A Diagnostic of Falling From A Plane

I’m surprisingly calm, yet my body is generating a lot of energy. It’s a strange juxtaposition. I feel as if my mind is holding me back in calmness while my emotions are of bridled anticipation. I’m setting myself up for a diagnostic experience.

I looked high into the sky and saw my friends floating down as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I smiled. My turn. With three powerful steps, I climbed into the front of the plane and sat by my tandem instructor. First in, last out!

The plane idled on the runway as 6 other jumpers and their tandem instructors (TI) boarded. Meanwhile, my TI turned around and asked the pilot, “How much does it cost to keep this prop spinning like this?” “$5 dollars per minute,” the pilot replied. “Let’s get this plane up in the air!”

40 dollars later I looked at the altimeter on my left hand. It read 7 – or seven thousand feet. We were on our way to 14; my altimeter read like a clock and it only went up to 12. I love being off the charts.

Up In The Air

Just an hour before we had driven our cars to the airport and now we were thousands of feet in the air, ready for one of the most unique 5-minute experiences of our lives. I turned around and asked my TI, what do you like best about tandeming? “The reactions of each new jumper. Everyone is different. The experience means something different to everyone.”

I reflected. What was my experience going to be? What does this mean to me? All good questions. Answering honestly within myself:

  1. I want to learn how sky diving works!
  2. I don’t want to be afraid; I want to see what it feels like to think and behave as if jumping out of a plane is perfectly natural. Why not?
  3. In the end, what is there to be afraid of? Nothing. No anxiety is needed. It’s a tandem jump! We’re both getting through this alive of course! Why else would the tandem instructor jump? I instead wanted to understand how my body and temperament would handle this situation. My mind could simply study, suppress any urges, and remain in calm clarity as I learn the mechanics of free fall and canopy flight.

Learning and control through awareness. That was to be my experience. Sky diving – this time – was going to be no different than trying anything else new and performing a diagnostic; I’d just happen to be falling at 120 mph from the sky. No big deal.

Instructions for Freefall

My friends in the plane looked eager and a bit restless. Inside, I was too. As we reached 14,000 feet, the TI’s re-checked our harnesses and went over the key basics for the fall.

  1. First, grab your chest straps. As you fall out of the plane, create an arch or a bow with your body. This is more easily achieved when you throw your head back and push out your belly button.
  2. When your shoulder is tapped, that’s the signal that you can let go of your straps and have your arms out for the freefall.
  3. At 6,000 feet, pull the ripcord located on the “rig” behind your right hip. If a finger crosses your vision and points to the left, that’s the signal to look at your altimeter and pull the cord. We’ll pull the cord for you if you miss the cues.
  4. As we descend via canopy, we will lower you into a different harness position for landing. Don’t freak out if you drop a foot or two, you are still linked to us.
  5. When landing, lift up your legs as if you are going down a slide, and we’ll settle into the ground.

Simple. Time for a ride of my life! The sliding plane door flew open with a rush of air. Time to jump.

…And It’s Gone

I sat silently and watched the first tandem pair waddle up to the door. The TI reached up to the bar atop the door and used the handhold to push them out of the plane. They didn’t pause. They were gone. In the blink of an eye. Vanished. Not even a second thought!

It’s amazing what pre-decision can accomplish. Upon entering the plane, we had to jump (though we had the option not to). Perhaps upon driving to the airport, we had to declare and decide to jump. The earlier the decision the better! When is that point for you? Luckily, the first person out of the plane set a good example. It sobered us all up.

As the remaining pairs followed suit, I listened to how the wind hit their bodies as they exited the plane. A quick whoosh. Disappeared.

The door had opened just 30 seconds ago, and I was now sitting alone in the plane with my TI and the pilot. I couldn’t believe it. So fast. No looking back. Gone.

I waddled to the door. My toes teetered on the edge of the plane. I put my head back. I looked up. Arched. I felt a small push.

