On the way to Skydive the Ranch in Ulster County, New York, a pastoral expanse encompassing a shallow pond, a runway, and an aircraft hangar that houses a couple of 22-passenger Twin Otter airplanes, Red Bull–sponsored professional skydiver Jeff Provenzano (nickname Jeffro) tried to reassure me by saying that he was also petrified on his first tandem dive. “We’re more likely to get hurt on the drive to the drop zone than we are during the jump,” he said. Then he immediately makes an ill-advised U-turn in front of a speeding SUV.
Over his 20,000-some jumps, Provenzano has performed stunts for movies, trained special-forces teams, and hung from helicopter struts as if they were tree branches. He has taken flying, spinning leaps off of BASE equipment. The man is unflappable in the face of the absurd. Later, when the door to our Twin Otter rolls up like a movie screen, revealing a portal to certain doom, his heart rate doesn’t budge. I can feel it through my back.
In the plane, we straddled one of two parallel benches that stretched from the cockpit to the middeck, me hanging off Provenzano’s chest like a wild-eyed toddler in a Babybjörn. Provenzano shuffled us to the door and made his body into an X by holding on to the exit’s top railing. We bowed out-in-out . . . a trash bag in a car window. . . and we were airborne 14,000 feet above the dizzying, curved earth. Skydiving feels remarkably like jumping off a high dive, only a beat or two longer, and somehow wider. The closest experience to which I can compare it is the time I went diving in the ocean and turned away from a coral wall to face a volume of blue so deep and infinite I may as well have been in space. What was formerly above or below was now around—a great scrubbed nothing of such irrational hugeness that some earthly proprioceptive tether snapped, and I had no idea what to do. I could float left, or right, or do a flip, or not, until the inevitable end rushed up to obliterate the whole grand time.
And isn’t that just like living?
Here’s How to Do It
You want a safe, pleasant, reputable drop zone, which is the in-the-know term for a skydiving center. You can check Yelp reviews or look for membership in the USPA—the United States Parachute Association, which is the governing body for the sport. As for size: Smaller drop zones tend to have smaller airplanes and may go only to 10,000 feet. Larger drop zones will have bigger planes and will go to 13,000 or 14,000 feet. “A larger place can mean more time in the air and more comfortable airplanes,” says Helen Woznack, manager of manifest operations at Skydive the Ranch in New York.
After you pony up about $200, your tandem instructor will explain how the parachute system works, then help you put on a harness. Then he’ll run through the jump. On the plane, he or she will connect the two of you, then you’ll shuffle to the door and jump. At first, you’ll probably hold on to your harness so you don’t flail around. Then you’ll move into a free-fall position (like an X, but with your back arched) until your instructor pulls the parachute. To land, your instructor will tell you to lift your legs to about waist height so they’re not in the way, then skid to a stop.
How Safe Is Skydiving?
Skydivers always jump with one more parachute than they need. In most cases, that’s two: a main chute that is packed at the drop zone and a reserve that is packed off-site by an FAA-certified rigger. All tandem setups also have an AAD, or automatic activation device, that will deploy the reserve parachute if you reach a certain altitude at free-fall speed. As for obstacles: Skydiving is covered by the Federal Aviation Administration, so all drop zones are marked on aviation maps. At Skydive the Ranch, pilots alert other planes through air traffic control roughly two minutes before releasing people and again as people exit the aircraft. “And then, both the pilot and all skydivers are responsible to spot—to visually look for air traffic to make sure there’s nothing in the area,” says Woznack.
What to Wear
Choose clothes that are comfortable for the weather on the ground, or a little warmer, without strings or pulls that will get in your or your instructor’s way. Bright colors are best for photos, and you’ll want tight-fitting shoes.“I lost a shoe once,” says Woznack. “It was a lost cause. You’ll never find that.”
How To Jump
You’ll be attached via harness to an instructor who will do all the hard parts for you. All tandem skydiving rigs use a drogue chute (it looks like a fat balloon) to reduce the terminal velocity of two people.
Often used during military training. You’ll jump with a cord attached to the airplane hanging out of your backpack. The cord pulls out a deployment bag, allowing the parachute inside to inflate automatically.
Comprehensive Jump Course/ Accelerated Free Fall
After hours of instruction, you’ll do your first jump with two instructors, who hold on to you to ensure you maintain a safe free-fall position—and that you pull your chute.
How to Fly
Obviously don’t do anything without the permission and help of your instructor. Lucky for me, Provenzano competes in indoor skydiving competitions through iFly, a company that builds vertical indoor wind tunnels that create an experience that’s remarkably similar to actual skydiving. Before our outdoor jump, he taught me how to fly indoors on my stomach. Here’s how to do it:
1. Think of your body like a plane. To move or spin left, dip your left wing (arm) and bank. To move or spin right, dip your right wing (arm).
2. To move forward, create more drag by laying your legs out flat and pulling your arms in like chicken wings.
3. To move backward, do the opposite, but bend your legs at the knees.
Questions You’ll Probably Ask Right Before You Leap
Do you talk to your instructor on the way down? If so, what do we talk about?
There’s so much wind during free fall that it’s tough to talk to anyone. During your fall, your instructor will tap you on the shoulder. He will also alert you before pulling the chute by waving his hands in front of your face. Once you’re “under canopy,” which means the chute is out and controlling your descent, your instructor may point out local landmarks or explain how to steer.
How long will I be in the sky?
This depends how high you are when you jump, obviously, but for first-time tandem jumps from about 10,000 to 14,000 feet, you’re looking at 45 seconds to a minute of free fall. Your instructor will pull the chute at about 5,500 feet. “It leaves time to use your emergency procedures, including deploying your reserve parachute if necessary,” says Woznack. If all goes well, you’ll have about five minutes under canopy.
Do you feel your stomach drop when you skydive?
Many people say skydiving doesn’t really feel like falling, and that’s true. After about the first five seconds, you’ll mostly feel the air resistance, which is more like sticking your face out a car window than a breathless, stomach-twisting roller-coaster drop. However: The first five seconds, when you actually jump out of the plane, feel completely bananas. Good luck!
What if I Love It?
Good for you, nerves of steel! Start by booking a comprehensive jump or accelerated free-fall course, which will provide classroom instruction on safety rules, body technique, equipment use, and flying the canopy on your own. In the U.S., you’ll need to make 25 jumps to be eligible to take the test for a skydiving license.
This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Popular Mechanics.
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