The man who fell to Earth
A neophyte skydiver takes the plunge into Acampo
I’m perched at the open door of a Beech 99 Airliner, traveling around 150 mph at 13,000 feet. It’s really windy. I’m looking down at a patchwork of Central California farms and wineries. From here, to be honest, it isn’t much to look at. So when the guy harnessed to my back shouts at me to look up, I don’t hesitate. Neither does he. Just as I lift my head back and feel it touch his shoulder, he thrusts us through the door. We torpedo toward the Earth.
Skydiving is one of those things. Like going to the gym or backpacking around Europe. Haven’t we all thought maybe one day we’d give it a try? For most of us, though, it remains an abstraction. Sure, it might be cool, but that’s about as far as we’ve thought it out. Maybe it’ll help to know that—in these parts, at least—jumping from a plane is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to get a mind-blowing thrill.
At the Parachute Center in Acampo (www.parachutecenter.com), for instance, you can show up anytime before 3 p.m., pay $100 and, before you know it, be free falling. That’s what I did. The Parachute Center claims to be the cheapest place in the United States for a first-time tandem skydive. (Typical rates range from $150-$250.) Owner Bill Dause, a genial man in his 60s with over 40 years of skydiving experience, takes pride in keeping prices low enough to prevent the sport from getting too “yuppie.”
Certainly it has come a long way. The parachute itself is very old—da Vinci designed one, and some people even trace its origins as far back as 1100 A.D. What we now know as “skydiving,” though, developed after World War II. “Airborne guys were coming home and thinking, ‘The jump would be fun, if there weren’t guys shooting at us,’” Dause says. Skydiving clubs began sprouting up all over the country, and the sport became commercially available by the late 1950s. “You didn’t have to be in a club. You could come in and pay their fee and get your training.”
Dause started in the business in 1964, and has been in Acampo since 1981. During his career, he witnessed skydiving’s slow but steady growth into the 1980s, when tandem jumps became available and the sport got more mainstream. To perform a solo skydive, one has to undergo hours of instruction and practice. But going tandem, as I learned, doesn’t take much prep at all.
The Parachute Center’s first-timers prepare by watching a VHS video produced sometime in the ’80s, featuring a guy with a 2-foot-long white beard who looks like a poor man’s Gandalf. “We anticipate some changes in the early 1990s,” he warns. The video, which a friend of mine described as a “buzz kill,” essentially scares the shit out of you, informs you that you might die and commands you to do whatever your instructor says. Your instructor doesn’t really ask much of you, as he’ll be fastened to you the whole time and taking care of everything. The first-timer really is just along for the ride.
Gandalf was right about the changing future. In 1995, the inaugural X Games exposed hordes of young Americans to “extreme” sports—bungee jumping, freestyle BMX, skateboarding, sky surfing and the like—whose popularity has risen steadily ever since. Dan Cassan, now 26, was among those who facilitated the X Games’ conquest of popular culture. Cassan, the guy who’d strapped himself to my back and pushed me through that door at 13,000 feet, was a mere 18 years old when he first made the leap himself. Over subsequent years, skydiving became Cassan’s favorite hobby, and then his profession. He’s that guy.
Skydivers measure their progress in benchmarks—for the number of jumps, for maneuvers performed, for accurate landings, and so on. To be a tandem instructor, one has to complete 500 jumps and be well rated. Cassan has logged over 5,000 jumps to date. He feels that skydiving allows people to accomplish something amazing without having to sacrifice too much. In fact, he says, “It doesn’t require great athletic ability.”
To the uninitiated, though, the skydiving subculture remains rather intimidating, a world full of hard-core people with reckless attitudes. The more experienced folks tend to allow that mythology: “We’re not trying to discourage that. That brings people in,” Dause says. The reality is much more boring. Actually, the staff and clientele at the Parachute Center doesn’t seem any more punk-rock than the regulars at the Olive Garden down the street. “We get doctors, nurses, lawyers. If you can imagine it, we’ve got it,” Cassan says. “We have a guy that comes out here all the time and jumps and he’s 82 years old.”
“The reality,” Dause adds, “is that it’s more dangerous to drive on the freeway than to skydive.” They say that about everything, right? Well, the United States Parachute Association reported 21 skydiving fatalities and 962 injuries out of 2.2 million jumps in 2006. That makes the freeway a lot more dangerous.
“It’s a sad state of affairs,” says Cassan. “Whenever there’s an accident in the sport and it’s in the news, business goes through the roof. People just want to be able to go home and tell their friends about how they almost died.”
I could have been killed, friends. Plummeting toward the ground at up to 150 mph, my entire life flashed before my eyes. I stared death square in the eye and, without trepidation, I laughed! That’s right. I giggled absurdly at doom, and I … well, no, not really.
Actually, the scariest aspect of skydiving for the first time is the anticipation. Mine began, in earnest, the night before the jump. My friends and I were wound tight with nervous energy. None of us got more than three hours of sleep. Then, throughout the day, the jitters intensified. Through a nervous, giggling meeting at a friend’s apartment. Through the drive to the Parachute Center. Through the scary video and the signing away of our legal rights. Through the efficient climb to 13,000 feet—where, finally, my jitters gave way to truly unbridled enthusiasm. I rocked incessantly back and forth. I whooped. I began a loony impromptu hand-clapping routine. Then, Cassan instructed me to put on my goggles, lest the powerful wind turn my eyeballs into raisins in my skull, and someone opened the door.
I watched, happily, as several friends and strangers systematically tossed themselves from the plane. Finally it was my turn, and we pitched out. I’m not sure what I was expecting. After a solid 16 hours of worry, fear, excitement and constant speculation, my mind had tied itself in knots.
Out in the air, I was euphoric. I screamed and laughed and carried on for about 30 to 40 seconds, without a care in the world, without a single coherent thought in my head. It was plum wonderful. Then I started thinking. “We sure have been falling for a while,” I thought. The ground approached. But I wasn’t afraid. The euphoria waned, and I became strangely rational. “Any second now, he’s going to pull the chord and open the chute,” I thought. Then he did. After a violent, disorienting jerk, we were gliding, slowly now, peacefully, through smoggy sky. Cassan pointed out where the Sacramento skyline should be, behind the haze on the horizon, and he claimed there were some neat foothills to the west. I’ll have to take his word for it.
A few minutes later we landed, rather gently, on a grass field about 50 feet from where we’d taken off. We laughed and hugged and basked in our collective high. I practically demanded to go again, right then and there. My friends agreed, but we didn’t have the cash. By god, we’d find the cash! We began to hatch schemes. We could become certified skydivers. We could do this all the time. Why the hell wouldn’t we? We bombarded our instructors with nagging questions: What does it cost to get certified? How long does it take? How soon can we do it? They answered our queries with the cynical patience of professionals, well trained to handle newbie adrenaline junkies.
“If we had a nickel for everyone that told us they were coming back to get certified, we all would have retired to a desert island long ago,” Dause says now. “It requires initiative and resources to follow through.”
Sure, it’s easy, when drunk on endorphins, to think only about the next fix. But when the rush subsides—and, as Dause puts it, “reality sets in”—we come to remember that there are other priorities in life besides hurling yourself headlong through the atmosphere. Then again, that could be what makes it so worth doing.