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Up in the air

I was surprised to learn that skydiving feels nothing like falling. I felt a strange calm set in and had a simple, solitary thought: “This is unbelievable.”

As human beings who pride ourselves on our higher cognitive functions, we feel most at ease when we analyze, plot and examine every move we make in an effort to minimize risk and maximize return.

But there are times in life you have to throw caution to the wind and make that leap — because sometimes, this is when the most extraordinary moments happen.

Jumping out of a plane flying 12,000 feet off the ground was probably not one of the most rational, well thought-out things I’ve ever done in my life. Granted, I vetted the skydiving company, The Ranch, taking into account recommendations of skydiver friends (and strategically placed photographs of Sex and the City star Kristin Davis and Today Show anchor Ann Curry in freefall posted on the company website) to decide whom I would hand over my hard-earned $199.

I scheduled our jump for an early summer day to give the instructors enough time to get back into their groove after a winter devoid of skydiving. I decided against buying a skydiving coupon at a discount because I wasn’t about to further inflate the already ballooning risk I was taking for $50 in savings.

But that’s about as much rational thinking as one can do when deciding to skydive. As we sat in The Ranch’s office watching a shabbily-made, campy skydiving instructional video and I found myself about to put my John Hancock on the statement, “I acknowledge that I may die as a result of this activity,” I realized that train called Reason left the station a long time ago.

Skydive — Check! I fell 6,000 feet through the air in less than 60 seconds.

The skydiving instructors’ sadistic sense of humor didn’t help assuage my fears either.

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“How many jumps have you done before?” I asked my tandem partner, Jorge, a Columbian dead-ringer for Antonio Banderas.

“Yours will be my second. After that, I get my certification,” he said with a straight face. If a Ranch employee hadn’t told me earlier that over 500 jumps are required before one can even entertain the notion of training to be an instructor, I may have fainted.

“If something happens to me, she gets everything,” said our friend Fiel, pointing to his wife Gina.

Between getting fitted into harnesses and going through the motions of the jump with our instructors, time flew and before we knew it, we were running into a 20-seater Twin Otter aircraft charmingly named The Freefall Express.

I found myself strapped on to Jorge and seated less than two feet from the plane’s door. In front of me were professional skydivers doing solo jumps. Behind me were my friends.

I would be the first one in our group out of the door.

I learned something about myself during the airplane’s slow climb up to 12,000 feet: I am not easily scared. When faced with the prospect of hurtling through the ground at 200 feet per second, I couldn’t wipe the giddy smile off my face.

When my turn finally came, Jorge and I inched to the door of the aircraft as practiced. Lazlo, my videographer, clung to the side of the door to time his jump with ours.

Jorge and I rocked back and forth on our heels twice and on the count of three, we were out the door and there was nothing between me and the earth but air.

I expected to have that sickening feeling of my stomach falling to my feet — you know, that feeling that elicits blood-curdling screams when a roller coaster plunges down from its highest point.

Jorge and I ham it up for our freefalling cameraman.

I was surprised to learn that skydiving feels nothing like falling. I felt buoyed by a strong rush of wind from below, as if I was being blown upwards rather than falling downwards. I was so surprised by the feeling that I didn’t even scream. I felt a strange calm set in and had a simple, solitary thought: “This is unbelievable.”

At some point, I realized I should make some sort of sound to let Jorge know I hadn’t passed out so I let out a whoop of joy.

Lazlo swooped in front of us as we hammed it up for the camera.

I relished the thought we were having a photo shoot while plummeting thousands of feet to the ground — how many people can say they’ve done that?

The freefall took less than a minute but felt like a gloriously long time of flying. Soon, the altimeter’s needle crawled to 6,000.

Jorge tapped my hands, reminding me to do the “baby wave” — the waving motion that would tell other skydivers that we were about to deploy our parachute and that they should get the hell out of the way.

When I was told on the ground that I had the option to pull the ripcord, I listened half-heartedly, believing I would be too freaked out during the dive to remember my own name, let alone how to deploy the parachute.

But at 6,000-feet up in the air, my mind was perfectly clear. I reached for the cord and pulled.

With a whoosh, the freefall stopped and we were suddenly drifting through the air like a balloon.

“Do you want to help steer?” asked Jorge. I said yes and pulled the cords with him to turn our parachute towards the right direction.

“You have the most incredible job in the world,” I told him.

For once not cracking sarcastic jokes, Jorge said, “You should thank whoever it is you worship for this gift.”

I looked at all that was before me: the cerulean sky, the cotton-like clouds, the mountains in the distance, and the streams rambling through green fields below. At that moment, I felt immense gratitude that I had been given the chance to experience all this.

A few more turns through the sky, soon we were approaching the landing area at The Ranch.

As we’d practiced, I lifted my legs up to waist level and we landed on the grass with a thud. Lazlo swooped in to catch my reaction on film. I threw my arms out and yelled, “I’m alive!”

When all was said and done, my body went through a flood of emotions and reactions. I was overwhelmed, relieved, exhilarated, and dumbfounded. Less poetically, I was nauseous for a good hour — I guess that was when the message finally got through to the rest of my body that I had just fallen 6,000 feet through the air in less than 60 seconds.

Jumping off a plane was irrational, dangerous and an absolutely risky thing to do. But it is an experience unlike any other that I will never forget nor regret. Because sometimes, it’s these crazy leaps that make these human lives of ours worth living.

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