One second I was in the plane, the next I was toppling face first into open air; free-falling at a speed so fast my ears felt like they were going to explode, yet I couldn’t strip the smile off my face. With my fingers bent into the Hawaiian sign for “hang loose”, I took a moment, still rapidly falling, and posed for a photo. As the ground grew frighteningly closer, the biggest spike of adrenaline seized me in the same moment that reality hit – I’d made one of my life-long dreams come true.
Point Break…or Breaking Point?
I’d wanted to jump out of a plane for what seemed like forever; long before I wanted to take a ‘normal’ flight. I blame Keanu Reeves. As a teenage I watched the cult movie Point Break and as I stared in awe as Keanu threw himself out of a moving airplane there was just something so liberating about the idea. One moment you’re on solid ground (kind of), and the next you’re soaring through the sky, uncertain, to some extent, how it might end. It seemed like the ultimate adrenaline rush, and I wanted in.
The problem was, my teenage plan got lost somewhere between law school and the stack of legal files that filled my life for over a decade. The bigger problem was that by the time I stepped out from behind my desk in 2010 I was no longer sure I’d be able to launch myself head first out of a plane. Not because I’d lost my nerve (that came and went in fits and starts), but because I wasn’t entirely convinced my head wasn’t going to explode, or fall off…or both in the process.
Being fit to fly – a dysfunctional what?
Anyone who has passed into their 30’s will tell you that things slowly start to break. For me it began with my ears. Nope, it wasn’t the years I spent working in one of Liverpool’s loudest nightclubs that pumped out decibels of house music during the 90s. It was something much more benign. Returning from St Lucia in 2009 my right ear popped as we came into Heathrow to land. The unfortunate thing is that it failed to pop back.
At first my doctor was dismissive and prescribed me a course of chewing gum (I’m not even close to joking). Dutifully, I chomped away for over a week but as more symptoms came – a relentless headache, a perpetual feeling of seasickness and the associated swaying that left me explaining to my work colleagues that I didn’t have gin & tonic habit – my doctor took a closer look.
For the next 18 months, I visited a host of specialist who blew air through my head from one ear to the other (freaky and not recommended), shoved things up my nose (longer than my finger) and took a good, hard stare down my throat. There were some scary near-diagnoses along the way, Ménières Disease being the most fearful, but thankfully, after finally turning to an expensive specialist (courtesy of my company’s health insurance), I was diagnosed. A dysfunctional eustachian tube.
Oh, wait…a what?
I’ll be honest, I’m not best at explaining it, so this might help. My amateur explanation is that I have trouble regulating the pressure in my ears. So, when a person with a normal eustachian tube gets a block in their ears, like on a plane, they can usually hold their nose, take a breath and pop the pressure out. I can’t.
I found out that there was an operation that could alleviate my pain and my doctor ever so kindly moved the main wall around in my nose (it wasn’t quite where it should be, apparently, and was making things worse). It was a rather gory procedure that had the upside of buying me two weeks off work, the downside of leaving a slight bump on the bridge of my nose and the potential risk I might spend the rest of my life whistling through my nostrils (thankfully it didn’t come to pass).
The ultimate upshot: things are about 75% better, which is a hell of a lot in the circumstances but there are still times when my ears block without my control causing the headaches, sinus pain and dizziness to return, sometimes for weeks.
Not. Much. fun.
Flying hardly helps but I’ve acquired some special, funny looking earplugs that magically reduce the pain and allow me to spend flights pretending I’m an alien. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work (the earplugs, that is – I’m an excellent alien impersonator), and there have been times, like yesterday on my flight from Berlin, when I’ve been woken mid-flight by the pain. However, it’s a sacrifice I’m prepared to make for travel and it’s rarely that bad.
But what about jumping out of a plane? Finally reunited with my dream to sky-dive and living a lifestyle where it was more than possible, practically, I was no longer sure if it was possible physically. Absent cabin pressure to help me out, was I facing the real risk that my head would explode…or worse?
Skydive Hawaii – developing an obsession
When I arrived in Hawaii, I knew I’d found the perfect destination for a skydive; mainly because there were several people at my hostel who were holding their freshly printed skydive certificates in their hands and had a look of eternal satisfaction plastered on their faces.
Plus, who wouldn’t want to Skydive Hawaii and gain a bird’s-eye view of paradise?
I initially tried to convince myself I wasn’t that bothered, the sensible part of me secretly hoping the desire to jump would pass. Of course, it didn’t. In fact, I’m confident that the only people I met in Hawaii during my entire three-month stay were people who were there to skydive, had done a skydive, were about to do a skydive, were skydiving instructors…I all but met Keanu Reeves. I was becoming obsessed and so, it was decided, I had to do the jump.
After a long time cursing myself for not seizing the opportunity to fulfil this particular dream during my healthy eustachian tube years, I contacted a doctor friend to find out the facts – what risk was I really looking at?
After a series of conversations, I got the answer I was hoping for – it was unlikely I would die (due to my ear issues), nor was my head likely to fall off or my eardrums explode. I might suffer some pain, possibly more than on a plane but the lower altitude I jumped from, the lower the risk. I was beside myself with excitement..and a mix of terror – with the ear-all-clear, it was time to book my jump.
