August 15, 2011

skydiving: It's nothing but "Wow!"

Thank goodness for discount deal sites like LivingSocial and Groupon. Without them, I wouldn't have had the time of my life last Sunday strapped to a barefoot stranger and falling to earth at 120 mph.

Katy & Joanne
Four members of my adventure group, Joanne, Katy, Sheryl and I, purchased a great LivingSocial deal for a tandem skydive and we were beyond excited! We booked our dive date and headed out to Warrenton Air Park in the Virginia countryside.  At least Joanne, Katy and I did. It turns out tandem skydiving is wildly popular and by the time Sheryl tried to make a reservation, they were booked solid for another month.

But back to our trip, Katy drove for about an hour and a half while I did a terrible job of navigating. Happily, we eventually found our tiny airport and were a little surprised to discover the grass runway, spraypainted directional signs and a pack of canine greeters.

My surprise was rooted in my past experiences. I'll admit right now that I have never been skydiving and I don't know anyone else who has. My expectations were totally formed by TV and movies and included harnessed soldiers packed into the belly of a big plane, instructors yelling "Go! Go! Go!" and dozens of circular parachutes drifting down over WWII France.  It wasn't like the Army. Not even a little bit. My experience was very laid back, more like camp counselors at 10,000 feet.

While the airport and staff were exceptionally casual, the legal waiver was by far the most intimidating we had ever seen.  Once it was signed and initialed in 24 places (really) AND once I'd paid an additional $85 for a video (more than worth it!) we were ready for harnesses and a few minutes of instruction. My instructor, Chris, was wearing shorts, T-shirt and a wrist cam but nothing below the knee. I suspect he enjoyed the feeling of wind between his toes. Finally, Joanne, two instructors and I squeezed into a little plane stripped of everything but a pilot and we were off. (Katy shared a plane with a kid celebrating his 21st birthday.) During our two-mile ascent, Chris, rechecked the gear, hooked our harnesses together and reviewed the dive procedure:
  • pay attention,
  • when leaving the plane, grip the front of the harness and ARCH YOUR BACK,
  • let your feet go back toward your posterior,
  • maintain this position until you feel 3 taps on your shoulder then arms out and enjoy 5,000 feet of free fall at 120 mph.
Free fall.  Honestly, I was not worried. Maybe it was because I had no responsibilities, maybe it was because I had complete confidence in my instructor, maybe it was because I'm not afraid of heights (though I was nervous on that 25 foot trapeze platform). Nope, not worried at all HOWEVER those first 10 seconds were crazy! As Chris opened the little door to my left, the wind and noise smacked me in the face. Then, suddenly there was nothing around us but air. The plane was leaving and we were alone in the sky accelerating, face first, toward the ground. I wasn't expecting noise but the wind in my ears made it impossible to communicate. I was so distracted by... well...everything that I missed Chris' signal to let go of the harness and put my hands out. I have no idea if I was arching or not but suddenly the parachute was up, we slowed from 120 mph to 40mph and it got quieter.  Chris "let me steer" then asked if I like roller coasters. He pulled on the right cord and we went into a rapid spiral. Lord, it was fun! We chatted for a few minutes then suddenly we were sitting on the runway right in front of the crowd filling out their waivers.
Katy's flight

I've posted my video below so you can get a sense of the experience.  If you're into heights and speed, this adventure is a winner!  Thanks, Kesha, for being our on-the-ground photographer.

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