Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Free Falling

Here is a story I wrote many years ago for my college magazine. It is still one of my personal favorite travel articles that I've written over the years. Enjoy the ride...

A heart beats over the soundtrack... "Raiders of the Lost Ark" fanfare blares... a group of people in colorful jumpsuits plunge out from the belly of a large cargo plane. I watch as they free fall gracefully through the sky. In my mind, I wonder what it feels like. That's when Scott Keasey stops the videotape. It's time to suit up and board the plane. I'm about to find out for myself exactly what it feels like.

A 24-year-old college student, Keasey works behind the counter at Skydive Monterey Bay, a popular skydiving center in Monterey Bay, California. What I've been watching is a ten-minute video introduction to skydiving. Having signed a bunch of waivers releasing all liability of death or injury, in just a few minutes, I will be free falling from 14,000 feet at 120 m.p.h.

"People think 'God, you have a death wish to do that,' and it is the exact opposite... skydivers are afraid of not living. We are not afraid of dying," says Steve "Raff" Rafferty, a 52-year-old skydive instructor with over 5,000 jumps under his belt. A former Marine, Rafferty worked for 27 years in Silicon Valley, but didn't make his first jump until 1988 at the age of 40.

"It bit me hard and fast," says Rafferty. "I was a weekend instructor for a long time, but then in 1996, I decided 'Jeez, I don't need this high-tech stuff anymore.' I looked around and said, 'Someday, I'll be a long time dead,' and I got a little more passionate about my daily routine."

For Rafferty skydiving became his daily routine and part of his life . "You don't find many people who do a couple of hundred skydives and then stop because while it may not be for everybody, for those of us involved in it, we are very passionate about it," he says. "It becomes a way of life."

Rafferty trains about a hundred new skydivers a month. Many of those students take a "tandem jump." A tandem jump is one in which the student and instructor are harnessed together in a parachute built for two. They jump from about 14,000 feet. After about a 60 second free fall, the student can then pull the ripcord (if they so desire), and together with the instructor steer and land the parachute.

"Tandem has been around since the mid-80's," says Dave Stewart, a 48-year-old instructor with over 6,800 jumps. "It used to be if you wanted to skydive, you had to go through a long class."

Stewart believes tandem jumping is a great way for beginners to experience the sensation of freefall. "It's similar to going up in a high performance aircraft. I like to make the analogy of a F-15. It's a dual yoke aircraft where you can sit in the airplane with an experienced instructor. He'll kind of guide you through the takeoff, do some real high performance maneuvers, and let you fly it for a while. All within the realm of safety and fun."

Another way beginners learn to skydive is through the accelerated free fall program, which Stewart calls a "more intense learning environment." Referred to as AFF, it's a seven-level program for those wishing to become licensed skydivers. An AFF student first attends a fiver-hour ground school class that covers all the different aspects of the parachute system, aircraft, free fall, and landing. Following the ground school, the student takes a series of seven dives with instructors guiding them and assessing their progress.

Both Stewart and Rafferty work as independent contractors at Skydive Monterey Bay. Stewart runs his own skydive operation in Montana during the summer months. They were also participants in a world record skydive formation last summer in Chicago involving 247 people.

"It took us 24 attempts out of 25," says Rafferty. "We started with 300 people and slowly decreased that number till we found a workable formation.

On this Saturday, though Rafferty won't be setting any world records, but he will do about 12 to 15 jumps with beginners. "Training is such a high," says Rafferty. "We can never do our first skydive again, but we get to share that experience over and over."

Following her first completed jump as part of the AFF program, Linda, an electrical engineer from San Jose shares that experience with Rafferty and Stewart.

"God, what a sensation." says Linda.

Stewart and Rafferty are questioning her to see what she recalled from the experience. In order to become certified students must prove they understand and execute proper technique.

"What color was your parachute?" Rafferty asks.

"Purple," Linda responds, confident in her answer.

Rafferty and Stewart are pleased. She's correct, which isn't always the case. "It's amazing how many people have no clue," says Rafferty.

Aside from her parachute blowing in the wind and dragging her along the dirt, Linda's jump was technically excellent according to Rafferty and Stewart. After debriefing, they head inside the jump center to watch her skydive on videotape.

Through the magic of video editing equipment, the jump footage has been turned into a short music video featuring the Lenny Kravitz song "Fly Away." We watch as Linda waves to the camera before stepping into position and jumping out of the plane.

"Calmness," says Rafferty. And Linda does look very calm on the video replay. She's very relaxed and comfortable. Stewart even calls her jump "textbook."

Watching the video, I couldn't help believe the free fall lasted only 60 seconds. It seems like she was in the air forever, but as the pilot for Skydive Monterey Bay, Chris Schnidler puts it: "In skydiving three seconds is an eternity."

As we ride a shuttle bus out to the landing zone to watch a group of jumpers, I again ask Linda what the free fall feels like. "That was so awesome," she says. "There's just no words. A feeling you just have to experience."

At the landing zone, a grassy area at the end of the runway, we watch as canopies open. The little specks in the sky float down towards us. A group of experienced jumpers makes very graceful landings in front of us.

"They make it look so easy," says Linda.

