"Take a deep breath when you get to the door," shouts my jump master, Monica Olsen, 30. She and Jess Rodriguez, 45, another instructor, yank me off of the floor of the Twin Turbine Super Otter, which has leveled off at 15,000 feet. Staggering under the weight of my 25-pound pack, I scramble half-crouched to the open door. In 30 seconds, I will step out into the cloudless sky above California's Monterey Bay.
I've been on hundreds of flights, though this is the first time I've disembarked in midair. I don't think I'm panicking, but I am numb. And I'm not at all sure how I'll react when I reach the door. Will I freak? Will I freeze? No matter what, there's no going back.
I will be making an assisted free fall, meaning that I'll be sandwiched between Olsen and Rodriguez as the three of us leap from the plane together. As the three of us free-fall at speeds of up to 140 mph, each instructor will have a firm grip on the purple piping of my jumpsuit — or at least that's the plan.
After about 45 seconds, the jump becomes decidedly unassisted: At 5,000 feet, I yank my rip cord, Olsen and Rodriguez drop away, and I'm on my own. If my main chute gets tangled, I have to launch my reserve chute. If I fall away from the drop zone, I have to steer myself back on course.
I reach the door. An electric-blue sky, like a great gaping maw, opens before me. The Otter is zipping along at a 100-mph clip; the roar of the air at that speed nearly drowns out the drone of the propellers. I clutch the door frame, crouch sideways facing the tail of the plane, and take a deep breath. Then I take another breath. I'm freezing up. Olsen, sensing my hesitation, gets in my face. "Check in, Gina!" I pause for another second, lock on Olsen's eyes, and yell, "Check in!" She nods, giving me a thumbs-up to begin the countdown sequence.
I lean out of the door and holler, "Out!" I pull back into the plane and yell, "In!" And then, as the three of us lean out of the plane, I let go.
Out of the Cubicles and into the Clouds
Once considered an extreme sport, skydiving is working its way into the mainstream. The sport has already had starring roles in such action flicks as Drop Zone and Point Break, and in commercials for Coke and Pepsi. And the number of weekend warriors who are headed skyward is growing by, shall we say, leaps and bounds. In fact, membership in the U.S. Parachute Association, a nonprofit group that promotes skydiving, has nearly doubled during the past 10 years.
But skydiving is still an all-or-nothing proposition. You either land on your feet, or you wind up six-feet under. So why, then, would anyone want to jump out of a plane?
On the surface, sky divers may seem to have some sort of a death wish. But according to one study by Bruce Ogilvie, professor emeritus of psychology at San Jose State University, people who participate in high-risk sports need to seek out ways to live life intensely. Ogilvie found that most risk takers aren't reckless; they're actually very calculated about the risks they take.
The urge to fly may also be hardwired into our DNA. Most of us have wondered what it would be like to be Superman, and we've all had dreams in which we could actually fly.
For Scott Rozic, the 26-year-old CEO and founder of Verge Software Corp., skydiving has a more down-to-earth appeal: He and his employees need to get their heads out of their cubes and into the clouds. Rozic's crew has spent virtually every waking moment during the past 18 months landing clients like Intel and Ernst & Young and gearing up for the launch of Verge's knowledge-management product. "We're sky-diving to celebrate the beginning of our company and the introduction of our first product," says Rozic. "We also want to do something totally fun and different — and to do it all together."
So the folks at Verge decided to take the plunge at Skydive Monterey Bay. The jump school, just an hour south of San Jose, is a favorite among Silicon Valley code jockeys and VCs. But Rozic had to dodge some interference before taking flight: A week before the jump, Verge's board of directors got wind of the idea and tried to ground its CEO.
"A sense of adventure is what attracted people to Verge in the first place," argues Rozic. "What could be more adventurous than launching a startup? Whether it's extreme skiing or rock climbing or working without knowing whether we'll still be in business tomorrow, it's the thrill of taking on the unknown that keeps us together." Ultimately, that argument convinced the board to let Rozic and his team make the jump. That and the promise that they would never jump again.
