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Why I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane

A reflection on my first tandem skydive experience

This blogpost is written by Kiran Kaja. Indian by birth, living in UK by choice, Kiran is a tech junky, books and cricket  lover, tandem cycling & travel bug. He is currently working as an accessibility Program Manager at Adobe. This is the first guest post by Mr. Kaja. Please note that Eyeway's Blog entries reflect the opinions of the author and contributors, meant to encourage debate and discussion, and not Score Foundation's official policy position.
“Why do you have to go jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” that was the question that a number of people asked me after I did a tandem skydive in San Diego back in March this year. I suppose I could have come up with a couple of philosophical arguments – confronting my inner fears, to get a perspective on life and so on – but the truth of the matter is that I thought it would be fun! Not to say that I have no fear. I am afraid of all living creatures that aren’t of the two-legged variety. This includes spiders, cats and all other animals. I am just overcoming my fear of guide dogs. But let’s just say that jumping of an airplane at 13000 feet wasn’t as frightful as confronting a spider in my own home.
Anyway, talking about the skydive, for some inexplicable reason, I have wanted to do this for a few years now. I never took the initiative to do it though partly because I am far from being the adventurous sort and my family would never have approved of such risky activities. But it was at the Techshare India conference in Delhi that my good friend Richard Orme mentioned in passing that he was planning to jump in San Diego. Suddenly, I decided I had to do this as well. As a bonus, San Diego is perhaps my favorite city in the world.
Due to a schedule mix-up on my part, I ended up having to do the jump on my own. A bunch of friends took the plunge the day before I did and were totally thrilled. But I have to admit that I wasn’t sure I was going to do it for certain until I was at the Skydive San Diego facility all alone and signing my life away. I think I will need some company for moral support next time I undertake any similar adventures. Full marks to the staff at Skydive San Diego. They were very helpful indeed.
Having electronically signed the waiver form, I was then escorted to a temporary training facility where I was instructed on the postures I was to take when jumping off the plane, during the freefall and when landing on the ground. During the jump, I forgot all about the first two postures in my panic but remembered the third and therefore the landing was smooth. Once I was through the 5-minute training, I had to endure an hour or so for my turn to get on to the plane. I was a bit anxious but was ready to get it over with. I passed the time chatting with a group of friends who drove all the way from Las Vegas to skydive. I wondered why they had to drive down to San Diego when I knew for sure that there was a skydive facility where they lived. Of course, I sometimes tend to forget that sighted people have slightly different priorities. Apparently the views in San Diego would be far superior to Vegas. I guess that makes sense consider Vegas is in the middle of the desert. Anyway I digress.
My instructor then comes over to explain what was going to happen. Basically, he is the chap doing all the hard work while my primary mission is to follow instructions while trying not to panic. He tells me he is going to “put me in a harness” first. I am sure he didn’t mean it that way! We are then going to get on to the modified Blackhawk single engine plane that was going to take us up to 13000 feet. While on the plane, he was going to connect my harness to his and tighten it so that I would be stuck to his front like glue. For once, I didn’t mind being in such close a contact with a stranger. He was going to be my lifeline during the 50 seconds of freefall where we would be hurtling through the air at nearly 200 kilometers per hour. He will then deploy the parachute and we would gently glide down to the ground in about 4-5 minutes. Nice and easy.
Having only been on commercial airplanes before, I found the modified plane weird. It had two benches along the length of the plane and there was a big hole at the back which was closed with a metal grill. However you can hear everything! The roaring of the engine, rattling of the plane and the howling of the wind. It grew progressively cooler as we gained altitude but thanks to the lovely San Diego climate, I was never uncomfortable. We were sitting facing the back of the plane with that big hole right in front of us and straddling one of the two benches. I was given a pair of goggles and my instructor who was behind me was tightening our harnesses and checking that everything was as it should be. I was as relaxed as I could be under the circumstances.
