Tag Archives: sky diving

Terminal Velocity

This post is my response to the writing prompt “What’s the scariest thing you ever did and why did you do it?  Here goes…

“So…what if something goes wrong?”

My skydiving instructor tugged the four hooks on my harness and said, “Each ONE of these is capable of holding both of us.  It’s fine.”  His name was Bruce and he was a retired Marine and he had jumped 2000+ times.  “It’s fine.”

“What if you bang your head on something and pass out and I don’t know how to pull the thing to open the chute?”

“It’s got an automatic trigger set to a certain altitude and if I haven’t pulled it by then it will deploy itself.  It’s fine.”  Bruce left me standing in my harness and strolled over to the other side of the hangar to get that magic parachute he was soooo sure about.

sky diving

That’s Dan in the blue do-rag. I believe my facial expression says it all. Bruce is the fellow on the left in black and red. He was totally cool.

By that time on that sunny Saturday morning back in May 2001, I had already sat through a class about tandem skydiving, watched the safety video, signed a LOT of releases, practiced my landing tuck, paid $200 and punched my friend, Dan, for talking me into this.  Dan is a parachuting fiend–stopping on his way home 2-3 a week to go up in the sky and dive.  He evangelized for it as a way of taking life by the horns and reclaiming my sense of adventure after that boring and claustrophobic decade with my ex-husband.  (You know, Fartbuster?  Perhaps I’ve mentioned him before…)

So there I was, with Dan and two other friends from work–Emily, who was celebrating her 40th, and Jennifer, who at 24 had just finished cancer treatments.  Oh, and Richard, who came along for the show.  We had been dating for about three weeks.  In his first career, Richard had been an aerospace engineer doing research for the Army, so he had jumped a time or two but had never been high enough to experience freefall.  He wanted to dive, but tandem was the only option.  He told me out of the side of his mouth, “I don’t want to be strapped to a guy.”  As luck would have it, at that moment a six foot blonde Amazon of an instructor walked by and said, “You can ride with me, Sugar!”  I’ve never seen a man whip out a credit card and pay $200 that fast.  He was like SIGN.  ME.  UP.  So there was all 5′ 4″ of Richard dangling from that woman like a baby in a Snugli.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of that.

Our adventure weekend was special because Skydive Monroe had a big plane available with an open deck on the back, like a cargo plane.  Instead of having to waddle out a little door in a small plane, we would be able to leap, flip, sail and plummet right off the deck into nothingness.   Sweeeeet.  Right.

I cut my eyes at Richard and said, “Just how fast will I be going?”

“Oh, I’d say about 100 miles per hour, maybe 120 in freefall.  Much slower under canopy.”

“He said we would freefall for a full minute.  Don’t we pick up speed as we fall farther?”

“No, you’ll reach your terminal velocity pretty quickly.”

“I’m sorry….WHAT?”  Nobody wants to hear the word “terminal” stuck right up against “velocity” when she’s standing there in line to get into a plane with no back wall.

“A falling body can only go so fast.  You can calculate an object’s terminal velocity–its highest possible speed–by taking into consideration the drag of the air, the pull of gravity and the weight of you and Bruce strapped together.”

I gave him my best English major blank stare.

He planted a little peck on my pale, clammy cheek.  “It’s fine.”

That was a long ride up to 16,000 feet (that’s about as high as you can go without needing oxygen).  My camera guy (oh yes, I had paid extra for the camera guy) interviewed me on the way up and let’s just say I was looking a little twitterpated.  We were THREE MILES up in the air, y’all.

Bruce told me it was time to hook up.  I had to stand.  My legs were water.  Water vapor.  I mean seriously…THREE MILES UP, no back door on this plane, a dude filming me, and my new boyfriend tied to Xena the Warrior Princess.  We were third in line, inching toward that gaping hole at the back of the plane.  Nothing but blue past it because I sure as hell wasn’t looking down.

