I was a middle-aged scaredy-cat. While others braved roller coasters, I stayed behind and held their purses and cameras. So no one was more surprised than I was the day I signed up for a tandem skydive.
My husband, Joe, was approaching his 65th birthday, when he suggested a drive to Skydive Miami in Homestead, Florida. As a young man, he had made hundreds of jumps with the round, military parachutes, but the newer wing style fascinated him. Seeing those athletic young people swooshing in to a perfect, stand-up landing reignited memories of his youth. I could tell he wanted to try it, and for once, I decided, I wouldn’t be watching from below. Time for some faith in myself. I was going up!
When Joe pulled out his credit card and asked for an application, I stepped up to the counter.
“Make it two, please.”
His incredulous look morphed into a wide grin.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! I want to experience this with you.”
We filled out the paperwork, signed the liability releases, and swore we were of sound mind and body, a questionable statement at best.
After a pre-flight training session, we zipped ourselves into one-size-fits-most electric blue jump suits. Trainers handed out altimeters, helmets and goggles, and strapped heavy black harnesses onto our arms and legs. Soon we would be connected to the two strangers we had elected to trust with our lives.
My instructor, Pete, a tall, good-humored Brit, provided comic relief at just the right moment. Strolling into the waiting area, he read aloud from a beginner’s skydiving manual, scratching his head in mock confusion. Later he would admit to logging over 10,000 jumps.
When our flight was called, we proceeded to the small Caravan airplane where we sat in pairs on the floor, instructors directly behind their students. Harnesses were clipped together as the plane roared down the runway. Through the clear, roll-up door, I caught a final glimpse of the trees as the reality hit me: there was only one way out of this airplane. My mouth was dry as cotton, my palms sweaty and shaking. What was I doing here? Why did I sign up for this?
A glance at Joe’s eager face did little to assuage my fear. This guy was afraid of nothing. He’d done this hundreds of times without an experienced jumper strapped to his back. If anything, the crazy nut probably wished he could go solo!
At 13,500 feet the jumpmaster gave a thumbs up, and to my horror, the clear door slid open like a roll-top desk. Didn’t they realize how dangerous it was to fly with an open door? Someone could fall out!
Joe and his instructor were first in line. On their knees, they shuffled like chain-gang prisoners toward the deadly aperture. I watched in disbelief as they nodded three times in unison and tumbled out. There are some things in life you can prepare for, but watching your husband fall out of an airplane isn’t one of them. My heart was in my throat.
Still trembling, I was pulled to a kneeling position and pushed toward the gaping hole. To steady myself, I clung tightly to a metal bar overhead. Pete tried to pull my hands away but I refused to let go of the one solid object between me and certain death.
As impatient jumpers began to pile up behind us, I resigned myself to the inevitable and released my death grip on the bar. Following our pre-flight instructions, I crossed my arms, Dracula-style, over my chest and arched my back. Pete rolled us out of the plane.
The sense of falling lasted only seconds until we achieved the welcome stability of terminal velocity. Pete tapped my shoulder, the signal to spread my arms like wings. At 120 mph, the wind resistance made it seem as if we were flying.
The noise was deafening, and G-forces assaulted my face, turning an attempted smile into a freakish grimace. I remembered the instruction to face the videographer, who was flying directly in front of me, no doubt documenting this for my next of kin. “Hi, Mom!” I mouthed, although in space, as they say, no one can hear you scream.
After sixty seconds, Pete pulled the ripcord and the free fall came to an abrupt end. Our bodies jack-knifed from horizontal to vertical, legs flying out in front like two rag dolls, as the harness held tight and the chute flared open.
It was peaceful now. Quiet. We floated through the air like two giant butterflies. Pete pointed out landmarks on the horizon, and I admired the beautiful patchwork of the surrounding farmland. As we soared gently toward the earth, my only regret was that we couldn’t stay up longer.
Skidding safely into the drop zone, we unhooked our gear, and I ran into Joe’s arms. A camera captured our celebratory embrace. The look of admiration on my husband’s face said it all. This was huge. His former middle-aged scaredy-cat had jumped out of a perfectly good airplane.