The moment I scooted along on my butt towards the airplane’s open door, I knew this experience was all about letting go. Of course, I generally understood how this particular act of faith would unfold, but I hadn’t allowed myself to think things through step by step. Instead, I was taking the, just do the next thing you have to do, approach.
I should mention that I am not a thrill-seeker. I’ve done some alpine and rock climbing and quite a bit of downhill skiing, but I never progressed past the Ferris wheel at the carnival when I was a kid. I do not come from a family of risk-takers. I’m terrified of flying. On turbulent flights, I clench my husband’s forearm so tightly I leave bruises. I recently took a ride on a fairly tame zip-line. That’s been the extent of my thrill-seeking adventures until recently.
I was attracted to the idea of skydiving all my life, but thinking I’d like to do it and actually doing it are two very different things. At fifty-eight years old, I finally worked up the courage. My husband, Lee, heard me bragging to a friend about my newfound audacity and bought me a skydiving gift certificate for my birthday. His investment sealed the deal.
No doubt about it, I am falling, and I am disoriented, and I am terrified like I have never been before.
On the morning of my scheduled jump, the weather was unstable as it often is in the Pacific Northwest in early summer, so when I called Skydive Snohomish to confirm the jump, they were not sure my 1:30 class was going to get the green light. The forecast on my phone showed clouds, raindrops, and lightning strikes during the hours between 2:00 and 4:00. I was scheduled to jump around 2:00 after a brief instruction period. The excitement I’d felt over the preceding days was turning to disappointment. I could drive the two hours to Snohomish and see if the weather cleared or reschedule my jump. The thought of putting off the experience caused more anxiety than the idea of jumping, so I opted to go and take my chances.
After a warm welcome, the smiling receptionist at Skydive Snohomish directed me towards a computer station where I signed an absurd number of disclaimers. There were several pages to sign: each reminding me in upper case letters that SKYDIVING IS DANGEROUS AND CAN LEAD TO INJURY OR EVEN DEATH. The authors of this document didn’t hold back. People are imperfect, it said. Equipment is sometimes faulty. These people you are trusting with your life may not be trustworthy, and do you really, REALLY, understand what we are telling you because you are about to jump out of a plane with a flimsy piece of cloth between you and the fast-approaching surface of the earth, and the earth does not care if you get sucked into it, causing your molecules to separate into smithereens.
I signed the forms on the computer pad with a flourish. (I might be wrong about that moment in the plane when I was about to jump— perhaps this was the moment when I truly let go.)
Fortunately, the weather had cleared, and harmless-looking white clouds— my dad would call them mare’s tails and buttermilk clouds – accented the blue sky. Lee and I had arrived a little early, so we wandered out to the observation area to watch a planeload of jumpers land. We peered up into the bright sun, shielding the glare with our hands, and watched as the tandem skydivers swayed and spun, then floated down and landed just yards away from us. They stripped off their suits and harnesses in a few minutes and now filled the prep area with exuberant smiles. I felt the presence of adrenaline like one feels the ionic pulse of energy after a thunderstorm. But, more than ever, I wanted to do what they had just done.
At 1:30, my fellow jumpers and I gathered in the classroom area to watch a short instructional video that showed divers flying through the air wearing expressions of pure joy and delight.
“Oh, sure. They’re showing us the smiling ones,” a woman in the row behind me said to her daughter. “What about the ones that are terrified?”
But I bought what they were selling. Judging by the faces of the jumpers I’d just seen in the field, I was sure that skydiving was undeniably one of the most euphoric experiences anyone could possibly have, so why wouldn’t the people in the video be smiling as if they’d just given birth to their first child? The video told us the most important things to do:
Arch your back.
Hold up your feet.
When the video was over, our instructor, Vladimir, a good-looking, middle-aged, energetic fellow with a Russian accent, directed us to get on the floor to practice the arching position used during free fall and how to hold up our feet when landing so the instructor could take the impact. He took a quick look around to make sure everyone was on board with these moves, and then he led us outside to the departure area to suit up.
I’d been dreading two things about this adventure: One, I would be weighed in front of everyone, and two, the jumpsuit wouldn’t fit properly. Silly, I know, but these are the obstacles that hang us up in life. Not so much jumping out of a plane. To my delight, they did not weigh me, maybe because I was obviously well below the 220-pound weight limit. Vladimir took a medium jumpsuit off the rack and then turned around to give me the once over. He put back the medium, and I thought surely he was reaching for a large. But no, he took a size small off the rack and confidently handed it to me and helped pull it over my shoes. I yanked the stiff, thick, navy blue suit over my street clothes and zipped it up.
