Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"There's a lot that I'd never do..."

I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane.*

Most of my loyal readers know that jumping out of perfectly good airplanes is how my husband spends his weekends—and some weekdays, and vacations, and pretty much any free time he can get. My views of skydiving have been stuck somewhere between confusion (“why would anyone do it?”) and terror (“that’s crazy!”). But a few years ago, somewhere in the back of my head, I had lodged the thought that skydiving was probably on my bucket list.** As much as I love the folks at LJ’s dropzone, I knew that any skydive I did would likely be both my first and my last, so I wanted to save it for a special place. And the thought of seeing Dubai from 10,000 feet seemed pretty special to me.

I knew LJ was bringing his rig to Dubai so that he could get in a few skydives. On Friday, he said something about maybe getting me up there in a plane, to which I responded that it was a possibility. After I did my jump, he told me that he was utterly shocked that I sounded half-serious and decided not to say anything else about it, lest he say anything that might make me change my mind.

After a leisurely lunch of Lebanese fast food, LJ gathered up his skydiving gear and we caught a cab to the drop zone Saturday afternoon. He filled out his paperwork and got himself set up on load 7 of the day on their Twin Otter. Sitting there in the packing area building (the big, empty building where skydivers hang out between jumps and repack their parachutes), waiting for his jump, I decided that I did want to go skydiving in Dubai. I filled out the paperwork and was asked for my 1700 Dirham in cash. Since we didn’t have that much money on us, I caught a cab to an HSBC ATM to draw out the money.

As has happened in Ghana, I ran into a problem with the daily/individual transaction limit at a foreign ATM. My first request for 2500 Dirham was flat rejected with “Unknown error code”. I followed that aborted attempt with a successful withdrawal of 1000 Dirham and another rejection of 1000 Dirham. Luckily this ATM was in the lobby of the bank, which was open, but I was still a bit freaked out with trying to draw out reasonably large sums of money with people in the lobby. My next withdrawal of 1000 Dirham from another account was successful, after which I ran back to the waiting cab. When it was all said and done, the wave of panic that washed over me sitting in the cab after the ATM troubles was the most fear and anxiety I felt about the skydive at any point that day.

I walked back into the packing building and handed Jennifer my 1700 Dirham. That’s when LJ realized that I was serious about jumping. He went off and did his skydive while I sat talking to a British couple who were both doing their first jumps. As with many people I meet, they couldn’t believe that LJ and I had been together so long without me making a single skydive.

The lady at Manifest (the desk that sets up all the jumps) punched my ticket and set me up on load 10 of the day, meaning I still had some time to go. I met my tandem instructor, Ellis, and my cameraman, Timmy. Ellis was cool enough to agree to let LJ jump with us. I’m sure the 2000 jumps that LJ has couldn’t have hurt.

Manifest called for our load and we hopped on the truck to go out to the waiting plane. The engines on the plane were running, washing us with waves of hot air as we loaded into the plane. Since we were doing the most complicated jump (tandem, cameraman, and LJ) we were near the back of the plane by the door. We put our seatbelts on for takeoff and the plane taxied down the runway. A few hundred feet up, Ellis said I could unbuckle the seatbelt. That’s when Timmy opened the door to let in some air—and I scrabbled for a handhold that wasn’t there. I take back my earlier comment about my fear—I may have been as freaked out at that moment as I was when leaving the ATM. After a couple thousand feet, Timmy closed the door again.

The plane climbed to altitude with some amazing views of The Palm, the manmade islands in the shape of a palm tree on the Dubai coastline. Timmy cracked some jokes to keep the mood light. Each tandem pair started to get ready for the jump, which involves sitting on the tandem instructor’s lap while he hooks you to his rig. Timmy opened the door again. My first reaction, upon seeing that the ground still seemed awfully close, was to look at LJ and shout, “You’re full of sh**! That’s still really…. I mean….” I stammered. [Editor’s note: I said the four-letter word. There’s video that proves it.] LJ said that we still had a few thousand feet to go—we were only at 10,000 feet—but Ellis told him that we didn’t and that we should start to get ready. Normally, the tandems go to 13,000 feet, but the dropzone was trying to squeeze in a couple more loads that day, so they cut the freefall short by about 15-20 seconds for each pair.

LJ climbed out on the side of the plane, Timmy jumped, Ellis gave the signal for LJ to jump, and then we followed. That part happened so fast that I had no chance to be scared. Both Timmy and LJ got video of the freefall part of the jump. Timmy also got still photos of the freefall and the landing. I’ll post more of them later.

During the time under canopy, I was amazed at how quiet it was. I was also amazed at how queasy my stomach was. Ellis let me steer the canopy a bit, but I was much happier with him steering, even if I felt a bit nauseous. We floated gently down to the dropzone, where we made a really good tandem landing—my knees up and out of the way until Ellis told me to stand up. Considering how weak my legs felt, standing up may have been the most difficult part of the whole experience.

Most people, upon landing from their first skydive, cheer like their team has won the World Cup or March Madness. I, on the hand, seemed almost catatonic. The combination of my slightly queasy stomach and my amazement that I actually went skydiving kept me from appearing more outwardly joyous. LJ told me later that Timmy asked if I was okay. Even now, the whole experience seems rather surreal. But I’m really glad that I did it someplace as stunningly beautiful from the air as Dubai.

*Any skydiver reading this blog will have a knee-jerk reaction that results in saying, “There’s no such thing as a perfectly good airplane.” For the purpose of this story, a “perfectly good airplane” is “an airplane that is going to land safely”.

**Especially for any non-American readers out there or anyone who ignore popular movies, a bucket list is a list of things you need to do before you die, or “kick the bucket”, a euphemism for dying.

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