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Up in the Air: Panic at 11,000 Feet

Plummeting toward the Earth | Photo by Alison Perelman
Plummeting toward the Earth | Photo by Alison Perelman

Nobody told me how hard it would be to breathe.

When you go skydiving for the first time, you're presented with a lot of information. You're instructed on how to properly exit the plane, to not jump so much as balance on the edge and fall forward. You're told what position to assume in mid-air, extending your arms spread-eagle and arching your legs up behind you. You're taught to lift your legs in front of you at a 90-degree angle when you come in for a landing so that you can land softly on your butt.

But not once during this pre-jump training are you warned how difficult it will be to breathe once you start your descent.

Which is why, as I'm plummeting toward the Earth at terminal velocity, a large stranger with my life in his hands strapped to my back, I find myself in a state of shock. The wind is howling by my face so powerfully that I can't seem to draw a breath. All the training and instructions I've received have been sent to the back of my mind -- I hope I'm in the right position, but for now all I can focus on is figuring out a way to get oxygen into my lungs.

"Skydiving is an inherently dangerous sport," read the waiver I had to sign before jumping.

It's borderline insulting. You're telling me that diving out of a moving aircraft at 11,000 feet is dangerous? Who would have known?

The interesting thing, however, is that relatively speaking, skydiving is actually not that dangerous. In 2015, the United States Parachute Association reported only 21 deaths in the United States out of 4.2 million jumps. That's a fatality rate of 0.005 per 1,000 jumps. For tandem skydiving, it's only 0.002. Skydiving enthusiasts will be quick to point out that you're much more likely to be killed driving to the skydiving base than you are actually skydiving.

These statistics are running through my mind as I'm plunging through the air, sporadically turning my head to the side to siphon what breathable air I can from the wind whistling by my face with deafening force. That data was at one point reassuring, but now it's far from comforting. 0.002 is low, but it's not zero. Someone is responsible for that number. Somebody with a home and a family and friends, somebody with a job and a favorite movie and a list of fears, somebody with dreams and aspirations and a love of their life. Somebody showed up to a skydiving base, anxious and excited, and it became the last thing they ever checked off their bucket list.

I'm trapped in my head, beginning to worry if I'm about to become part of that 0.002. I'm rocketing closer to the ground, and all I can think is what a horrible way to die this would be. Due to the volume of the air rushing past you in freefall, you can't hear anybody speak, and I begin to realize I might never hear a human voice again.

I try to tell myself that I'm overreacting, that my breathing troubles are probably just a manifestation of anxiety and adrenaline rush, but in my current state of intense sensory overload, logic and reason fall by the wayside. The idea of "terminal velocity" begins to take on a much darker connotation.

Soon, my sense of worry gives way to pure anger. This is so stupid, I think to myself. It feels childish, but the sentiment is there nonetheless. We'd come out here as a celebration. Finals were over and soon we'd get to go home for the semester, so let's go do something wild and crazy.

And for what? What was the point? To say we'd done it, to brag and boast to our peers that we'd jumped out of a plane? Was it for the thrill of the experience? Because right now, I'm far from thrilled. Right now, I'm coming to the realization that this decision to skydive, at one point an enthusiastic expression of youthful spontaneity, is about to end with me splattered flat as a pancake in some field in Middletown.

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And even if I survive, even if I am just being overdramatic and this is simply a routine jump, I'm now acutely aware of death all around me. As the statistics pointed out, I'm more likely to die while driving than I am skydiving. This won't even be the most dangerous thing I do today. After it's over, I've got a 15-hour drive back home for the summer -- I wonder what the fatality rate per 1,000 is for that. What's the point of anything if death can swing its scythe at any moment?

Suddenly, I'm jerked upright, jolted out of freefall and suspended in a gradual descent. I look up and see a white chute pillowing above us, guiding us gently toward the ground, still several thousand feet below.

"Man, you have no idea what just happened, do you?" my tandem guide says.

I laugh. He's right. I had been so wrapped up in the intensity of the situation, in the rush of adrenaline and my inability to breathe, I hadn't even taken a moment to truly experience the freefall.

"No, I guess not," I reply. "That was insane."

The instructor repeats himself.

"No, I mean you have no idea what just happened, do you?"

Confused, I look as the guide points at a large piece of fabric floating away off to our right.

"You see that? That's our parachute." He points up. "This is the reserve."

I'm shocked into silence. After all of that, I hadn't died, but I'd actually come closer than expected. Granted, reserve chutes rarely fail -- only certain professionals are even allowed to pack them. But nevertheless, the tattered cloth floating away from us acts as a solemn reminder of the human error that could've led to our demise.

I feel lucky. I feel relieved. But most of all, I finally feel present. I'm shocked by the beauty of the world spread out around me. Not everyone gets the chance to experience it from this perspective, and I'm astonished that not once during my sixty seconds of freefall had I taken a moment to notice it.

The fields of Ohio seem bland from the ground, but from up above, they're spectacular. They stretch on for miles, grand and majestic, yet quiet and humble. And here I am, my feet dangling above it all, at once essential and wonderfully insignificant.

Our harness might snap and we might tumble to the ground. I might crash my car on the drive home tonight. Or I might live to be 100 and pass away surrounded by loving family.

But for now, none of that matters. For now all I can do relax in my harness, look around me and enjoy being above it all.

I close my eyes.

And I breathe.