Taking a Leap of Faith with Skydiving
Mar 03, 2018 11:00AM
● By Jordan Venema
From the Jump
By Jordan Venema
WHENEVER PEOPLE ASK me what it takes to be a writer, I always give the same answer: Just be interested in the subject. But facing this article, I had to admit writing has a second condition: You’ve got to be alive to do it. As for jumping out of a plane, in that I had zero interest, and even less confidence I’d live to write the story.
See, I think I’m pretty adventurous, and from mountain climbing to scuba diving, I’d call myself the fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread. But as much as I love a good rush, those angels can keep their wings. Anybody who knows me also knows I’d be the last passenger to jump out of a crashing plane. I couldn’t exactly tell you why I’m deathly afraid of skydiving, but it probably is that bit about falling thousands of feet with only a patch of nylon strapped to your back. Or maybe in a former life I was a gopher.
So why, why, why did I agree to skydive?
Maybe I wanted to face my fears, or perhaps I just really wanted that Pismo clam chowder. So I just tried not thinking about it, until I started dreaming about it, and then I would wake in a panic, reliving the imagined memory of jumping into thin air.
I spent a lot of those nights Googling statistics that should have reassured me. Only .0075 in 1,000 died in 2014 from tandem jumps, while apparently the odds of dying in a car crash are 1 in 303. You’d think that would have comforted me, but I only wanted to drive less.
The owner of Skydive Pismo Beach assured me I had nothing to worry about. He’d been jumping 30 years, has a family, said something to the effect that he wouldn’t do it if it were dangerous. But irrational fears don’t care about reason. Still, he promised to set me up with his lead jumpers, Cynthia Currie and Jeremy Cosner, and we set a date for February 3.
The morning of the jump I made the familiar drive down the 101 to Pismo. I lived in San Luis Obispo for five years and knew exactly when I’d get the first glimpse of the ocean as I came around the bend. I knew the exit that would put me on Highway 1, navigating through Pismo and Grover Beach and past where the monarch butterflies stage their migration. But I’d never explored the few industrial blocks that bordered the airport in Oceano.
I parked my car on the edge of a grassy field that was empty except for a small trailer office and a ‘70s van emblazoned with the Skydive Pismo Beach logo. I wasn’t sure this was the place, but stepping out of my car, Cosner greeted me and asked how I was doing.
“Oh, you know, a little nervous.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, and why would that be?”
As we chatted, Currie stepped out of her car. She was my big spoon and partner for the 13,000-foot jump.
For skydivers, this pair was as down to earth as you could imagine. They were personable, joked easily, and we talked about their first skydiving experience. Cosner joined Army Airborne in 2001, and now has about 1,600 jumps under his belt.
“But she has just a couple more than I do,” he chuckled, nodding toward Currie.
“I’ve got 11,000,” she said with a laugh. “But I’ve been doing it fulltime for a hot minute.”
“So what’s the biggest fear people have about skydiving?” I asked.
“Not knowing what it’s going to feel like,” said Currie, and Cosner added that the biggest misconception is the feeling of falling.
“There isn’t one, because we’re already flying at 80 or 90 knots forward, so when you jump out there’s no feeling of falling. Honestly, the most dangerous thing about you jumping is you driving here.”
Currie had a lot to say about jumping, which I appreciated since the more she talked, the less I thought about where I’d be in 30 minutes. Instead, I focused on her other terrifying hobby: base jumping with a wingsuit. Currie says she’s the only woman to jump through Switzerland’s “Crack,” the gorge featured in the movie “Point Break.”
“I also do motivational speeches talking people through big things in their lives,” Currie continued. “People say, ‘You must be fearless!’ but no, not at all. The whole reason I do this is because when I’m standing on the edge, I am full of fear.”
“It’s crazy what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it.”
Yeah, I can see that.
“I love to identify with the women who jump by themselves, saying, ‘Screw this, I don’t need anybody.”
You know, she’s right.
Who needs ‘em.
“’… my friends.’”
I mean, what have they done for me lately?
‘”…I’m going to come out here by myself and jump,’ and that’s the first step to becoming your own woman.”
Becoming my own man.
