I'M 6,000 FEET OFF THE GROUND over Belen, New Mexico, free-falling at 120 miles per hour. It's noisy as hell, and the wind is rippling my face, turning me into a human shar-pei. Holding on to one side of me is my instructor, Ken, who's spent the past six hours teaching me how to survive Category A of the Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) program. On the other side is Kelly, who's giving me hand signals so I'll improve my arch, correct my leg position, and check my altimeter. But mostly I'm looking straight ahead, at the videographer, Krishan, and the desert landscape beyond him. Which is a problem, because in five seconds we hit 5,000 feet and I'm supposed to pull my rip cord to make sure that pretty landscape doesn't pulverize me.
It started as a dare. A few months ago, Outside published a snarky but well-intentioned little piece on skydiving's slow fall from the pantheon of cool extreme sports. Inevitably, the U.S. Parachute Association's Robert Arends sent in a miffed but well-intentioned (right?) letter reading, "We CHALLENGE Outside to experience skydiving firsthand." Push came to getting shoved out of an airplane, and there I was at 10,500 feet, afraid of heights but plummeting out of a Cessna.
That was two weeks ago, a tandem jump that required just an hour of instruction before I was on the plane, reciting the Lord's Prayer as we rose above the arroyos. When we got above the target=, my instructor, Elijah, strapped me to him like a baby—hey, it's the only way—and I faced my biggest challenge since the day in fifth grade when I asked Julie Cook if she liked me. (I was hoping for a better outcome this time.) I swung my feet out the open door and into the 90-mile-an-hour wind, climbed onto an eight-inch step, and said, "Ready as I'll ever be." Elijah launched us, and the chaos felt less like gliding than thrashing around in a swimming pool. Wind buffeted my face as we rocketed to 144 miles an hour, the air inflating my nostrils like balloons. After 25 seconds (which felt like five), I opened our single canopy and Elijah flew us to earth. My work was done.
Or so I thought. The next week I ran into Henry, a dad at my kids' school, who'd been in Belen on the same weekend, doing the real deal: AFF, in which you wear and deploy your own rig as instructors flank you—step one toward solo certification. I had assumed that Henry was about as extreme as I was (my previous highest-speed pursuit was tennis). But the bar had been raised, and after six more hours of lessons I was back in the Cessna.
I breathed deep, found myself getting—how you say?—amped, and scooted out into launch position while my new best friends got a good grip on me. I executed the jump perfectly and got into a half-decent belly-down arch, and now here I am, thrilled at last with the sensation of free fall. Goal achieved.
Or so I thought. I'm gazing dreamily at the Rio Grande, embracing life, thrilled that I'm thrilled about this, when Ken thrusts an index finger in my face—the signal for "Deploy now!" I finally glance at the altimeter and see the needle at 4,800 at the exact moment Ken gives up on me and yanks the rip cord himself. Ohhh, riiight—the save-my-life part.
The U. S. Parachute Association oversees more than 220 drop zones in the 50 states. AFF jumps start at about $250; uspa.org