I know what you're thinking: Why would anyone with more than 12 working brain cells ever willingly throw themselves out of a perfectly good airplane?
"There is no such thing as a perfectly good airplane" is a common retort worn on T-shirts around drop zones, but that is an unsatisfying answer by itself. So here are a few more:
My altitude sickness is hereditary. When the elder Bill Weir wasn't working the graveyard shift as a Milwaukee cop, he was jumping out of Cessna 180s at a little suburban airstrip called Aero Park. He met a cute blonde in freefall, made her my stepmother and they would drag little Billy along where I spent countless weekends as a "drop-zone rat," listening to an odd group of adrenaline-junkie bankers, welders, teachers and nurses laugh and joke as they repacked their chutes for the next load.
And I spent countless weekends peering into the sky for his familiar red-and-black canopy, wanting to be just like him.
The minute I turned 18, I did my first tandem and as soon as I could afford it, went through the classes to get my license at the mecca of the sport, Perris Valley, Calif. I chalked up nearly 100 jumps before life pulled me away. It had been more than a decade since my last jump, and when this delicious assignment came my way, it took less than a nanosecond to decide to head back out and get reacquainted because ...
It's the most fun I've ever had with pants on. When the airplane door opens and the cold air roars through the cabin, everyone onboard grins. The anticipation of what is about to occur provides a giddy sense of focus. And it intensifies as you step into the door and look down on the earth's expanse more than two miles below.
To a skydiver, nothing is more frustrating than flying commercial -- being sealed in the tube, forced to look down through tiny portholes. But hanging out of a Twin Otter, or running out the back door of a Sky Van, is the epitome of freedom and thrill. It all came rushing back in my first jump with legendary instructor Pat McGowan.
Our morning began in the classroom, brushing up on safety procedures … and a few minutes in the wind tunnel getting reacquainted with the sensation of freefall, we stepped into the door, gave a "Ready, set, see ya!" and leaped into space.
After getting stable, he reached over and showed me three fingers; a reminder to do three practice touches to my rip cord, just below my right hip. I checked the altimeter. We jumped 12,500 feet above the California desert floor and after falling at 32 feet per second, reached terminal velocity of 120 miles per hour. After around 45 seconds of free fall, I waved my arms to let Pat know it was time to slow things down.
The rip cord pulled a small pilot chute out of a pocket near my hip, which caught air and jerked the canopy out clean. With an instantaneous snap, the noise stopped and I floated. My joy-whoop was so loud they heard it on the ground, 5,000 feet below.
Because I was "current," we rushed back up for more, running out of the back of the Sky Van on one jump, falling backwards in a "Nestea Plunge" on the next. While I was always content to jump solo, Perris Fury, one of the best four-way teams in the world, invited me to join them for an airborne version of "Dancing With the Stars."