A cameraman lands standing up on the runway next to our shuttle bus. I look skyward for the two instructors, who are guiding down a pair of tandem jumpers. Their parachutes are huge because they must support two people. They land perfectly in the grass. Big satisfied smiles on their faces.

I ask them to describe the feeling, the sensation of free fall, but they're nearly speechless, and definitely a little breathless.

"Woo!" yells Arun Kumar, a 24-year-old computer programmer from Santa Clara. "I'm going to do this the rest of my life. I loved it. It was great."

His friend Srujan Kumar, a finance programmer, proclaims, "Top of the world... the moment you jump it's the most amazing thing you feel."

Left wondering for myself if free fall really is a feeling that you just have to experience to fully comprehend its affects, I see Rafferty walking over. "There's only one way to find out," he says, offering to take me on a tandem skydive.

Accepting the invitation, I ride back to the jump center on the shuttle. Rafferty tells me that he's taken quadriplegics, paraplegics, cancer patients, and a 95-year-old man on tandem jumps. He talks about a tandem jump with a blind man a few weeks ago.

"He sounded exactly like every other person who does a skydive," Rafferty recalls.

Having done over 2,600 tandem skydives, Rafferty adds that "it's a rare thing" when somebody doesn't jump. He has had one guy not jump. The guy went up only because his girlfriend wanted to go.

Back at the jump center, Arun and Srujan watch their jump video. The footage was captured via helmet-mounted camera by jump photographer Jennifer Packer, who says she likes the idea of "getting paid to do something you paid to do."

Packer, a 34-year-old Information Technology Manager for Clorox, remembers being "very scared" on her first jump, but now it's "just fun."

"People think it's going to feel like falling, but it doesn't," Packer says. "It feels like flying."

But the words don't register a true idea of what the sensation will feel like to me. I'll just have to find out for myself. After going over their jump with Arun and Srujan, Rafferty tells me it's time to suit up.

I slide a tight-fitting, bright-colored jumpsuit over my clothes. Rafferty tightens a harness around me, and we head out to the plane, a "Super Otter," which holds up to 22 jumpers carrying them 14,000 to 18,000 feet high in 15 minutes or less.

Aboard the Super Otter, Rafferty tells me to breath. So I start taking slow deep breaths. My heart rate steadily increases. I can feel it beating against my chest. We climb higher.

At over 10,000 feet above Monterey Bay, Rafferty has me get up on my knees to lock the harness in place, and connecting us to each other. He will ride on my back much like a pair of wings. He tells me to lean back into him. I slip my goggles down over my eyes. I can feel his belly contracting and expanding with each breath. The pilot gives a signal to open the door. Wind rushes through the plane.

I watch as the first jumpers depart. As the last jumper exits, Rafferty has me slide to the edge. I dangle my feet over the side. I look down. The roar from the plane's engine is deafening. He tells me to fold my arms across my chest and lean my head back to the side.

And we jump.

Plummeting at 120 m.p.h. towards the earth's surface there's a strange tunnel effect. The wind rips past me. I can't hear the plane engine anymore. All I hear is the wind. Everything below looks microscopic. Suddenly, three seconds really does feel like an eternity.

Rafferty has me spread my arms out and bend my knees up. We spin around in a circle. I can barely hear myself trying to yell. Then he leans close to my ear. I hear his voice reassuring me that we're okay. He gives me a thumbs up signal. I nod acknowledgment and give him a thumps up.

Next thing I know, the parachute opens. I tense up thinking we're literally slamming on the brakes, going from 120 m.p.h. to 5 m.p.h. I forget to look up to see the parachute open, but thankfully it's there.

The parachute ride down is peaceful, almost serene. There's lots of time to enjoy looking out at the ocean and the view of Monterey Bay from above. Our landing is gentle. My feet touchdown softly.

The first thing I hear is Rafferty asking me how it felt. I pause a moment to catch my breath.

"Intense," I tell him with a big satisfied smile on my face. But the word doesn't begin to describe the actual sensations my body is experiencing.

Returning to the jump center, there's a euphoric kind of high, a tingling sensation running up and down my body. Slipping out of the jumpsuit, I find myself still breathless and unable to find words to articulate my experience and what I'm feeling inside.

I hand the jumpsuit to Demetria Traves, a 21-year-old Broadcast Communications Major from nearby Monterey Peninsula College. Her roommate Dawn Traego and friend Rose Coleman are here with her. She tells me she's doing this for "spontaneity." The trio seems giddy and excited. They're eager to get in the plane and jump. They want to know what it's like to jump.

I take a deep breath, thinking back to what Rafferty said to me: "There's only way to find out."

Coleman shows me a family photo she's been carrying in her back pocket and confesses," My husband hates the fact that I'm going. "

Nearby, a group of jumpers that have been doing "relative work," a term used to describe groups of skydivers jumping in formations, are together reviewing video footage of their last jump. I catch snippets of their conversation.

"Legs closer together."

"That was great."

"Cut loose the dead weight."

And on the video playback, we see the group break formation. The tape ends. I ask them how many times they go up in a day.

"As many times as we can," says their leader, Gartec Holder, an Englishman with over 5,000 jumps. Before I can even form another question they head off to catch the next plane. They're going again.

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