Taking Flight

I have wanted to go indoor skydiving for the last decade. It’s been on the proverbial bucket list waiting for the stars to align with the right set of people and circumstances. Well, it finally came together the last week of 2017. My daughter was home from Seattle and my son from Miami. The weather was too cold to see the Christmas Lights at Busch Gardens (the original plan), so we decided that our last day together as a family would be spent trying something indoors and adventurous. This more than qualified!

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If you live in Wayne County, North Carolina, you see billboards for Paraclete XP when you’re driving along the highway. It’s an indoor skydiving facility west of Fayetteville, NC, in the town of Raeford. Due to the long drive and an early flight time the following day, we had to get on the road by 7:15 AM. Comfy clothes and sneakers were a prerequisite. We arrived as requested 45 minutes before flight time at 9:15 AM. Prepared for the unknown.

This is what I learned about taking flight:

Be prepared.  Comfy clothes are a must. It’s not like you would show up for indoor skydiving in heels and a skirt, but sweatpants and a t-shirt were the right clothes, regardless of the temperature outside. I didn’t realize we would be suited up in a jumpsuit, so dressing in layers that could be removed was important. We were also advised to take off any jewelry and watches. Had I realized that, I would have left my watch and jewelry at home. There were lockers available for storage, but not having to keep track of something and recovering post-flight would have been one less thing to think about. Keep it simple and be prepared.

The right instructor.  I don’t know if it was just sheer luck or if the universe aligned us with Manny. By his accent, we figured he was an Aussie or a Kiwi. Manny was at least 6’ 2”, engaging and optimistic. There was a couple ahead of us in the flight chamber and their instructor was a petite man. He did a fine job, but I couldn’t imagine him trying to corral my bulky weightlifting son or reigning in my 5’ 8” frame. I was completely confident in Manny’s abilities and I feel like I wasn’t apprehensive because he seemed in full command. As expected, he took control and did an excellent job herding us flying kittens. Make sure you are matched with the right instructor.

Sign language.  I had not realized it, but you cannot communicate once you are all suited up with earplugs and helmet in the waiting chamber, let alone in flight while in a loud wind tunnel. We watched a short instructional video that taught us the basics of keeping our chin up, our legs straight and arms stretched out. The most important hand signal was that of an extended thumb and pinky for “relax and breathe”. The other important thing to realize is that you really can’t communicate once in the flight chamber. All the communication is coming from the instructor. If you want to bail because you are terrified, well then All. Bets. Are. Off. I hadn’t realized this before entering the chamber. No one had given me the “Ah, hell no, I want out of this” sign. Turns out, it wasn’t necessary. Just know that once you are in the flight chamber, you are in.

Every move counts.  We had one other person in our flight group besides my children and me. Our impression was that he had been indoor skydiving before. He was the first one to fly, then my son, Benson, my daughter, Natalie, and then, yours truly. I was glad this kid (he appeared to be in his late teens) was first. He was a gangly mess. His knees were bent for most of the first two-minute flight and he seemed to bounce all over the chamber. As they say, we were schooled of what not to do by this young chap. If I knew one thing, I was going to keep my legs straight. My son was next and made it look easy.  He was calm and purposeful. My daughter was next and then I was up. Gulp.  I covered my chest with my arms and slid into the chamber. The sheer volume of air being shoved up my nose felt like a fire hose. You would think I would realize that stepping into a wind tunnel would, by definition, be full of wind. I had not anticipated the amount of wind, which is crazy, in retrospect. The first flight in, I realized that even a millimeter of change in one’s hand or chin could cause a sudden directional or altitudinal change. Manny kept signaling for me to take a breath. Somehow, with all that air rushing around you, it’s instinctual to not breathe. I finally started to get a handle on relaxing, breathing and making small adjustments by the end of the first flight.

New heights.  We each had had our turn and now we were up for our second flight in the chamber. The gangly kid went first and then, next up was Benson. Towards the middle of Benson’s second flight, Manny latched onto Benson and gave the wind operator a nod. Suddenly Benson and Manny lifted off and went up about 2 and half stories above us. We all ran to the glass. I thought. Well, that’s cool. Benson was so rock solid at this, he got to fly high. Next up was Natalie. Sure enough, she and Manny went flying two and half stories up. I figured. There’s no way Manny will take this old, uncoordinated lady up into the stratosphere. Well, I was wrong. Check out the recording on YouTube. First of all, when I went for my second flight I went higher than Manny’s head without realizing how I had done it. I had found my wings. Next thing I knew, Manny had latched on and into the high reaches of the wind tunnel we went. I have to say, I wasn’t scared. I really was relaxed and just enjoyed the ride. Stressing out over whether I would hit new heights didn’t change the outcome.

Exhilaration. I hadn’t expected that each time I left the flight chamber, I would become light-headed and my heart would race. Again, seems obvious in retrospect. I was so focused on the experience that I wasn’t paying attention to my vital signs. It was an amazing sense of wonder and exhilaration. I had just flown for upwards of 4 minutes total and it was life-affirming. I think most of us have had dreams of flying but to actually do it…for real? Amazing. To leave the restraints of gravity and to float above the ground;I will have that experience forever.

When we were all finished and basking in the glow of our accomplishment, I asked one of the instructors on how indoor skydiving compare to free-fall skydiving. I asked how long free-falling normally lasted. He said one minute. I had just been flying for close to four minutes. Hmmmm. Actual skydiving was never on my bucket list. It is now.

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