How to Enjoy Your Midlife Crisis, Part II: Gee, I Never Thought I Was Scared of Heights…

If informing certain highly conservative family members that you are getting a tattoo is a tricky undertaking, let me assure you that telling them of your plan to jump out of a perfectly good airplane with a stranger strapped to your back isn’t much easier.  However, that’s precisely what I found myself doing nearly a decade ago.

At least three friends strongly advised me against revealing this stage of my midlife crisis to my mother, who had a hard enough time grasping the idea of her daughter getting inked.  (Even my relatives who served in the military hadn’t done such a thing.)  But while I didn’t really anticipate anything going wrong – surely Fate wouldn’t be that unkind to me! – I didn’t think it would be fair for her to find out about the venture via a phone call from the hospital, or worse.  So I let go with the news and waited for the inevitable reaction.

Which did not come for some time.  My mother was, as I recall it, literally speechless at first.  The next day, however, brought as memorable reaction to my news as any I heard.

“Now just think about this,” she said.  “Just consider this: do you think there’s any possibility you could be going through The Change?”

I reminded her that I had no physical symptoms of that epoch in a woman’s life.  My mother returned that this didn’t matter; sometimes it still made women “do crazy things.”

But it wasn’t hormones that made me want to skydive.

* * * * *

I’ve had an interest in planes and aviation for many years, even to the extent of taking an Aeronautics class in my senior year of high school.  Unfortunately, while I had no trouble understanding most parts of the course, I was a dismal failure at navigation (which will not surprise anyone who knows me well).  Navigation and I got along about as well as algebra and I, which is to say, not at all.   There went my secret fantasy of taking flying lessons…when I was 18, I not only wanted to fly, I wanted to fly a biplane.  I did eventually fly in one, but that’s in Part III of this post.  If I couldn’t figure out how to get from Point A to Point B, I wasn’t likely to earn a pilot’s license.

But skydiving is a scary proposition, which is why the vast majority of human beings don’t do it, and I held off for years, telling myself that one day I would get up the nerve.  The problem is that one day, like its sibling someday, never actually arrives, so by the summer I turned 44, I still hadn’t made the leap.  And I came face to face with the fact that, guess what – I was never going to get up the nerve.  That was a myth.  So I might as well go ahead and do it.

You might think that once the decision was made, putting the plan into motion would be relatively easy.  Not so.  It took me at least fifteen minutes or more to make the call.  Every time I started to reach for the receiver, my hand would stop just short of picking it up.  But at last the appointment was made and there was no going back…although two successive hurricanes forced two reschedules.  Then the two friends who were supposed to ride in the plane with me both had a death in their family shortly before the big day, and couldn’t make it due to funeral arrangements.  I was faced with another decision – go it alone, or reschedule a third time?  I was afraid that if I didn’t go through with it now, I never would.  Besides, if I dared to do it all, I had to dare to do it alone.

Which I did.  Well, I and the pilot, the tandem master and videographer, that is.  But the rest of the story is best told in the still-breathless email I sent to friends just afterwards…

* * * * *

I reached the place [Skydive Space Center in  Titusville, FL] in plenty of time this morning after a lovely drive through the country, down Hwy 46 to I-95 on a picture-perfect day.  Got checked in and the first thing I did was to sign and initial about 26 paragraphs (literally) of waiver material.  There was a younger couple there, boyfriend on his birthday and his girlfriend who gave him the jump (they both went tandem, like me) as a surprise gift!  And I do mean surprise – she didn’t tell him ahead of time!  But he went anyway, and they both said it was awesome when they came down. 

After signing all the paperwork, we went back downstairs and just stood around for a little bit while waiting for the plane to come back down with its previous load.  It was so amazing to see the chutes landing!  They’re so beautiful in the air, and they come in so fast, you’d think they’d have to land at a full run – you can actually hear them whoosh right before they touch the ground! – but they slow down just in time to trot or even land in a standing position, quite beautifully.  Then I went to get a rather dilapidated green flight suit on, but it was a little too snug (okay, I couldn’t zip it!), so my instructor, Mark, said I could jump in what I was wearing (a t-shirt and jeans).  My two new acquaintances did the same.  After that it was time to put my harness on.  The instructor then made sure all the straps were secure, attached a pair of plastic goggles to one, and gave me a few brief instructions on what to do once we were airborne.  I had read on the company’s web site that there was a 20-minute safety briefing, but it’s much briefer than that!  Essentially, all he told me was when to put my hands on the harness and when to let go, to remain sitting on the plane even when he stood, how to arch my back and put one leg back when he said “Arch” (I never heard him, due to the wind, but knew what to do anyway!).

