“Ding! We’ve reached an altitude of 10,000 feet. You may now use your portable electronic devices including laptops and Wi-Fi enabled devices.”
The next time you’re on a flight and you hear this announcement, look out your window. This is precisely the altitude we were at when we jumped out of the plane, although I wouldn’t say it was willful jumping, it was more of a forceful shove.
My brother and I had been talking about skydiving for years. It had been on both of our bucket lists for as long as I can remember. And we talked about it frequently. Many times it was brought up after a few drinks, with the conversation ending something like, “Okay then, perfect, I’ll get us a reservation to go tomorrow morning.” And then the morning would come and we would come to our senses – who willingly jumps out of planes?!
But this particular evening was different for some reason. I was sitting on my porch in Columbus, OH in mid-June. It was a beautiful night and the sun was just setting. The crickets were beginning to chirp and I was talking to my brother on the phone. We both have a passion for adventure, and skydiving was always brought up during our conversations. We discussed how we needed to get this off of our bucket list and actually do it instead of just talking about it. We agreed that I would schedule jumps the next morning. And I did!
I had them scheduled for two weeks later. I convinced my younger sister, Julie, to come along as well. She’s done everything with me and I wasn’t going to let her miss out on this. After a little bit of begging, she finally said, “Fine, I’ll go along, but I think this is just silly.”
The morning of our scheduled jump, we were all up early. I don’t think any of us slept the night before. We made sure we had the proper clothing – t-shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes – and loaded up in the car. My mom was going along to take pictures and videos, so she drove her SUV with all of us in it. The small airport we were going to was about 45 minutes away. And we didn’t stop talking the entire drive.
We talked about how we had each secretly hoped for a thunderstorm that day (one of the only times I’d ever wished for rain) and had been watching the weather forecast all week in hopes that the jump would get cancelled. We talked about the fact that we each made a special effort to check beneficiaries on our life insurance and retirement plans. We talked about what we thought the experience was going to be like and how we were “finally doing it.” The anxious excitement in the car was thick.
Finally, after several turns onto some very rough roads, we pulled up to a large, metal building that appeared to be a warehouse in the middle of a field. It was the hanger. We parked alongside the building and entered into one of the large openings. Here we were greeted by Chris, the instructor I would be jumping with, and the rest of his staff. I had been emailing and communicating with Chris about my disability and how it might limit me from jumping. I was pretty confident that it wouldn’t stop me, but I wanted to make sure I had an instructor who was comfortable with my situation and my limitations. Chris was amazing, with years of experience in jumping, including several jumps with other skydivers who had disabilities.
After the initial introduction of names, we were each handed a very lengthy contract with waivers. We all commented how we felt like we were signing our lives away! We finished the paperwork and payment, and were told to take our time looking around as it would be a few minutes until the current jump was finished and an airplane available to take us up.
We wandered around the hanger, which had couches for waiting and resting along with a few snacks. There was a door in the back that led to a large grassy area where the jumpers would land. In the middle of the grassy area, there was a pole with a flag on it (I’m assuming so the skydivers would know where to land). We went out and sat on a bench nearby. A few minutes later, a young man who was putting on his gear, sat down next to my mom and asked her, “Are you jumping today?”
“Oh no, not me. I’m just here to take pictures for my kids.”
“You’re missing out. You should really do it. I bet they could squeeze you in if you wanted to go today.”
A few questions later and a little bit of encouragement from the young man, and my mom was in full gear ready to go. She was the first one of us to jump. And she went up in the plane all alone!
The planes are small and can only hold a pilot, two jumpers, and two instructors. The flight my mom was on had a solo jumper, so there wasn’t room for one of us to go with her. We sent her up alone and spent the next twenty minutes with our heads gawking at the sky, waiting to see just a bit of color indicating that she was on her way down. She landed gracefully and we bombarded her with questions.
“What was it like? How long did it take? Were you scared? Could you breathe?”
She didn’t have enough time to tell us everything before they had Julie and me in gear and were pushing us towards the airplane. We crawled in, and before taking off, Chris went through a few special procedures with me on how we were going to jump and land (since I couldn’t stand or walk). We both got to a comfort level with the procedures and shut the door for takeoff.
At about 2,000 feet, Julie asked her instructor if we were jumping soon. He showed her his altimeter and said, “When this gets to 10,000 feet, we will jump.” Her face was horrified.
We were facing each other in the plane, and I held her hand the whole time. Her hand was warm, sweaty, and just generally gross from the anxiety buildup. But there was no letting go of it. She had a tight grip on my hand. Shortly before getting into the position to jump, she screamed over the loud howling wind, “I am so mad at you for making me do this!”
The instructors had planned for her to go first, and when the door opened, I glanced back and saw them peeling her fingers off of the pilots seat with pure force. I could see the utter terror on her face. About four seconds later she was gone. I couldn’t see her anywhere.
And then Chris said, “Are you ready?” And I shut my eyes and just screamed. It wasn’t a screaming that you do for attention or to get yourself excited. It was a true, terrified, “don’t-make-me-do-this” scream. I’ve never screamed like that before in my life. I couldn’t control it. It just came out, a piercing scream that I know only happens when there is true fear for your life.
When I opened my eyes just seconds later, I saw the bottom of the plane. I was confused but quickly realized that we had rolled out of the plane like a ball and I was upside down. I was kicking frantically, like I was drowning and trying to get to the top of the water. Chris took control (I have no idea how) and positioned us in the typical skydiving position. I had my arms wrapped around my chest and he pulled on them, hard, to get them spread out like a bird. And for a few brief seconds, I did feel just like a bird, floating along, no noise, no interruptions, just pure peacefulness. And then I realized I wasn’t counting!
I had read that there would be about 30 to 45 seconds of freefalling before the parachute opened and had planned on counting as soon as I jumped out of the plane. I got to 12 when the chute opened, jerked slightly, and positioned us in the upright position. I had been a little worried about this part of the jump, as I had read that the chute opening can be a rough with a big jerk. I was afraid it might cause me pain or permanent damage. I was completely fine!
After the chute opening, we had about seven minutes of sailing along until we got to the ground. Hanging thousands of feet above the ground, with only a nylon piece of fabric holding me up, I saw Julie for the first time since she jumped. She was floating through the sky with a huge smile on her face. We hollered across the vacant air at each other with pure giddiness.
She landed first and I was seconds after her. It was a smooth graceful landing. I put my feet out in front of me and basically sat on the instructors lap as we slid along the ground until we stopped. Another worker pushed my wheelchair towards me while we unbuckled ourselves from the chute.
We greeted the rest of our group and the exciting chatter began. After we had all completed our jumps, we were ready to go again. The natural adrenaline high was surreal. I have never experienced anything like it before. I felt like I could conquer the world.
We ended our day at a local restaurant, chatting about how much fun we had. During dinner, I asked my mom why she decided to jump last minute and how she did it alone. She said, “Sometimes, in life, you just have to jump!”