Free Fallin’

By Cory Smith -
- Contributed Photo
- Contributed Photo
- Contributed Photo

“Why would you want to jump out of a perfectly good plane?”

Explaining the logic (or lack thereof) of skydiving to my 100-year-old great-grandfather raised a number of questions. For a man that saw aviation technology transform military strategy, the transportation of raw materials, as well as commercial travel over the last century, it was appalling to learn he never once ascended to the heavens in an aircraft.

I don’t consider myself an ‘extreme’ person. I didn’t pop wheelies on my bike as a kid, I’m not a huge fan of roller coasters, and I tore my labrum the last time I went snowboarding. Something about skydiving, though, has always intrigued me. For years, I prophesied of the day that I would eventually make the giant leap with no true plans to in sight. This seemed extremely far-fetched considering the first time I stepped on a plane was in 2016.

Then, out of nowhere, I decided it was time.

Why not now? The more I waited, the more likely I wouldn’t be able to skydive for one reason or another. Besides, I wanted to make my 24th birthday one for the ages. So what better way than by falling 10,000 feet in less than six minutes?

Years of talk came to a head when I, alongside a close friend from our days at the University of North Carolina, made a reservation for Sunday, July 15 at 11 a.m. Once I received the obligatory, “Congratulations – You are going skydiving!” email, there was no turning back.

We arrived at Piedmont Skydiving in Salisbury minutes before 11 and were immediately shocked. We didn’t see a large hangar with a number of planes in it. In place of the large building we expected to encounter was a small shelter with what looked like a storage building beside it. If my nerves weren’t off the charts before, they were now.

We approached the shelter and were prompted to fill out a number of liability forms. You know that feeling you get reading about all the potential side effects of a medication that almost deters you from taking it? Imagine that feeling times about 100,000, and that’s where we stood. But again, it was too late to turn back now. Not just because we were mentally prepared, but at this point refunds were out the window.

We each met our training instructors upon completion of the seemingly never-ending paperwork. For privacy purposes, we’ll refer to my instructor as “Ted.” Ted was an easy-going guy in his early 30s. He joked around with us in attempts to lighten the mood. I appreciated it, my friend less so. Ted joked that we would trying new techniques today and that if anything went wrong, he would make sure at least he survived.

We geared up and headed toward the single-engine plane with nerves up to about a seven on a 10-point scale. Ted showed us around the plane and went through some basic procedures while throwing in the occasional joke. We were then told we had to go sit back down while the pilot changed a belt on the plane. Of course he did.

About 20 minutes passed before we were able to board the plane, bringing the nerves up to 9-out-of-10. The plane had just enough room for both my friend and I and each instructor to squeeze in behind the pilot. We began to ascend and that’s when everything started to feel real. I asked Ted how many times he’d skydived, to which he responded confidently, “This makes 4,600.” 4,600! I expected a couple hundred! If he had survived 4,600 times, odds are I could make it through one measly jump.

The ascent didn’t feel like it was real life. You get to a certain point in the air and everything looks like a painting. We climbed and climbed for what seemed like an hour. When I looked at Ted’s wrist, he showed me that we were only at 4,000 feet. Our launch point was 10,000 feet above sea level. Remember these numbers.

We reached the clouds and kept going. Ted told me that if we managed to land on a cloud to jump off quickly. I imagine he saw my nerves building closer and closer to a 10-out-of-10 and decided to go over some last minute pointers with me.

“If it feels like you can’t breathe, it’s probably because you’re not.” He said that people are in such awe of falling that they forget to breathe. “Just let out a scream if your chest feels tight.”

As we grew closer and closer to 10,000 feet, Ted attached a pair of GoPro’s to my left hand. It was up to me to capture my flattering facial expressions as I fell more than 100 miles per hour toward the ground.

Then came time for the door to fly open. No amount of preparation or prayer could have made me any less terrified when that door opened. Imagine standing at the edge of the high dive as a kid, but then make the high dive a thousand times taller. I put my feet on a platform just outside the door when all of a sudden Ted pushed us out.

I was flying.

The feeling of falling at nearly 140 miles per hour was unlike any other. I was terrified, awestruck, dazed, scared, overjoyed, and mesmerized all at once. A million thoughts rushed through my head, so much so that I can’t really recall any specific one just 24 hours later. All that came to a halt when I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I remembered what Ted said and let out a, “WOOOO,” that would make Ric Flair proud.

Watching the video of my jump back, the free fall only lasted 32 seconds. It was long enough for me to realize what was happening and truly appreciate the spectacle. Then in an instant, we went from about 120 mph to about 12 in a matter of seconds. I always thought that the moment the parachute released would be my favorite moment, because I knew we were safe. But as soon as I jumped out of the plane all my thoughts exited my body and I just enjoyed the moment.

We floated down for roughly four minutes before landing just 100 feet from where we took off. Tandem landings are nothing like you see in movies. People don’t hit the ground running. We just hit the ground. I managed to tear my right leg up a bit, but the adrenaline high minimized the pain while I ran toward my friend before embracing her with both feet on the ground.

Skydiving gave me a sense of freedom. For five minutes, nothing else in the world mattered. While it was more, “falling with style,” than flying, skydiving fulfilled a childhood dream for me while giving me memories (and hilarious faces) to last a lifetime.

As for what’s next, I think I’ll keep my feet planted to the ground just a little bit longer before taking to the skies again. Photo Photo Photo
Inside the journey of a first-time skydiver

By Cory Smith

Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith

Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith