Look what I did last week:
I’d always wanted to go skydiving — I’d even dreamed about it as a little kid — but my parents were adamantly opposed. Whenever I brought it up with them, my mom got pale and my father told me to wait until he “croaked.” (Then he’d email me an hour later with links to various articles about skydiving fatalities.) I tried to hold out, but the man is now 83 and still going strong.
Several weeks before Jona’s birthday, she and I started looking into the whole skydiving thing. She researched a bunch of places online, and I invited a bunch of our friends. In the end, we picked a place called Skydive Jersey Shore and learned that most of our friends are lame; only one of them had both the courage and the cash to join us.
Do you remember my friend Andrew from 7/8/09 at Citi Field? He’s the one who came along, and he was rather mellow about the whole experience. Here he is with Jona, walking toward the skydiving registration area:
I had no idea what to expect, and the unknown was exciting. It was hard to believe that I could wake up in my bed in New York City with NO skydiving experience whatsoever and then end up jumping out of a plane in New Jersey just a few hours later. What kind of training would I have to go through? (I imagined myself being dangled over a large mat in the position in which I’d be falling from the sky.) Would they have to give me some kind of psychiatric evaluation to make sure I wasn’t going to cut a hole in the parachute?
As it turned out, the process was simple. First we checked in at the blue desk in the following photo…
…and then we were escorted to the video screening area…
…where the registration lady (for lack of a better term) made her best attempt to scare us off. She picked up a clipboard and monotonously read a short passage aloud. It began as follows:
“You are about to go skydiving. We do everything we can to make it as safe as possible, but you are jumping out of a plane. You can be seriously injured or killed as a result. You will be asked to sign a Release of Liability & Agreement Not To Sue. Please read it carefully as it is a legal document…”
I didn’t appreciate being reminded so matter-of-factly that I could die, but of course I knew deep down that it was a very real possibility. In fact, I had pondered death quite a bit in my own matter-of-fact way leading up to this adventure. On one hand, I knew that I simply HAD to go skydiving at some point in my life, and on the other hand, I decided that if I were going to die as a result, this would be a good time. No wife. No kids. Insanely stressful winter of book-writing ahead of me. Et cetera. So really, I felt pretty good about the whole thing, and while the thought of death never left my mind, it never bothered me. I was going to be making a tandem jump with a VERY experienced skydiving instructor. I figured that he’d want to live through it too and would therefore do his best to keep us both safe.
This was the front page of the Release of Liability:
Jona was too nervous to even look at it, so she flipped through it as fast as she could and scribbled her initials in all the necessary spaces. I took a little more time to see what it actually said. Here’s a summary: “You might get killed, and if you are, your family can’t sue us, ever, for any reason, ever, blah blah blah, ever.”
Then we were shown a short, amateur video in which some creepy guy with a crazy beard repeated the death warnings, and an ambulance was shown driving out into a field. This guy (pictured here on the right) happened to be the inventor of the tandem jump parachute.
After watching the video and wondering what the hell had just happened, we headed back to the registration area to get weighed. (On a tandem jump, you can’t weigh more than 220 unless you’re very fit. I weighed in — with all my clothes and a belly full of breakfast — at 179 pounds. Jona weighed in at…uh, yeah.) This was essentially our last chance to chicken out and NOT have to pay.
Jona and I each paid an additional $80 to have our jumps filmed.
The registration lady stamped our hands…
…and sent us back outside to the field house.
We were greeted by a Brazilian skydiving instructor who gave us a short speech on what to expect. After a few minutes, he climbed onto a blue wooden platform (which was a crude replica of the inside of the plane) and showed us how to maneuver once we reached our cruising altitude of 10,000 feet. Here’s he is, demonstrating how to climb out the door onto the step. Check out Jona’s reaction:
Finally, it was time to get ready for the jump. I had to put all my stuff in a locker, including my camera. That’s when my personal skydiving instructor showed up with his video camera. (The Brazilian guy didn’t go up in the plane with us. He only gave us the demo on the ground.) His name was Joe. He was very confident and energetic and friendly and Italian. I felt safe in his presence. Here are some screen shots from the five-minute video he filmed, starting with a shot of himself:
In the screen shot above, you can see me on the left (I’d changed into a black sweatshirt) and Jona in the background. She and I had to put on some silly pants, which you’ll see later. Mine were orange. Hers were purple. They both had a camouflage pattern. Then we got hooked up to our harnesses, which were promptly double-checked and triple-checked and quadruple-checked by our respective instructors.
We climbed into a van (aka “The Shaggin’ Wagon” because of its furry interior) and took a short ride to a small runway. Once we got out, we saw a REALLY small plane waiting for us:
The plane could only hold five people — the pilot and two pairs of
jumpers — so Andrew had to part ways with us and go up in a different
plane. We weren’t too happy about that, but we had no choice.