On a Friday morning this past spring, Rozic and Steve Edwards, Verge's 27-year-old sales and marketing director, pull into Skydive Monterey Bay's parking lot at the Marina Airport. Gary Ketelsen, 52, has already arrived. As a member of Verge's board of advisers, Ketelsen helps the company with strategic issues, such as those involved with sales and marketing. We introduce ourselves and head inside the jump school's headquarters.
A clerk hands us some paperwork. Twenty minutes later, we've signed off on about 15 different releases: "We are participating in skydiving of our own free will." Check. "We understand that parachuting is a hazardous and dangerous activity." Check. "We release and discharge the owners, the volunteers, pilots, instructors, jump masters, owners of the aircraft, etc., etc." Check, check, check. Finally, we're ready for ground school.
Monica Olsen, dressed in navy-blue sweats and a T-shirt, addresses our group: "This class is about preparing you for the worst," she announces. "Much of the class will cover malfunctions." Malfunctions — this is the jump master's bloodless term for any disaster that can happen during a jump, such as if the chute fails to open. Or if it opens, but there's a watermelon-size gash in it. Because we'll be plummeting to Earth at about 200 feet per second, our lives will depend on our ability to determine the problem and fix it — all within a matter of a few heartbeats.
Our training for such high-stress situations is surprisingly low-tech. Gary Ketelsen goes first. Olsen helps him get into his rig and tells him to assume the free-fall position: Hold your hands up, and bend your arms at the elbow to form a W. Then arch your back so your body is shaped like a banana, and throw your head back.
Olsen clambers onto a chair and holds an oversized, laminated photo of a malfunction: The bag that holds the chute is balled up in the lines, preventing the main canopy from releasing.
"Oh, no: It's the bag lock," Ketelsen gasps. He fumbles for the cutaway handle and rips it from its Velcro holder. He pulls the cutaway cord down and out across his upper body, which should release the tangled chute. He then flings the handle across the room, narrowly missing the rest of us, and grabs the reserve rip-cord handle. Finally, he hooks his thumbs through the handle and yanks it hard, which should launch the reserve chute. Visibly exhausted, he slouches over with his arms dangling limply in front of him and lets the reserve handle drop to the floor.
"That's good, but it's not good enough," Olsen declares. "We need to keep practicing until all of you nail it, even if it takes 100 tries. You've got to react without thinking."
Six hours later, our ground training is over. Tomorrow, we dive.
We arrive at the drop zone just after daybreak. I exchange nervous glances with the Verge guys as we enter the lobby. Someone immediately starts shoving equipment at us: altimeter, goggles, helmet. Monica Olsen grabs a hot-pink jumpsuit and thrusts it at me. "Here. See if this fits."
The suit fits, but I look like a shorter, stouter version of the Pink Mighty Morphin Power Ranger. As I get into my pack, Olsen fires off a volley of questions: "What's your decision altitude?" (That's the lowest altitude at which I can launch my reserve chute and land without breaking my legs.)
"Twenty-five-hundred feet," I suggest.
"How high should you flare before landing?" (Flaring means pulling my steering toggles to slow my descent.)
"Five or six feet," I reply.
She tightens my straps, steps back, and tells me to practice my reserve-rip-cord pull. Satisfied that I'm ready, we head for the tarmac and board the Otter.
Inside the plane, Olsen tells me to sit on the floor between the legs of the person behind me and to loop the seat belt through my rig's leg strap. About 15 of us are crammed together; the atmosphere is crackling with nervous energy. Soon after takeoff, one of the aerial photographers jokes: "Welcome to Sky West. We will not be serving beverages or snacks on this flight. Please note the exit door on your right." The whole plane bursts into laughter. I barely manage a giggle.
After a few minutes, I unbuckle my seat belt and look out of the window to glimpse the drop zone. I'd have to be blind to miss the white rocks on the roof of the main building 15,000 feet below us that spell out "SKYDIVE," and the enormous arrow pointing to the drop zone.
