There's something funny about your first skydive. After signing away your legal rights and watching a long-bearded fellow on a scratchy VHS tape explain the extreme sport's extreme dangers, you will almost certainly be told that if you remember only one thing from your training, it should be the lesson on contorting your body when "exiting" the aircraft. Arch your back and bend your knees behind you at a 45-degree angle, they will say, so that your head and heels point heavenward. Beyond elementary physics, taking this form – as opposed to the fetal position – forces you to look up, not down, as you free fall into nothing. And with your eyes on the horizon avoiding the ground two or three miles below, it's easier to believe, of course, that you'll be free fallin' into something. A smooth landing for instance.
Let's face it: The perception of skydiving generally isn't a positive one, and how could it be? When we say "exiting," we really mean "jumping ... out of an airborne plane." The data, however, says you're slightly more likely to expire while at a dance party. More specifically: The United States Parachuting Association recorded just 19 fatalities among 3.1 million domestic jumps last year. There were about 50 worldwide. And tandem skydiving, in which the novice with five or fewer jumps under his parachute-suit belt has a USPA-certified diver strapped to his back, is even safer than going solo. That's the experience we had anyway on a recent Saturday at SkyDance SkyDiving in northern California outpost Davis and its appropriately named Yolo County Airport. The side affect of sound technique not only made overcoming this inherent if irrational fear far easier, it also allowed us to enjoy our descent to earth.
At SkyDance, as at most of the country's other 200-something drop zones, first-timers can choose a climb to 9,000, 13,000, or 18,000 feet. At or above middle height, the novice has the option of opening his own canopy when the time is right, typically between 3,000 and 5,000 feet and after reaching terminal speed, as high as 120 mph. It's easier to appreciate the views, such as nearby San Pablo Bay, from these heights while slowly parachuting for five to seven minutes, not during your free fall (which lasts between 30 and 90 seconds and feels not unlike sticking your head out of an open car window on the freeway). Giving you some semblance of control, you'll always know how far off the ground you are, thanks to a standard wristwatch altimeter.
If your next dive is your first dive, however, the 15-minute ride in something like SkyDance's shaky but sturdy Blackhawk XP42A Cessna Grand Caravan will only increase your anxiousness. By this time, you're already strapped to the person you trust most in this world, sitting on his lap until it's time to "exit." Then comes the other funny part of proper body positioning: If, while standing on the edge of the plane, your head is cocked up and your weight rests on your toes, your tandem partner will literally have to push you out the window.
More Information: Find a skydiving school anywhere in the world at dropzone.com. If you're in the Davis area, try SkyDance SkyDiving, which starts basic tandem jumps at $150 (9,000 feet with 30 seconds of free fall) and tops off at $379 (18,000 feet with 90 seconds of free fall).