Do Something New: Skydiving

If you haven’t been skydiving before and don’t have plans to do so, I’m going to bet that you conceptualize the whole thing from a purely practical point of view. As in, it doesn’t make sense to you that anyone would willingly jump out of a plane, parachute or no. You may believe that the very fact of being in the air on an airplane is more than the human body is really logically meant to do, and that a person has to be verifiably insane to have the desire to furthermore jump out of that plane. From an evolutionary point of view, you might think that people who do things like skydiving are self-selecting out of the gene pool, and that might just be OK.

All of which makes a great deal of sense to me. Regardless, I feel like I’ve been living my life knowing that eventually, one day, I was going to go skydiving, like it was some sort of deep-set, primordial insight that was buried in the back of my head, just waiting to be manifested in reality. If I was the kind of person who believed in fate, I’d believe that I was fated to jump out of an airplane one day. Despite the fact that I’m the sort of person who tends to distrust strangers and doesn’t like to leave her home, I’m not exactly risk-averse. I bungee-jumped when I was 13, I freely accept offers to do things like climbing an 80-foot rock face with a bunch of strangers, and I spent this whole last month trying new things, many of which were terrifying to me (BEES, guys, BEES). Skydiving seemed, when I was planning this month out, like a given.

Here’s my counter-argument to the insanity/safety concerns. For one thing, skydiving is one of the safer things you could do with your time, statistically speaking. Only 21 out of 3 million jumps every year ends in fatality, and that number is steadily decreasing. You’re 21 times more likely to die in a car accident than you are to die in a skydiving accident. Tandem skydiving – the type of dive I did, where you’re attached to an instructor who times things and pulls the cord – is even safer. I live under the assumption that activities that are extremely dangerous on their face but are nonetheless popular are conducted by people who are trained to be neurotic about safety – way more neurotic than people who get in their cars and assume that that’s safe, but skydiving isn’t, many of whom drive without seatbelts or after a few drinks. I mean, if you want to talk about a maniacal lack of concern for safety, let’s talk about that. And don’t even get me started on cyclists who don’t wear helmets[I promise to wear one next time, Mom. — Amelia]

And as far as the idea that you have to be crazy to want to jump out of a plane, I mean, I don’t think that the jumping-out-of-a-plane bit itself is the main draw. Extreme sports participants have been studied at least a little bit, and it turns out that what they’re really seeking is greater senses of courage and humility, to overcome fear, and on a physiological level, dopamine. One could disparage the idea of dopamine addiction, but then one has to consider the fact that there’s a theory that clicking through social media is the way that many, many people get steady doses of dopamine these days. There’s something to be said for preferring to feed your dopamine addiction by doing something novel and maybe courage- and humility-bolstering rather than feeding it by staring at your computer for several hours. To each their own, of course, and there are ways to get a dopamine rush without falling from the sky at terminal velocity or falling down an internet k-hole (public speaking, for example).

So, anyway. It seems silly to do anything these days without checking first to see if there’s a Groupon for it, so I did that, and came up with a Groupon for the World Skydiving Center in Kenosha, Wisconsin, just an hour’s drive from Chicago. My fiancé, Michael, came with me for moral support, and after signing a waiver and watching a training and Assumption of Risk video that featured a man with a comically long beard (you can watch it here), we were sent outside to wait for the last group to take their turn. While this was happening, predictably enough, one of the skydiving instructors lightheartedly and in so many words implied that Michael might just be chicken, and since I was going up in a plane alone and there was another spot available on that flight, Michael decided to go along, too.

The details of the flight aren’t particularly exciting: You cram into a small plane with your instructors and the other jumper; there’s only room for four; then you fly out over Lake Michigan. It doesn’t get really nerve-wracking until the door of the plane is open and you realize that the vast expanse of blue underneath you is not going to recede slowly away as the plane lands but instead that you will be jumping out over it and freefalling for a mile before the chute opens. Also, since Michael jumped before I did, I got to watch him as it looked like he got sucked out of the plane and just disappeared.

I hear that some people like the chute part of the jump better than the freefall because you just get to kind of cruise. Which, like, OK: But freefalling was amazing. Terrifying, but amazing. After a second you realize that you’re not going to fall any faster than you already are falling, that there’s plenty of time to open the chute, and it feels kind of … good? I don’t know. It doesn’t induce the sort of drop in your stomach that a roller coaster does, but it’s not exactly the weightlessness that some people say you feel, either. You’re just very conscious of the fact that you are in the middle of nothing but air. It’s a neat sensation. The chuting part was less fun, in my opinion. I’ve got vertigo and swinging back and forth was about a thousand times more uncomfortable than falling, although I’m not complaining; obviously, I’d rather have the chute than not.

So: Do I recommend skydiving? Of course I do, if you’re healthy and able and you want to do it. (If you don’t want to skydive but you do want a courage-inducing dopamine rush, again, there’s always public speaking.) It seems silly to me that when you look around for people’s thoughts about skydiving, so many people have it on their “bucket lists.” It’s not inaccessible; it’s a little expensive, but worth doing it for a birthday or something. Building it up as this big scary thing that you have to work up to for years and years becomes a fear ouroboros: You envision it as scary, so you believe it’s scary, so it’s scary to you, and you want to do it, but you keep telling yourself you’re afraid and you just have to get over this fear first.

If you’ve been wanting to skydive, hop over the obstacles you’ve placed in your own way. It’s about thirty minutes of your whole entire life, between the plane ride and the fall. You can get through those thirty minutes, cross my heart, and it might just help you to put fear-based obstacles you’ve constructed in other parts of your life in perspective. Nerve up and get those thirty minutes over with, you’ll be glad.


[Boston Globe]

[New York Times]

[Popular Social Science]

[Psychology Today]



[World Skydiving Center]


[Header via YouTube/photo & video via the author]
Send me a line at [email protected] and follow me on Facebook. Check out the Do Something New series, every weekday in the month of June 2015.