Freefalling from 17,500: A skydiving HALO

20140524-IMG_1120I may seem like a normal mother of four, but hidden behind this housewife facade is a girl who loves adventure. Thankfully, my husband knows this, so he arranged for me to skydive for my 40th birthday. This is how I refuse to grow old.

From Southern Maryland to Orange, Virginia is just a couple hours. We left early and stopped only once, for my pre-adrenaline rush push, a quad shot venti latte. Caffeine comfort and it was free. (#birthdayperks)

Skydivers are mellow people. May be akin to surfers, they fall out of airplanes like it was just a walk down the street. I’d expected a long wait, a lengthy training, and something a lot more complicated. In fact, I packed a frisbee and games anticipating the dreadfully boring wait the girls would have while I got ready to jump. But it was easy.

I signed my life away while watching a short video. The paperwork is necessary, but is also the most intimidating part of the day – because if something freakish goes wrong (and it could), I’m signing away all rights.

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I watched the jumpers land for a few minutes. Mario was landing with another student. He’s been skydiving for 22 years and doing tandem dives for 16 of that. My flight was just two away, so in my mind I should be ready, but Mario came in casually, finished paperwork for the other jumper, disappeared and reappeared. He was in no rush. I think the plane had already taken off for flight 4 when I finally got my jump suit on. Ugh. Perhaps that was the most painful part of the day. I tried on three before settling on my lumpy purple suit.

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He harnessed me up, told me what position to be in for our initial tumble and what do do afterwards. We talked about pulling the parachute and steering – both things that I wanted to do. I got my gloves, altimeter, hat and oxygen tubing, gave final hugs to my family, and walked to the plane. There was no time to psych myself out or over think.

There aren’t any seat belts. Ok, so if I’m willing to jump out of an airplane, then may be seat belts are a strange safety device, but that was my first thought. No seat belts, wobbly little plane and I’m looking for a place to hold on during take-off. But then we packed in like sardines and had no room to wobble anyway, so there you go. Crisis averted.

Though it looks like it’s open, there is a door on the plane – or sort of a door. It’s a clear plastic sheeting that rolls down like a Roman shade and rolls up just as easily. It keeps the cold and wind out as we climb to altitude.

There are two long benches running down the middle of the plane, so we got on in jump order straddling the benches sitting front to back like you would on a Disney log ride. Since we were the last to jump, we were at the back of the plane, near the pilot. Mario was behind me fiddling with straps and harnesses the whole time connecting us for our fall. The harnesses were so tight, I had no worries of falling out of them. I could breath, but I could also feel every one of Mario’s breaths as well. Lambert, my photographer, sat in front of me, only moving over at 13,500 feet when the plane emptied.

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At 13,500, the light turned green. The two jumpers in squirrel suits each did what seemed to be the diving handshake – swipe the hand then fist bump, then the door opened and our previously jam-packed plane was empty, but for the 4 of us – Lambert, Mario, the pilot, and me. I watched my altimeter as we climbed to 17,500. Mario told me to put on my oxygen tube. I felt the cold air come through and I tried to just breath and relax.

17,500 feet is about as high as you can get for these jumps. At Skydive Orange, they call it a HALO. It means, high-altitude, low-opening, so I jumped at 5000′ higher than the others. Low-opening means that you open your chute at a lower altitude which I don’t think we did (that’s fine with me – chute time is fun). Technically, a military HALO is much more dramatic. They jump higher (anything over 18,000′ requires oxygen during the jump) and they open much lower than 5500′.

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The light turned green. Strapped to Mario, we stayed low, but slid down to the door, me in front, him in back to the edge. Lambert was out on the side waiting with his camera strapped to his head. We rocked back. 1. 2. 3. Mario pulled my head back towards him and we fell.

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I never felt like I was going upside down. It only lasted a second, then the stabilizer was released and we leveled out. I can see the clouds in the pictures, but I don’t remember seeing them coming down. Or the ground really. I was looking out, and dealing with the wind in my face. We were falling at 120mph or 200 feet per second. Either way to look at it, that’s fast and the air fast against my face was intimidating. My ear hurt a bit, so that took my focus. Lambert was waving and giving my the thumbs up. It’s fast. Just so fast. And overwhelming that fist time with so much going on in my head. Oddly, I wasn’t scared ever. Honestly. I thought I’d be scared at the end of the open plane door, but I really wasn’t.

