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Sarah Herrera prepares to make the jump.
Arms up and ready to go, Sarah prepares to jump out of the plane at 9,000 feet above the ground.
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Sarah and Steve free fall
During free fall, Sarah and Steve drop for 30 seconds withnothing but a pilot parachute, a small auxiliary parachuteused to deploy the main parachute.
Making the Jump
Despite the growing excitement during the preceding weeks, my stomach turned and settled for reasons other than the curves and straights of the highway I was driving that morning. The music stayed at a low volume and the conversation to a minimum—a subtle tension between personal quiet time and friendly reassurance.
The printed directions eventually lead Tina and me off the paved highway and down a gravel road. I felt as though my nerves had muddled my usually astute internal navigational abilities and we had taken a wrong turn, but brightly colored canopies drifting down from the sky reassured us of our nearing destination.
More than a few years ago, a new acquaintance asked if I wanted to go skydiving as he had experience and his license. This invitation, albeit an exciting adventure proposition, was entirely random from someone I hardly knew. I graciously declined, however, I had a tinge of regret within the following month, after my younger sister beat me to the experience when she skydived for her 20th birthday. So I jumped at the opportunity to visit a drop zone in Missouri and skydive.
The photographer, Tina Wheeler, had lined up our tandem jumps at Missouri River Valley Skydivers after thoroughly researching drop zones. She spoke with drop zone owner Tom Dolphin and the manifest manager Doris Dooley multiple times. With the information she had gathered about the years of experience and standards of this particular drop zone, I felt comfortable with the idea of diving. And here I was heading to the Lexington Municipal Airport, a little unsure of what I had gotten myself into.
Tina and I arrived at the airport parking lot packed with vehicles. She eagerly hopped out of the car as soon as we parked and went inside the metal building to the airport office, beaming with excitement and camera in hand. I lingered near my car for a moment as though it were a security blanket before finally making my way inside to check in.
The office was a sectioned-off corner room with a window looking out to an area filled with a few rows of chairs. Photographs of skydivers and information on drop zone policies and safety regulations covered the walls. Adjacent to the office and seating area in a large gym-like room, chords and over-sized backpacks were laid across the floor as people carefully repacked parachutes.
A teenage girl and her mother were gearing-up for their tandem jumps. The girl had just turned 18; the mom was 40. It was a celebratory first jump for the pair.
The tandem instructors adjusted the women’s harnesses and then reviewed body position for exiting the plane and the free fall. In a few moments they were headed to the plane just off the runway. I joined spectators lining the edge of an open field waiting for any sight of divers and hoped my shaking arms were unnoticeable. Dogs milled around the various family members and kids. Men did dirt dives and practiced their formations on the ground.
Tom stood with his hands in his pockets, wearing a blue Missouri River Valley Skydivers t-shirt with the words “Trust Me” on the back. He surveyed the area where the jumpers would land. He turned his attention to the sky and waited. And waited. He waited for signs of divers approaching the ground. He kept a watchful eye on their landings.
“I’ve been doing this for years,” Tom said to me. “I’ve jumped enough times and seen enough jumps to see a situation and know how it will turn out.”
He was right. As a tandem came in, a wind gust pulled them back. Tom hollered at an- other watcher, who ran to meet Tom, and they yanked the chord down to get control of the parachute. The landing was safe. Tom told me that his drop zone’s safety record is perfect, which eased my nerves. Skydiving is a surprisingly safe sport, I found out. In 2010, The United States Parachute Association reported only 21 fatal skydiving accidents and 1,308 injuries, or around four injuries per 10,000 skydives. It’s even safer than skiing—the National Ski Areas Association reported 38 ski-related deaths during the 2009-2010 season. As a drop zone owner, Tom wanted to know every single aspect of the operation he was running. So he made a point to learn everything related to the business, from jumping out of an airplane to flying one, and even fixing one. He learned it all.
The mother and daughter tandems landed. Their faces lit up as they rushed over to their family members, who tagged along to watch, and shared their excitement by repeatedly saying, “That was so cool!” Big smiles swept across their faces. Their hair was whipped and wind blown. Another group of tandem jumpers landed with similar excitement—another teenage girl and her grandfather, celebrating an 18th and 70th birthday.
Shortly after noon, Doris informed Tina and me that we could take our tandem jumps sooner in the day than we had planned if we would like. Absolutely, I thought. By that point, I couldn’t wait. We each sat in the row of chairs alongside Doris’s office window and filled out the infamous waiver forms on brown clipboards. My stomach turned and settled once again. We handed our completed forms to Doris, and she added us to the list. The other tandem jumpers had already dived, so we were the only two in the video room watching the training and safety videos. When it ended, we returned to the large open room and met our tandem master instructors.
Mine was Steve Osner, a junior high school math teacher of average height with an athletic build and filled with energy. I had just met the man who would control my free fall from an airplane. As the student in a tandem jump, I had no choice but to instantly trust Steve.
I was fitted into a harness and then re- viewed proper body position for exiting the plane and the free fall. Doris called our plane load number over the drop zone intercom. Steve led me to the airplane. Tandem jumps are at an altitude slightly lower than solo jumps, so up-jumpers, or the solo divers who hold licenses, board the plane first allowing the tandems to be closer to the door for exit.
Tina and I sat on a bench across from the airplane door. The ground pulled farther and farther away as the airplane climbed high into the air. The energy inside the airplane was high. Two divers with cameras mounted to their helmets snapped photos of Tina and me. Our tandem masters joined in on the photo shoot by flashing hang-ten signs and big smiles, pumping up our excitement and blasting away our first-time skydiving fears.
