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Skydiving At The Ranch
by Sarah Skye

"Ready, Set, Arch!" You’re gone, and you’ll be back for more! I recently had my first experience at doing something I thought I’d never do. Yes, I jumped out of an airplane on my rather long lunch break from work this past Friday. Some of the construction crew at a job site I work on informed me they were about to go skydiving at The Ranch in Gardiner, New York, and I was asked to come along. Well, it sure beats going around the corner for a deli sandwich and an iced tea. This was something I vowed to myself that I would do before I died, and preferably not immediately before I died. My quest was not to fulfill a need for adrenaline rushes like most rock climbers, auto race car drivers or bungee chord jumpers. Rather, it was to conquer my absolute biggest fear: airplanes and heights.

I’m one of the least likely people to ever decide to actually do such a thing. That is why I had to do it, right then and there. If it was a planned activity, I surely would have not slept for the month prior to the event, bitten off all my nails, and bailed out at the last moment. To be invited and go through with it on an impulse was the only way I was to have a chance at following through with this utterly insane encounter.

So, shortly after my group of 12 colleagues and their friends drove around the corner to The Ranch, I followed suit. Entering the gates, ornamented with an airplane propeller, I realized that I was totally bonkers. How could I possibly jump out of an airplane at 13000 feet when I wouldn’t even go on the children’s rides at the Ulster County Fair? The merry-go-round was about the extent of my bravery. I parked my car and went over to the tented pavilion where instructors were preparing their parachutes for their next
jump. A group of soon-to-be daredevils was putting on jumpsuits for their "trip." Behind the office area, outside, were my pals all receiving the training session. Standing around in a semi-circle, faces alert and eyes showing a sense of excitement mixed with apprehension, stood my "group."

Leading the training session was a large, military-like, teddy bear of a fella, explaining to our group what was to take place once we were on the plane. Apparently, I had already missed the video portion of the training session, which I saw once the big fella completed his instructions. Each of us in the group had to go through the arm and hand signal motions the instructor was guiding us through. We then placed ourselves on a dolly on the ground showing we understood the "arch" position, which we would be positioned in when we jumped out of the plane. When my turn came up, all I could think of as he said, "keep your thighs up higher and arch your head back farther," was that I must be out of my mind.

A few times, I asked passing instructors where I was to pay for my adventure. They kept advising me not to pay until just before I get on the plane, in the event I backed out of the deal. Logically, all I could figure was that they must know better. They have probably seen many people back out and they didn’t want the cash-return flow dilemma.

It was then my and another late-comer’s turn to view the instructional video. The Ranch employees obviously made the video, rather than a professional video editor. That gave it a homey feel. It was filled with a lot of humor (as I guess you’ve got to have one if plan to partake in such a sport) as well as dire seriousness about the risks involved in skydiving. To put it mildly, they drove the point home. While we were watching the video, we were filling out forms which they explain on the video are essentially "signing your life away." While initialing here and there that I realize this sport could result in serious injury, even death, I watched the video of other first-time divers jumping out of a plane.

Now realize, the first time you jump, you are not merely placed on a plane with a parachute attached to your back, trying to remember the instructions at your session. Rather, your first jump is a tandem jump. This means you have a licensed, trained, professional instructor who has a parachute on his or her back, and they are strapped to your back. It’s sort of like being a baby kangaroo, and you are tucked safely into the instructor’s pouch until they land you tenderly to the ground. And that they do, I promise you.

It was drizzling the day of our jump, so there were a few delays in getting each plane in the air. The reason being, when it drizzles where we stand on the ground, when you are dropping out of airplane at 200 m.p.h., the little drizzles feel more like little ice chunks pelting your skin. The rain also, obviously, dampens the canopy of the parachutes, and they take a while to dry. Lastly, if you hired a videographer to jump out with you and your instructor so they could video your pale, care-worn face, the rain drops are not user-friendly to their camera equipment. Another consequence of the rain was that we were unable to climb to the proposed 13,500 feet height, due to cloud cover. Rather, we elevated to 9,000 feet. This meant we would be unable to "freefall" for more than 15 seconds since the parachute had to be released at 6,000 feet. Gee, I can only freefall for 15 seconds rather than 35 seconds. Well, I surely couldn’t have a heart attack in only 15 seconds, so it was a blessing to me. Others were somewhat disappointed as they wanted a longer fall. Spare me, or so I thought. Now I know what they were talking about.

