I DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT SKYDIVING, HAVING NEVER DONE IT, but I’m pretty sure today’s cloud ceiling is too low for jumping. Buzz Fink, manager of Air Adventures Skydiving at Brown Field in Otay Mesa, confirms my doubts. “We need seven or eight thousand feet of dear sky to jump in. If you look east at the Otay Mountains, which are 3000 feet, you see the clouds are hitting the ridge below the top. So unless it clears up, which doesn’t seem likely, we’re not jumping today.”
These words cause a mix of disappointment and relief. I’m eager to try skydiving for the first time. I like flying, I like heights, and I like speed. Except where dogs are concerned.
I’m generally not the fearful type. But jumping out of an airplane isn’t something that anybody has a natural affinity for, it’s an inherently unnatural act. Even when people climb to the peak of Mount Everest, their feet are still on the ground. In airplanes, the wings, which copy the lift-producing shape of bird wings, bear us upward. But falling through the air at 120 miles per hour is something man was never intended to do. “It’s only gravity,” says the painted sign on Air Adventures’ wood-sided, two-story building. I’m not comforted.
“Why don’t we have you fill out some paperwork,” Buzz says, leading me to a waiting room inside the building, “and then you can wait around, if you like, and see if the clouds break.”
A line of chairs sits along one wall. Across the room, a teenage girl sits behind a counter doing office work. Buzz asks her to give me the paperwork, which she does. She also pops a video into a VCR connected to the TV mounted in one comer of the room. The video is of Air Adventures’ lawyer, a thin man in his 60s, explaining that by signing the paperwork I hold in my hands, I’m waiving all my rights to sue Air Adventures in the event of an accident. After signing the papers, I give them to the girl and walk out to the lounge by the front door where five or six men, from 15 to 45, sit around on couches watching the The Avengers playing on a TV in the comer, occasionally peering upward, out the windows, at the cloud cover. "You jumping today?” a thickly built man about 40 asks me.
“I was supposed to,” I tell him.
“So were we,” he says. “A bunch of us were in the plane on the runway, and they told us to come back because of the clouds.”
I flop onto a dusty couch and watch about five minutes of the movie — enough to wish something else were on—before Buzz walks up. “It looks like the clouds might be breaking up a little,” he says pointing upward. “Let me introduce you to the guy you’ll be tandeming with.”
Tandeming, which costs $195 at Air Adventures, is skydiving with an instructor attached to you. You’re in front, he’s in back. He wears the parachute, you wear a harness that holds you to him. “His name is Tim Ige,” Buzz continues, “He’s a SEAL who jumps with the Navy parachute team. He’ll give you some quick ground school and get you set up to jump.” Buzz leads me outside, where the sun is shining through a widening hole in the douds above the airport, and introduces me to Ige, who is about 5'6~, muscular, with a clean-shaven head. He wears dark wraparound sunglasses. “Nice to meet you,” he says. “Come over here and we’ll go over a few things you’ll need to know before we go up.”
In front of the Air Adventures building, on a concrete area, sit two wheeled dollies, similar to the kind mechanics use to slide under cars except Y-shaped. Tim lies on one, his legs on the two sticks of the Y, his torso on the post of the Y. He motions to me to do the same on the other dolly. “Okay,” he says, once I’m down, “when we come out of the plane, we’re going to be stomach down like we are now, and I want you to do this.” Arching his back, he lifts his arms up and out to the sides and lifts his legs in the same manner, forming a U with his body, his stomach being the lowest part of the U. I imitate the position. “A little higher with the arms and legs.. .that’s better. This will be our free-fall position." When he’s satisfied with my technique, he moves over to a plywood platform a few feet away. On one side of the square platform are nailed two vertical two-by-fours supporting between them a stainless-steel pipe. “This simulates the door of the airplane,” he explains. “We’ll be straddling a bench right here,” he squats to the right of the door, facing it, “waiting our turn to jump. We’ll be the last ones out. You’ll be fastened to me, so we’ll kind of scoot toward the door like this,” he waddles toward the mock door. “Once we’re here, it’ll be. Ready...” he leans out, “set...” he leans back, “Go!” He jumps through the door and spreads his arms out into the free-fall position. “And don’t forget to look left at the cameraman.”
Tim has me squat in the door to practice the ready-set-go rhythm several times. If there's one thing he wants me to remember, it's that. When he’s satisfied that I’ve got it down, he says, “We’re going to jump from 13,000 feet I’d be watching the altimeter on my wrist. We’re going to free-fall for about a minute, and when we get to 6000 feet, I’ll reach around and wave my hand in front of your face. That’s your cue to pull the rip cord handle, which looks like a piece of orange PVC pipe. It’ll be sitting on the right side of your rib cage. Grab it and pull it straight out. That will open the bag and release the ’chute. When we come in to land, you lift up your knees, and I’ll absorb the impact with my knees.” Chuckling with that last thought, he asks, “Any questions?”
