While in New Zealand recently, I checked off what is probably the most stereotypical bucket-list item.
Skydiving was always something that I’d written off as too extreme for me. But I’d said the same thing about bungee jumping, and I’d managed to survive that on my first attempt a couple years ago. Now I would have to man up and throw myself out of a plane.
The location was Paihia, a sleepy tourist town in the far north of New Zealand, situated on the exceedingly lovely Bay of Islands. I signed up for a jump with one of the two big skydive companies based there. I had the option of jumping from a height of 8,000; 12,000; or 16,500 feet, with a hundred dollar-price difference with each increase in height. I chose 12,000 as a happy medium.
I didn’t feel terribly nervous the morning of the jump; it was still too unreal. A friendly Japanese guy picked me up in town and drove me out to the drop site, at an airstrip a few minutes drive out of town. I asked him if he had jumped before, and he laughed and said, “No, no, definitely not.” Upon arriving I signed a waiver releasing the company from liability in the event of my death. They did claim that no one had ever died on one of their jumps.
Going into the hangar to wait for my turn, I was somewhat reassured. The company seemed to have a pretty well rehearsed operation, serving dozens of tourists every day. The people lined up to jump before me were some Scandinavian teenagers and some old Dutch ladies. I figured if they could do it, I could do it. Eventually my turn came, and I suited up.
When I’d first considered going skydiving, my main concern was not knowing when to pull the cord. Never having done it before, disoriented from freefall, how would I know when to open the chute? I felt pretty sheepish when I found out that the first jump is almost always a “tandem” jump, where the first-timer is attached to an instructor who wears and controls the parachute. You’re still jumping out of an airplane, but you don’t have to worry about messing anything up. You’re just along for the ride.
My instructor was a reserved Kiwi guy named Glenn, and once the gear was ready we hopped into the back of a very tiny propeller airplane and took off.
As we climbed higher and higher, the promised beautiful view certainly did deliver. The Bay of Islands looks even more stunning en route to 12,000 feet. The brilliant blue of the curved inlet is majestically dotted with dozens of small rocky islands.
However, I had trouble fully appreciating this gorgeous view due to the terror in my gut, rising in tandem with each additional foot that the plane climbed into the sky. My mind kicked in with wild, anxious thoughts. Why the hell did I think this was a good idea? I can’t do it, I just can’t. There’s no way I can bring myself to jump. But I can’t turn back now. No, I’ll tell them I can’t do it; they’ll turn the plane around. They can keep the money, I don’t give a damn.
These thoughts continued to race through my head as Glenn called me over to strap us together. He yelled over the roar of the plane’s engines, “When I open the door, slide forward and hang your legs over the edge. Then when I say go, jump out!” I nodded calmly, but inside my fear was in overdrive. This overdrive increased to warp speed as I sat perched on the edge, my legs dangling 12,000 feet above ground.
The first few seconds were total disorientation. We were flipping over and twisting around in the air. Then suddenly I was facing down, looking at the world far below. It was much different than I’d expected. It was all so unreal, the ground was so far away that I couldn’t imagine hitting it. Instead of a terrifying fall, I felt like I was floating through the air. It was magical.
I spread my arms like Superman, and began laughing with glee. I drank in the beautiful view of the Bay of Islands, soaring majestically through time and space. The forty seconds of freefall that I had so dreaded were over far too quickly, and it was with disappointment that I felt the opening of the parachute that would save me from death.
It was a long, pleasant descent in the parachute, allowing even more time to enjoy the view. But it was nothing compared to the rush of excitement that was the freefall.
To my mind, skydiving represents a near perfect allegory to facing fears in everyday life. It is something that nearly everyone is terrified of doing. Just mention skydiving, and many people shudder and say, “I would never try it!”
The scariest part of skydiving is thinking about it, waking up to it, driving to the site, getting in the plane. The absolute most terrifying part is that slow plane ride up, as the moment of truth inches excruciatingly closer and closer.
Then comes the jump…and what an amazing rush it is. Nearly all who do it leave the plane with smiles on their faces, having gone toe-to-toe with gravity and won. Having faced down their fears and emerged victorious.
How many times in life have I turned the plane around before making the jump? How many times have I told myself that I couldn’t do it, that I was too afraid?
Sometimes taking the plunge can be terrifying, and everything inside of us is screaming to run away to a safe, quiet place. But push through those feelings, and live forever as a champion.