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That Time I... Fell out of the sky

Carleigh Stiehm jumps from her 11,000-ft summit
Carleigh Stiehm jumps from her 11,000-ft summit

As we broke the line of thin, wispy clouds, I was certain it was time to jump. A quick glance at the altitude barometer on my wrist, however, proved me wrong—we were at 3,000 feet, less than halfway to our 11,000-foot summit. The plane was tiny, with no seats and only room for one paying customer at a time, and, to be honest, as we ascended toward 4,000 feet, I felt like jumping had become the less scary alternative to the shaking of the old metal contraption.

It had only been three days earlier that I decided skydiving was in my future. The idea of jumping out of a plane had always been alluring to me, but in the “I think it is cool when other people do it” kind of way—like nose piercings and eating cake frosting straight from the jar. But the allure proved to be too compelling, and I found myself researching the drop zones of North Carolina.

After coercing my former roommate into joining in this literal leap of faith, I discovered all of the well-known, commercial skydiving companies in the Triangle area were booked solid for the weekend we wanted to jump. Not wanting to lose our nerve, we found a location Williamston that was ready to accommodate us whenever we were ready. Their website wasn’t as polished as most of the Raleigh-based companies, but when I spoke to John, the owner, on the phone, he sounded nice and didn’t ask me how much I weighed as previous companies had; I was sold.

I wasn’t nervous when I booked our appointment time. I wasn’t nervous when we pulled up to what seemed like the world’s smallest airstrip. The first time I was really nervous was when I realized the plane we were going up in could only take us one at a time. I had prepared myself to jump out of a plane. That, I was okay with. But not jumping at the same time as my roommate seemed like a total shock. Naturally, she volunteered me to go first.

John walked us through the process of putting on our harness and reviewed all of the safety protocol for what we would do while we were in the air. There was no need for me to wear a helmet, he said, if we fell without a parachute from 11,000 feet, there wasn’t much a helmet was going to do for us.

“Don’t worry, though,” he cautioned. “You are falling with me on your back. If you die, I die. And I really love myself, so I don’t want to let that happen.”

He was joking, of course, but it did provide a sense of comfort that he had just as much invested in me not plummeting to my death as I did. The first time anyone goes skydiving, they do so in tandem with an instructor that has completed more jumps than I can even fathom. John had surpassed 700 when we met.

While we were ascending, John told me I was the smiliest passenger they had ever taken up to skydive. I hadn’t even realized I was smiling—the anxious excitement had taken over. I was focused on looking out the tiny window as the ground got more and more distorted—I had opted not to wear my glasses under my clear protective goggles. I felt amazed by how far I was able to see. It was a beautiful day with blue skies, a few wispy white clouds and light winds that John described as “perfect.”

John pointed out several different rivers that he said defined the geography of the eastern section on North Carolina. There was talk that we would see the Atlantic Ocean, but I could never determine whether or not that was a joke. I saw a lot of amazing things from that plane, but to be honest I do not remember a lot of the flying experience. This is because when you are ready to jump out of a plane, an amazing phenomenon called "diver's brain" occurs, which makes you forget about everything else going on—you just focus on the jump you are about to make.The plane ride felt simultaneously too long and incredibly short. All my life I have been led to believe that airplane doors should only be open while we are on the ground. Plane doors that open in the air result in people being sucked out, or so the media would lead me to believe. So, the shock of the immediate suction and pressure of popping the plane door open at 11,000 feet was more than jarring—it was paralyzing. But when you have a large man strapped to your back, even if you are too disoriented to move your legs, somehow you end up with your feet dangling high above the Earth.

I know there was a countdown. I know there was a moment where I gave the okay for us to go. But I don’t remember those parts. What I remember is the feeling of falling so quickly that it didn’t feel like I was falling. I remember looking straight ahead of me only to realize that we were in the midst of a flip, and the ground was nowhere in sight. I remember the feeling of air on my face as it rushed past at 120 miles per hour while I felt like I was suspended in infinite space.

And I remember that it ended too quickly. John said we fell for almost a minute, but the whole thing rushed by for me. He pulled our parachute and we accelerated upward. I immediately knew I wanted to do it again. I wanted to feel the rush of the jump and the freedom of the air around me.My roommate said she and John had a nice conversation when they floated back toward Earth under the parachute. He and I didn’t—I felt like my harness was choking me, and I just wanted to enjoy my amazing view.

It would be a story of my risk taking without a surprise ending. My last daredevil moment resulted in a hot air balloon crash in Turkey. Skydiving was no different for me. A command to land on my feet fell upon deaf ears, so I concluded my dive by falling on my face. But the grass was soft and the skies were blue, and I knew I would have another chance to stick the landing someday.