Parachuting out of a plane at 13,000 feet with two friends was a happy birthday for this travel writer.
Most birthdays involve cake, candles and presents. But when it came to my 30th birthday all I wanted was blue sky, a plane and a parachute.
“Can you skydive three people who are paralyzed today?” Charlene Vine inquired to Bill Dause, owner of Parachute Center in Lodi, Calif. “We have been trying to skydive in Monterey [Calif.] for the past few days, but they can’t seem to get their stuff together here for us.”
“Yeah sure, no worries, just get out here,” Bill responded warmly. “We will be jumping all day.”
Steven Sanchez, Charlene and myself decided to “get there.” It would be a nice change from what had been a full-out inaccessible weekend. It started with a hotel that messed up reservations. That resulted in emergency camping at a challenging campground, but we made it work.
“We’ve come this far,” I laughed, “We have to at least try.”
I was determined to skydive for my birthday, wanting to experience the feeling of flight. So the three of us headed out from Monterey for the 160-mile trip inland to Lodi.
“Supposed to Open”
Parachute Center was busy, but after doing some paperwork it was time to get dressed for the jump.
Ashley Olson and the “Tall Russian Guy” enjoying the free fall after jumping at 13,000 feet.
The three of us were escorted into the fitting rooms where we were helped into safety harnesses. This included one additional adaptation to keep our legs together for the fall and the ability to lift our legs up for the landing.
After getting all geared up, we were greeted by our individual tandem jumper who explained the simple directions.
“…And then the parachute is supposed to open, but one never knows,” my tandem jumper, nicknamed the ‘Tall Russian Guy,’ laughed. “And don’t forget to have big smiles cause it’s fun; yes!”
When the plane arrived we were the last onboard. The tandem jumpers easily worked together to hoist each of us onto the plane, leaving our wheelchairs on the ground.
Being the last to board meant we were going to be the first to jump.
Floating Like Dandelions
The plane climbed higher and higher to reach the 13,000-feet marker. The Tall Russian Guy’s watch monitored the progress,
“When this (pointing to his watch) reaches 13,000 we go out, but now we take deep breaths and enjoy the view,” he said.
It was hot in the airplane so the door was pulled open to help with ventilation. Everyone on the plane appreciated it and Steven got the best ride of his life sitting right on the edge, strapped to his tandem jumper.
It was time to go. Without any formal announcement, I watched Steven plunge out of the open door and out of sight. Then a second later Charlene was out of the plane. Then it was my turn to head out into the “wild blue yonder.”
Hurling back to earth with legs flailing about, the three of us danced with gravity for a full minute flying at speeds over 100 mph. Then the parachutes opened gracefully, like flowers blooming on a nature documentary that had been sped up for effect.
For the remaining descent we floated like dandelions in the wind, swaying in all kinds of directions, until landing in a soft grass field. No broken bones, everything was intact. Wheelchairs were brought over immediately along with strong men to assist us getting back into them.
What A Rush
So would we do it again? That would be a resounding yes.
“Traveling extremely fast, using your body as a vehicle without any energy is an exhilarating feeling,” Steven said, grinning.
“My heart is still racing,” I added.
The best thing about skydiving is “the rush that you get from putting it all on the line and jumping out of a plane,” noted Charlene. “But once that is over, the sense that you are flying is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. It’s spectacular!”
I agreed with Steven that there is nothing else like it and Bill was quick to concur.
“I’m still having fun,” says Bill, who has made more than 36,000 jumps. “[Skydiving] is more of a peaceful feeling than a thrill-seeking situation. With today’s equipment, technology and training, skydiving is accessible to everybody.”
So how many people in wheelchairs can skydive at the same time? Bill estimated that if every person had a cameraman he could fit 10 per plane, but more is possible and, of course, the plane takes many rides to the sky per day.
For more information on Parachute Center visit parachutecenter.com.
Why did I want to skydive? To fly like a bird, of course.
After one experience in a hot air balloon I knew I wanted to skydive, so for my 30th birthday I decided to jump. Nothing could prepare me for this, nothing compares to the sensation of flying through the air.
Waiting is the most intense part, especially onboard the plane as it climbs in altitude. Once the plane gets to its marker, the tandem jumpers don’t give you time to think, which is great if you are nervous.
One by one, they jump into the air like flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz. Right before it was my turn, my tandem jumper, nicknamed the “Tall Russian Guy,” told me, “Leave all your fear on the plane. And then big smiles!”
As I took a deep breath the Tall Russian Guy lunged forward from our seat and into the open air. A burst of wind rushed all over me, ferociously ripping at my clothing. My mind could not process what was happening. It was great.
We were falling, but it felt more like floating. I twirled and danced as gravity embraced me in a tight grip. Sixty seconds goes by quickly and right afterwards, for a brief moment, I became very calm waiting for the parachute to open, which it did
The reason to skydive is the free fall, but the few minutes of drifting back to earth were incredibly serene and surreal; it’s an experience in itself. I imagined myself as a bird heading towards the horizon.
With the steering cords, I glided left and right slicing through the air and then the Tall Russian Guy began to prepare us for landing. I pulled my legs up to my chest with the adapted harness so they would be safe and when I knew it was over, collapsed back onto the Tall Russian Guy.
“Whoa, that was life-changing,” I said, catching my breath.
I wonder why more people don’t want to experience skydiving. Having a fear of heights is one thing, but what about everyone else?
What we build up in our minds is never what actually happens. They are just thoughts. Skydiving is not what you think.
Ashley Olson founded and operates wheelchairtraveling.com. She is a frequent travel contributor to PN.
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