Top 10 List

Thursday, April 28, 2005
I get the same 10 questions about skydiving so often, my eyes are about to spit blood.

In the interest of my sanity, I’ll address them here, once and for all.

QUESTION: How high are you when you jump?
ANSWER: It depends on the plane and how high the jumpers want to go. Usually it’s 13,500 feet. In the small Cessna 182, we only go to about 12,000. Sometimes we’ll do what’s called a hop & pop – jumping out at 3,500 feet and deploying within a couple seconds of the exit.

QUESTION: At what altitude do you deploy? What’s the lowest you’ve ever pulled?
ANSWER: Usually 3,000 feet. The lowest was about 1,500 feet, the time I had a malfunction and had to use my reserve.

QUESTION: What happens if your first parachute doesn’t work?
ANSWER: You use your second one.

QUESTION: What happens if that one doesn’t work?
ANSWER: You die. But honestly, that’s like if the brakes went out in your car and the emergency brakes simultaneously stopped working also. The chance of that happening is very, very slim.

QUESTION: Have you ever jumped naked?
ANSWER: No. Skin doesn’t look that pretty in 120+ mph winds. But I have jumped in lingerie. It was a special jump for my birthday.

QUESTION: Do you jump when it rains?
ANSWER: No, because it hurts when you hit the pointy part of the raindrop.

QUESTION: What do you do when you hit a cloud?
ANSWER: Stand up and jump off the edge of it.

QUESTION: Have you ever seen that thing where the skydivers have, like, surfboards on their feet? Can I do that?
ANSWER: It’s called skysurfing. And it’s very difficult. Only very experienced jumpers do that.

QUESTION: If you jump without a parachute, can someone else dive out and catch you?
ANSWER: No. That’s a myth perpetuated by bad Wesley Snipes movies. (Similar myths include talking in freefall and four-minute long freefalls, thanks to “Point Break.”)

QUESTION: Ohmigod. You know what would be cool? If somebody had, like, sex in freefall. You ever done that?
ANSWER: No. I’m not that insane. But I do know
this crazy guy.

Vacation: All I ever wanted

Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Finally, I've recovered enough to recap my vacation to Houston.

My God! The fun at Skydive Spaceland! It's my favorite of all the dropzones I've visited so far. They have great planes, friendly skydivers and a fun atmosphere. Boyfriend and I spent most of the week there, and I don't think there was a minute I was unhappy.

Spaceland is the home of Team Anomaly, one of the best skydiving teams in the world. They are experts in the same discipline of skydiving that I do. It's called freeflying, and it's a relatively young aspect of the sport. You've all probably seen skydivers who fly on their bellies and make formations in the sky. Well, freeflying is the opposite of that. It's flying on every axis of your body -- straight up and down in the air (think standing), perched like you're on a chair (think sitting), and upside down with your head pointed to the earth (think lawn dart).

It's really hard. People who fly on their bellies have a lot of stability, because they're presenting a lot of surface area to the wind. But in freeflying, you're only presenting your head and shoulders or feet. If you're not precise or if you don't maintain your balance, you'll flip through the air like crazy. It's also pretty dangerous, because freeflyers reach higher speeds than other skydivers -- about 150 to 220 mph rather than 120-140 mph.

I made some jumps with Anomaly, which was amazing. I felt like a baby trying to keep up with marathon runners. These guys are part goose or something. They make this crazy, unnatural, vertical flying look easy.

One particular jump really stands out in my mind, because it's probably the most cool-ass skydive I've ever made. There were four of us -- Boyfriend, Trent from Anomaly, this great skydiver Will and me. We messed up the exit right out the door, so I just hung out. But then everybody started flocking around me. I was sit flying, which again looks like I'm sitting in a chair. Will and Trent both approached while they were upside-down on their heads. Trent held on to one of my hands on one side of me, while Will grabbed my other hand. Then the two of them joined together and held hands.

