Part of my job is to do the photography for the monthly magazine that my company publishes. Each month the magazine has a different theme (health care, small business, etc.) The theme for the November issue is Sports and Recreation. There is a company in the area that offers a certain activity that we wanted to feature in the magazine. We tried to figure out an angle in which to best promote that activity, and it was decided that I should participate in this activity (and I volunteered to do it) and then write a first-person article about it. So yesterday, I did the activity. The name of the company that offers this activity is Mohawk Valley Skydiving. That's right - I fucking skydived!! So what follows are parts of the article that I am submitting, and some parts that I'm not.
“And sometimes is seen a strange spot in the sky
A human being that was given to fly.”
So you say the idea of having a large man strapped to your back while you leap from an airplane nearly 2 miles above the Earth doesn’t appeal to you? Well, there are some who would agree with you. But there are many others, like me, who have been wishing for that exact situation for a long time. I have wanted to skydive for many years, and when this opportunity arose, I could not refuse.
Mohawk Valley Skydiving is located in the picturesque community of Scotia, with their airfield right by the banks of the Mohawk River. The storm that had passed through the area earlier in the day had cleared out nicely by late afternoon, which I optimistically interpreted as a sign that it was a good day to jump. Greg Bishop was waiting for me at the airfield, and my wife arrived shortly thereafter, and while we waited a little while for the wind to calm sufficiently, he showed us a DVD of a recent skydiving experience. I think the purpose of this was to either get me very excited about jumping, or to make me realize that I did not want to go through with it. Luckily it made me very enthusiastic, though it had the opposite effect on my wife. Soon it was time for me to get suited up and have my brief training. My main purpose during the jump, Greg explained, was to keep my head up and arch my back. Head up, arch my back. I repeated this over and over, as Greg had implied that to not perform these steps could be, well, bad.
I stepped into a lovely bright orange jumpsuit, apparently on loan from the New York State Prison collection (Greg had made the same joke.) Greg then proceeded to fit me with several straps, ropes, harnesses, and a goofy looking hat. I even got my own altimeter to wear on my wrist. He went over the plan of action; basically, when he gave the signal, I would step out on to the ledge of the plane, and then we would fall. Sounded pretty simple to me. My other job would be to pull the ripcord when we reached 5,000 feet. I suggested that perhaps Greg was a bit more qualified to do the ripcord pulling job. He agreed. During the training process, Greg and the cameraman Jimmy Stahl repeatedly joked about all the things that could go wrong during the jump. I don’t know if this was meant to put me at ease, but as Greg said, it’s when they stop joking that you need to worry. So I wasn’t worried…much. He even warned me that when he strapped himself to my back to ignore the roll of Certs I might feel in his pocket. Yeesh.
Looking stunning in my jumpsuit/goofy hat ensemble, we made our way to the plane, accompanied by another skydiver who was going to jump solo at about 5,000 feet. I had asked to be seated in first class, but was slightly dismayed to find that Greg, Jimmy, the other diver, and I were to be occupying the coach cabin of the aircraft, nestled in snuggly behind the pilot. This was actually not fun - my extremities began to tingle, as there were four of us scrunched in tightly together in no comfortable way. But quick as a wink we were off the ground, and began to soar over the western edge of the Capitol Region. The sun was beginning to set, the clouds had cleared, and the view was spectacular; it was so nice, in fact, that it briefly distracted me from what I was actually doing up there. But that reality came roaring back when the other jumper opened the airplane door at 5,000 feet, and I looked down. I believe my exact words were, “Oh my god.” (That's for the article - my real exact words were "Holy fucking shit.") But out he went, sailing freely into the blue-gray sky, the Mohawk River directly below us. So now all we had to do was climb another 5,000 feet and I would be sailing out the door as well. Oh boy. A certain song lyric materialized in my brain:
”I’m learning to fly, around the clouds
But what goes up, must come down.”
As we reached 10,000 feet, Greg instructed me to get into position near the door. He began to tighten all the straps, and reminded me of what my main objective was: keep my head up, and arch my body back. The door opened, and a blast of cold air whipped across my face and through the cabin. Jimmy stepped out on to the ledge. I slid my right foot on to the ledge, followed by the left. Greg gave the one-two-three count and before I knew it, our bodies were hurtling out into the atmosphere. Head up, arch my back; head up, arch my back. Apparently I did keep my head up and arched my back, because we were ok, and suddenly it occurred to me that I was skydiving! The horizon stretched out forever 360 degrees around me. I couldn’t even feel that large man called Greg on my back. The wind was blasting through my eardrums, but you couldn’t have wiped that silly grin off my face if you tried. And then to make things a little more surreal, Jimmy suddenly floated right in front of my face, camera strapped to his head, falling along with us. I checked my altimeter and we were at 6,000 feet. Then Greg gave the signal to pull the ripcord, which he thankfully proceeded to do, and our falling became floating as the parachute blossomed to life and slowed us down considerably. The wind noise ceased and wonder filled my eyes. The view was amazing, with Albany’s Empire State Plaza visible to the east, Sacandaga Lake to the north, and my feet dangling just below me over the Mohawk River. Greg showed me how to operate the parachute to turn us right and left, to which I again suggested that perhaps he was more qualified to perform such an activity. Thankfully he agreed again. We continued to twist and turn on the breeze as we headed toward the landing zone, and a part of me was really hoping a gust of wind would launch us up another 2 or 3,000 feet so it wouldn’t be over so soon. But as Tom Petty just said, what goes up must come down, and we landed safely right where we had taken off.
After thanking Greg and Jimmy profusely for the experience, I reflected on what had just happened. I actually have very little memory of the few seconds between stepping out on the ledge of the plane and free-falling. Jimmy pieced together my DVD in about 15 minutes, gave me the roll of film he used, and Greg then presented me with my skydiving certificate. Incidentally, after watching the DVD, I realized that free-falling at 120 mph or so does weird things to your face. My nostrils were inflated, and my skin was flapping around on the breeze. Plus I have my full beard grown in right now, so I sort of resembled some kind of Muppet whilst barreling through the stratosphere. Neat.
In total, the whole experience - from training, to takeoff, to free-falling, to landing – lasted about 45 minutes. This is why I haven't ever done this before - they normally charge $185 just for the jump, plus another $100 for the DVD/photo package. And the actual skydiving part lasts 10 minutes! So I could never justify spending that kind of dough for 10 minutes of fun. But for free? Hell yeah.
I can sum up the whole marvelous experience with one final song lyric by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour:
”There’s no sensation to compare with this,
Suspended animation, a state of bliss
Can’t keep my mind from the circling sky,
Tongue-tied and twisted,
Just an earth-bound misfit, I.”
In other words, I would do this again in a heartbeat.
So I will be developing the film today and getting the prints on to a CD so I can email them out (if I don't have your email and you want to see them, please post a comment with your address.) And if you want to see the DVD, please stop by the next time you're in Albany.