“How’s it feel?” asked Vladimir.
“Um, well, I don’t know. It seems a little tight. Do you think it’ll be alright?” I asked, wondering if there might be problems with mobility.
Vladimir pushed my shoulder back a bit, forcing me to turn and look at my backside.
“You look good,” he said.
I laughed. (So maybe I’m wrong again. Maybe that was when I let go.)
The day had warmed up, and waiting in the jumpsuit was getting a little claustrophobic, plus the harness was heavy. Flying through the cool blue sky was sounding better all the time. Finally, I kissed my husband goodbye, and our crew of ten walked towards the runway where our sturdy-looking plane awaited us.
I’d managed to keep relatively calm until then, but I knew there would be no turning back once I got on the plane.
The pilot is young. He appears with that smile everyone has around here like there is happy juice in the water.
“These guys are going to join us,” says Vladimir. He gestures toward two men I had not been aware of standing next to me. The two jumpers beside me are smiling like they are the makers of the happy juice everyone around here is on. They have that thrill-seeker glow. One of the guys has long, pale hair that is wind-blown to perfection from previous jumps. The other guy’s eyes sparkle like the stars in the heavens. My heart is thumping so wildly that I look down to see if my chest is visibly heaving.
Vladimir and I are jumping after Wind-blown Dude and Sparkle Eyes, so the other four newbies and their instructors board ahead of us. The plane has no seats. The engine is so loud that talking is out of the question, so we crawl aboard on our hands and knees, obeying our instructors’ gentle pushes and shoves.
Everyone lines up on the plane’s floor, each of us nestles between the legs of the person behind us, the person ahead of us nestles between ours. We look like kids making a choo-choo train on a slide. I am at the head of the line. No one sits between my legs, which affords me an excellent view out the windows to my left and the roll-up door to my right. I’m in an altered state, a condition something like shock. All my senses are on high alert. The cerulean sky seems bluer than I’ve ever seen it; the rumble of the plane is more pervasive than thunder.
Wind-Blown Dude and Sparkle Eyes casually climb aboard even as they prepare to jump out of an airplane and sail through the heavens with a feeble sail and a prayer! I leave my legs in a straddle position in case they need to join our choo-choo, but they are moving straps and doing things on the floor that are unfathomable to me.
Our plane ascends quickly, and I fall back into the lap of my instructor. Vladimir yells words in my ear, but I don’t catch them all. Ultimately, I realize he’s reminding me how the jump will go down. Vladimir will harness me to his chest like a baby in a front pack.
“I am going to tap you on the shoulder, and then you should cross your arms over your chest. Then you will put your arms out to help us stabilize during the free fall. Then I will… then you will….”
I’m in no condition to memorize the sequence of events he describes, but I appreciate the distraction. I take in the view.
“I hate planes,” I yell.
“That is why we jump out,” he yells back.
Vladimir attaches my harness to his and adjusts buckles and straps. Finally, he slips an aviator’s cap on my head, fastens it under my chin, and places the oversized goggles over my sunglasses. I know from watching the video that this is the last thing he will do before we exit the plane.
“Oh, my God. Oh, my God, oh my God,” I hear myself saying. I am looking at the shifty roll-up door vibrating under pressure. This is the moment I realize I am about to actually jump out of a plane and that there is nothing but air beneath me for 13,000 feet. I don’t know if I can do it. Could I actually have come this far and not be able to get myself out the door? Of course, Wind-Blown Dude knows what I’m thinking or hears what I’m saying. He and Sparkle Eyes must catch rides with novice jumpers all the time. I think they are enjoying my fear.
“Don’t worry,” says Wind-Blown Dude.
How sweet. He’s trying to comfort me.
“I’ll be fine,” he says with a big grin as he lifts the quivering roll-up door and jumps out.
Sparkle Eyes is laughing because Wind-Blown Dude probably uses this line all the time, and then Sparkle Eyes leans into the cerulean void and gets sucked out the door sideways.
“GO, GO, GO!!!” I hear Vladimir yell in my ear, but I want to exit nice and neat like they show in the video— the jumper sits on the edge of the doorway and hooks her feet under the plane, and when the instructor is arranged behind her, they push off tidily into the sky.
