The Ultimate Thrill Ride

Tandem Skydives Offer All the Fun of Freefall with None of the Work

At an altitude of 13,000 feet my tandem skydiving instructor raises the Cessna’s top-hinged door to check our position over the drop zone. As the two of us—tightly harnessed together at the hips and shoulders—inch ever closer to that open door, it takes all the concentration I can muster to override my brain-stem’s repeated commands to take a solid, white-knuckle grip on something, anything.

On the count of three we throw ourselves into the 100 mile-per-hour windblast and tumble through the air as I watch the blue-and-white Cessna recede from view like something from a surreal, slow-motion dream. As I arch my back and settle into the spread-eagle freefall position, another more welcome sensation sweeps over me. I finally understand what it feels like to fly.

After 60 all-too short seconds of freefall, my instructor pulls the ripcord to deploy the oversize rectangular parachute, jerking our bodies from horizontal to vertical in a split second. As I settle in to admire the scenery on the five-minute float to a gentle stand-up landing, the feeling is a mixture of both gratitude that I’ll live to tell this tale and disappointment that the fun will be over way too soon.

When you stop to think about it, this tandem skydive concept is amazingly simple. The basic equipment, developed in 1984 and proven in millions of jumps since then, consists of a beefy harness worn by the “passenger” and the instructor’s specially-designed parachute pack which allows both individuals to be hooked directly to the large airfoil-style canopy. A reserve parachute, packed by an FAA-certified rigger, and the special microprocessor-controlled activation device that automatically deploys it at a minimum safe altitude in the event of an emergency, offer both an extra margin of safety and some reassurance when it comes time to take that sobering first step out the door.

While some may view jumping out of an airplane as an activity that could appeal only to hard-core adrenaline junkies, the truth is more complicated than that. To be sure, it is the ultimate thrill ride. But freefall also brings with it an incomparable sense of total liberation, a Zen-like feeling of being sublimely in the moment that I’ve found is downright difficult to achieve with both feet on the ground.

Try it once and you’ll see what I mean. But be careful: One jump and you’re liable to be hooked.

Xtrordinary Xtra
While landings with the old-school round parachutes could be rough, landings with the new rectangular ram air-style canopies are similar to stepping off a two-foot tall platform.

Xtrordinary Xtra
If you’re thinking about taking this up as a hobby, check out the Accelerated Freefall (AFF) training program that allows you to make your first solo jumps under the watchful eyes of two experienced AFF instructors.

The Facts
Name: Skydive San Diego
Location: Jamul, CA (about 30 minutes southeast of San Diego)
Phone: 619-216-8416

My Advice

  • Don’t let the fear stop you.ce you leave the door of the airplane, you’ll find all your anxieties will be instantly swept away and replaced with pure elation.
  • Since you’re unlikely to be hurtling through space again anytime soon, spend the extra dough (about $100) to have a photographer jump with you and record the moment on film and video.
  • While anyone in decent physical condition can jump, most tandem skydiving operations have a maximum weight restriction.