For my 50th birthday this past year I decided to not only come-out, but also chose to jump-out of a perfectly good airplane. Thanks to the staff down at West Point Skydiving Adventures, http://www.skydivewestpoint.com/ , (about an hour from westend Richmond) it was one of the most awesome experiences of my life.
After arriving early Sunday morning, we sat down and, in triplicate, signed and initialed our lives away on the company release waiver (I have not signed that many documents since my last home closing). I perfectly understand why the releases are necessary however, to the faint at heart, they may have been somewhat intimidating.
Since my friends and I had chosen to do tandem jumps, where we would be strapped tightly to the front of our instructor (A few of us felt there was nothing wrong with that picture), the training was somewhat abbreviated. We were shown the proper way to walk while strapped together, the correct way to exit the aircraft and arch our backs once in free-fall (again this back arching thing came naturally and more easily to a few of us). The instructor then gave us an idea of what we would encounter during the free-fall, the deployment of the chute, the rest of the ride, and finally the landing. None of us chickened out through this process so it appeared we were good to go.
The plane used that day was the size and shape of a Henrico County school bus. Not as air-worthy appearing a I thought it should be, but then, I had made the choice to leave it in mid flight, regardless of it's flying abilities. Picture that school bus with benches running it's length on each side, then picture the entire senior class at Hermitage High School climbing aboard all with their 40lb book bags strapped to their backs. As tandem jumpers, we got to board first and sat on a bench in what we later reffered to as first class. The rest of the plane filled up very quickly. By the time we were ready to take off there were bodies everywhere. Oh and just an FYI, since we all had parachutes, I assumed the seat belt laws did not apply, so I didn't expect myself to be not only strapped onto my instructor but strapped into my seat too.
We reached our jumping altiture of 14,000 feet after about 15 minutes. The climb up was very noisy as the ramp on the back of the plane was partially opened. The experienced skydivers used this time to practice their mid-air version of pilotes and periodically glance over and make freightening jestures our way (I guess it's always fun to tease the new kids). Once we got to the right altitude the pilot lowered the ramp so that we could start our deplaning. The experienced jumpers wasted no time as they exited in groups, I imagine to execute some difficult formations using their arms, legs and heads while falling at 120 miles per hour. The tamdem jumpers go last, I suppose so as not to get in the way of those wanting to go 125-130 mph. Before deplaning, our intructors sinched up all the straps holding us together, we then spend an awkward 5 minutes trying to stand from a very uncomfortable sitting postion. Once on our feet, we aim for the rear of the plane and the ramp leading to nowhere.
That last step was interesting. As we fell, legs first, into the baby blue Central Virginia sky, the air flowing under the plane caught our legs and flipped us end over end. The instructor levels us out and taps me on the side to signal me that it was time to arch, which I promptly did. Now let me try to describe what you hear while all this is going on. When you have a chance, go over to your TV, tune it to channel 3, turn off your cable box and VCR/DVD, and turn up the volume on your 500watt surround sound system, with your head between the front two speakers. There is absolutely no vocal communication while free-falling, everything is done with pre-determined hand gestures. After what seemed like about 10 minutes, our 30 second free fall came to an end as the instructor tapped the altimeter on my wrist and I pulled the cord on our chute. You can feel the fabric start unfurling from the case on the instructors back, but until it opens and catches the sky, you have no idea what it feels like to be stopped in mid-air. You also rethank your instructor for checking and tightening those straps one last time before exiting the plane. What started out as a blur accompanied by a mind deafening noise, suddenly became the most tranquil, heavenly experience. The instructor tells me (yes you can hear at this point) that he is going to loosen the straps now, and that it may feel like he's letting me go (he actually said that to me) but it would be more comfortable for the remainder of the jump if the straps were loosened. The balance of our ride was like nothing I can describe. It had all the thrills of an "E" ticket ride at Disneyland (which by the way also turned 50 last year) and all the serenity of sailing in Biscayne Bay on a clear cool Miami autumn day. The flight after deployment of the chute probably didn't take more than 5-10 minutes but it seemed (in a very good way) to last 3-4 times that. As we got closer to the ground the instructor reminded me to lift and hold up my legs as we land (once again some men do this easier than others) so as not to get in his way as he tries to soften the landing. I held them up as we came down and in for our landing, which started out as a 2 point, on his feet, landing and ended up with both of us on our bums.
I could not have asked for a more enjoyable 50th/coming out experience. Thank you Lee, Philip, Tim, Andre, and the wonderful staff at West Point Skydiving Adventures, you guys all ROCK!
If you ever thought you'd like to try skydiving, JUST DO IT, you won't be sorry!