I am not an adrenaline junkie.
I fake upset stomachs to avoid roller coaster rides. I speed-walk across 10th Street every morning for fear of being hit by a car, in spite of a reassuring walk sign.
But when I’m free falling through the air at 15,000 feet, I am at peace.
The first time you skydive feels a bit like falling in love, only “falling” is a bit more literal. So as unlikely as those close to me might have thought the prospect, this weekend I found myself skydiving for the second time in my life.
From the secluded county roads of East Troy, Skydive Milwaukee hardly looks as exciting as the services it advertises – a gray ranch-style building with a dozen cars parked on the front lawn – yet it has been witness to thousands of jumps. Since 1963, the members of the sport parachute club Sky Knights have owned and operated the drop zone, training first jump students and giving experienced jumpers a place to do what they love.
After checking in, I move to the backyard where 10 jumpers climb into a plane stalled thirty yards away, preparing for their next dive.
I walk over to meet the other people in my load, and Rick Helm introduces himself as my tandem instructor. Rick has been jumping at Skydive Milwaukee for nine years, making more than 1,000 dives last year alone. Like most enthusiasts of the sport, his first skydive started as a dare.
“My buddy and I were driving past (Skydive Milwaukee), and he said, ‘Oh, we should go skydiving’ as a joke,” Rick explains. “I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ and he said, ‘No, you weren’t supposed to say that.’”
He takes me to a prep room, where I slide into a bright red jump suit and a hat to cover my ears, on account of the cold October wind that shows no chance of warming with altitude. He gives me a rundown of my duties for the jump: cross my arms over my chest until we exit the plane, extend them and arch my back during free fall, and relax the rest of the way down. All we have to do now is wait for the plane.
Andy Riggs is as enthusiastic as I am about my skydiving endeavors, since his radio commercials for Skydive Milwaukee initially sparked my interest. Now that he has his A license – the first of four levels of skydiving licenses – he jumps every week, somehow managing to squeeze in his morning radio show, “Wes, Riggs and Alley,” on 103.7 KISS FM.
“You can’t (describe skydiving),” he explains, “because it’s like the greatest and most terrifying thing you’ll ever do. … Once you land on the ground, you look up and you think, ‘How did I get down here? Oh, I jumped out of an airplane. That’s pretty awesome. Let’s go do it again!’”
The plane finally arrives. Rick and I climb in, followed by Riggs and the five other jumpers in our load. When we take off, I lurch forward from the near-vertical ascent. Cars and houses disappear and plots of land make a giant checkerboard on the earth below. As the plane continues to climb, the cold air makes it harder to breathe. Soon, Rick hooks me up to his harness, puts goggles over my eyes and reassures me, “You’re not going anywhere without me.”
Riggs looks back and gives me a fist-bump for good luck. The door opens. The other divers leave one by one. Rick and I are the last to jump.
My feet dangle over the side of the plane. A split second of doubt crosses my mind, as I begin to comprehend what I am about to do. Before I have time to hesitate, we fall. We must be moving, since the wind is whipping past my face and freezing my fingers, but the world appears to stand still. I am suspended in time.
After a 40-second free fall, Rick opens the parachute, and I get a chance to survey my surroundings. The cities below look like part of a vast oil paintings. Milwaukee peaks out through a foggy haze 30 miles away. On a clear day, even the Chicago skyline is visible.
After a mere seven minutes, we are back on the ground, recovering from a rush of adrenaline and ecstasy.
Skydiving’s most frequent criticism the risk of fatality or injury. If a cord snaps or a parachute fails to open, there’s only so much you can do to prevent an unwelcome meeting with the ground. Despite the rarity of such unfortunate malfunctions, every jumper is ready and willing to take that risk for love of the sport.
“There’s always the fact that you might die, but you might die doing anything,” Riggs says. “You could pull out of the parking lot and get hit by a drunk driver or somebody that’s not paying attention driving. We’re all gonna die in some way, but if I die skydiving, I die doing something I love.”
From the picturesque views to the sensations of flying, this extreme sport intrigues me, as it has so many others before.