A story by a graduate of the Ultimate Skydiving Adventures student program, Jim Armstrong. Please note: this story has graphic language so read at your own risk!
By Jim Armstrong
GO JUMP OUT OF A FUCKING PLANE!
“I need you to let go of the plane!” my instructor yelled over the roar of the Cessna’s engine.
It was a week after my fifty-second birthday and I was on my first tandem skydive, sitting in front of Cody Irby—my instructor to whom I was harnessed—a mile-and-a-half above the ground. The plane’s door had just popped open and we were moving towards it to jump out. I kept instinctively reaching up to grab handholds in the plane, which is why Cody had to keep reminding me to let go. I was so scared and pumped up with adrenalin that I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. Next thing I knew I was sitting in the plane’s doorway, my feet on a small step outside the plane, with nothing between me and the ground 7,500 feet below.
How the hell had I gotten into this situation?
It all started in 2013 when I was surfing YouTube. I came across a video of a guy standing on a cliff wearing what looked like a nylon flying squirrel suit.
“Oh my God!” I thought. “It looks like he’s going to jump off the cliff in that thing!”
Three seconds later that’s exactly what he did. He walked up to the ledge, spread his arms, and stepped off into mid-air. For one terrifying moment he plunged straight down like a sack of bowling balls, and then—he was flying! He soared along the face of a mountain in horizontal flight! He looked like a superhero as he flew past treetops, across mountain meadows, and along the face of massive cliffs. I literally couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and briefly wondered if this was a CGI trick.
I found other videos like that one, and quickly learned that what I was seeing was wingsuit flying, a discipline within the sport of skydiving. These people were fulfilling a childhood dream of mine: to fly like Superman.
I immediately wanted to do it.
I Googled how to become a wingsuit flyer and learned that in order to pilot a wingsuit one must first become a skydiver. There were no drop zones near my home at the time, and—with one thing and another—the idea was back burnered. But I never stopped thinking about it.
I’ve battled depression since my late twenties. During the Summer of 2019 I was going through an awful time, struggling with an especially deep low, and was finding it difficult to feel good about anything. I spent months slogging through this morass—every day was a battle. Worse, I wasn’t getting any better. Then a thought popped into my head:
Go jump out of a fucking plane.
I Googled skydiving near me and discovered that a new drop zone—Ultimate Skydiving Adventures—had recently opened within thirty minutes of my home. I mentioned it to my wife, Jolyn, (who knew all about my interest in the sport) and she told me to go for it. When I put off making the phone call, she kept asking, “Have you called the dropzone yet?”
I called U.S.A. on a Friday and spoke with Bri, whom I later learned is U.S.A.’s receptionist, jump coordinator, scheduler, and all-around new-jumper ambassador for the business. I told her I wanted to schedule a tandem, but that my real goal was to become a skydiver, and ultimately a wingsuiter. I was excited about this new journey, but also more than a little nervous. Bri was so warm, friendly, and enthusiastic that she immediately put me at ease. I tell you, when you’re contemplating jumping out of a plane for the first time, never underestimate the power of a friendly, reassuring voice. She answered all of my questions, informed me that they could help me reach all of my goals, and booked a tandem jump for that Monday.
After I hung up, I had the sensation that I was embarking on a journey to an exotic country. I felt really good in a dreamy, surreal way. Halfway through the weekend it hit me that I hadn’t felt depressed for the past twenty-four hours. I felt better than I had in a long, long time.
Sunday night I kept waking up thinking, “Oh my God, I’m jumping out of a plane tomorrow!” When Monday morning arrived I was so amped up I could hardly sit still. Jolyn kept saying, “You’re going to jump out of a plane today!” My mind couldn’t quite wrap itself around this fact. I was floating in a weird, surreal, excited dream state, almost as if I had imbibed a mild hallucinogenic.
Jolyn and I arrived at U.S.A. and were greeted by Bri, who made us feel at home and at ease. She got me weighed, signed in, and prepped for the jump. Before I knew it, I was suited up and walking to the plane with Cody. When the plane took off, I began to feel a new sensation along with the surreal excitement: fear. As the plane climbed my fear increased. By the time the door opened, my fear was redlining, which is why my hands kept reflexively gripping parts of the plane and Cody had to keep reminding me to let go.
So here I was, staring past my feet at the ground thousands of feet below, the wind blasting into my face, and feeling sheer terror at a level I’ve never experienced in my life. All my instincts were screaming, “What the fuck are you doing?!”
And then we stepped into the void.
Instantly the fear vanished and was replaced with pure, hi-octane exhilaration as we freefell at 120 miles per hour. I was shocked to discover that there was no sensation of falling, no stomach-flips like you experience on a steep drop on a roller coaster. Instead, I had the sensation of flying on a cushion of air. I was shouting at the top of my lungs from the pure excitement! Damn, I’d never felt like this in my life! To go from sheer terror to overwhelming exhilaration in the space to two seconds is hard to describe. You’ve just got to experience it for yourself.
Then we were under canopy, the roar of wind replaced with the gentle whoosh of the parachute as we sailed through the sky. Miles of beautiful, Colorado country were spread out before me. It was peaceful, serene.
After we landed I whooped it up like an idiot. Cody grinned, gave me a high five, and told me to head back to the hangar. He sees first-timers like me go a little crazy every day. He seems to like it.
All I wanted to do was climb back in the plane and do it again.
That day I spoke with Ben Lowe, the owner of U.S.A., and told him my wingsuiting goal. He was encouraging, and genuinely excited that I wanted to make this happen. I immediately signed up for the A-license course.
Over the next two months I got up early several times a week, drove out to the dropzone and continued my journey to becoming a skydiver. It was a life-transforming experience. You see, each day I was not only learning the skills to skydive safely, I was fighting a battle in my mind. Every single day I had to make a conscious decision to get in a plane, fly up to 9,000 feet, then jump out. I had to overcome million-year-old self-preservation instincts, and do something that, until a mere hundred-and-eight years ago, no human being ever done before in the history of the world: jump out of a fucking plane.
Slowly, with each jump, I learned to conquer the fear. I learned to willingly embrace the unknown, to stare death in the face and leap into the void. Yes, modern skydiving equipment is incredibly safe, with multiple life-saving redundancies built in. Yes, we do rigorous safety checks before each jump. Yes, the odds of dying in any single skydive are only 1-in-250,000. Yes, I’m more likely to get killed driving to the dropzone than from jumping out of the plane once I get there. But when you’re staring out the door of a plane with nothing between you and the ground thousands of feet below, none of that matters. Every time
I jump I have to overcome something inside me that wants to stay on that plane. Every time it’s a leap of faith.
I write this barely a year after my first tandem. I earned my A-license, and accomplishing that felt like a superhuman achievement, especially because I entered this sport later in life. This journey I have undertaken has worked—and is still working—a transformation in me that I don’t fully understand. For one thing, before and after jump days my depression vanishes. On the other days it’s much more manageable. I’m more energized in everything I do.
Skydiving has helped me to think beyond my limitations in other areas. During this past year Jolyn and I started two new businesses. As we were making our decision on what direction to pursue, we kept asking ourselves, “What’s the business equivalent of jumping out of a plane?” In other words, what business would be exciting, energizing, fulfilling, scary, and something we were eager to do, instead of something that was just an expedient way to make money. The two businesses we’ve chosen are a direct reflection of asking that question.
I’m motivated to exercise and eat right so I can be better at this sport. I’m more fit than I’ve been in five years, and I have more energy. I’m losing weight.
And the transformation keeps happening. I can’t wait to see what else this journey brings.