Why I Started Skydiving

Photo by Don Carrington

I started skydiving six years ago. I had recently returned from a combat deployment in Iraq and had fallen back into the sleepy routine of life in Kentucky. Beer, bourbon and BBQ and usually in that order. Life was good but I missed the thrill of being stuck on the side of the road in Iraq with one trailer ablaze and another with smoking brake lines--at night with the threat of IEDs and election violence weighing like lead in my stomach. I missed the random explosions that littered an afternoon and the siren that was supposed to precede the impact of IDF but rarely did. I missed the sheer pleasure of blowing four tires on a Heavy Equipment Trailer in "IED lane" Muqdadiyah without slowing and the eeriness of ground guiding our trucks through Kanan during a sand storm. I missed fear and adrenaline and the banality of wading through moon dust to chase kids off our construction site. You forget time and place but you don't ever re-accustom yourself to life where the most important choice is where we're partying in the Gulch tonight. You just don't. Or who's gossiping about whom at church.

 

Previously I had thought of skydiving only once. A lone photo of Golden Knight Cheryl Stearn that I had encountered on a military website while in college. If I thought of it at all skydiving seemed the purview of White people. In particular old white guys in big baggy jumpsuits. So not really my thing. Mostly I ran because I was good at it and it seemed the thing to do. I've been a runner my entire life. In Kentucky I ran up and down trails, I ran every morning and on weekends between Friday nights in Nashville and Sunday night dinners with the other single lieutenants.

But when my 25th birthday came around in 2011 I decided to sign up for a tandem skydive. I wasn't a newcomer to jumping out of planes. The Army had sent me to jump school as an awkward college sophomore in 2006. However, this was different. My friends were unmoved. I was determined to go but not excited about going alone. At the last minute someone said yes. And off we went. 

Life was good but I missed the thrill of being stuck on the side of the road in Iraq with one trailer ablaze and another with smoking brake lines.

Six years later, I don't remember much about the dive. I do remember the first experienced solo skydiver I ever met. He was a slight, older gentleman in the four seater Cessna 182 along with my tandem instructor and I. Just before the door opened at 10,000ft the man calmly confessed, this is my first time jumping here; can you show me where the drop zone is? And having received his answer he vanished out the side door. This was shocking to hear. At 25 years old the Army had taught me to have primary, alternate and contingency plans for every aspect of my life. That included the Army. I had spent the summer studying for the LSAT and wondering what the future held. It was absolutely shocking and thrilling that anyone would get on a plane without knowing exactly where he was going and expect to jump out of it. In contrast, my days started at 4:30am and were scheduled in 30min blocks until it typically ended asleep at my desk or kitchen table around 10pm each night. My biggest fear, now that I had redeployed, was that I would accidentally forget my reflective PT belt at morning formation or leave my patrol cap in my car; requiring me to do the long walk of shame, bareheaded, from the gym shower back to my vehicle.

That summer was the beginning of something new. It was a slow slide from excellent to a perfectly adequate Army officer but the beginning of everything else. I stopped worrying about the damn PT belt. I stopped sleeping in my office. I took a solo trip to Puerto Rico alone and signed up for skydiving lessons. I learned to skydive in a week and continued to progress while visiting and camping at drop zones across Georgia and Florida, Mississippi and North Carolina. I landed in a tree and broke my hand. I had my first cutaway. I watched a friend get seriously injured on a jump. I got back in the plane and kept jumping and learning. I was living and learning and discovering who I was supposed to be. Life is supposed to be messy. If you never even allow yourself the opportunity to get hurt you're not doing it right.

Skydiving is everything your mother tells you not to do. It's dangerous. You can get seriously injured. I've had friends die almost every year since 2013. It's dirty and sweaty and involves a prodigious amount of camping, skinny dipping in lakes and drinking around campfires. Age wise and socioeconomically you brush shoulders with a cross section of America: 20 year old construction workers living paycheck to paycheck skydive with retired octogenarians. Otherwise, it's one of the least diverse adventure sports. It's got a long way to go. Still, there is something about the sport that is life changing.

You learn to think for yourself. At the end of the day you are responsible for your safety. There's no jump master to tell me what to do. If I end up in the trees it's because I put myself there. And you quickly learn the conditions where it's better to be on the ground than in the air. You learn to slow down and appreciate beauty in the natural world. Have you ever contemplated a sunset from 12,000ft as you slowly make your way towards earth. You learn confidence! Jumping has made me more situationally aware whether I'm sizing up weather conditions or identifying and disrupting a chain of events that could have led to a fatal accident. I love applying my risk management skills in a real life setting where something is actually in the balance. Skydivers do this on every jump and learn from their mistakes. You learn how to approach and locate mentors. Whether your sub specialty is wingsuiting, basejumping, freefly or relative work coaches and mentors are the only way to learn. You speak a global language. The community is small but it's very global. I've jumped in the Philippines and in Thailand and I look forward to jumping in many other countries.