Skydiving: The Right Stuff

Point of no return...

Dale Morris takes to the skies and straps himself to another man, who leaps out of the door and hurtles earthwards

Words and Pictures: Dale Morris

I have never been particularly scared of heights, but on those occasions when I find myself at precipitous altitudes, I suddenly develop a phobia of the ground.

“Isn’t it a beautiful morning?” bellowed Henk van Wyk over the roar of rushing wind and churning propellers. It was. The sky was blue and full of fluffy, little clouds and pretty, little birds, but I couldn’t appreciate it. Not while peering out of the open door of  a teensy aircraft.

The beautiful Garden Route morning to which Henk alluded was currently spinning in very tight circles around the cockpit, and neither I nor my recent breakfast was feeling too settled. About 12 000 feet below, the Mossel Bay peninsula jutted into the glistening ocean like a finger of doom. As far as I was concerned, it was an ocean soon to be my final resting place.

“Look, a whale!” shouted Henk excitedly into his mike. I didn’t care. It was like a fridge in the open cockpit, and the cold air pricked at my lips and deadened my nose. Yes, it was a beautiful, bright, crisp morning, and the view from up there was to die for. But perhaps that was the nub of my problem.

I had never been skydiving before and, at that moment, all I longed for was some good old terra firma. My knees knocked like coconut halves in the grip of children, my breathing became shallow and my fingers twitched like soldiers under gunfire. “Are you ready?” shouted Henk, grinning like a madman. And then he jumped, and, tethered to his tandem harness (the parachutist’s version of a baby carrier), I was dragged out with him.

At first, I thought perhaps I’d passed out or, worse, died. But my plunge into darkness was temporary and caused not by G-force or utter panic, but because my skydiving goggles had slipped upwards and were blocking my vision.

Mind you, that was the least of my concerns. I can scarcely describe the feeling of free-falling out of an aeroplane, and rarely have I screamed with such emotional abandon. My stomach did all sorts of strange manoeuvers inside my body and my teeth were clenched tighter than the Nkandla Report.

Henk's little plane is always on standby to feed the addiction

But then the strangest of things occurred – the sensation of falling stopped and, instead, I felt like I was flying. Henk and I had reached terminal velocity at that point (about 200km/h) and, because we were no longer accelerating quickly, my stomach had stopped trying to escape from my body via my ears, and I no longer felt I was riding a rollercoaster. It was the most unusual sensation – a bit like floating, I suppose. But from that moment on my screaming stopped and I started revelling in my flight.

Henk, who was strapped to my back like a two-legged daypack, smiled cheerily over my shoulder with lips that flapped like flannels in a hurricane. Thirty-five very long seconds passed, an eternity in free fall, and then he made the signal with his hands that the chute was about to be deployed.

WHOOMPH! Out folded the canopy, converting our plummet into something far more sedate, and we floated down to planet earth like dandelion seed. Once my feet found the ground again I was overcome by an enveloping sense of well-being. I felt fantastic. I felt alive. I felt excited. I felt elated. The world was wonderful. Everyone was nice. I loved them all. Even Julius Malema and my mother-in-law. I had never before felt so…good.

Henk was grinning at me in a way that said he knew just how I felt. “Your body releases adrenaline and dopamine when you skydive,” he told me, as we gathered up our chute. “Your brain is rewarding you with natural ‘feel-good’ drugs. Ready for another dive?” And, of course, while heavily drugged on my own natural dopemine, I said yes…

But this time, there was no apprehension, reservation and hesitation as I got back into the plane. Just a craving to leap into the void and feel that ‘rush of life’ all over again.

Permission to land?
Permission to land?

Despite the fact that skydiving is all about doing something your brain chemistry believes is suicidal, (such as jumping out of a plane at high altitude with nothing more than a large handkerchief on your back), it is one of the safest, so-called extreme sports. And it all started in 1797 when a fearless (or foolish) Frenchman named André-Jacques Garnerin decided it might be jolly good fun to leap out of a hot air balloon.

WHOOMPH! The first parachute to open, opened, he landed safely and a new sport – an alternative to narcotic abuse, and a military advantage – was born.

Every year millions of people skydive with very few incidents. More people are killed each year in ski-slope accidents or by random lightning bolts and untied shoelaces than in parachuting accidents.

Henk, who lives in Great Brak River on the Garden Route, took his first dive in 1986 during military service and instantly fell (literally) in love with the sport. Since then he has made somewhere in the region of 3 000 free-fall jumps, has become a parachute/skydive instructor and opened a skydive school in Mossel Bay.

When I asked him why he still loved it after so many jumps, his answer was simple. “You just did one, so now you know!” And he was right – skydiving is almost as addictive as a class A drug, but without the acne, bad teeth and criminal record. “That feeling never goes away,” Henk told me. “No matter how many times you jump, you’ll always get that rush.” The dopamine your body releases as a reward after a free-fall can give you a positive feeling that literally lasts for days, and there are some skydivers who claim to be able to relate to people better and function more efficiently at work after jumping out of a plane. “It’s therapeutic,” Henk said. “And those who believe it’s going to be frightening or too expensive are completely wrong. They don’t know what they’re missing.”

We did, and as soon as the pilot gave us the thumbs-up that we were at 12 000 feet, Henk raised his eyebrows and gave me the ‘Are you ready?’ look and, with that, we two drug addicts flung ourselves out the door, screaming again like little girls at a Barbie party.

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