As the photo-snapping continued, Steve motioned for me to move to the floor of the airplane just in front of where he was seated by the door. We sat like children forming a train to go down a slide at the same time.
“I’m connecting our harnesses now,” Steve said quietly in my ear from over my shoulder, the calm focus drowning out the noise of excited voices. He talked me through each movement. “Connecting the right hip.” Click. “Connecting the left hip.” Click. “Connecting the right shoulder.” Click. “Connecting the left shoulder.” Click. He checked the security of the harnesses again and then prepared me for what was about to take place. “When the door opens, swing your legs out and hook them under the edge of the plane like a bird’s talons,” he said. “I’ll count to three and then we’ll go. Ready?!” I don’t recall answering with words but with a half-hearted nod and smile instead.
The red light flashed on indicating it was time. We were at altitude—9,000 feet. I pulled the plastic goggles over my eyes. The door groaned as Jeff Schapler, a photographer for Missouri River Valley Skydivers, rolled it up. Cool air rushed into the plane. Steve and I scooted to the door. I swung my legs over the side and hooked them tightly under the edge to resist the wind. I held my arms up and out as instructed. Steve stretched his arms out and held the door frame. What in the world am I about to do? I thought.
“One, two,” Uh oh. “Three!”
Steve pushed forward with his body and we fell. We fell forward, turned sideways and upside down. I had no reference point for where I was in the big open sky. Soon we were falling in a relaxed arch position—chest down, arms and legs out, and knees slightly bent. I felt the air push against my face, pressing the goggles. I waffled between looking at Jeff to smile and wave since he was in front of me with his camera, and simply enjoying the ride, looking out at the patchwork land. I felt balanced on a column of air. I knew I was falling, but my mind couldn’t register that I was falling; I wasn’t falling past anything. Jeff, my only real focal point, was falling too, but because we both fell at the same rate, it felt like we were suspended, floating around in the sky.
The 30 seconds of free fall felt like so much longer and ended with a jolt when the main chute deployed. We drifted through the air beneath a bright canopy for five minutes. I held onto the parachute controls with Steve, and he instructed me in steering with him. We soared through the air.
As we prepared for landing, he asked me to raise my legs up and out as we had practiced. After being suspended in the air for so long, the ground rushed toward us as we approached. I kept my legs raised until we landed gently. I now knew the excitement the women earlier had. Not too long after I landed, Tina did.
Our tandem master instructors took us back to the building to remove our gear, and our diver photographers went back to the media room to begin reviewing the photos. I was already out of my gear and chatting with Tina about the experience when Jeff approached me with a solemn look.
“I’m real sorry,” he said, as he took a seat near where I was standing, “but I didn’t get any pictures.” A connection in the shutter trigger had not worked properly. I reassured him that it was all right since we still had the set from Tina’s photographer, but Jeff wouldn’t relent. “My favorite part of doing this is capturing people’s first jump, because you only get your first jump once. I didn’t get yours.” There wasn’t much I could do other than reassure him a second time. Then his expression softened as he gingerly asked, “Would you like to go again?” Yes!
Jeff passed the idea by Tom and Steve, who agreed, and within 10 minutes, Steve had me back into gear, reviewed the body positions a second time, and rushed me out to meet the plane for the next load. This load was drastically different then the first. With Steve, I was the only tandem jumper; everyone else was a highly experienced jumper. There was less hoopla and adrenaline arousal—just a cool, calm, collected bunch of people dressed in jumpsuits with parachute packs strapped to their backs who were about to jump out of an airplane. One man was about to make his 10,000th jump.
Steve and I repeated the routine. We sat on the floor and hooked harnesses together. Steve verbalized everything he was doing, and he talked me through the exit just as before. Right as the altitude light came on, one of the up-jumpers leaned over to me and said, “When you are falling out of the plane, look over your right shoulder and wave; you’ll see us waving back.” The door rolled up. Wind whipped in. We scooted over. Legs hooked under. Arms went up. Head turned right. “One, two, three!” Into the sky we went. I could see the up-jumpers in the airplane waving. Falling, I waved back. I was more aware of what was going on this second time. I adjusted to the fall better, knew how my face would feel, and smiled and waved to a working camera. I paid more attention to the land sprawled out beneath and the air around me. I helped steer again during the descent, this time making sharper turns with the parachute for a wilder ride. We free fell, soared, and landed just as smoothly as before, and relished the excitement of yet another skydive.
“Now this is a skydiver!” Steve said commenting on the unprecedented two jumps within the hour for one new tandem jumper.
Tom took me in to remove my gear while Steve grabbed his single parachute and ran to reload the airplane. The next load was a memorial dive for an experienced skydiver who had died while practicing for a skydiving competition. His parachute had malfunctioned. When Tina and I scheduled our jump, we had been told his team members and fellow divers would do this special dive, as they were going to spread the ashes of their friend. I returned to the open field and watched in silence with the crowd as a dozen divers drifted down along with the sun.
The memorial dive culminated in a potluck meal much like one on a Sunday morning after church service, except for the coolers of beer off to the side of the concrete slab. As people gathered under the pavilion area, I half expected someone to offer a prayer for the meal.
Instead, someone finally proclaimed “Let’s eat!” and lines formed on either side of two long picnic tables placed end to end. I was assured that every Saturday at the drop zone does not end with a meal, but this was a special day.
Night came. Talking and laughter filled the dimly lit pavilion, radiating a sense of community, of familiarity and family. I was reminded of something Jeff said earlier in the day: “It’s a family. You can fly to New York or Arizona, go to a facility, show your license, go for a jump–you’re part of the family.”
To watch a Q&A with Sarah and find a list of Missouri skydiving facilities, visit here.