I jumped out of a plane to try and conquer my fears
… and it didn’t work.
I’ve been afraid of heights for as long as I can remember. Actually — to be more correct — I’ve been afraid of heights from that point until the summer before my first year of university. From then on I realized it was the fear of the unknown that’s often associated with being up high.
Ever since I was young I didn’t like being high up. I was totally okay with tall bridges, skyscrapers and even standing at the edges of cliffs. What I didn’t like was being high up in trees, rope swings or ladders. To add insult to injury I even broke my arm falling out of a tree when I was younger— which certainly did not help this fear.
But I never made the connection as to what distinguished these two groups. I always thought of it as ‘I am afraid of heights. But not all heights’.
It wasn’t until after I jumped out of a plane that I realized the difference.
The summer before my freshman year a friend and I decided we wanted to go sky diving before starting university. That was also the summer that I turned 18 which, not so coincidentally, is the minimum age to skydive in CT.
Call it trying to conquer my fear of heights or some silly attempt to prove to myself I was an adult, one sunny afternoon in July I found myself at a small airstrip in rural Connecticut.
I still vividly remember driving down the dirt road to the airstrip, rows of corn towering high over my car on both sides. After hitting the hundredth pothole, the a small shack came into view; the base of operations for the sky diving company.
I remember meeting my instructor and going through the tutorial on the whole process. I would be jumping in tandem with him because it was my first time and I wasn’t going through the official course.
Surprisingly it was a brief talk and very little was actually required of me. I put on a harness and was tethered to the instructor. We would board the plane, go up to altitude at which point he would clip me into his harness and then… we would jump.
Simple, right? Why do people make such a big fuss of skydiving? You’d get a longer talk if you were buying a goldfish at the pet store.
I remember climbing the wooden steps onto the plane, ducking my head as I stepped inside the small plane. I remember the instructor opening up the door as we approached altitude. I remember walking to the edge of the door and looking down. Straight down.
It’s one thing to look out the window as you’re sitting down, buckled, in the pressure equalized cabin of a commercial airliner. It’s an entirely different thing to be standing at the edge of a small propeller plane, with the engines roaring around you, over 13,000 feet in the air, looking straight down and feeling the wind whipping at your face.
But strangely enough, I felt calm. I felt safe and relaxed standing there on the edge, looking at rural Connecticut over 2 miles below my feet. Nothing but the hot summer air separating us.
So much for being afraid of heights… I had thought this was the epitome of facing my fear. The Boggart that was fighting to break out of the wardrobe.
While standing on the edge of the plane I was thinking about that talk I had with my instructor all but a few minutes earlier. He talked about the parachute, at what altitude to pull the cord and how I could pull it with either hand. He then talked about how if I passed out or if there was a problem with the main chute, a backup parachute was equipped to automatically deploy if we entered a minimum altitude while still in free fall.
I had the control. There was a plan, and there was a backup plan.
Unlike trees, wobbly structures and ladders, falling was the plan. It was anticipated, it was expected, and I was ready.
I now realize that it wasn’t the height that scared me when on a ladder or up a tree, it was the unknown associated with falling. Because falling off of a ladder is never planned, nor is it anticipated nor expected. It’s that unknown that’s scary, and the lack of ability to plan for it.
What I learned from this experience was to really think about why something is scary — to try and determine if the thing itself is scary or some extrinsic quality associated with it.
Because I’d be scared as hell to skydive without a parachute (wouldn’t we all?) or if I wasn’t anticipating it. Surprise skydiving next time you got on a plane? That’s approaching nightmare territory.
If it’s possible to anticipate and plan for risk, then it isn’t as scary. Hopefully it doesn’t happen, but if it does become a reality, you’re ready for it.
I’d still say I’m afraid of being up high on a ladder or up a tall tree but I wouldn’t say it’s because I’m afraid of heights. It’s because of that lack of control of falling due to some unforeseen action.
To finish my skydiving story, I remember my instructor telling me to cross my arms over my chest, and I remember him counting down, “3, 2, 1, jump”.
I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t know if I temporarily blacked out or if it was sensory overload from jumping out of the plane and being flung backwards from wind resistance but next thing I know I was falling and the plane was nothing but a spec in the distance.
The feeling of free fall was like no other that I have ever experienced. What I do remember is it being a truly amazing experience and the entire day is a memory that I’ll never forget.
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