Fortunately, each plane load did get a chance to eventually go up, and my group was divided into three plane loads. I was, thanks to my tardiness, scheduled to go down on the third plane, allowing me to see my other pals go up before me, so I could confirm my intentions based on their reactions.

The longer I waited, the less nervous I was. I got a chance to speak with several of the instructors. They told tales about their experiences, which included totals of over 1000 jumps. I discussed, with other first-time jumpers, their fears. I discovered that three of the passengers on my plane were celebrating their birthdays. Finally, the first plane of my group went up. It was an incredible experience watching what appeared to be flecks of color in the sky eventually become a gorgeous display of tandem jumpers exhibiting their resplendent parachute canopies, willowing toward the ground, safely. The look of pure exhilaration on their faces and hearing them shout "I did it!" was highly inspirational. I was pretty sure I would do it.

After the second plane containing members of my group streamed out of the sky, I was actually starting to get psyched. In this plane, there were some seasoned jumpers who came down solo and performed a few awe-inspiring stunts. By then, I was already in my jumpsuit. My money was clenched in my clammy palms. My instructor had been doing back-to-back tandem jumps with first-time divers, so I hadn’t yet consulted with him. When he came down, he came straight over to me, confidently, and asked if I was ready to practice. Fortunately, he had an extremely nurturing quality about him. He was not much taller than me, which lessened my concern that I would have the big fella, who ran the tutorial earlier on, strapped to my back while descending 200 m.p.h. out of an airplane.

My instructor, Gino, had been jumping since 1983. That’s sixteen years experience, and it showed. He led me through the motions at the training section, which lessened my concern greatly. I don’t believe I absorbed too much of what I heard earlier, due to my panic-stricken stature. His encouraging and gentle instruction relieved my anxiety greatly. Once I had my harness on, and the plane was in its take-off position, I was then allowed to pay the fee. I guess there was no turning back now.

Gino, paternally led me to the plane, asking me if I was all right and reassuring me that I was going to do a great job. He informed me that women are usually better divers because they don’t tense up as much mid-flight, allowing them to enjoy the ride more. All I could think was, "Ha! Little do you know!" While aboard the plane, which is a huge fear of mine in itself, I was actually fairly relaxed and became pumped up to do this amazing feat. I looked out the window and saw the beautiful Hudson Valley region on a misty day, the gray modulations allowing the deeper greens to stand out more. It was quite beautiful.

There were two rows of passengers, each with an instructor strapped to their back. We sat in a position such that each group of tandem jumpers sat between our legs in front of us. Of course, I had the big fella from earlier placed in front of me with his sheer weight well-nigh crushing my knee joints against the airplane walls, but that didn’t matter much. It took my mind off the oncoming expectation.

Browsing at some of my co-passengers' faces, I saw some who looked sober and calm, others who couldn’t stop smiling the broadest, nervous smile they could muster, and those who looked quite earnest in their quest for the thrill of a lifetime. Observing the others, with Gino behind me asking every few moments how I was doing, allowed me to take my mind off the endeavor at hand.

All of a sudden, we reached our destined elevation. Gino told me to stand up in a crouched position. I got instant cotton-mouth. People started jumping out of the plane! Immediately before me, my pal, Brian, from work carefully followed instruction and poof! He was gone. Gino guided me to the door exclaiming, "put your toes off the edge of the plane" and my initial reaction was to take my hands off my harness and reach up to the door. That was simply NOT permitted. So I summoned every bit of will to keep my hands before me, secured to my harness, and place my toes off the edge of the plane. We were instructed to keep our eyes on the wing of the plane, to avoid looking down, which I gladly did. Just as Gino started saying, "ready, set…" the pilot yelled "wait!" as he was going to turn around the plane for better direction. Gino pulled me back in and told me to wait until the plane turned around. OK, so the point of placing your toes over the edge of a plane at 9,000 feet in the air was going to have to be repeated. I thought I was going to be sick. In addition, my gams were already shaking from nerves. I had to stand in a crouched position with Gino bearing weight on my back, causing my thighs to want to buckle. I kept telling myself, "You could do it!"