Like A Meteor

Because I wasn’t able to watch the plane as a reference point as I exited, my visual memory was curiously blank for how I happened to get out of the plane. It just happened. And there I was, falling toward the Earth. I felt surprisingly calm. It was if I was on a roller coaster, but rather than being along for the ride, I looked around and studied the people and the mechanics of the coaster.

The acceleration was quick. Air rushed passed me as if it was an angry river, but unlike water, the pressure against my body was surprisingly light. In a few seconds we were already near full speed. The acceleration to terminal velocity was so quick, and the period of acceleration was so brief that there was no “drop in my stomach” that one normally feels on thrill rides. Perhaps this is because unlike thrill rides, we are falling straight down through open air with little friction and weight resistance to overcome, making the acceleration period nearly instantaneous.

I looked forward and saw a layer of clouds rising into the sky. I looked to my left and saw my altimeter reading 11. Off in the distance, Lake Minnetonka and Lake Waconia slowly grew bigger.

So this was freefall. I looked down.

Air battered my face. It felt weird breathing when air is so readily available. I opened my mouth and my cheeks flapped. I think my body might have closed my throat to ensure my lungs weren’t getting blasted by the air. Breathing felt a little different. A very short inhale with an exhale I hardly could feel. I remembered that when in doubt about breathing, just scream. That way you know something is happening with your lungs. Tried that. Couldn’t hear myself, ironically. I kept screaming in little one or two second bursts. Screaming didn’t make much difference, I was already breathing perfectly naturally even though I couldn’t feel it. Humans can do all sorts of calculations without even thinking. Breathing through your nose also helps.

I Continued To Fall.

Free fall is like its own little world. Instead of choosing to move through the sky on your own power, you simply control your body’s angles relative to the ground and the air itself pushes you into motion. Because you are at terminal velocity, the pressure of the air around you is a constant force that your brain can calculate how to behave in. With the weight of your body and strength of your muscles, you feel rather stable amidst the resistance. The only thing that changes the feeling of pressure is the surface area of your body that faces the ground. A smaller surface area feels faster. A larger surface area feels slower. It’s like putting your hand outside a car window, except in skydiving, your whole body is in the experience and you are falling in open air – a one way ticket.

Had I been given a choice and knowing how freefall felt and could be controlled, I would have jumped out of the plane doing somersaults and barrel rolls. I would have leaned my body and used my legs and arms to maneuver in sweeping S turns. I would have fallen backwards, facing the sky and watched the clouds hold their position, knowing at my back the Earth was rushing at me. I would then bend backward into a reverse dive and face down vertically, accelerating to 180 mph. I would have wanted to feel like Superman. Next time.

A Descent

As it was, I was falling with my arms and legs spread out at a steady 100mph with the stabilizer chute dragging behind my tandem instructor. I looked at my left wrist. My altimeter read 7. How long had I been falling for? 30 seconds? 45 seconds? Well, I’d better enjoy the last 1,000 feet!

We're just above sea level. The altimeter at ground level.

The altimeter while on the ground. It’s more fun to look at when you are up in the air and moving 100+ft per second.

I looked out at the lakes and scenery one last time. I kept an eye on my left hand and watched the meter rotate to 6 as I put my right hand at the base of my right hip and found the small golf ball handle of the chute release. 6 o’clock. I pulled.

A second later the chute fully deployed and I felt a firm tug. I now was hanging vertically in my harness and I felt our horizontal wind speed press against my face indicating our movement and direction. It was hard to tell that we were still rapidly falling toward the ground because I was so attentive to how we were moving across the landscape. All I knew is that we were adrift in the sky and needed to control our descent with the wind, our heading, and our landing point in the distance.

I reached up and grabbed the canopy handles – also known as “brakes”. With these, I could firmly pull down and steer our direction. The TI asked if I wanted to do something cool, and so he pulled the left brake down long and hard. Our canopy went into a steep counterclockwise spiraling descent. The g-forces of the maneuver felt exhilarating as our speed rapidly increased and the 720 degree spin let my body swing with the energy of the double rotation.

