It was a gorgeous, unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon on the last weekend of October when my friend Kelly and I found our way to Stevensville Airport, the official drop zone for Skydive Montana. Though this was a birthday gift from Kelly, for years both of us have wanted to experience the thrill of falling unencumbered through space at sphincter-clenching velocities, only to pirouette gracefully to the ground beneath a billowy parachute. And ever since Philip Hicks (Judd Nelson) leaped out of a rickety crop duster to prove to his buddies once and for all that “I am NOT a weenie!” in the film Fandango (a cult classic among my high school buddies), I knew my life would not be complete until I, too, took one of life’s greatest leaps of faith.
After watching the obligatory instructional videos and getting all that unpleasantness out of the way about release forms and waiving our next of kin’s right to sue in the unlikely event we crater upon landing, Kelly and I suited up and were ready to jump. One of the advantages of performing your first skydive as a tandem jump—in which you’re harnessed to an instructor and ride a single parachute down—is that it offers all the thrills but requires very little instruction. Not knowing how nervous I would be once I was facing the Bitterroot Valley floor in nosebleed territory, it was a relief not having to remember anything of life-and-death importance.
While on the ground, our instructors Gary Sanders and Dan Greer demonstrated how we would exit the plane. Though I’d envisioned a large military aircraft with a cavernous cargo bay door wide enough to deploy a nuclear warhead, the single-engine Cessna 206 used by Skydive Montana is a rather tight squeeze, and just getting out the door in mid-flight requires a bit of coordinating.
Once in the air, only our pilot had a seat, while we five skydivers sat on the floor in a toboggan-like row. The 20-25 minute climb to an altitude of just over 9,000 feet gave us some spectacular views of the snow-capped Bitterroot and Mission mountains, as well as plenty of time to ponder just which damaged chromosome was responsible for this week’s act of insanity.
I didn’t kid myself. Anyone who tries to convince you that skydiving is a safe, risk-free sport is either suffering from hypoxic delusions or has spent too many coffee breaks huffing toner cartridges in the office supply closet. At last unofficial count there were 29 skydiving fatalities in the United States in 1999, most of which were attributable to simple (though irrevocable) human error.
That said, skydiving is also one of the safer aerial sports you can participate in, with a rate of injury and death (per 100,000 participants) lower than hang gliding, ballooning and even general aviation. Skydiving’s fatality rate is even lower than such high-risk sports as SCUBA diving, power boat racing, boxing and mountaineering. As any freefall junkie will tell you, you’re far more likely to eat it in a car wreck on your way to the drop zone than crashing during the plane ride up or becoming a human lawn dart on the way down.
At 8,500 feet, Dan instructed me to remove my seat belt, a most counter-intuitive act when seated beside an open door with no parachute on my back. Kneeling toward the front of the plane, Dan fastened his harness to mine, cinched the straps and we crawled on our knees to the yawning abyss. As we’d practiced on the tarmac, I put my right foot out the door onto the plane’s wheel, ducked my head into an 80-mile-per-hour head wind, grabbed hold of the struts of the wing and stepped outside the plane. On the count of three, with my arms across my chest, the two of us rolled free of the plane and into the wild blue yonder.
Granted, hurling yourself snout-first into a gravity storm at speeds of 115-130 miles per hour can lower your odds of ever drawing a Social Security check, but any thought of death evaporated instantly into the sensory overload of freefall. My recall of the first few seconds is fuzzy until we stabilized into a flat fall, at which point I became acutely aware of the roaring wind, Dan’s howl of glee in my ear, and the unearthly sensation of untethered flight. As Gary later explained, the sensation is so disorienting and overwhelming that many first-time jumpers cannot fully process the memory of the experience. One skydiver told me that he doesn’t even remember his first jump until his parachute opened.
To my pleasant surprise, freefall is nothing like jumping off a high diving board or a bridge, with none of the stomach-dropping nausea you experience riding a roller coaster or filling out your tax return. Thirty seconds of freefall passes in a heartbeat—tandem jumpers will reach speeds of 180 mph without a “drogue chute” to slow them down—and by the time I acclimated to traveling 1,000 feet every five seconds, our parachute deployed and the world grew eerily silent.
In the past 10 to 15 years, advances in parachute (or “canopy”) technology have moved the sport light years beyond the bygone era when cone-shaped, GI Joe-surplus chutes, which were difficult (if not impossible) to steer, resulted in jaw-rattling landings that had all the finesse of a falling sack of doorknobs. Today’s canopies are rectangular in shape and made out of light-weight, durable materials and deploy easier, faster and more reliably. Aerodynamically designed more like an airplane wing than an umbrella, they are so maneuverable that experienced skydivers routinely land safely within spitting distance of the spectators watching from the ground. My touchdown was as gentle and care-free as stepping off a porch.
Today, FAA regulations require that all “intentional” jumps be made with a dual parachute system, with both a main and reserve canopy. Reserve canopies are inspected and re-packed every 120 days, regardless of whether they’ve been used. Skydive Montana also uses Automatic Activation Devices (or AADs) which contain a built-in altimeter that will automatically deploy your canopy at 1,900 feet if a mishap renders you unconscious or the ecstasy of freefall distracts you from your impending splat. Since their introduction, AADs have saved hundreds of lives worldwide.
My advice to anyone considering taking an earth-bound plummet: Visit the drop zone in advance and familiarize yourself with how it’s done. Admittedly, the benefits of witnessing other skydivers jumping in person are mostly psychological: For Kelly and me, it alleviated the nervous butterflies we experienced on our first foray out to the airport, which was later canceled due to a low cloud ceiling. Also, you’re likely to enjoy your jump more if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and aren’t tasting your lunch on the way down.
Finally, it’s generally inadvisable to inform parents or other nervous, ground-based loved ones that you’re leaping out of an airplane until after you’re safely on the ground. Even my after-the-fact disclosure to my folks was met with stunned silence. As my father asked about this year’s birthday present, “What’s the matter? Doesn’t Kelly believe in sweaters?”