What Does It Really Feel Like to Jump Out of a Perfectly Good Airplane?

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Peaceful and exhilarating.

There's rushing wind, and there's blue. So much blue, and so intense: the blue of the sky, the blue of Monterey Bay and the Pacific. The view and the sensation are so consuming, I forget entirely about the parachute, barely remembering to look at my videographer. Everything feels both beautifully close and breathtakingly far. It's also incredibly radiant -- bright white fluffy clouds below, brilliant ocean intensifying toward the horizon. Your gaze seems to extend forever.

Time dilates. The twelve or so seconds of free-fall feel endless.

My mouth is agape at the view. I think about bugs and other things I wouldn't want to swallow at 120mph.

Someone points to my friend, now a small dot falling away from our little plane. (Nonetheless, I wave and squint for a reply.)

I remember to wave at my videographer! (All the other photos star me staring intently in various other directions.)

I keep turning to look around, while we swivel slowly. At some point my instructor inexplicably decides to readjust my goggles.

I gaze from blue to blue to blue to blue.

My reach feels delightfully expansive -- the light pulls in from everywhere, the water's maybe close enough to dip fingers in. (My fingertips, though, are a little cold.)

I look up, straight up, and suddenly we're upright. I consider that maybe looking up has tipped us out of position, and assume my instructor will reorient us.

In fact, he's pulled our chute.

The air is full of quiet.

My eyes focus now on green, its varied shades in patches below. The clouds look less fluffy now, more ethereal and delicate.

My instructor walks me through a series of familiar directions, and then I stand on backs of his feet and he loosens the straps of my harness so I can pull them into position near my knees. While I do this, I feel weightless, with nothing supporting me but a pair of shoes.

Then my instructor pulls the handles closer for me to grab ahold. He demonstrates: we tug on the right handle and arc clockwise; on the left handle and arc counter-clockwise; if you were alone with your own parachute, he explains while tugging heavily on one handle then the other, it'd be far more responsive.

He lets me steer, and we take big arcs with our feet skimming the clouds.

I'm going through a cloud!

(No, says my instructor. It's technically illegal to go through a cloud. So what you're going through is "industrial haze". So what did we just go through? Ah, "industrial haze".)

Soon land approaches, and my instructor recovers the reins. He wants me to prepare for a standard landing by extending my feet straight before me, but if he feels good about it, we'll just stand.

He feels good about it. The receivers are jogging toward us as we swoop in, and we just sail into a comfortable walk.

I'm giddy, bouncy -- and immediately want to go up again.

My first-time experience was apparently somewhat atypical.

Good instructors who are experienced not only in jumping but also in managing people prepare you really well for what will happen, how you'll feel, what you'll want to do, what you'll want to avoid.

For instance, they'll tell you the harness will feel like it's no longer snug enough in the plane (because now you're seated). You need a good seal on your goggles. When you're getting ready to leave the plane, you'll need to get all the way to the edge of the overhanging platform, and hang your toes off the edge. You shouldn't stare down. Arch your body and kick your feet back as you jump. You shouldn't close your eyes. Or hold your breath. Or freak out, which you'll want to as you fall. Just focus on relaxing. Because otherwise you won't actually experience or remember your fall, and it'll feel like a split-second that just vanishes behind you.

With tandem jumping, the bottom line is that all you really need to remember is to relax and breathe.

My instructor would periodically remind me to breathe, to calm my nerves.

I was pretty nervous as we started orientation. And while watching the other jumpers from the drop zone. And as we rode in the plane. You sign away all your rights (even if they're at fault) in a thick stack of waivers. Our waivers had typos, not the level of detail orientation you're hoping for from your skydiving outfit and equipment manufacturers. I'd expected to jump from a conservative 10,000 feet, but it turns out the 10K and 13K altitudes aren't options today. 15,000 feet is safer, says the girl who's checking us in. Everyone who jumps before me seems happy and healthy as they land, but, man, we're going to jump out of a plane! (I repeat this profound observation many times.) Facing tail-ward in a tiny prop plane requires me to muster every drop of defiance against the twin terrors of motion sickness and air turbulence, leaving me nothing to combat the jitters. I'm wedged in between my videographer and my instructor, and my mind alights on how awful it'd be if I threw up on my videographer's back. Breathe, says my instructor. I don't think I should do anything that moves my stomach, I silently reply.

I'm nervous enough that I've colluded with my friend to jump first. I don't know if I can do it, and I tell him that knowing that he's waiting behind me for his own jump will give me some forward impetus.

There's a bumper sticker at the back of the plane that reads: "If at first you don't succeed, don't try skydiving."

And then the three of us are scootching toward the door. My videographer disappears.

I step onto the platform, and everything recedes into complete calm.

I place my feet. I discover my videographer actually hasn't jumped but is hanging off the top left corner of the door. There he is! Are we supposed to wait for him?

Oh, here we go!

I'm supposed to yell (to release the nerves of the jump and to enforce the breathing), but I'm immediately too distracted by all the color. Plus, it seems silly to yell when all this air is hurtling back at you.

My friend's emotional line was nearly a perfect inverse.

We'd bandied about the idea of skydiving for a week or two. He'd done some preliminary research, mainly to discover that Skydive Monterey was well recommended by people we know, including one friend who had rave reviews, and to get a sense of pricing. We don't make serious plans, so my main feeling is mild anticipation.

And then, around 8:30 one morning, we abruptly decide to go. Skydive Monterey needs us there at 10:30, but they're okay if we arrive by 11. (It ultimately takes us till 11:30 to leave Berkeley and San Francisco, consolidate into one car in Mountain View and wend our way down the coast to Monterey.) I'm traveling briskly down the spectrum from rushed to excited to nervous.

Meanwhile, my friend is entirely calm. (At least, once it's clear we're not going to be prohibitively late.) He's calm as we check in. Calm as we sign our lives away. Calm as we get harnessed and oriented. Making calm small talk as we watch others jump. The epitome of calm on the plane.

And, as he expected (and as our instructors have suggested is common), all the nervousness and adrenaline hits him as soon as he steps on the platform and looks out. He's thrilled and pumped during free-fall, hamming it up for the camera, but at one point it occurs to him that it would really suck if they couldn't deploy their parachute.

For me, the jump itself is just glorious and beautiful.

A lot of people only go once or twice, because you evidently never get the same adrenaline rush that you do the first time. For me, there wasn't so much an adrenaline rush as there was a overwhelming feeling of expansive, peaceful delight. This makes me want to go again (and repeatedly declare, profoundly -- We jumped out of a plane!), over other scenically commanding places that I love (Hawaii, for instance).

I completely recommend it to anyone who's considering. Actually, anyone generally.

And if you do, Monterey is a great place: the combination of land and water makes for a really gorgeous jump.

Oh, also, I'm afraid of heights.

As in, I get stuck standing atop boulders, walls at climbing gyms, etc., because I'm reasonably competent at going up, but am so daunted looking down that I at least have to take a long time psyching myself up and sometimes need someone to slowly coax me through the descent.

So, I really do mean I'd recommend it to anyone.

(Unless at first you don't succeed, of course.)

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