Because the deck made stunts easier, Bruce wanted to try a back flip for our exit.  Who was I to express any doubt?  Is there a safer, more practical way to hurtle out of a plane?  He pretty much dragged me to the big red line on the floor by the entrance to oblivion.  I crossed my arms over my chest and tucked my chin like we had practiced.  He gripped a long silver horizontal bar for balance and we shuffled out into the wind.  “Wind.”  HAH.  There is no word for that feeling.

Bruce screamed by my right ear, “OK on three.  3, 2, 1…….”
Look at that smile.  Going 100mph really makes my cheekbones pronounced.

Look at that smile. Going 100mph really makes my cheekbones pronounced.

And he let go.  As we fell backwards, I blacked out for a second.  The force of the wind, our increasing velocity, flipped us around a couple of times then Bruce got us into flat position.  The nothingness of air pressed so hard against my chest, my face, my cheeks that I couldn’t have screamed if I had wanted to.  And oh, I WANTED TO.  Bruce tapped my right hand to signal that it was time to spread out like an X.  He deployed a drag chute and even with that little brake on, we flew downward at well over 100mph for a solid minute.  When I finally caught my breath, it all came back out as giggles.  The rush and roar.  I have never felt so alive.

Then, holy HELL, I bumped into something.  In the air–I bumped into something.  That crazy Dan had jumped right before us.  His terminal velocity must have been less than ours because we all ended up near each other and that fool SNUCK UP ON ME and grabbed my hand!  I’m falling at 100mph, tied to a Marine and yelling, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING???”  I thought we were all going to bang heads.  But those guys knew what they were doing.  Dan posed for the picture then sailed off.  Leave it to me to jump out of a plane and still run into someone I know.

Dan swooping in to grab me.

Dan swooping in to grab me.  Not smiling anymore.  I believe I was snarling, “GET OFF ME!”

At the end of the minute, when I thought my heart would explode with the giggling and the adrenaline, Bruce tapped me again to let me know that he was about to pull our chute.  WHAM!  It looked like we shot up through the air in comparison to the other solo divers around us but really their terminal velocity remained much higher while ours slowed with the greater drag coefficient of the chute in relation to the constant of gravity.  (BOO YA!)
After the rush and the roar, there was silence.  We didn’t talk.  Just floated.  Bruce let me pull the steering handles a couple of times to twirl us around.  I could see the curve of the Earth at the horizon.  A 360 degree view of Georgia countryside on a sunny Saturday morning.  I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

There’s one word you don’t want to hear your jumpmaster say when you’re about 150 feet above the ground on your first skydive and about to land.  That word is “SHIT.”  Bruce had us all lined up for a solid landing, but another dude came sailing in hard and fast directly opposite us.  Bruce adjusted quickly, but my brain clicked off at “SHIT” and I forgot to pull my knees up out of his way.  We hit the ground running (literally!) and my feet tangled with his.  I landed hard on my knees and got the wind knocked out of me for the first time in my adult life, but I staggered up with the biggest grin on my face and a new-found respect for gravity, wind and silence.

I stayed giddy for days!

I stayed giddy for days!

I stayed high for three days.  It’s been 12 years since that jump and I can still make my stomach lurch by remembering the 3-2-1…letting go.

Richard and I went back to my house and ate strawberries, drank champagne and fell in love.  That skydiving adventure was the first of our adventures together.  I pulled out my bucket list and wrote that day’s date next to “#2.  Skydive.”

Reaching my terminal velocity from three miles up was pretty scary.  But that skydive was not the scariest thing I’ve ever done.  It created the most adrenaline, but it wasn’t the scariest.

When Richard was diagnosed with leukemia three years later–that was the scariest thing I’ve ever lived through.  It, too, had a rush and a roar and confusion and panic at the beginning.  So much effort to get him BETTER.  To get him cured.  Then he reached his terminal velocity and there was the slow fall, the silence, the hard landing.  Having the wind knocked out of me.  Staggering up again after he died.  THAT was the scariest thing I ever did. 


To read more of the scary stories generated from this prompt, click on over to Mommy Loves Martinis where we’re all linked up!  Her tale of being a broke ass teen mother in Spanish Harlem is not to be missed.