OK, it was again time to stick my toes over the edge of the plane. I REALLY wanted to put my hands out, and my hand actually left my harness for a second, but I realized it was too late. Once again, I approached the edge of the plane, kept my eyes on the right wing of the plane, Gino said, "Ready, set, ARCH!" And we were gone. Dropping approximately 200 m.p.h., there is no way to describe in words what that felt like. The drizzling rain pelted my cheeks, as they warned, but it was a nice distraction. I had to remember to breathe through my nose, because your body wants to trick you into thinking you can’t. Remember, YOU CAN! Just calmly decide to breathe through your nose. Gino tapped my shoulders, which was a signal that I could take my hands off the harness and put them out by my ears. It was like forming a "W" to get the sensation that we are flying. Guess what, we were! The next step was for me to check his parachute release cord. Since our jump was for a short time, he let me know he was going to do it this time so I could just relax and enjoy the ride.

For the ten or fifteen seconds we were free falling, I realized that I was totally safe. I concentrated a bit on telling my body everything was OK. I remembered to breathe through my nose. My cotton mouth got relief since the rain dampened my lips. I tried to absorb all I could of this memory since others who came down warned that they couldn’t even remember the fall. It was an amazing, exhilarating, liberating experience, and it wasn’t even over yet.

Before I knew it, Gino warned that he was about to pull the cord. Swoop! We went from 200 m.p.h., to 0 m.p.h., instantly. Now, that was a lovely feeling. The first word out of my mouth was, not surprisingly, "WOW!" I was fortunate that Gino took me on quite a lengthy parachute ride. He was careful to gently maneuver our chute in different directions, allowing me to take in the views below. He instructed me to step on his feet. This allowed my body to rise just enough to pull the harness from my groin area down to my knees so that I was cradled in the harness like a swing seat. It was an incredibly comfortable position, and allowed me to sit back and thoroughly enjoy the rest of the ride.

To the left of me was Mohonk Mountain House. Below was the landing strip. Speckled here and there were all the lovely little homes I passed by on ground level every day in my automobile. To the right was the field of apple trees, bursting with their splendid harvest. I was in heaven! All I could think of at this point was, "Please, don’t let us come down, I don’t want this to end!"

Gino practiced with me how to land by instructing me to put my legs together and straight out in a 90 degree angle from my body. Every time we practiced, the parachute would come to a stop, thereby prolonging our air time. I could have done that all day. Gino realized I was comfortable enough for him to swing the parachute around in a 360 degree turn, slowly, allowing a panoramic view of the area. I never wanted to come down.

Soon enough, it was time to land. I followed his instruction when he told me to put my legs out. Just as he positioned us precisely on the soft gravel landing circle, he yelled, "And…stand!" Too late. I wasn’t expecting to stand. Skillfully, Gino skimmed aloft with our canopy collapsing above. Ooops, I made a mistake, but no one was hurt.

Well, I didn’t kiss the ground. I thought I was only going to do this ONCE, if I even did it at all. NO WAY!!!! There is no such thing as once in this sport. I was hooked! I would have gotten right on that plane and jumped again, if it were not for the cost. Now, for a gal who is terrified of planes, heights, falling, amusement park rides, and the like, to want to jump right back on the plane and off it again, tells you something. You MUST do this!

Since I’ve landed, I have called almost everyone I know and convinced them they MUST return to The Ranch with me within the next month to tandem jump. My brother’s wedding present will be two tickets for him and his fiancé. My boyfriend’s birthday present will be a ticket for same. My longtime friend from Brooklyn is coming up to try it. Gather a group of ten or more and your ticket price is reduced. Gather 20 in your group, and one jumps FREE! Bring along an extra $70 and get a videotape of your jump. I wish I had it to watch over and over again. In a way, it’s a good thing I don’t have it, as it would only frustrate me each passing day I wasn’t in the air.

Trust me, if I could do it and love it to the extent that I do, YOU can too!

No one is more of a chicken than I, and this little chicken is growing her wings… See you at The Ranch!

You can reach The Ranch by calling (914)255-4033 for prices and group discounts. You can also get CERTIFIED if you can follow the calendar required which informs you how often you have to jump, rates for same, and which levels you need to accomplish. Once you reach a certain point, you can dive for as little as $13 a pop! You should also consider becoming an instructor so you could actually get PAID for taking other virgin jumpers down in tandem. Or, be a videographer, flipping around the jumpers with a camera strapped to your forehead, documenting others’ mirth!

Also, please check out their website http://www.ranchskydive.com

SARAH SKYE