So there I was -- it looked like I was playing ring-around-the-rosy with two upside-down dudes. It's the most awesome thing I've seen in the sky and I was actually a part of it.

Boyfriend was in the background, filming the entire thing. I could see him doing a little dance in the air, because he was so excited. It was perfect and wonderful in every way.

All of us clamored to see the video once we landed. But you see, the night before, a bunch of skydivers had been doing stupid human tricks, flipping around and doing dumb things on a trampoline. And in filming that, my boyfriend had zoomed his camera waaaay in ...

So the camera was set too close for the skydive. All you can see is our feet.


Don't mess with Texas

Monday, April 25, 2005
Just got back from a very long vacation in Houston.

Guess which of these things I DIDN'T do while in Texas:

A. Skydive.
B. Ride a horse.
C. Drink a lot of tequila.
D. Get my nose pierced.
E. Visit the library of George Herbert Walker Bush.

Yeah. Um, E. Duh.

More details to come soon.

Student jitters, take two

Wednesday, April 13, 2005
For one of my jumps on Saturday, I had to play the role of a student.

The new plane has an entirely different type of door than the other planes we've used in the past. It's really wide and there's a teeny tiny step on the outside. That means the instructors have to take on completely different positions than with the other styles of planes we've used in the past -- especially if there's a camera person tagging along with them.

So the instructors wanted to practice. I agreed to be their faux student.

In 2003, in the beginning of this whole skydiving thing, I made two tandems, the kind of jump where you're strapped on to an instructor.

Then when I became a real student, I did the accelerated freefall method, also called AFF. I had my own parachute on my back. I jumped from 13,500 feet. I deployed the parachute myself and had to land myself. But two instructors came along with me during freefall, one on each side. They literally hold on to the student, kind of like human training wheels. They give you hand signals to teach you how to fall in a stable manner, how to turn or do barrel rolls, when to check altitude, when to pull and ... HEY PULL!!

If the student messes up in some fashion -- like if they forget to deploy the parachute -- these instructors will do it for them. Or if a student goes into the fetal position, the instructors are there to pry the person's limbs apart. They save you from dying, basically. And if you don't do things properly, you fail that level and have to do the jump all over again.

AFF was really hard for me. Mentally, it was difficult because it was so much more responsibility than going for a ride as a tandem. I couldn't believe these people trusted me with my own life. Like, I had a very real parachute on my back and if I didn't deploy it and if something happened to the instructors and if ... whatever, there was VERY REAL DEATH waiting for me at the bottom.

And physically, it was really frustrating. Skydiving looks so easy in the movies. But it's actually very difficult to maintain stability, to work with the wind to accomplish certain moves and to remember all the necessary steps for survival. I kept getting discouraged because the whole process wasn't coming to me naturally. (That's before I realized that there is nothing natural about jumping out of a plane. Of all the things humans do, it's probably the least natural of the bunch.)

To get through it, I had to pretend I was a movie star stunt double. I would silently psych myself up for it on the way to altitude like, "Cameron Diaz is such a wuss she can't even do her own skydives, so I need to do the job for her. Stupid Hollywood crackwhore." (Actually, Cameron Diaz has made skydives in real life -- so woot! Go her!)

I had to do that for about, oh ... 40 skydives or so. Seriously.

Then something clicked. I began to trust myself. I allowed myself to enjoy the experience. And I relaxed into the skydive.

Now I love it, and I can't imagine my life without skydiving.

But on Saturday, I found myself on the edge of the door yet again, two instructors flanking me. I yelled the exit count of a student -- "Check in! Check out! Prop! Up -- Down -- OUT!"

I arched out of the plane ...

And I was nervous all over again.

Slow ride, take it easy

Yesterday Toby, the instructor who took me on my first two tandems, had his first parachute malfunction. The lines developed some tension knots, so the canopy wouldn't fully inflate. In Toby's 1,488 jumps, it was his first problem ever.