Taking a spin like this is a finite experience since the increased speed can’t quite make up for the trade and larger loss of altitude. A few more spins and we wouldn’t be able to glide to our landing target because we’d have fallen too far to be able to cover the distance with our limited horizontal speed. A rule of thumb is that under a full gliding canopy, you can travel 3 feet horizontally for every 1 foot you fall. In tandem, with the weight of two people, the ratio is probably less.

The descent was slightly longer than 4 minutes and I surmised that in combination with altitude, groundspeed, and wind speed, landing the rig at our designated spot is a fun calculation and exercise for the instructor. As we approached our landing, I just relaxed and watched our speed relative to the ever-larger trees. I didn’t quite expect the descent under canopy to be such a great experience full of spectacle and sensation!


In the final hundred feet, I put my feet up and out and prepared to slide gently into the grass. It was an easy landing! I was quickly unhooked and I turned to shake my tandem instructor’s hand. “How was your experience?” he asked? “Interesting,” I said calmly. “It was a cool experience.” Sadly, I don’t think he got the reaction he wanted. I basically said, “thanks” leaving the rest to imagination. And yet, when I turned around toward the hangar, I had a joyous skip in my step. I suppose it was an interesting experience!


At this thought, my diagnostic perception and repressed feelings and responses began to soften. It is amazing what a bit of gratitude can do to soften a heart. I now had more expression and freedom, a feeling of empathy and tenderness, not just a clear headed calm through a dominance of will and mind. As I reconnected with my heart, I could feel the energy of the skydive still coursing through my system like a river that I was just being swept up into for the first time in full experience

When all was said and done, did my heart experience all the emotions of the sky dive though I didn’t allow them to enter my full consciousness during the fall? Mostly. But such an experience is stored in the heart and it is a dangerous reality that our heart still experiences what our mind puts us through even when we suppress our feelings. But, did I miss out experiencing it in real time? Perhaps. Did I miss the real experience of vulnerability and risking my true self? Yes. Is the price of forsaking a heart experience appropriate for the sake of knowledge of the mind – a diagnostic? That is a matter of valuing aliveness of heart and spirit.

With the mind, it felt as if I could shield my heart from experiencing reality to a certain degree. When I close my eyes and replay the moments of the skydive in my imagination, I can feel my heart’s emotions as separate information streams, as if I could relive the experience by reading each feeling like a unique sentence of experience written on my heart. And line by line, I could take myself through the sky dive and isolate one or two emotions to see how those particular emotions rose and fell. With enough iterations, I would I be able see all pieces of my heart and know the depth of my experience from various perspectives? Could I re-experience with full feeling and taste the heart’s aliveness? Well, that is a measure of authenticity. Surely I could not hope with the mind to fabricate the true taste and blend of spirit, emotions, and perception, and heart that would describe my actual authentic experience.

Amidst it all, diagnostic complete! But, what is bravery without a fully engaged and honestly authentic and vulnerable heart?

Practical Purposes of a Diagnostic Approach

  1. An experience can be dictated by a combination of focus and intention. These are two key facets of self-regulation, and if exercised, can allow you to shape your circumstance.
  2. Trying a diagnostic approach (as per 1.) can be helpful in situations where anxiety, fear, concern, or uncertainty normally take control. A diagnostic approach is not a hyper-rational approach. A diagnostic approach simply relegates emotions to a significantly smaller fraction of our conscious experience. Because we still can feel some of the emotions, we can use their promptings as information to guide our mind to pay attention to certain details.
  3. After the diagnostic is complete, be sure to allow yourself to slowly experience all of the relegated information. While you can feel some of the negative emotions, you can now see how those emotions were just a part of the experience and didn’t need to dominate the “conversation”. This can help provide perspective in future situations when you might otherwise naturally feel overpowered or overwhelmed by negative emotion (or even positive emotion).
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