It isn’t often that someone tells you you might die. And actually mean it.
I’m sitting inside a tiny trailer right next to the lone stretch of concrete that encompasses Spadaros Airport and I’m watching the image of a middle-aged man, totally unremarkable except for the two-foot-long auburn beard that’s invaded the bottom half of his face.
“You might die,” he tells me. Just like that. “There will never be a perfect plane, a perfect pilot, or a perfect parachute,” he reiterates as footage of a crumpled ‘chute and an ambulance driving across the tarmac come up on the screen.
The man is Bill Booth, founder of the uninsured—that’s right, uninsured—United Parachute Technologies, LLC and I’ve been forced to watch this footage of him essentially telling me that, moments from now, it’s very conceivable that my body might be lying in bits and pieces on the runway just behind this trailer.
I had committed to hoisting myself out of an airplane two miles above the earth’s surface with very little thought for the whole ‘potential fatality’ side of things.
I admit, jumping out of a plane is a crazy idea. And yet two other couples also made it to the tarmac that day to be among the 3,500 people each summer who willingly pay $209 (or more accurately, $338 with the DVD/Photo package) to get the chance to fall from the sky.
For both couples, skydiving was something the male counterparts had “always wanted to do.” One of the women was up for the challenge, but the other—in a tight-fitting skirt and gladiator sandals—was clearly just there for moral support. (As to whether or not she would partake, she squealed: “No way!!”)
I understand her reluctance. The arguments against such a life-threatening activity are more obvious than the pros.
This brings us back to the video.
Finally, the ridiculously bearded Booth finished harping on my potential demise and disappeared. His stoic image was replaced by heart-thumping rave music. Dozens of images of first-time and some seasoned divers flooded the screen; all jumping with reckless abandon; all emitting sounds too far off-key for most land-bound humans; and—most importantly—in spite of all noted perils, they were all uncontrollably smiling.
After signing my life away about two dozen times, I meet my instructor, Alex Allen, who is at least a foot shorter than me.
For no logical reason, this makes me mildly concerned. (Will I be too heavy for the parachute? Will he be able to see over my imposing head? Will my gigantic limbs get caught in some cord that’s absolutely paramount to a safe and secure landing?)
I’m instantly relieved to hear that in the 16 years Allen has been on the sky-diving circuit he has completed over 11,700 jumps and has only had to use his safety chute four times. He tells this to me immediately, which I think is a strategic move on his part, as is his response to my question regarding what, exactly, I have to do for this jump.
“I’ll tell you when we get on the plane,” he says. And with no time to fret, we’re off.
I’m sitting in the back of an airplane so small I’m backed up against the pilot’s chair with my knees digging into my chest—and, still, there seems little space for me, my instructor, and the big-boned individual in the back of the plan. (He’s just out for a “joy-jump.”)
Our bodies lurch as the ill-humored pilot drops altitude without warning, a maneuver that is exciting for Allen who says he’s always wanted to reach zero gravity but just makes me, well, want off this plane.
Finally at 10,000 feet—almost four times the height of the tallest building in the world—the side door swings open and I’m face-to-face with 10,000 feet of sheer air. Reality sinks in.
“Put your feet on the step,” Allen finally explains, urging me to slide my body into this gravity-laden abyss. “I’ll take it from there.”
I had little choice. So I did.
Immediately, the air swept up against the sides of my face and held back my skin. Details vanished. The wind muted my senses. Everything from my neck to my toes was too far away to enter my realm of consciousness. I was nothing more than a set of eyes over windblown cheeks, peering out through plastic goggles at a hazy landscape smeared with blurry hues of green and brown. At this speed, everything was totally incomprehensible. There was nothing to focus my attention. And it was great.
In a few seconds, Alex would pull a cord to release the 340-foot parachute that would bring us both to a seated position and guide us swiftly and easily the rest of the way down—over rooftops, treetops, geometric city blocks, narrow strips of shoreline and open plots of land—back to the world below where life would come back into focus.
But for now, in the midst of this 45-second free-fall, none of that mattered.