He cutaway that parachute, which involves pulling a handle to release the lines and fabric and everything off your back. (It's not physically cutting anything at all.) And then he went to his reserve parachute -- the backup, which is also worn on the jumper's back.

The thing was, Toby was doing a tandem at the time.

I could vomit just thinking about it. I honestly don't think I would be a skydiver today if there had been a problem on my very first jump. I'm too much a believer in signs from the universe, and that would seem to be a giant, flashing, neon one: STAY THE HELL ON THE GROUND.

Plus, I can't imagine how Toby felt -- encountering a major problem and trying to save his own life -- and all the while, some big sack of a person is hanging off the front of him. What responsibility. What a horrible situation.

I beat Toby to a reserve ride. My malfunction happened last September on my 204th jump.

My parachute deploys using a throw-out method. That means when it's time to deploy (around 3,000 feet or so), I throw a little hackey sack into the wind. The hackey sack is attached to a pilot chute, what looks like a mini-parachute. The pilot chute catches air and lifts a pin out of a loop on my back. That opens the container. Simultaneously, a bag comes out of the container and the lines of the parachute pop out of some rubber bands, which had been securing them to the bag. When all the lines are out, the actual parachute comes out of the bag and inflates.

That whole process takes about 3 or 4 seconds, about 700 feet.

My problem happened when I tossed that little hackey sack into the wind and nothing happened.

You know those Road Runner cartoons where Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff and finds himself in freefall? And then he holds up a little sign that says "Uh-oh" before plunging to his doom? That's exactly what I felt like.

I can't think of a worse feeling than deploying your parachute, expecting a parachute and getting no parachute. I just kept falling and falling, I didn't slow down even a little bit. I've had nightmares about that feeling ever since then.

I pulled my cutaway handle, which removes the cables that hold the parachute together with the container. I watched all this very expensive, life-saving gear float away from me. And then I deployed my reserve, which is the most wonderful, beautiful, sexy parachute I've ever seen. I would totally marry it.

I was only about 5 seconds from hitting the ground.

I know the whole experience couldn't have lasted more then a few seconds, but I really think the laws of time and physics completely shifted for me, for just a few moments. In this horrible emergency situation, I thought about my options -- which weren't many. I thought about my gear. I remembered the fun jump I had just had. I wondered if anyone was watching me. I thought about the expense of getting a reserve repacked.

And the whole time, there was a song on constant loop in my head -- the song that had been playing on the plane just before exit.

"Slow Ride," by Foghat.

So mostly, I thought, "FOR FUCK'S SAKE, DON'T LET ME DIE TO FOGHAT."

Me: Just trying to survive

Monday, April 11, 2005

Originally uploaded by Maggiejumps.

Boyfriend: Camerawhore

landing2 008
Originally uploaded by Maggiejumps.

Suffered under Pontius Pilatus

We have a new jump plane at the dropzone.

It’s a bright yellow Pilatus Porter, which makes it look like a school bus that has been rolled into a doobie. With wings. But hey, at least it’s easy to spot from the ground.

It’s supposed to easily take nine jumpers (plus a pilot – very important) to altitude. The problem with that equation is that all of us skydivers have gained beer weight over the winter, and we don’t fit into small planes so well anymore.

There’s a bench built into the back wall. That’s supposed to fit three people. Two people were able to sit comfortably. The third teetered on across their thighs.

Six more of us sat on the floor. I had my back to the bench, my head in some stranger’s crotch. Four older guys with bad joints and a wide girth took up every available space around me. This guy, Joe, was pretty much balancing one buttock on my lap, the other pressing my leg against the inside wall of the plane.

The plane has a powerful engine that brought us to 12,500 feet in about 16 or 17 minutes. By that time, my legs were fully asleep.

I was planning on doing a complicated freefly exit with my friend, Misty. Instead, I rolled toward the door and hoped for the best, since I couldn’t feel my feet. Our count of “ready-set-go” happened just as my tingling foot slipped off the step.