When it was our turn, we slid down the bench to the back of the plane and on the count of 3 he pushed us off the plane into thin air. I have no idea why they call it thin air, because the air that hit me immediately didn’t feel thin at all. It felt like I was in the middle of a tornado. Except, I was never in the middle of a tornado and so I wouldn’t really know. It is hard to find a suitable expression for what I was feeling in those first few seconds of freefall. I was concentrating on trying to breathe through all that air on my face. I forgot all about the posture I was to adopt. I was told to keep my hands on my chest, keep my knees together and kick my heels back. My arms and legs were flailing about all over the place. I couldn’t figure out if I was still under the instructor or if it was the other way round. As if that mattered! In short, I was paralysed for about 10-15 seconds.
I was then tapped on my shoulder. This was my queue to switch to the second posture wherein I had to stretch my arms in front of me. I forgot all about this as well. The instructor then had to push my arms forward himself. That snapped me out of my paralysis and my first thought was why on earth am I putting myself through this torture? I promised myself that I will never do this again. But then it also dawned on me that the instructor seemed to be in control. It appears as if he knew what he is doing. He has done more than 2000 jumps and works for the US army after all. Yes, we were hurtling through the air at an insane speed and the ground was approaching fast even though I couldn’t see it. However, I was now in this situation and there wasn’t anything I can do about it. So I thought I might as well try to enjoy the experience. After all, I wasn’t going to do this again! So I endured the rest of the freefall. Although I was told it was 50 seconds, it definitely felt much longer.
We then started slowing down and all of a sudden, it became very quiet. We were about 6000 feet above the ground and the parachute was deployed. It felt very tranquil up there with hardly any sound and a gentle breeze. My heart rate would still have been over 200 but I really enjoyed the parachute ride. We gently glided down in circles with my instructor describing the scenery around us. There was the pacific coast on one side, California hills on the other, the desert and we could also see the border between the United States and Mexico. Soon enough, it was time to land. I did remember this posture. I had to raise my knees and kick the ground when my feet touched it. I am proud to say we landed on our feet without falling over.
The adventure was over but my legs felt shaky the entire day. It was a wonderful experience. I can’t say I enjoyed the freefall much but the parachute glide was a fantastic experience. One can theorise about how the freefall will feel. One can try to get used to the idea that it is just the gravitational force pulling you down and you will be fine once the parachute opens. One can talk it over with other people who have done this before and get an idea of what to expect. But no amount of theorizing or preparation or understanding is enough for the reality of the jump. I can’t wait to do it again! Yes, I changed my mind about not doing it again even before I was on the ground. This is too good an experience to miss.
There is no denying the fact that there is a certain amount of risk in adventure activities. Anything could go wrong. The biggest risk is with the parachute not opening. Or the plane may just develop a fault, or the harness may snap under pressure. There may be a panic attack and you may not be able to breathe. Although unlikely in an organized facility, you may also collide with other skydivers during freefall and that might be fatal. But then we encounter risk on a daily basis. Air travel can be risky so as train or road travel. It would be foolish to assume that skydiving or any other adventure activity is totally safe. It is important to understand the risks and be comfortable with them.
I found Skydive San Diego to be a professional organization. I was never uncomfortable with the process or arrangements. They communicated clearly and explained all procedures thoroughly. They weren’t awkward about my blindness. They weren’t condescending either. This made the experience a whole lot better.
There is of course the invariable comment that since I couldn’t see how far the ground was, I probably wasn’t as afraid as a sighted person would have been. I couldn’t honestly respond to that point because I don’t know how it feels to have a working pair of eyeballs, but all I can say is I was plenty scared. There was enough feedback from my other senses. It is rather hard to ignore the fact that you are falling through the air at a crazy speed with nothing to hold on to. Yes I can’t see how far away the ground is but I know that it is roughly 13000 feet and that is plenty far away.
I think it is important for all of us and particularly blind people to challenge ourselves from time to time. It is easy to get used to be told what one can or cannot do and what is safe and what isn’t by well-meaning people, but it is sometimes liberating to go out there and challenge the status quo in your own way. Otherwise, we might end up sleepwalking through most of our lives.

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