“And then we got on the plane, and it was just the pilot, the instructor, the videographer and yours truly. Even the flight was rather intense, having never been on anything smaller than a jet before, but it was great!  As I sat in front of my instructor – who, by the way has over 2,000 jumps to his credit and has taken over 1,200 first-timers on tandem dives – he buckled his harness to mine and helped me put on the goggles.  The videographer, Cliff, a bearded blond pony-tailed medalist, filmed me getting on the plane and on the plane itself prior to the dive.  Then the big moment was arriving – I still get a faster heartbeat remembering this! – and the door was open, and Cliff was out first – startling to see him just fall away from us like that! – and then Mark was scooting me down the narrow seat and I put my feet on the platform – looking at the ground from 15,000 feet!!!! – and Mark gently rocked us back and forth about three times, and on the third time, WE WERE OFF and I was hollering “OH MY GOD!” because believe me, you can’t say much else at a time like that, and the RUSH is so completely beyond anything I have ever experienced that as I said before, there are simply no words sufficient to describe it.  The wind is so loud that you can’t hear anything but the rush in your ears, and you literally can’t close your mouth, due to the g-force, so it’s small wonder that anytime you see a picture of somebody in a tandem dive, they’re grinning from ear to ear, because you don’t have any choice.  (I haven’t watched the video yet, but I remember hoping, even at that moment, that I was grinning rather than grimacing!)  Then the videographer is there right in front of you, and how he got there is beyond me – it’s absolutely amazing how these people maneuver in the air – and he’s grinning at you and giving you the thumbs up and you’re doing the same thing back, and he’s filming every second of it, and you feel ABSOLUTELY WEIGHTLESS and a little cold at the same time, and can hear nothing but the rushing wind.  But the really incredible thing is that there is NO sense of falling, after about two seconds when you actually step off the plane.  None at all!  It’s the closest to sheer flight a human being will ever experience, and so beyond explanation.  You don’t even feel the instructor on your back.  Then he touches your hands, and you take them off your harness and throw your arms out and you are FLYING.

Flying, people!

Then the videographer takes your hand and spins you around (but not very fast!) twice in the air in a circle!  (He said beforehand that this “looks great on video.”)  And then he drops away and you’re hardly aware of it; he just seems to disappear.  And then there’s a big jerk and you realize that the chute has been deployed and you’re pulled way up, and then all of a sudden the noise is gone and you can hear your instructor in your ear, asking if you’re okay, or something like that – and you’re under canopy for the next several minutes, just FLOATING, and he turns to the left and right, which is exciting, and you’re looking down at the ground slowly approaching, and it’s just beautiful.

The landing was quite easy – he told me when to put my legs up and he touched down for both of us and I slid in on my butt!  (As he said we would.)  It was really pretty smooth.  And then it was over!

“He undid my harness for me and I walked back to the hanger and took it off, and the scheduler/cashier/receptionist printed out my certificate and gave me a bumper sticker and a sheet with information on training and becoming licensed, and I bought a commemorative t-shirt.  Then I waited around to watch the young couple come in, and we compared notes, and finally my video was ready and I was out the door.

“I only had three minor discomforts, two of which I still have as of this writing – a mild sore throat from the cold wind rush, and some soreness on my thighs from the tight harness!  Plus I had a touch of ear popping and slight pain on the flight and during freefall – which, by the way, is approximately 120 miles per hour for about 70 seconds!  And boy, is it worth every second.  And every penny.

“And yes, I would do it again.”

* * * * *

Man, it was rather fun to relive that.  I hadn’t read it in a while.

How about you?  Have you ever jumped from an airplane?  Would you like to, but find that something keeps holding you back?  I hope if you’ve ever had the slightest desire, you’ll follow through.  I can recommend a great drop zone…and someday, I just might see you there when I’m in the mood for another high-flying adventure.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll join me here next week for Part III, in which I go airborne again…in a more conventional manner.  See you then!

Mark Ciccotto gave me the ride of my life!

Mark Ciccotto giving me the ride of my life!

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