Well. I was going to jump anyway.

Later I pointed to the Pilatus Porter when I was talking to my long-haired, scruffy boyfriend.

ME: That’s the plane that killed Jesus.
HIM: Huh?
ME: Pontius Pilatus.
HIM: (growling) Hrrrm.
ME: What’s that for?
HIM: Somebody today told me I look like Jesus.

I only made a couple more jumps Saturday. Both loads had significantly fewer jumpers on the plane, making for a more comfortable ride.

The best was sunset, my favorite time of day to jump anyway. Dad Steve – the pilot who is like a dad to all of us – was having fun in the cockpit and tore off through the landing area, instead of using the runway for takeoff.

He zipped us up to 13,700 feet in no time at all.

The skydive was gorgeous – everything was all lit up from one of those really brilliant warm spring sunsets. I deployed a little high on purpose, so I could spend some time spiraling my canopy for a couple thousand feet. And then I stopped, just to soak in the stillness of it all. I was suspended there for what seemed like days, just me and this glowing basketball of sun on the very edge of the horizon.

I landed. Pulled together the lines from my canopy and tossed the deflated nylon over my shoulder. Began walking back into the hangar.

Then Dad Steve buzzed over our heads, coming so close to the landing area, one woman ducked for cover. He screeched to a halt on the runway, practically sending cartoonish dust clouds into the air from the skidmarks. He stepped out of the new plane, chuckling.

Air: Not just a hip French band

Thursday, April 07, 2005
The skydiving season begins here this weekend.

To prepare, my boyfriend finally removed his parachute, rig, jumpsuits and helmets from the trunk of my car, where they had been since last November. All that remains now is the powerful scent of air.

Yes, air.

After being in the sky, your body, your clothes and all your equipment take on the scent of air, nature's perfect fragrance. It's the smell of your clothes after drying on a clothesline -- but about 100 times stronger and more concentrated.

I'm in love with the smell of air. After a day of jumping, I sniff my arms or pull chunks of my long hair under my nose so I can keep soaking it in. I'm close to humping my trunk, it smells THAT good.

They should bottle this stuff. For reals.

The first time

I was a 26-year-old sky virgin.

I was having neon-colored cocktails with some young and glamourous types. Michael was the guy who had tried it all -- his typical weekend involved extreme sports like rock climbing and scuba diving, and then an even more extreme sport of all-night partying with beautiful people who never get too tired or too drunk. He said he was putting together a group of people to go skydiving the next weekend -- the special deal was $99, half the price of a normal tandem jump. I said I was in, and he added me to the growing list on his Palm.

"You sure?" he asked.

"Go big or go home!" I smiled, downing the rest of my drink. Everybody cheered.

On my life's to-do list, skydiving was right at the top, along with bungee jumping, swimming among dolphins and visiting the Pyramids. You know, all the things you say you want to do and then never do.

So I had given it some thought. Once. Although, in retrospect, I really didn't know anything about the sport. I had no concept of exactly how people transitioned from plummeting to the earth to gently floating to earth. I knew there was a ripcord or something somewhere in there. My knowledge didn't extend far beyond what I had seen in Mountain Dew commercials.

The night before our skydiving excursion, I found myself in yet another bar, with yet another group of gorgeous young things, begging off yet another cocktail.

"I can't. I'm skydiving tomorrow."

There was a collective, "WHAT?"

Their stories pelted me like hail. According to one woman, whose brother had made a skydive, if you didn't keep your mouth closed while skydiving, it'll knock the wind right out of you. One guy said he knew someone who knew someone who died on their first skydive. Another one had a friend's friend who cheated death by landing in a tree. And of course, they advised -- stay away from clouds at all cost. Those fluffy white things will suffocate you.

I had to go skydiving. I'd already made the ridiculous "go big or go home" comment, but now every cell in my body was screaming, resisting what I was about to do.

I would go. But I was terrified.

