At 13,500 feet, Sara Jackson has to decide if this is her moment of truth, or just insanity.
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Instructor Chuck Hashek and his student begin their sunset freefall high above Skydive Orange .
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Inside Skydive Orange’s Shorts Dash 7 Skyvan.
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The Nadles family.
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Videographer Tres Waugh, tandem instructor John Carlson and his student.
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Author Sara Jackson freefalling with Skydive Orange instructor John Heady.
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Instructor Kevin Reynolds and student Maria DeLera jump from a Twin Otter.
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First-timer Rachel Search with instructor, Denzil VanSwearingen.
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Tandem students jump for joy on the ground in Orange.
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Instructor Mario Ripa and student Tiffany Fry above Skydive Orange.
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Skydive Orange instructor Mike French.
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Lulit Shiferaw thanks instructor Kevin Reynolds.
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Matt Nuckols is not discouraged by snowy Orange County weather.
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Nancy Koreen skims in for a stellar landing at Skydive Orange.
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Kevin Reynolds (left) and Joost Luysterburg (right) have some fun in mid-air.
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A bit of humor at the drop zone.
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Tandem instructor Nick Kaminski (left) and student celebrate after their jump at Skydive Orange.
Confession time: When I made my first skydive, I cheated. I never actually jumped.
Oh, I did my skydive, with Skydive Orange in Orange, in fact. I made it out of the airplane, did close to 60 seconds of freefall, another four or five minutes of floating under a parachute canopy, and landed gently in a baseball field behind the airport. And I loved every second.
But I never had to take that last step. It’s the best-kept secret of tandem skydiving. The instructor rocked me back and forth, 1-2-3, and took the leap into the blue for me. And I’m glad he did. It felt like a bit of a cop out, but it saved me from my greaetst fear: that I would get to the back of the airplane, freeze and refuse to jump.
During my 20-minute ground training, my instructor Carl Lambert, 39, scruffy-haired and barefooted but authoritative, said, “Don’t try to jump out of the plane. Your instructor will actually do that for you. Just go with him when he goes.” All the nerves and fear I brought with me to this rural but busy drop zone in Central Virginia drained out of my body. After a week of nervous energy and a growing sense of unease, I suddenly relaxed and was able to enjoy every moment of the skydiving experience from that point on.
And there’s a lot to enjoy. Skydiving is without a doubt one of the most unusual and unconventional sports I’ve ever tried. I’ve gone parasailing, hot air ballooning and even ridden the 1,000-foot high roller coaster on the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. But skydiving was like nothing else I’d done.
The day of my jump was clear and calm, perfect conditions. Had the wind kicked up or significant cloud cover snuck in, I could have had to wait in the hangar, nerves building, possibly for hours. And that wouldn’t have been good. I had already been coming out of my skin for a week in anticipation, and filling out the six-page (double-sided) consent form didn’t help. It’s an intimidating document. And it should be. About three in every million jumps in the U.S. every year results in a fatality, according to Nancy Koreen, sports promotion director for the U.S. Parachute Association, which is headquartered in Fredericksburg.
By this point, I was determined and getting excited. Knowing that Skydive Orange does more than 20,000 jumps per year, according to Lambert, who has made more than 6,300 jumps since 1993, I decided a bit of scary legalese wasn’t going to dissuade me.
When I entered the hangar, it reminded me a bit of summer camp with floor-to-ceiling cubby holes full of florescent jumpsuits, brightly colored parachute canopies in various stages of being folded all around the floor, and dozens of men and women from their early 20s to late 50s prepping their equipment. While you have to be 18 years old before you can take your first jump, Skydive Orange has had jumpers into their 90s, says Lambert. And they run the gamut from students to IT folks to lawyers to stay-at-home moms. Where I had been expecting adrenaline junkies whoop-whooping, chest-bumping and psyching themselves up for their jumps, everyone was casual and relaxed.
While I waited for my tandem partner, instructor John Heady, a skydiver with a broad smile and the quiet confidence of a 14-year skydiving veteran who has more than 8,000 jumps under his belt, I watched as the other instructors and my fellow students pulled on each other’s straps, jerked on their clothing and yanked on buckles to check tension, adjust tightness or alert someone to a loose connection. (There is no personal space in skydiving.) It was disconcerting to think my life rested on the strength of a buckle, but the scene was also reassuring because everyone on the jump seemed to be looking out for everyone else.
Getting into the gear was humbling. The jumpsuits are close-fitting and made of thin purple nylon, not unlike the fabric used in parachutes themselves. The harness consists of heavy black nylon that Heady spent a good ten minutes tightening around my legs, waist and shoulders until I felt like nothing so much as a trussed-up turkey. The entire ensemble is heavy—around 12 pounds—and once I had it on, I didn’t so much walk as waddle.
It certainly made it a challenge to get into the plane. Moving was awkward and sometimes a bit painful, particularly as we climbed the movable stairs and, once inside, knelt down to sit on the floor. And yes, I sat on the floor, between Heady’s legs, with another instructor/student combo sitting in front of me between my legs. We were packed into the plane like puppies with barely an inch of space between us. There was just no room for shyness. And in the end, that physical connectedness was comforting when it was time to jump. Hooked to Heady in four places—two at the shoulder and two at the hips—and feeling his strong hands guide my own arms and head where they needed to be for the jump made it a little less terrifying somehow.
Once the plane roared to life and took off, I watched as the ground receded. My heart began to race, and I realized that this was it. In my brief training, I had learned that I only had three real jobs at jump-time: first, to hang onto the safety straps on the front of my harness (to keep my flailing limbs out of the instructor’s way, no doubt); second, to arch my back and legs as we started our freefall; and third, to lift my knees and legs as high as I could as we landed, so we could skid on our rear ends for the landing. Even if I didn’t do all three of my jobs perfectly, the jump would likely go fine, Lambert explained. It would just make things a bit tougher on my instructor.
