Skydiving: Taking The Plunge

I'm Peter Pan. I'm flying. The horizon spreads out all around. The earth, two miles below, is a jumble of browns and greens. There's a roar in my ears--I'm dropping at 120 mph, face down, arms and legs spread. Rushing air presses the goggles into my face. This is some fun.

New technology and training techniques have moved parachuting from the take-a-chance column to something approaching, say, driving on the interstate. Best of all, it's no longer necessary to go through a laborious series of static line jumps at lower altitudes to build up to the main event--the free-fall.

Now, on the same day, after six hours of classroom training, you can be ready to skydive. For 45 seconds, you swoop birdlike toward the earth, limbs buoyed by the onrushing air. There is none of the gut-churning sensation of a fast elevator ride. Instead, it's pure exhilaration.

At 4,200 feet, after falling more than 1 1/2 miles, it's time to pull the ripcord. The altimeter on your chest tells you this. And if you're busy gawking--as I was--your instructor, who has been holding on to your leg strap all the while, pulls the cord for you. Above your head, a rectangular, rip-stop nylon parachute called a ram-air canopy pops open. Air enters tubes on the leading edge, giving you a gentle descent and an air speed of 20 mph.

You guide it back to the drop zone by pulling on two lines attached to the canopy. The thing can turn on a dime--and can steer you away from power lines, roads, trees, or water hazards. Near the ground, you merely turn into the wind to reduce speed--and pull the lines to slow your descent. It's not uncommon for beginners to land standing up, just where they intended. In case you get your right and left mixed up or seem headed for Europe, some schools use one-way radios to give steering instructions from a ground-spotter.

Why do folks take up the sport? "A lot of people are looking to mark some sort of passage in their life," says Cindy Gibson of the Skydiving Center in California, Md. "They are getting married or divorced or moving to the area or starting a new job, and they come out and say, 'This is something I always wanted to try.'"

'ANTI-BOZO DEVICE.' How safe is all this, really? Very safe. The U.S. Parachute Assn. says 125,000 sky divers made 2.25 million jumps in 1991. Of those, nearly 100,000 were first-timers. Typically, there are one or two deaths of first-timers, caused by faulty chutes and panic, making the odds of dying about 1 in 50,000. For experienced jumpers, the odds are 1.2 in 100,000 jumps, safer than hang-gliding.

Good instructors and equipment can improve the odds. The Skydiving Center, where I jumped, reports no fatalities and only five fractures in three years and about 25,000 jumps. (With the old, round, unsteerable parachutes, injury rates were far higher.) Other safety factors: Student parachutes can be outfitted with an "anti-Bozo device," which automatically deploys the reserve chute if the main chute isn't opened by a certain altitude. The U.S. Parachute Assn., which has helped develop an "accelerated free-fall" program, requires fail-safe mechanisms for members.

Traditionalists can still jump using a static line attached to the airplane, which pulls the parachute from its bag immediately. Or you can jump in tandem--buckled to the instructor, who pulls the ripcord on one big parachute and steers you both down. You'll pay $290 for a first-time free-fall and training class, $195 for a tandem jump, and less for a static-line jump. This one requires less training on your part. But then, you'll miss the thrill of free-fall, which is what skydiving is all about.

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