The backpack I brought with me included a silly women's magazine (a diversion), a bottle of water (always good to be hydrated), a bottle of Pepto (for obvious reasons), and an extra pair of panties (just in case). Training was a group effort and involved about five minutes of an instructor teaching us how to arch our backs to fall in a stable, belly-down position.

No, no, no. This wouldn't do at all, I thought. Give me long lectures. Quizzes. A standardized test taken with a number-2 pencil. Basically, I wanted -- and expected -- a four-credit hour college class about the history of parachuting, the physics of falling from the sky, statistics dating back to the invention of the modern high-performance gear and discussions about skydiving in film and literature. NOT five short minutes on how to fall. A sack of potatoes could fall. I'm not potatoes. I wanted to know exactly what would happen every step of the way -- with diagrams, bar graphs and a short essay.

The instructor, Toby, thought I was crazy. The lanky man was the laid-back guy at the dropzone. He was clad in a long, tie-dyed jumpsuitt, which was half-off in the heat of summer, the arms of it tied around his waist. He was the man who would be risking -- and hopefully saving -- my life. He didn't think I was going to jump.

I did.

The 20-minute plane ride went way too fast. I don't remember much about it, other than the severe emptiness of the aircraft. Skydiving planes are nothing more than elevators to altitude. Because they want to squeeze in as many skydivers as possible, the planes are emptied of everything most people find familiar in the air -- baggage compartments, "fasten seatbelt" signs, seats. That way, the planes are lighter, and it's easier to fit a lot of jumpers with their gear.

I barely looked out the window on the way up. There wasn't much below anyway, other than Indiana farmland. Among the patchwork green, there was an occasional silo.

I was wearing a harness that wound around my arms, thighs and across my chest. It looked like it was made from the adjustable straps of my backpack.

Toby wore the real gear -- the pregnant container that was bulging with a 400-square foot parachute and a back-up reserve parachute. There were four metal clasps that hooked my body onto the front of him. We attached at 10,000 feet. I was the parasite and he was my host.

I'm the type of person who smiles and laughs at the worst things. It's a defense mechanism that I can't manage to stop. So that's why the video of my first skydive shows me in the door of the plane, vascillating between idiotic grins and gulps for air, trying to contain potential vomit.

"ARE YOOOOU READY TO SKYDIVE?!?!?" Toby yelled over the wind rushing through the door.

I barely nodded. He leaned my head back against his chest. I took a deep breath. And we jumped.

The sky is cold and noisy at 120 miles per hour. I curved my body in the precise manner we had been taught. My arms were bent 90-degrees at the elbows, hands close to my head. My palms were flat and my fingers were pressed tightly together. My legs were curled toward my body, my feet close to my rear. My back was bent into an arch, my belly pressing toward the earth. I didn't allow myself to even bend a finger, worried that any sudden movement would send us into a death spiral.

After about 60 seconds of freefall, it was time to unleash the parachute. Toby pulled the ripcord.

It was a magical shift in the world around me -- the sky was quiet and still, like those summer nights when wild thunderstorms suddenly ... just. stop.

We were floating, gliding, suspended in the sky. I had never been part of such a beautiful moment before. I was the luckiest person on -- er, above -- the earth.

After about four minutes, maybe five, it was time to end this ride. With my legs sticking out in front of me, we slid to a stop on our butts. We landed on a strip of shriveled, dried grass. Bits of the blades ended up in my mouth as we sailed through the field.

Again, I don't remember much because of the sensory overload of it all. I was heady with the sensation of tempting death. I was proud of taking this leap, metaphorically and literally. I was sad to leave the sky behind.

I did another tandem jump that same day.

A few days later, I found an old journal and read through an entry I had made on my previous birthday -- among a long to-do list, I had promised myself to skydive before my 27th birthday.

This was June 2003, less than one month before I turned 27. Somehow I unwittingly fulfilled my destiny.

I was a sky virgin no longer.