While the Shorts Dash 7 Skyvan climbed, the sound of the propellers rumbled in my ears as we waited to jump. The instructors grinned and joked with one another, attempting to make the students laugh. I smiled tightly and tried not to look terrified, despite the occasional turbulence.
Alsten Tauro, a 33-year-old skydiving student from Lexington who has seven jumps under his belt, had told me earlier, while waiting for his jump group to be called, that he still gets butterflies in his stomach when the airplane doors open. He had also told me, smiling a bit sheepishly, that jumping is “like talking to a girl for the first time. You know you can do it, but you just have to make yourself take the leap.”
When I reached my jump height of 13,500 feet, the back of the airplane opened, and I could see all the way to the ground. It was fascinating and faintly nauseating at first, but then Heady started barking instructions in my ear, and I was busy trying to stand up, hold on, and not tumble into the instructors and students next to me. The plane, which had felt so solid when I was sitting down, suddenly seemed to sway and pitch. Kneeling on the floor, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stand up all the way on my own. Thankfully, again, I was attached to Heady, so when he stood, I was yanked to my feet with him.
The rest happened far faster than I was ready for. From the moment we stood up, it was less than a minute before several other tandem groups had jumped, and it was our turn. We shuffled to the lip of the open plane bay, Heady shouted something that sounded like “ready ... set ... ” and we were suddenly, literally, in thin air. What I noticed first was a sensation like jumping into a pool of water. I assumed it was the water vapor in the air rushing into my nasal cavity as we fell, but it was a strange feeling.
During freefall, all the markers your body normally uses to determine where you are—like weight and gravity—are gone, and you feel as if you are both floating and falling at the same time. It was a combination my brain had a hard time reconciling as I hung underneath Heady and plunged toward the ground.
For many skydiving initiates, time becomes a bit warped during freefall. Some experience only a few seconds passing before the chute opens, while others insist they were falling for several minutes, says Lambert. In truth, freefall lasts about 50 to 60 seconds. I thought at first that I couldn’t breathe, like I had stuck my head out of a car at 60 miles per hour, and felt a few seconds of panic. But I got the hang of it. It’s incredibly noisy, too, like being in a wind tunnel with air roaring all around, which made it hard to hear Heady’s instructions.
As we fell, he encouraged me to stretch out, arch my back and arms, and look around (even though my instincts were telling me to curl into a fetal position). I was breathing hard, but managed to look down at the ground rushing upward and the other students in various stages of freefall. Lambert, who had jumped just with us, was waving at me and encouraging me to smile for the pictures and video he was taking.
Then the parachute opened and everything changed. We bounced upward a bit, and I could feel my body settle into the harness, giving me back a sense of physical place. And all went as quiet as it had been loud a few seconds before. We began to float rather than fall, and it was simply beautiful. I could see for miles, and time seemed suspended. This was my favorite part of the experience—being able to see 360 degrees around me to miles of rolling hills, farms, homes and woods. I swung gently in the harness, swooped a bit with the wind and descended quickly, but not precipitously, toward the ground. As the ground rose to meet us, I found I wanted it to recede for a few more minutes of gliding through the air.
Landing was undignified, but it was gentle and easy. I slid in on my backside, and I was actually glad not to have to stand up right after I landed; I’m not sure my knees would have held me up. I sat there for a full five minutes, laughing, smiling and high-fiving with Heady. The feeling of exhilaration was overwhelming, and the adrenaline rush was palpable. It was a feeling that stuck with me long after I was up and moving again. As I walked the few thousand yards back to the hangar with Lambert, who had landed before us, I realized there was a bit of swagger in my stride and a smirk on my face that just wouldn’t quit.
It’s that moment—that instant of having overcome fear and instinct to accomplish the seemingly impossible—that brings most people to skydiving the first time, says Jim Crouch, owner of Virginia Skydiving Center in Petersburg, another of the seven USPA-member drop zones in the state. “It is deeply personal and personally driven. People want to overcome their fears, and to prove to themselves that they have the nerve to take on a challenging task,” he says.
And it can carry over into daily life, adds Crouch. He says he has known students who made their first jump and felt so empowered that they set their sights on that big promotion or a job change, or made other life-changing decisions. “People’s sense of pride and their willingness to become greater people starts after that jump. I’m always amazed how people think they can take on the world after taking on a skydive,” he says. I found it was less a life-changer for me than simply a motivator. Since I landed, when I find myself backpedaling on making a decision or taking any action in my life, I immediately think, “Sara, if you could jump out of a plane, you can handle this!”
Despite the thrill, most people only make one jump. It’s a bucket-list item or a group activity with friends, says Koreen of the USPA. When they’re done, most novice skydivers are proud to have accomplished the task but not driven to repeat the experience. But a small percentage of jumpers continue into the “accelerated” freefall program to become certified skydivers. Certification allows a skydiver to dive in any drop zone in the U.S. as well as many drop zones around the world. But compared to a tandem jump, which can run between $230 and $250, according to Crouch, the investment for full certification is closer to $3,000. According to USPA guidelines, a skydiver can earn a class A license, which allows him or her to skydive at any drop zone in the U.S., after about 25 successful jumps.
For myself, I’m not quite ready for any more accelerated freefalls than I experienced in my first jump, but I’m certainly ready for more tandem jumps. And then we’ll just have to see how deeply the skydiving bug has bitten me. • SkydiveOrange.com
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