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.
What a Rush!
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."
Chris Farina, Christy Frikken and Josh Hall left lucrative desk-jobs to play in the sky for a living and in competition. They perform dozens of intricately synchronized linking movements in a single freefall.
As we exited the plane in a bunch, I was instantly reminded of how much focus and skill it takes to control a body in flight. The slightest arm or leg movement alters the air flow, and while they pivoted like clockwork, I spiraled onto my back out of control. I expected a justified ribbing on the ground, but they were warm, gracious and anxious to go back up and try it again. Which proved ...
10 World Titles and 24,000 Jumps
skydiving is one of the few sports where amateurs can play with hall of famers. On my last jump of the day, I went up with Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld, a living legend known as "Dan B-C."
But if you didn't know he had 10 world titles and more than 24,000 jumps, you'd think he was just another friendly skydiver. He suggested a little "distance flying" and once we were in the air, we linked up and then he backed away in the fading, golden light.
By pushing arms back and straightening legs, my challenge was to fly to him and tracking across the sky. I grinned. Dad was right. There is nothing like watching a sun set, Superman style. But then again, Dad never got to jump out of a hot air balloon.
As a cherry on top of a incredible weekend, we were up before dawn, packed into a wicker basket with 15 other sky divers. As the giant blow torch singed our bed-heads, we rose gently out of a dew-soaked field and into a brilliant morning.
One by one, the men climbed onto the lip of the basket and stepped away. For added fun, there was a trapeze dangling from the balloon and a few of the guys swung out before letting go. Once the basket was nearly empty, I climbed out and soaked in the scenery. Unlike an airplane jump, where the wind, noise and momentum narrow your awareness, the balloon provides almost-eerie tranquility. With a gratuitous "Good Morning America!" I stepped into the sky, and my guts were instantly in my throat. Jumping at 5,000 feet, the free fall is shorter but somehow much more exhilarating.
It is safer than you think. According to the U.S. Parachute Association, there were 16 skydiving fatalities in 2009, out of nearly 3 million jumps by 32,000 USPA members and 400,000 first-time jumpers. Most years, more people die on golf courses.
Better equipment and training and stricter safety regulations are the reason deadly accidents have been cut by more than half since the 70s. But there is no denying the inherent risk that comes playing dodge ball with the earth. But with risk comes the rush. And managing that risk to land safely on terra firma? Nothing sweeter.