The weather worsened as we drove, and by the time VanDenBerg Airport went passing by, the rain was pouring. This was our last week-end, and it was jump or bust. We did not turn back.
Fortunately, Florida's fickle weather was on our side by the time we turned onto Skydive Lane.
High altitude winds kept us on the ground until just after 10 a.m. I was approached by a tall man with a distinct British accent. He made sure I had signed my life away, and then zipped me into a nylon flight suit. On top of everything went a nylon contraption very similar to the safety harness construction workers hang in when working on the external face of high-rise buildings.
The interior of the rugged twin-prop plane we would dive out of was nothing more than bare metal with a thinly carpeted floor, seatbelt blocks bolted to metal struts, and two long benches facing the plane's rear. As soon as my instructor and I sat down, our harnesses were buckled together and we were tightly joined. The cargo door closed. There was no going back now.
It was a 9-minute ride up to reach approximately 14,000 feet. The cargo door opened up as we passed the 6000-foot mark. My anxiety built apace.
As the pilot leveled off and started the jump run at reduced speed, skydivers began to line up by the door. The first to jump was a group of four in matching all-black jumpsuits. One moment they were there, arms linked and poised at the edge of the door, the next moment they were gone. Since I was more than a little jumpy by this time, I don’t remember who went next. The next thing I knew, I was crouching in front of my instructor.
It was my turn. Billy, the cameraman filming me, came first. As I dived forward on the count of three, Billy dived backwards below me, keeping me in his sight. I plummeted into the void, and the world opened up below me.
The sensation of freefall was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The air speeding past me at nearly 200 miles per hour and its deafening roar was the quintessential speed rush. The wide-open vistas below lent a sense of freedom and endless space. Seconds went by in what seemed like minutes, and still I had the feeling that there was so much more to be taken in.
After the monumental jerk of the parachute opening and some momentary disorientation, I suddenly found myself suspended at 5000 feet and gliding through some fleecy cloud cover as my instructor maneuvered us in line. We cruised along for another two minutes killing altitude and then made an uneventful stand-up landing close to the end of the drop zone.
I did not understand the ins and outs of skydiving technique back then, nor appreciate how smoothly my instructor had conducted the dive, but the experience changed me forever. I would go skydiving again.