No credible evidence suggests that I suffer from suicidal tendencies. Nonetheless, here I am standing in the open doorway of an airplane, two miles above the Monterey Peninsula, preparing to hurl myself earthward. I am wearing a parachute—I’m not crazy—but the plan is to wait to deploy it until I’ve plummeted more than a mile and a half. During the first 12 seconds, I’ll reach a deadly speed of 120 mph. That’s fast enough to make a human-shaped divot if my parachute fails and I land on, say, one of the fairways of the Pebble Beach golf courses.
“Are you ready to skydive?” jumpmaster Sebastian Nicholas asks as the Twin Otter approaches 14,000 feet. “I’m ready,” I hear myself say with more conviction than I feel. I test the radio I’ll need later to receive instructions from the ground. One of the experienced jumpers tells a stock skydiving joke, probably for my benefit: “When the people look like ants, pull. When the ants look like people, pray.” Standing in that open doorway, held stationary on my right by Nicholas and on my left by the assisting jumpmaster, Natalie Stuhlmueller, I get a thumbs-up from both and the three of us leap together into the unknown.
What began as a chance to fulfill an innocent boyhood dream of parachuting has turned into an adrenaline-charged adventure right out of television’s Xtreme Sports. Blame it on progress. As a kid I tried to re-create the feats of paratroopers by jumping from the porch beneath a makeshift parachute fabricated from a pillowcase. By the time I got around to trying the real thing, however, round chutes and static line jumps—the sort depicted in World War II movies—had been superseded by rectangular, highly maneuverable chutes and a more intense option called Accelerated Free Fall (AFF). Rather than make a low-altitude jump and ride the chute to the ground, I planned to fly to 14,000 feet and, with the help of the two instructors, free fall—or skydive—more than two-thirds of the way to earth. Only then would I deploy the chute and glide back to the drop zone.
It was no small matter deciding whom to trust with my life. I selected Skydive Monterey Bay from a list of jump schools affiliated with the U.S. Parachute Association (USPA). Not only does the company employ USPA-certified instructors, but it has never had a fatal accident with a student during the two decades it has been in business—both comforting assurances. Furthermore, Skydive Monterey Bay operates out of the Fritzche Army Airfield, eight miles north of Monterey, thus promising the thrill ride of a lifetime and spectacular aerial scenery, with views on a clear day all the way from San Francisco Bay to Big Sur and east as far as the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was a place I’d come to know during the years that I lived in San Francisco, and I loved returning not only for the physical beauty, but also for the region’s excellent restaurants and wineries.
Skydive Monterey Bay offered a menu of options, including traditional static line jumps, where the parachute deploys immediately. But bent on excitement, I debated between a tandem jump, in which I’d be harnessed to an instructor and have nothing to do but enjoy the ride, and the AFF program, which allows a neophyte like me to experience all the euphoria—and terror—of skydiving right from the start.
Opting for AFF requires a greater commitment of time. Before I got near that open airplane doorway, I had to complete roughly five hours of ground school. Class began with a basic introduction on the equipment, focusing on the rectangular parachute, called a “square,” made of ripstop nylon. These chutes have a significant advantage over their older, round cousins. Their shape gives them the aerodynamic qualities of a wing, so they literally fly. Hanging beneath one, it’s easy to control both direction and speed and even head upwind to ensure that you hit your landing spot. Like traditional chutes, however, squares also have a downside: They are subject to glitches—that is, instances of opening imperfectly. Things can go wrong.
Not surprisingly, a major component of the AFF training deals with worst-case scenarios. Over and over, Sebastian Nicholas—who himself has completed 1,500 jumps—had me go through the motions of what I would do if the chute failed to open, if an end cell were to collapse, if a steering line were to break, or if I were headed for trees, power lines, or water.
The emphasis is on rehearsal. Even with two jumpmasters holding on to me during the free fall portion, I wouldn’t simply be along for the ride. Once out of the plane, I would have to hold a proper froglike position (navel forward, back arched, knees bent, arms splayed with hands about ear height) and execute several training maneuvers. Nicholas and I went through the dive time and again, from the airplane exit to deployment of the small handheld pilot chute, which has replaced the traditional rip cord. Between these rehearsals, I practiced landing falls (though the square chutes let you down so gently that you normally land standing up) and looked at aerial photographs so I could locate the drop zone by landmarks. Then at 2 pm that afternoon, Nicholas signed us on for the next flight. For the first time all day, I began to feel anxious.
Statistics suggest that I had little reason to worry. During the last five years, the mortality rate in skydiving has averaged fewer than 35 a year, which is pretty good odds considering that during a typical year more than 3.5 million jumps are made, 92,000 of those by complete novices.
I try to keep those statistics in mind as the three of us leave the safety of the plane and fall toward the earth. Once out the door, I struggle to hold the proper position, and Nicholas motions for me to arch my back more. Then I instinctively review the various in-air training maneuvers, including three dummy throws of the pilot chute. Oddly, I experience none of that heart-in-the-mouth sensation usually associated with falling. The air may be cold, but I don’t feel it. I barely notice the wind, and my only sense of speed comes from the fluttering sounds of my baggy jumpsuit, which is plastered against my arms, chest, and legs. Every fiber of my attention is wrapped around those rehearsed routines, which by now I associate with survival. They are the fragile threads that keep me from panicking.
Before I can take in the views of Monterey Bay or search for whales passing this stretch of the Pacific Coast, the altimeter reads 4,000 feet and I’m overdue to throw out the pilot chute, a tiny parachute that opens the pack and deploys the larger chute. I do, and after a moment’s delay, the large chute billows open and I’m snatched away from my handlers. I look up, see a perfect canopy, and breathe deeply for the first time since leaving the airplane.
The rest is easy. Obeying radioed directions from the ground, I execute a few practice turns, including a complete 360 and a full-brakes maneuver called a flare. Still following instructions, I turn slightly left, cross Highway 1, and drift toward the expanse of lawn that will serve as my drop zone. Minutes later my feet touch down, slide from under me on the dry grass, and I sit softly on the ground, safe and unharmed. Only then does the flood of emotion come. During the jump, I’d been so afraid of the consequences of losing control that I’d blocked out everything but the essential routines that prevented me from a fatal collision with the Monterey landscape. Yet, as the Twin Otter passes high overhead, carrying yet another wave of skydivers, I suddenly realize the extent of my accomplishment, and I’m overcome with euphoria and the feeling of being alive.
Originally I planned to jump only once to satisfy my childhood curiosity. Now I’m not so sure that once is enough. Even before I get up from the grass, I think about doing it again. But not just yet. Gathering up my chute, I’m making plans to celebrate my survival, beginning with a bottle of Dom Pérignon.
Skydive Monterey Bay (888.BAY.JUMP, www.skydivemontereybay.com) offers AFF, tandem jumps, and traditional static line jumps.