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Lambert “swam” to us and took my hands for a couple shots. He turned upside down, so it looks like I’m upside down. I think it would be fun to jump in a group and learn maneuvering. It gives you something to do in the air. Free fall is strange. I was only in free fall for 60 seconds, but it felt like a long time and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I was aware of Lambert taking pictures. Mario kept checking in. I was aware of the wind.

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I kind of want to do this again – now that I’ve done it once and know what to expect, I think I’d enjoy it more. Then I can relax and just enjoy the view. It is beautiful.

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I didn’t look at the altimeter during freefall. At 5500 feet Mario took my hand and led it to the golf ball. I pulled it and our chute went up. Lambert fell while we seemed to stop, my legs jerking up like a ragdoll.  Mario loosed the harnesses a little – probably could have a bit more as it was still a bit tight. He showed me the steering guides and I helped steer us. We did fast circles to the left and right and even stopped – so surreal to stop in the air, but that’s what if felt like – a full, complete stop. It’s amazing how much control you have under a parachute though – really, I want to do this more. It’s so fun to steer and go where you want to go. It wasn’t difficult at all to get to the landing space next to the airport.

I pulled my legs up so that Mario would land first (he’s taller and knows what he’s doing), then when he said “stand,” I tried to stand. It wasn’t graceful, but I made it.

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I got my jump certificate and logbook. This dive counts towards a class A license, so if I ever dive again, I can keep track and potentially get licensed someday. Though jumps are expensive in tandem and the parachutes are expensive to buy, for licensed jumpers with their own chutes, it’s only $25/jump for the plane ride which isn’t bad at all.  Some of these guys come here and jump all day.

After the jump, we stayed at the bleachers, watched other jumpers land, and enjoyed a picnic until moving on to Charlottesville. My breathing felt funny for a while. I felt great going down and never had any problems during the dive, but for a couple hours after, I just felt like I needed to breath deeper to get more air, like I’d been winded. Perhaps it was the thin air at 17,500. Just 500 more feet and I would have had to have oxygen during the jump.

Yes, I’d do this again. I don’t feel like I have to, but if it as more affordable and the right opportunity arose, I’d love to do it again and do it better now knowing more what to expect. The experience is really indescribable and the feeling of accomplishment afterwards is pretty cool.

Tips:

1: Use the bathroom BEFORE suiting up. Once you’re covered in harnesses, bathroom access will be impossible. (i.e. Don’t drink a Venti quad-shot before a jump)

2. If you’re prone to ear pain, make sure you have a headband or snug fitting helmet to prevent air from entering your ear. I don’t normally get ear pain, but during freefall it was very intense and my ear stayed plugged and painful for hours afterwards (a warm compress helped).

3. Like roller coaster rides, hard fast turns on a parachute can make you queasy. Tell your tandem guide so that you don’t have to worry about losing your lunch upon landing.

4. Relax, don’t over think, and try to look around and enjoy it. I’m completely bummed that I didn’t see the clouds as we fell by them.

5. Smiling decreases the weird floppy cheek looks that happen when falling insanely fast (slip-stream).

6. While a skydiving HALO jump definitely merits cool points and I’m glad that I did it, the most fun is the parachuting, so a standard 13,500′ drop or even a 10,000′ drop would be a lot of fun. Ask if you can spend some extra time parachuting. My instructor was on the next flight, so he didn’t have time to play in the air.

7. If you have an inhaler, bring it as it may help afterwards with any funny breathing.

8. The helmets cover your hair. I could have worn my down which is what I prefer, but most girls do pony tails or braids.

9. Though Lambert jumps barefoot, they do recommend closed toe shoes. It gets cold up there – especially at 17,500. I think it was 18 degrees F when I jumped.

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About Tiffany

I'm eclectic. Sometimes that's a good thing because I can do bits of everything. Sometimes it's aggravating because I get distracted by so many amazing things. Mostly, I love photography and family, travel and writing, cooking, reading, art, and coffee. Sundays are church days to regroup and refocus. God's in charge here.

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