It’s the most beautiful day I could have picked to jump out of an airplane. Eighty-five degrees at early evening, light breeze out of the west and 13,000 feet between me and the ground.
For the last hour, my brain’s love for awesome thrills has battled my body’s love for remaining alive in a steadily increasing confrontation of mind over matter. But as I tip my torso forward out of the plane, bringing the parachute-equipped instructor strapped to my back with it, the beautiful day I’ve been admiring through the window takes on a whole new life.
The month leading up to the one minute of freefall that I’m now on was a thrill ride in its own respect. Just the act of saying “yes” to my editor’s question of whether I’d be willing to skydive for an article attracted a swarm of butterflies to my innards. But as the weeks counted down toward jump day, the nervousness changed to excitement while I hoovered up YouTube skydiving videos and friends regaled me with their own experiences. But on the big day, those dreadful flutters returned as I arrived at Watsonville Municipal Airport and took my last firm stomps on solid ground.
After meeting Laura Mullen and her crew from Santa Cruz Skydiving Adventures, Santa Cruz County’s new and only skydiving outfit, I was immediately handed 12 pages of legal documents. The paperwork required no fewer than a dozen initials and five signatures to form a court-tested contract making it clear that I understand skydiving may kill me and that, if it does, my surviving family may not sue SCSA, my instructor or anyone else within a 20-mile radius. But with formalities aside, I was introduced to Kevin Kramer, the hugely experienced and alarmingly tall instructor who would soon strap me like a writhing infant in a baby Bjorn to his chest in my first experience with tandem skydiving.
“When we exit, you’re going to want to cross your arms and grab your harness like this,” he said, explaining with disturbing calm the best way to fall from an airplane.
Except for a couple other simple instructions, there was nothing left to say, and we crammed into the tiny four-seat prop plane and buzzed up into the heavens. The cramped rear of the aircraft served as the setting for the majority of my hysterical hyperventilating and half-crazed giggles as my self-preservation instincts began to fully grasp what I was planning to do. At no time was the terror more overwhelming than the seconds just before we rolled out of the plane. There, with legs dangling from the aircraft, my adrenaline-enhanced survival impulses made their last pleas with what they likely considered was the stupidest thing I could ever hope to do.
But now, hurtling through the air at 120 miles per hour, none of that matters. The cold, blasting wind stretches the skin of my face backward, like a pug dog being roughly petted, and the roar of rushing air is deafening. Below me, the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf points its thin finger southeast into Monterey Bay while north of it, quaint and colorful, stretches the rest of Santa Cruz and my home. Inches in front of me, snapping off photos with a shutter release switch in her mouth, is Mullen. And all around is springtime California sky, with not a grain of solid ground to be found.
As the seconds tick by I’m suddenly aware that we’ll be releasing the parachute soon. My mind flips back to childhood days and my oldest brother who, having jumped days before, described the feeling as tying a rope connected to a tree to your chest and riding your bike as fast as you can until you get yanked off. I expect it to hurt. It does. But only a little, and soon the din is quieted, replaced now by my shouts of exhilaration. Doing a terrible job of composing myself, I tuck my legs into the straps that allow me to sit back in my harness and enjoy the ride down.
Santa Cruz County and skydiving may seem like a match made in heaven. But it’s been more than one leap of faith for Mullen to set up shop in Watsonville. With a drop zone several miles from the airport and well-established competitors in Monterey, Mullen was playing a risky game when she opened for business in January.
“First off, the distance from the Watsonville airport to the beach where we drop down is about a 15 minute drive. That means we can’t get as many people up in a day as a lot of other places,” says Mullen, who got her start as an instructor with Skydive Monterey. “Everyone told me, ‘Don’t go to Watsonville, you’ll never make any money.’ But for me it’s not all about money.”
What it is about for Mullen is the experience. Not her experience skydiving, but other people’s. Seeing a first-timer go from a hyperventilating wreck in the back of the plane to a hooting and hollering adrenaline junkie in freefall is a sight, she says, that never gets old. And with a need to stand out from her competition and keep people coming back, she’s made her love for witnessing the “miracle” of skydiving in her clients into a customer care hallmark of her business.
“When it comes to the skydive itself, I know the routine, but each new person is not a routine,” she says. “For me the most fun thing ever is getting to share this emotional experience with people and watching them blossom from nervous to loving it. I used to be a midwife and it was the same thing as watching babies being born. I just try to be there for them and make them comfortable so they can get through it on their own. And once they do, it’s simply beautiful.”
Back in the air, my slow parachute descent is nearing an end. As we float down to a soft landing on Seascape Beach, onlookers cheer and curious people ask what the experience was like. As Kevin unhooks me from his chest and I take a few clumsy steps in the sand, all I can think to tell them is, “It’s like nothing you’ve ever imagined.”
TO THROW YOURSELF FROM A PERFECTLY GOOD AIRPLANE call Santa Cruz Skydiving Adventures at 831.435.5169 or visit them online at www.santacruz-skydiving.com. Tandem jumps from 13,000 feet cost $229, photo and video services are available for $129 extra and discounts are available for groups.