An instructor slides the door open. Verge's CEO is the first to jump. Rozic positions himself in the door, shouts out his countdown, and, with a Tarzan-like yell, leaps into the great beyond.
One Great Leap
Olsen has warned us about "brain lock," which most first-time jumpers experience during free fall. "Skydiving is a pretty intense experience," she says. "So you're going to have to talk yourself through each step." But nothing could have prepared me for the confusion I feel as I step out of the plane. My mind is free-falling, and I can't get a grip.
I look at Olsen as we plummet from the plane. She has an ear-to-ear grin on her face, and she's patting her head — the signal to relax. Has she completely lost her mind? How can she be smiling at a time like this? Suddenly, my brain checks back in. I glance at my altimeter, look at Olsen, and scream, "12,000 feet." Still smiling, she moves her head in an exaggerated nod and flashes me a thumbs-up. I do the same to Rodriguez. They can't hear me. But by looking at them, I let them know that I'm out of panic mode, and I'm aware of my altitude.
Within seconds, I'm at 6,000 feet. I give Rodriguez and Olsen the hand signal that I'm about to pull my rip cord. At 5,500 feet, I arch my back and slide my right hand down the side of my pack. Feeling the rip cord's plastic handle, I grab it in a death grip and yank as hard as I can. I'm instantly jerked into an upright position.
I hear a faint rustle of nylon as my chute starts to unfurl. But something's wrong: The canopy isn't unfolding. Mentally trying to will the chute open, I grab the cutaway handle. Just as I'm about to pull the handle and jettison the faulty chute, the sky above me disappears, and all I can see are the orange and pink colors of my chute's sprawling canopy. Halle-freaking-lujah!
Then, total silence. After the loud, intense experience of the free fall, flying under a canopy feels as if the whole world is moving in slow motion. In this peacefulness, my mind drifts back to my free fall. It wasn't at all what I'd expected. If not for the deafening whoosh of the wind rushing past me, I'd hardly realized how fast I was falling. I have no sense of the ground rushing toward me.
I'm snapped out of my reverie by instructor Mike Eakins's voice over the radio that's draped around my neck. "Good job, Gina and Scott. Gina, make a 180-degree left turn. Scott, make a 360-degree right turn." I reach above my shoulders and grab the red steering toggles from their holders. As I slowly pull the left toggle down, the chute turns to the left and Rozic comes into view. He's moving his legs as if he's walking on air; he's having the time of his life.
After a few more turns, we're positioned for a landing. I concentrate on the ground below, desperately trying to gauge my altitude. Suddenly, I hear Eakins's urgent screams, "FLARE, GINA! FLARE!" I pull down on the steering toggles until my fists meet in front of my lower body, but it's too late. I hit the ground and skid, butt first, along the runway, about a foot outside of the soft, grassy drop zone. Fortunately, the only thing I've bruised is my ego.
Gathering my chute, I turn just in time to see Rozic execute a perfect tip-toe landing. So I make two promises to myself: Next time, I wholeheartedly intend to land firmly and squarely on my feet. And yes, there will be a next time.
Gina Imperato (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor at Fast Company.
Action Item: Jump.com
Whether you're a novice or a veteran sky diver, you should drop in on the U.S. Parachute Association's Web site.
USPA answers such top-of-the-mind questions as "What if your parachute fails to open?" (Rejoice: You've got a reserve chute!) And "How fast do you fall?" (from 100 mph to 140 mph during free fall and a leisurely 20 mph after the chute has opened). And the site's glossary of skydive-speak will have you talking like a jump master, even if you wouldn't know a parachute from a mail chute.
Coordinates: USPA, www.uspa.org
Sidebar: Jump Starts
The first decision that all first-time sky divers must reckon with is this: How are you going to make the big leap? As it turns out, there's more than one way to jump out of a plane.
The Tandem Jump
What It Is: Strapped to the front of an instructor, the two of you free-fall for 60 seconds, the instructor pulls the rip cord, and you descend under an oversized chute — in tandem.
The Upside: After just 30 minutes of instruction, you'll be ready to leap.
The Downside: You're just along for the ride: Do you really want to feel like excess cargo?
