to land, like I wound up doing) ... no nothing. I saw one tandem come down doing somersaults under the chute while still a few thousand feet up. Others would descend slowly, and then, 50-60 feet above the ground, do a quick turn and speed up until again floating down like a feather before landing.
Finally, around 5:15, Jill, Jess and I were called. We had waited over three hours ... in about 25 minutes, we were back on the ground after landing. The instructors start putting us into our harnesses. Our instruction had amounted to a three-to-five minute video explaining a few different moments of the jump and positions we would need to take. I asked the guy putting me in my harness how many times he had jumped that day, and he explained that because of the late start, he had only gone once so far, but the most he had ever done in a day was 22 times.
Next, out came Brett. He was my instructor -- the guy to whose front I would be attached. Then came my videographer (who was from New Zealand, but whose name I'm totally forgetting -- I think it might have been Troy?), and he started shooting me for my first embarrassing on camera moment. Next thing I knew, we were running to the plane -- first in would also mean last out. In comes Jess; in comes Jill; in comes about three or four other tandem pairs and video guys. (I'm not being sexist ... I didn't see any female instructors or shooters that day.) We were sitting, front-to-back, all the way at the front of the plane next to the pilot facing the rear. We took off, and I watched out the window. Brett wasn't talking to me too much, but now and then we would have an exchange. I asked him about his number of jumps that day, and he said, "Five or six ... I don't really count."
I looked out the window, and it looked like we were pretty high. Brett said to me, "We're just at 3,000 feet." I knew we were heading to somewhere between 11,000 and 13,000. But as I had been doing all day long, I had managed to psych myself out of psyching myself out. I had told myself repeatedly that, statistically, skydiving was probably safer than getting into a car or crossing a Manhattan street. I had thought about the fact that the instructors jumping with us did this a dozen times per day. I thought to myself, "So what if we're going higher. Jumping from higher is probably safer. Why should 11,000 feet be scarier than 3,000 feet. Hell, the ground probably won't even look like it's coming all that fast from up there."
I was watching the altimeter on the wrist of Jess' instructor, who was on the right side of the plane just in front of me. As we got over 10,000 feet, I knew we would be going soon, and by that point, I just wanted to get moving. But then, seemingly without warning, we were. Suddenly, people were falling out of the plane. I don't even remember it starting. I just remember struggling to move forward. This was the most difficult part ... a three-legged race is nothing compared to trying to slide forward while sitting on a bench with a completely separate person attached to my back.
I saw Jill jump, and I'm pretty sure I heard an, "Oh shiiiiiiiiit," descending. They were just gone. Then Jess went. The plane was empty except for the pilot and the three of us. My video guy (OK, I'll call him Troy), climbed outside the plane, spread-eagle across the door, looking in. He kinda looked like Spider-Man standing there. Brett and I scooted into place. Looking at the video, I see that if I was ambivalent or fearful at all, it came at that point. But all I remember was thinking, "Why are we taking so long." We were sitting there, and I had my feet under the plane and my head back, back arched, holding on to my harness, just like we were told to be. I was waiting to rock back and hear Brett say, "Ready ... Set ... Go," before rolling out, but the wind was so loud, I didn't hear anything. I saw Troy making hand signals and smiling, and watching the video, I now know he was communicating with Brett. But then, I wasn't sure if I was doing something wrong. It just seemed like we were sitting there forever, and then suddenly ... we weren't.
We rolled out of the plane. I know our motion put us into some sort of brief somersault before we got into proper position. Brett tapped my shoulders, the signal to spread out my arms and enjoy the free fall. I'm not sure how much I enjoyed it; I didn't dislike it, but it was all sort of surreal. It seemed super-chaotic. It was loud. I don't remember a sensation of falling -- no stomach dropping out like on a roller coaster. It was more like floating. I can't reconcile feeling the wind and the air pressure with a sensation that comes closest to what I imagine weightlessness to be like. I didn't feel any up or down, right or left. I was trying to get my bearings, but I had none.
They tell you to keep your head up because otherwise the camera will get your scalp and not your face, but I wasn't thinking about that at the time. Next thing I know, I see Troy coming into view. He's waving his arms at me, and I suddenly went, "Oh yeah." I tried to let out a "Whoo," but I couldn't even hear myself. I started doing all those things you're supposed to do -- thumbs up, rockin' devil horns (I now know better) -- and Troy reached out his hand. That was my signal to grab it, which I did, and we started to spin. But it didn't feel like spinning. Or it did, but not in the way I expected. I learned, somewhere along the way, that the dry mouth which had started in plane caused by some degree of anxiety, turned into super-parched due to opening my mouth during the fall.
I don't remember seeing the ground. I don't remember seeing the ground coming towards us. I don't remember seeing any other jumpers or their chutes. Although we were doing little to nothing but falling, it seemed like everything was busy, rushing, active. And then, I let go of Troy's hand, we fell a little more, and suddenly ... we stopped.
Or nearly stopped. Brett had pulled the chute. I felt a little jerk as we changed from a horizontal to vertical position, but nothing too jarring. I was paying more attention to the fact that Troy plummeted out of view faster than I could fathom. (Apparently, during free fall, we were going approximately 120 miles per hour.) Even more suddenly, the chaos was over. The noise was gone. We were floating. Everything was silent. We were still several thousand feet in the air, and yet, it was one of the most calm and serene moments of my life.
Brett asked me to put my feet on his. He said I would notice something happen in a second, but not to freak out because it was normal. This was the prelude to my brief millisecond freak-out as I felt something unsnap before I feeling myself drop a few inches. He was putting us into position for our eventual landing with me a little lower. At this point, some 4,000 feet up I would imagine, he told me we would be landing on our butts and ran through what I needed to do in terms of lifting my legs. (Apparently, the less wind there is, the less possible it is to do a standing landing.)
A few minutes later, we were on the ground. I got up and Troy came running over. He stopped shooting, and I ran over to Jill and Jess. We were all crazy excited. Had we really just done that? "We just jumped out of a fucking airplane," I said to them.
I was quivering. I was sweating. It was an unimaginable adrenaline rush. I was filling out the envelope for them to send me the photos and videos, and I could barely hold the pen. For a good 30-45 minutes, even as we got back in the car and I started driving home, I could still feel it. It wasn't fear or any degree of anxiety. It wasn't exactly excitement either, but it was some type of near-euphoria. I'm not going to jump to cliches and exclaim, "It was better than sex" ... but there was most certainly an afterglow, and it lasted for at least half of the drive on the L.I.E.
I dropped off Jill and Jess and was utterly exhausted. It was only two hours later when I got home, but the jump seemed an eternity away. I had this surreal feeling ... did I really do that? Months of talking about it; weeks of planning it; hours waiting for it; 10 minutes in a plane; and suddenly, five-to-six minutes later, it was all over. I know I did it, but I couldn't believe I did it. And yet, I was there. I couldn't wait for the video, if only to prove to myself that I hadn't made it up.
And I hadn't.
And I'm pretty sure ... I can't wait to do it again.
Summer 2009 ... anyone want to join me?