There are several ways to answer this question. One is to look it up on Wikipedia, which is probably the most sensible method; the other is to do what I did in July and fling yourself repeatedly out of a perfectly good aeroplane and fall, yes fall, towards Earth eventually reaching, you guessed it, Terminal Velocity (120mph).
Skydiving is awesome! That is my overall assessment and it is a sport that I would encourage everyone – assuming you are fit, healthy and meet the minimum weight requirements – to have at least one experience of. For most, their introduction to this gravity defying – or rather, obeying – past-time is to sign up for a tandem skydive, whereby you are strapped to the front of a very well qualified and experienced instructor who is then responsible for controlling your freefall, parachute deployment and safe landing, leaving you to scream/ hold your breath/ grin/ laugh ecstatically and generally have an amazing time as you experience the ultimate rush followed by an incredible view as you literally float back down to terra firma. Many do just the one jump, satisfied that they have tried it, hopefully enjoyed it but ultimately have no desire to repeat it, whereas some, such as myself, become well and truly bitten by the bug and vow to return to the skies.
My experience of skydiving started when I was 18 and traveling in New Zealand. It was there that I did a tandem and bungee jump (body painted with the Union Jack incidentally) in the same week and vowed immediately to learn to jump solo by the time I was 30. Fast forward several years, during which time I tried out indoor skydiving – a great option for those who don’t like the idea of falling towards the ground for real – and my approaching thirtieth birthday. There was only ever one thing I was going to do and that was train for my solo skydive license.
The first decision was where to go? I was vaguely aware, through some basic research, that Spain, especially the skies around Madrid, were great places to learn, and that the US was also a popular destination for both rookies and experienced jumpers alike. It makes perfect sense actually if you think about it: to jump you need clear skies, and both are examples of places that offer plenty of these. Of course you can train in the UK, and that was an option, but as well as wanting to get my license I also wanted a real adventure, and that was only ever going to come about by leaving my home shores. As it turned out, a good friend of mine is now living in the beautiful city of San Diego, California and rather handily it turned out that they do quite a fair bit of skydiving in California. In fact, a little bit of internet research and emailing later and I had myself booked in for my first lesson with Skydive San Diego, south of the city and toward the Mexican border. Flights booked, insurance purchased and with a spot of surfing in between, I arrived all fresh-faced, eager and full of anticipation for my very first day at ‘Freefall School.’ The education had begun!
You may be asking yourself some of the following questions…
1. What exactly is skydiving?
Well, at its most basic it is essentially jumping out of an aeroplane, freefalling towards the earth for a variable period of time, depending on, among other factors, your initial altitude, and then significantly slowing your descent by deploying a parachute, thus enabling you to steer yourself safely down to a predetermined landing area on the ground. And then to do it again and again and again.
2. Is it the same as jumping off bridges, buildings, cliffs etc?
Err, no. You’re thinking of BASE jumping, which is essentially when you jump from something, in effect, fixed to the earth, ie you don’t need a plane, helicopter or balloon to get to your jump point. You don’t “start out” BASE jumping – not unless you wish to have a very very short parachuting career and life – and it is most definately a branch of skydiving that people “graduate onto,” should they wish to really take their adrenaline addiction to another level. The amount of time in freefall is usually significantly less than normal skydiving, as you’re so much lower, and BASE-jumpers will often deploy their chutes as they jump. Having said that, there are some places you can jump, such as some massively high cliffs in Northern Europe, or styles of jumping, such as wingsuit flying, that will enable you to ‘freefall’ for longer and maximise the buzz. Check out the videos online – they make for epic viewing!
3. Why do people skydive? Are they mental?!
That’s one theory, yes. Everyone who skydives will do so for their own unique reasons and you’ll have to ask them. For me, it is a multitude of factors that attracted me initially to the sport and has well and truly gotten me hooked. The nervous anticipation of what it is you’re about to do as you climb into the plane and ascend towards jump altitude is surreal and strangely meditative. You simply cannot afford to let your mind be preoccupied with anything other than your skydive and so its a great way of clearing your head of all of life’s deluge of, ultimately, unimportant details and concerns. Climbing is a little like that as well. In fact, any activity that relies on your complete and utter focus is a great way to relieve stress and free your mind from its usual baggage. Once you step to the door, your heart starts pumping and you have a choice to make in that moment: jump or don’t jump. Simple. This is then followed by sheer unadulterated ecstasy as adrenaline literally courses through your veins, permeating every inch of your being. The strange thing is that although you know that you are in fact hurtling towards the ground at terminal velocity, the fact that the ground isn’t rushing up to meet you as it does with a bungee jump, results in you feeling as though you are, genuinely flying. This is a phenomenon that is amplified when jumping with other skydivers, as you just get to do the kind of crazy moves, such as flips, that you would never be able to do normally. Then there’s the oh-my-god-hold-your-breath moment as you deploy your parachute and wait for it to fully open, thus ending your freefall and taking you into the final phase of your jump, which is the canopy descent back to your life on the ground. The feeling of achievement and satisfaction that comes with touching down safely is hard to rival through any other activity. So, for me, skydiving is the ultimate way to simultaneously relax and get that awesome adrenaline buzz all in one. Some might call it ‘Healthy Heroin.’
DISCLAIMER: Anything written here is based on my own, personal experiences of skydiving and do not constitute in any way professional instruction or advice to go and jump out of a plane. If you happen to feel inspired to do so then do the sensible thing and consult a skydive centre with proper, real, qualified instructors.