The Static-Line Jump
What It Is: A cable that's attached to the plane is hooked to your pack. When you leap, the line pulls your rip cord and launches the chute.
The Upside: You get to jump like Clint Eastwood did in Where Eagles Dare.
The Downside: Do you really want to jump like they did in World War II?
Accelerated Free Fall
What It Is: You get to free-fall on your very first jump — hence the term "accelerated." Two instructors (one on either side) hold on to you as you leap from the plane. The three of you free-fall at about 120 mph for one minute; you part company when you pull your rip cord.
The Upside: This is the first step toward becoming a certified sky diver.
The Downside: There's nothing accelerated about the process, which requires four to six hours of ground-school training before the first jump.
You don't need to gear up to sky dive: Skydiving schools provide everything you'll need. But it's not a bad idea to know what's standard issue. Besides, if you get hooked on jumping, you just might want your own stuff.
Helmet: A helmet can protect your noggin if your landing is less than perfect. Square One's Pro-tec skateboarding helmet is standard issue for skydiving students.
Coordinates: $45. Square One Parachutes Inc., www.square1.com
Goggles: If you've ever experienced the wind in your eyes at 70 mph, you can only imagine that experience when you're free-falling at 120 mph. Kroop's one-piece skydiving goggles come in a galaxy of colors.
Coordinates: $7.30. Kroop's Goggles, www.kroop.com
Container: System Every pack has three major parts: the container (the backpack-looking gizmo that comes with leg and chest straps) and two parachutes — the main and the reserve chutes. The Eclipse Container System is fully customizable.
Coordinates: $4,500 to $5,500. Stunts Adventure Equipment, www.stuntsae.com
Altimeter: Knowing your altitude can mean the difference between landing safely and going splat. So get an altimeter that's trustworthy, such as the Altimaster II, which sky divers have been using for 30 years.
Coordinates: $175. SSE Inc., www.sse-inc.com
Jumpsuit: A jumpsuit keeps you from freezing at high altitudes. And without one, your shirt can fly over your head when you're free-falling. Body Sport's skintight Crater Suit will make you look like a pro.
Coordinates: $130 to $250. Body Sport USA, www.bodysportusa.com
Automatic Activation Device: The AAD automatically launches the re-serve chute at a preprogrammed altitude. The Expert Cypres, distributed in the United States by SSK Industries, measures air pressure to determine a jumper's altitude and velocity, so it knows when to launch the reserve chute.
Coordinates: $1,115. SSK Industries, www.pia.com/ssk
Sidebar: Jump School
Ready to take the big leap? Here are four skydiving schools that are worth checking out — all of them located near major business-travel destinations. So when you're done with meetings, head for the drop zone and show your colleagues how much of a risk taker you really are.
Skydive DeLand: DeLand, Florida, 60 minutes north of Orlando. One of the most innovative jump schools. In fact, both tandem and accelerated free-fall jumping styles were developed there. DeLand's 30 instructors have averaged 1,200 to 1,500 jumps.
Coordinates: Skydive DeLand, www.skydivedeland.com
Skydive Chicago: Ottawa, Illinois, 90 minutes southwest of Chicago. Skydive Chicago surpasses industry-training standards determined by the USPA: Its Advanced Free-Fall Program takes a jumper through 15 levels of instruction, whereas most others offer only 7 levels.
Coordinates: Skydive Chicago, www.skydivechicago.com
Perris Valley Skydiving: Perris Valley, California, 90 minutes southeast of Los Angeles. Perris Valley is one of the largest skydiving centers in North America, with more aircraft available than at any other facility. It's also the drop zone for many movies, TV shows, and commercials.
Coordinates: Perris Valley Skydiving, www.skydiveperris.com
Skydive Monterey Bay: Marina, California, 55 minutes south of San Jose. The school of choice for our first jump, Skydive Monterey Bay has one of the most picturesque drop zones in the country. The instructors make you feel as safe in the sky as you do on terra firma.
Coordinates: Skydive Monterey Bay, www.skydivemontereybay.com