“How fast will we be going in free fall?”
“We’ll be going about 120 miles per hour. Because we’ll be going tandem, we could go about 200 miles, but we’ll use what’s called a drogue ’chute, which is a little ’chute that trails behind us while we’re free-falling and keeps our speed at around 120, which is about how fast you would fall on your own.” Why don't you want to go 200 miles per hour?
“Because,” he answers, “at that speed the jolt of the parachute opening would be really violent.”
After our five-minute ground school, Tim leads me inside to a dressing room to suit up for our jump. From every wall of the room hang jumpsuits, helmets, and goggles. “This should fit you,” he says, tossing me a royal blue flight suit. “Pull it on over your clothes. There are double zippers, which zip up the front.”
It takes me a moment, but I finally figure out the double-zipper system and am just starting to zip them over my chest when Tim suggests, “You might want to go to the bathroom before you get all the way zipped.”
There’s wisdom in that suggestion, so I walk half-zipped to the bathroom down the hall. Returning to the dressing room, I finish zipping up and Tim, in his navy blue, gold-trimmed jumpsuit, hands me what looks like a bundle of heavy nylon straps. “This is the harness that you’re going to be wearing. Put it on just like a jacket It’s rated for something like 5000 pounds, so you don’t have to worry about it breaking.”
I put my arms through the upper part of the harness, Tim then fastens the straps on the lower portion around my thighs. “There are four points of contact connecting me to you,” he explains, “one on each shoulder, one on each side.” Before he puts on the parachute rig he’ll be wearing, he points out the different functions: my rip-cord handle, his rip-cord handle, the cutaway handle that releases the parachute if it malfunctions, and the reserve parachute handle—a metal D-ring that rests on his left shoulder. Then he walks to one wall of the room to select for me a leather helmet and a pair of goggles from the 30 of each hanging there. I ask how one becomes a member of the Navy parachute team. “You have to be a SEAL for at least five years,” he explains, “and you have to have had two overseas deployments. Then you can try out for the team. They run a two-week tryout. Once you get on it, you do a three-year tour, you basically do demonstration parachuting throughout the United States. We work about 300 days out of the year. It’s a lot of travel, but it's a good deal.”
“Do all SEALS do parachuting?”
“Yes, all SEALS have parachuting skills. Not all SEALs have demo qualifications. But it’s definitely a method we use for insertion, so we all learn it.”
When we’re all rigged up, we walk back out to the lounge area where six other jumpers are suiting up. The stocky man I talked to earlier asks, “Is this your first jump?” “Yes.”
“The one piece of advice I’ll give you is, when you go out the door of the plane, to make your body as relaxed as possible. Don’t tense up. Relax and enjoy yourself.”
“I’ll try to remember.” Another man, about 40, with long hair hanging down over his white and orange jumpsuit, walks up to me. He’s carrying a helmet with a video camera and a still-shot camera mounted to it. “Are you Ernie?”
“I’m Dave Peterson. Come on outside so we can do an interview.”
Outside on the small lawn in front of the building, Dave, an Air Adventures photographer, kneels down and, with his camera focused on me, asks a few questions: Name? Why are you here? Nervous? Then he has me flash the thumb-and-pinkie “hang loose” sign for the camera.
By the time we’re done with the interview, the rest of the parachuting party has assembled outside. One of them is carrying what looks like a snowboard, which he'll use for “skysurfing.” A nervous energy (which reminds me of the locker-room camaraderie before my high school football games) is starting to grow in the group. There are a lot of high-fives, playful insults, and jokes: “Did you take your medication this time, Tim?”
“Damn, I forgot again,” Tim plays along, “and I’m starting to get the shakes.”
When the group is fully assembled, we all walk around Air Adventure's building, between a couple of aircraft hangars, and out onto the tarmac, where a single-engine, high-wing Cessna Grand Caravan awaits us. Tim and I climb through the wide door in the left rear of the plane first We sit straddling a low bench on the left side of the plane. The other jumpers file in behind us. The last one, another photographer, a tall mustached man about 35 named Steve, closes the sectional Plexiglas door, which rolls on tracks like a garage door. The engine of the plane stam to rumble, drowning out all but the loudest talking. Soon we’re racing westward down the runway, and at liftoff everyone but me yells, “YEE-HAW!” Some kind of skydiving tradition, I guess.