I inch forward and dangle one foot out the door, then Vladimir pushes me out of the plane, and I tumble into a force I am not prepared to reckon with. I guess I thought this would be like flying or floating, but no, this is falling. No doubt about it, I am falling and am disoriented, and my brain tells me perfectly rational things, but my instincts want to obey their prime directive.
“Do NOT fall. You will DIE,” says my amygdala.
“What was I supposed to do here? I should have listened to the instructions better,” says my ego.
“I don’t know which way is up,” says my inner ear.
“It doesn’t matter which way is up. You’re in the sky. So shut up and enjoy the ride,” says my inner thrill-seeker.
Behind me, Vladimir reshapes my arms into a flying position and lifts my head. I think he’s pulled the pilot chute because we stabilize a bit, and I can see the miniature buildings and fields below. I feel some relief at being in a stable position in relation to the ground.
Terminal velocity is 120 miles per hour. That is likely the speed at which we are falling. The roar in my ears tells me so. The force that pushes against my outstretched body tells me so. The little bit of bare skin exposed on my hands is cold. I am not smiling like they showed in the video. I am gritting my teeth and grimacing. More than anything, I want the free fall to be over, but then I think, You are flying through the air at 120 miles per hour! How cool is that? Look around. You may never be here again.
We fall past a sliver of moisture to my left. It is almost a cloud. I see the layers twisting around each other like steam from a pot. The vapor patch provides another point of reference, and I feel slightly less terrified, but we pass through it in less than a second. I want to remember everything about this minute of free fall, so I take note of the space around me. Unlike water, the air offers no support. I thought it would be quiet in the sky, but the invisible beast all around me roars.
I figure it’s been about a minute since we exited the plane, though I doubt my sense of time under these conditions. I know Vladimir will pull the chute soon, and it occurs to me that putting the brakes on will be like trying to stop a train going full speed ahead. Then, just as I think it will be impossible to slow us down, I am yanked violently upward. My spine just got a massive readjustment. Unfortunately, in the video, they skipped describing this part. “The chute will open, and this is an indescribable experience,” said the narrator in the video. Huh. They could have tried harder.
Suddenly I find myself in a sitting position, delicately descending at a more reasonable rate than during the free fall, and the sky has lowered its booming voice to a whisper. Vladimir presses the chute straps into my chilled hands and shows me how to slow the pace of our descent and how to increase it. Pulling to the left or right causes us to make a graceful swinging arc. Vladimir jokes that we could land in the Skykomish River, which seems like a pleasant option from this viewpoint. He points out other landmarks.
The ground is approaching more rapidly than I would like. I want to stay up here as long as possible. I ask Vladimir if we can go five miles an hour all the way down to maximize our ride. He laughs and says we have to beat the four teams that jumped after us. Three of the teams are slightly above us. One has gotten past us.
“They are heavier than us,” says Vladimir. “They are falling a little faster.”
The traffic and the buildings below are not doll-sized anymore. I feel a wave of remorse that my experience will soon be over. How quickly I am pulled back into my usual habit of imagining the future and abandoning the present. It seems impossible, but we will land precisely in front of the runway where we took off. Vladimir takes the straps from my hands and flies us into position. But now we have to nail the landing. A fresh wave of adrenaline surges through my trembling body.
I hold my legs out ahead of me at ninety degrees before Vladimir tells me to. I remember this bit of instruction from the video. The greenfield rushes up like a mouth about to gobble us up, but just before hitting the ground, Vladimir slows us down, and we touch the grass as gently as a butterfly landing on a flower petal. “You can put your feet down now,” he says, and we are home. Sweet earth. Home sweet earth.
I peel off my jumpsuit and hang it on the rack. The next group is there waiting to jump. I must be smiling like I’m on the happy juice judging by how they look at me. I receive my certificate of completion and buy a t-shirt.
As Lee and I walk back to the car, Sparkle Eyes runs to catch up with us. “So, how was it?” he asks.
I hold out my hands which shake beyond my control. “Still shaking,” I say.
“When it wears off, you’ll sleep like a baby,” he says, laughing.
I wonder if experienced skydivers still get a rush like I did. I turn to ask him, but his beaming smile tells me everything.
And in case you are wondering: Yes. I would do it again.
Lori Nelson Clonts is a visual artist and writer who lives in the foothills near Maple Falls, WA. She graduated from Humboldt State University in 1984 with a BA in Art. When she’s not in her studio creating, she enjoys swimming, adventuring with her husband and dog, and tending her garden.