Why risk skydiving?
What would it feel like to free fall at 120+ miles per hour? This question kept prodding my heart over the last couple years until I decided to give in to that voice and signed up with ‘Skydiving Santa Cruz’. If it was going to be a risky affair, I thought, let it be above one of the most spectacular oceanic and coastal views that the ‘dropzone’ in Watsonville, off the California central coast, promised to be. I was heady after signing up and followed it up with a disciplined fitness regime in the gym and outdoors. I wanted to be in the best physical shape to take that leap. But as I trained for D-day, a niggling voice had started to unsettle me, ‘Why do you want to do this? Why take such risk and flirt with danger?’ I was growing anxious with fear gradually creeping into my mind.
To calm my nerves, I started reading widely about skydiving, watched topical videos and talked to people in the skydiving community. I learnt that though skydiving is inherently risky, the risk factors are broken down to minute details and mitigated. The consistent advancements in gears, parachute canopy and techniques ensure that the sport is “safer than ever before”, according to the United States Parachute Association.
All sorts of people skydive, not just adrenaline-junkies. Young, old, students, professionals – each of them want to face their fears and develop that mental fortitude required to rise to the challenge. Training the mind to remain calm under duress is a key trait that can take anyone places – from that first skydive experience to navigating the vagaries of daily lives with equanimity. I came to a realization that skydiving is as much a mental endeavor as a physical one – the practices of mindfulness, meditation and right breathing techniques can come in handy to overcome the stress.
Jumping out of my comfort zone
The jump day soon came around and I arrived at Watsonville a few hours in advance, driving along scenic coastal roads that soothed my nerves and helped me relax. After signing the waivers, it was time to undergo a briefing session to understand the basics of skydive, body positioning during free fall, and safety procedures. It was fun to learn about the ‘arch’ or ‘banana’ position which is the most stable body position for skydiving and the ultimate landing tip – to lift your legs perpendicular to the ground as you come in to land.
The wind, weather and clouds can play spoilsport to a dive– high winds or low-altitude clouds that obscure visibility to the ground are a no-go for skydiving. Luckily for me, it was a warm, sunny day with clear skies.
I donned the harnesses around my legs and body, fixed my goggles, and it was a go-time. We boarded the Cessna and soon we were taxiing on the tarmac, ready to take off.
The plane started picking up altitude and my instructor soon began to hook his carabiners to my harness; we would be jumping in tandem. I looked out the window as the landscape below faded into an azure-blue, the coastline along the Pacific Ocean glowing in the bright sun.
Once our Cessna had climbed to about 13,000 ft, a green light lit up the cabin signaling that we had reached the jump altitude. The door lifted open; I calmed my nerves, took some deep breaths along with a few brave steps towards the door and felt the wind blowing hard on my face. With my arms crossed on my chest as advised by the instructor, we jumped into thin air.
Free falling with a dash of fear
The next few seconds were a blur as we accelerated quickly through the air in a free-fall. The wind was tempestuous and the whole experience overwhelmed my senses. Within a few seconds we reached the terminal velocity ~ 120 mph. Terminal velocity occurs when the force or drag imparted by air resistance equals the gravitational force, preventing further acceleration. Now I was able to position my body horizontally in the air in a ‘banana’ shape with some guidance from the instructor. I was now literally floating in the air, on top of the world!
During my research, I had heard that during a skydive, our bodies release adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin, which together create a truly unique sensation. I was experiencing the same sensory magic – floating in air, with complete tranquility and enjoying being totally immersed in earth’s atmosphere. There was no outer shell of an airplane to dull that effect. It was one exhilarating ride – fall – a totally unique, out-of-this-world feeling. This sky adventure had dollops of excitement mixed with just a dash of fear, which provided oodles of fun!
As the parachute got deployed at about 4,000 ft from the ground, I felt an upward tug with the wind under the canopy exerting its force. The air felt unusually calm under the parachute, as if the entire world had slowed down in a peaceful siesta. I soaked in the panoramic view and learned to maneuver the parachute in right and left directions, with the instructor’s help. When it was time to land, I tried my best to keep my legs perpendicular to the approaching ground and was fairly successful at avoiding the complete ‘butt’ landing which is needless to say, painful. Finally, I had arrived at the dropzone, pushing past my fear and my comfort zone!
It took all of 7 minutes from jump to touchdown — 45-50 sec of free fall and 5-6 mins of parachute. The feeling of pure bliss washed over my senses as if I had broken my shackles in the quest to attain Nirvana.
I was basking in the afterglow of my skydive throughout my drive back from Santa Cruz. I had proven to myself that I could conquer my fear and tame my mind to remain calm even under high-stress situations. It was an empowering feeling that I carried with me for several days.