The plane, weighted down with nine passengers, takes a little while to climb up to 13,000 feet. I don’t mind the wait. Though there’s a cloud cover over much of the area, the air underneath is crystal clear. As we circle upward, I’m afforded great views of Tijuana as we travel west, the Bay and the Coronado Islands while we fly north, the San Diego skyline and beyond as we head east, and the Otay Mountains as we go south. Occasionally, Dave interrupts my viewing, tapping me on the shoulder so he can shoot some footage of my face. Tim, sitting behind me, periodically pulls my shoulders back toward him and says over the engine noise, “Remember, it’s ready ...set ...go. ”1 nod in affirmation. He gradually hooks my harness to his parachute rig and tightens the straps so that, by the time we’ve reached 13,000 feet and Steve opens the door, we’re cinched together snugly.
The group exchanges some low-fives and fist-bumps, and everyone wishes me, the only first-timer in the plane, good luck on their way to the door. The first guy out is the skysurfer who stands in the doorway mounted on his board and kind of hops out. It’s a bizarre sight to see him felling down and away toward the ground. The rest of the jumpers go out in pairs, standing backward in the doorway like divers on a ten-meter platform — though this is more like 4300 meters — holding on to the stainless-steel bar above the door. They give each other a nod and then fall back like the Nestea plunge guy. When everyone is out but the two photographers, Tim and I waddle/scoot toward the door. Dave is just outside the door, standing on a peg getting shots of everything The sight of him reminds me that I’m supposed to look left as we go out. Once we’re in position in the open door, I’m thinking about how cool and refreshing the air rushing by feels when Tim starts to rock us forward and yell, “Ready....set....go!”
With a knot in the pit of my stomach, we’re out. I remember to get my hands up and out, but I forget to look left. I also forget to get my feet up and out, and that causes us to flip backward, and my view changes from Brown Field below to the blue sky above and the plane we just jumped from flying away to the left We go around twice before Tim grabs my hands and pulls them up higher, then loops his legs through mine and pulls them up into proper free-fall position. That stops the rotation.
The sensation of speed in free fall differs from any other I’ve experienced. It’s not visual; unlike in a car, where you see the ground going by you, the only frame of reference is the ground below, which looks very far away. It’s in the feeling of the air rushing by me, buffeting my outstretched limbs and rippling the skin on my face. I barely have time to contemplate these things before I feel Tim’s hand on my forehead pulling my head back so that Dave and Steve who are right in front of me can get some shots of my face. Speaking of my forehead, the change in atmospheric pressure as we fall is causing my sinuses to ache like crazy. But not enough to stop me from enjoying this outrageous experience.
After half a minute of falling Tim reaches around and waves his hand in front of my face. I grab my jumpsuit, where I think the ripcord handle should be, but it’s not there. I pat all around the spot, but I can’t find it. I lean forward, trying to see it, but the flapping fabric hides it from view. I start to feel the beginnings of panic in my gut when Tim reaches around and pulls the cord for me. Whoosh, the parachute comes out of the bag on Tim’s back followed a split-second later by the thump of the canopy filling with air. A heavy jolt in the harness accompanies the latter sound. “Woooooo-hooooooo!” I yell out of sheer exhilaration.
“Isn’t that wild?” Tim asks.
The parachute ride down is, to me, more enjoyable than the free-falling. It’s a peaceful, serene motion compared to the frenetic action of free fall. Not that Tim doesn’t add some excitement to the parachute ride. Using the two rope handles that hang down, he banks, dives, and spirals us downward. Mostly we cruise down in lazy figure eights enjoying the unobstructed — I was going to say 360-degree — view, but that implies only two dimensions. Here, floating through the sky, you’re a point in three-dimensional space. The view is up, down, all around, not just to the sides.
On the ground below us, just west of the Brown Field tower and south of the runway, I can see the other jumpers’ colorful parachutes lying on the brown grass. When we’re about even with the top of the tower, Tim tells me to get my knees up. Gliding in from west to east at a gentle angle to the ground, he lands us right in front of Dave, who is holding his helmet camera in his hand, recording the landing for my take home-video ($75). “I want you to yell ‘skydiving’ on three,” he says. “One, two, three...”
“Skydiving!” Tim and I yell in unison. Tim then unhooks us and gathers up his parachute, folding it over his arm. The Air Adventures bus, which usually picks up the jumpers and drives them back to the office, is nowhere in sight, so we start to walk the 500 yards. I ask Tim, a man who has done thousands of jumps in his life, if skydiving ever gets old for him. “Never,” he answers. “It doesn’t last long enough to become routine.”
— Ernie Grimm