Another thing I wasn’t thrilled about was that my video was being filmed BY my instructor. No offense to him, but I was hoping that a third person would jump out of the plane with us and get a shot from 10 or 20 or 50 feet away…but no, my instructor simply had a camera attached to a sturdy velcro strip around his wrist. THAT’S how he was filming me. Bleh.
The inside of the plane was so small that I had to sit right next to the pilot with my back against the front of the cockpit:
The inside of the plane was about four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. (Kind of like my old studio apartment.) It was totally cramped and uncomfortable, but that was all part of the fun.
There was a bumper sticker inside the plane which pretty much summed up my day:
We were high in the sky at this point. Joe was wearing an altitude gauge on his arm and got a shot of it as we reached 5,000 feet.
We were above the clouds. This was the view:
I considered the possibility that our pilot could have a heart attack, or that our plane might run out of fuel and begin to nosedive, but it didn’t worry me because we had parachutes! Ha-HAAAA!!!
Jona, as brave as she was to go through with this, was still nervous:
Meanwhile, I was just chillin’ and checking out the view:
When we reached an altitude of roughly 10,000 feet, Joe told me to unbuckle my seatbelt and get ready. I struggled to remember what the Brazilian guy had told me half an hour earlier…about how I had to move slowly…and not bump the pilot…and try to stay calm. That last part was easy…
…because I was so READY for this experience. I can’t describe it any other way. What was there to be nervous
about? I’d been waiting my whole life to do it. Hundreds of thousands
of people had done it before me. What was the big deal? It was only gravity. It’s not like I was gonna have to do algebra while falling. All I had to do was…fall and enjoy it.
Joe had hooked himself onto me at that point, and he had checked and re-checked and re-re-checked the harness once again. Then he handed me my safety goggles, which had been tucked into a compartment behind my right shoulder.
It was showtime.
He opened the door of the airplane. The 90-mph wind whipped against my face. We were high above the clouds, and that’s when it hit me: HOLY SH*T!!! That’s when it felt most real. That’s when I felt most alive. Up until that moment, I’d been aware that my heart wasn’t beating any faster than normal, but then the adrenaline kicked in. (Same thing with Leno. Everyone assumed that I was crapping my pants, but I wasn’t nervous at all. Just pumped up.) I was SO looking forward to the sensation of free-fall…thirty seconds of it. Yes yes yes!
We leaned out the door…
…and I fought the wind while trying to stabilize myself by placing my right foot on the little step outside. I was truly stepping out of the plane. It went against every possible instinct, but I wanted to do it, and I knew it was going to be okay, and then…we were off:
Now…you might not believe what I’m about to say, but in all seriousness, I was disappointed by the free-falling. I thought it was boring. We were so high up that the view barely changed, so it didn’t even look like we were falling, and as for the physical sensation, it was a big letdown. I wanted to feel weightless, like I was floating or falling or cutting through the air, but it wasn’t like that at all. The air resistance was pushing fiercely against my face and chest and arms and legs, and as for my back…well, all I felt was the constraint of the harness, so it wasn’t a freeing sensation at all. And it was loud as hell. And the rapid change in pressure hurt my ears.
Still, it was pretty cool just to KNOW that I was falling. In the four-part photo below (starting on the top left and then going clockwise), I’m 1) soaking in my first glimpse after leaving the plane, 2) yelling “Yeeeeeaaaaah!!!” 3) thinking happy thoughts, and 4) holding my nose and blowing out air to unclog my ears.
This was my reaction after the parachute deployed and we began floating earthward:
Don’t get me wrong. I loved it. It’s just not what I expected.
This was the view looking straight down:
The best part of it — better in my opinion than the free-falling — was when Joe had me hold the straps that controlled the parachute and then told me to pull down on one of them. The result was that we spun around REALLY fast. It felt like one of those amusement park rides that makes you dizzy, and best of all, we were still a couple thousand feet high. Here’s my critique:
A few minutes later, Joe was guiding us down for a gentle landing:
Then he handed me my certificate:
Here’s a look at the certificate. Kinda budget, but cute:
The certificate was pre-printed to say that we jumped at 10,000 feet, but we actually went 1,000 feet above that. I’m not sure why. I think it had something to do with the wind currents.
Joe kept filming…
…while I raced and got my camera and took a photo of Jona’s landing. (That harness looks comfy, no?) Here she is on the final approach…
…and here she is touching ground:
Check out the pants:
The best part of the day for me…was ALL of it. I loved the entire process, starting with waking up at 6am (on a Sunday) and racing to Penn Station to catch a New Jersey Transit train and riding it for two hours to some random town that I’ve already forgotten the name of, then calling a cab and telling the driver what we were about to do, then walking to the registration center, surviving the lady’s scare tactics, watching the ridiculous video with the creepy bearded guy, signing my life away on a waiver form, getting weighed on a scale that said “lie detector” on it, and so on. It was a glorious day, and yes, the video that my instructor filmed is on YouTube. CLICK HERE to watch it.
On the train back to New York City, Andrew called his mom and told her what he’d just done:
This blog entry is how I’m telling mine.