“They leave super empowered.”
I slipped on my harness and soon we were driving toward the tin can of a Cessna whose interior had been stripped to minimize weight. Outside the plane, Currie gave me instructions.
We were flying to 13,000 feet, and the free fall would last about 45 to 60 seconds – an 8,000-foot drop where we’d reach about 120 miles per hour. Once Currie pulled the chute, we’d coast the next 5,000 feet for about five minutes.
“Once your legs are out of the plane, place your hands on the harness, relax, deep breath, head back onto my shoulder, and as we fall out of the plane, hips forward, feet and knees together, bend your knees,” said Currie.
This wasn’t a physics equation, but it might as well have been.
“Once we’re out of the plane I’m going to tap you, and let go, arms out like a bird. Head back, shoulders back, feet back, arms out.”
I nodded absently.
“We’ll go over this all again in the airplane, and honestly even if you forget everything, we’re still going to be fine. I’m just going to laugh at you,” said Currie.
Now or never, I thought. I wedged my 6-foot-3 frame into the plane, extending my legs into the plane’s tail, and we took off.
As my anxiety settled in, I grew quiet, almost meditative. A few cords ran from the front to the end of the plane, taped in place. They looked like brake lines for an old BMX. Currie noticed my concern, and cautioned, “Careful, those are what steer the plane. We like to make it scary so you want to jump out,” she said with a laugh.
The flight was surprisingly smooth, and from my seat (basically in Currie’s lap), I craned my neck for different views. The beach marked the border between land and sea, the sand dunes stretching from Pismo to beyond Guadalupe. North, the Seven Sisters marched to Morro Bay, ending where Morro Rock squats in the water. I could distinctly mark the cliffs and rock formations of Shell Beach, and the thin pier of Avila, and the darkness where the coastal shelf dropped. I knew these places well, but I’d never seen them like this, hypnotized by the hum of the plane, even forgetting that in minutes I would have this view without any obstruction.
A tap on my shoulder and it was time. I pulled the glasses over my eyes and Currie, who had buckled us together, dragged us backwards while Cosner opened the door. A gust of wind entered the plane, whipping my hair and sending a thrill through my body, but even as I began to wedge my legs outside the plane, I felt oddly calm.
Deep breath, deep breath.
When you heart races it usually outpaces the mind, and just then my fears were like dust in the wind. Currie gave me one instruction that stuck – don’t do anything – and I did that spectacularly. I let go, and I almost didn’t notice the moment we pushed off, because it wasn’t like falling, and I wouldn’t call it floating, but it felt closest to pushing off from the steps of a swimming pool, suspended by displaced weight.
We somersaulted once, and I know that I screamed but I could only hear the roar of wind, and then the tap on my shoulder. Throwing out my arms felt like embracing the world I’ve only ever known with my two feet on solid ground. I took in that view, of the water, the sand and the city, so perfectly still, like a picture on a sunny day, unaware that I was racing toward it at more than 100 miles an hour, because despite the rush of wind and rush of adrenaline I felt wholly, completely and perfectly at peace. It was beautiful.
Then the shudder and shake from the chute, a shift in weight, and the sudden release of all that fear, not just from the jump but every other burden I’d been carrying on my shoulders (rent, responsibility, a parking ticket), all shook loose in a wild shout of innocent joy.
The next five minutes felt unlike anything I’d ever experienced, and though I can’t explain the sensation, I can remember thinking how few people will experience, and none ever before man created this thing we all take for granted: flight.
We landed in the same field where I’d parked, and only in those last seconds did I realize how fast we were falling, but Currie brought us down gracefully. My only casualty, I later learned, was a grass stain on my rear.
Driving back, I stopped at a restaurant recommended by a friend, The Spoon Trade in Grover Beach. I walked in feeling like I shared a secret nobody would understand. I ordered my meal, a side of fried polenta and stuffed tuna melt, and maybe it was because nerves had kept me from eating the night before, or perhaps it was a new appreciation for life that one only gains after jumping from a plane, but it was the best meal I ever had. •
Skydive Pismo Beach
1700 Fountain Ave, Oceano • (805) 481-5867