Pacific Skydiving Centre
The best part about meeting so many people who had already flung themselves out of a plane in Hawaii was that I was able to gather a multitude of honest reviews.
There are two companies that compete most prolifically for customers who want to Skydive on the North Shore of Oahu, the main spot to skydive in Hawaii. Between them, Skydive Hawaii seemed to have the edge from a marketing perspective, but it was the second company, Pacific Skydive Centre that I booked with. Not only had they received the highest recommendations from the people I spoke to, the slightly lower price helped ($139 versus $150 for the basic jump), and the lowest jump-level was that bit lower (8,000 instead of 10,000 feet), so was attractive for my potentially exploding ear. However, there was one factor that sealed the deal – Pacific Skydive Centre had been used by the film-crew for Keanu’s movie, Point Break.
No. Contest. I booked for the following day.
A free ride to North Shore…and a few legalities
The huge plus if you don’t have your own wheels in Waikiki but want to skydive Hawaii is that the companies will generally come and collect you from your hotel for free. And, if you survive, they’ll do the reverse journey after your jump. Win!
I was expecting the trip to the airfield to be a relaxing sightseeing ride, but that wasn’t to be. The minute my bottom touched my seat, I was handed a 13-page legal document to sign.
Perhaps I should have done what most of the other people in my van did – glance at it, sign where indicated (i.e. next to every paragraph) and return to the views out of the window, but the ex-lawyer in me read every single word. Twice. From the first through to the very last page, the document detailed every conceivable way that things might go wrong during the course of my skydive, together with a few inconceivable ways, too.
Clause by clause I sank deeper into the reality of what a skydive might calamitously entail – my parachute might not open, I might get tangled in it, my skydiving partner (the expert) might get tangled in it…the list went on and for a not too brief moment, the document gave me serious pause for thought.
I didn’t recall Keanu Reeves doing any paperwork before he hurled himself out of a plane. None of my travel friends had mentioned it either. In fact, I rationalised, it was an extreme sport that people had been doing for a very long time. Of course there were risks, and people had died, but I wasn’t planning to jump with a guy who’d found an abandoned parachute on the beach and thought he’d start a business. I was in the lovely U.S. of A, where health and safety rules applied (two parachutes and a fail-safe device it turns out); I’d spoken to plenty of people who’d done the jump just weeks before and survived; plus I had more likely concerns to contend with – the potential pain in my ears.
Resolute I wasn’t going to let the legalities deter me, I glossed over the final pages of fine print (as much as an ex-lawyer can “gloss”) and settled back to enjoy what was left of the ride.
The pre-jump wait – not for wimps or solo-travellers
When we arrived at the airfield, we were pointed in the direction of a video room, which was a relief because I didn’t have a bloody clue what to do on a skydive, so the promise of an instructional video was reassuring.
However, my relief was short-lived. The video had already started when I arrived (don’t you hate that?) and by the time it had finished I was not much wiser about what I had to do…although the possible ways I could die had been drummed more deeply in my brain. I sighed and followed the group into the waiting area. I was sure (read: blindly optimistic) there would be some more detailed, informative instruction before we fell out of the plane.
For the next three hours I made friends with the wooden bench in the “jump zone” where I would sit in constant anticipation of being called to suit-up and board my plane. One by one, groups, couples, family and friends were picked out and readied for the sky. One by one, I watched as the small plane completed a circuit of take-offs and landing, dropping bodies from its hatch in a steady stream, some landing elegantly, a small run then stroll to success, others less so, skidding to embarrassment or potentially worse.
It was torture for anyone to watch. Arguably more-so if, like me, you were on your own. Usually, I’m more than comfortable with my solo-travel status but on that unseasonably chilly Hawaiian morning, I longed for a companion…or my mum ..actually, mainly my mum, to hold my hand as I started to sweat.
And then it was time
After what felt like a torturously long amount of time, it was my turn. I took my wobbly legs over to the affable blonde girl who helped me step into an unflattering yet rather essential thigh-clasping harness. Had I read 50 Shades of Grey at that point, I would have wondered about the contraption’s purpose. Nevertheless, I strapped it on just as I was introduced to my tandem partner, a supremely cool-due who, called Bundy.
Striding over to the airfield, I started to panic. We were about to get into the plane and I still hadn’t received my anticipated 4-hour instruction with time for practice and questions. Ideally, there would have been a complimentary 365 page manual and workbook I could maybe take home and complete over the weekend in proper preparation for a jump. Eyes-widening as I reached the steps to the plane I made a pathetic attempt at a protest, “I don’t know what to do,” I squeaked as Bundy took a pre-jump picture. I forced a smile for the camera he pointed at me but it was pure show.
“It’s ok, I’ll tell you,” my skydive instructor said calmly.
“When?!” I was bordering on backing out.
“When you need to know.” We’d walked as we talked and I somehow found myself inside the plane. Surely, we’d passed the “need to know” point already, but there was something about Bundy’s cool, relaxed approach that reassured me. In the same way I never panic on a plane unless the crew are panicking, a calm settled over me. I’d already watched Bundy’s successfully jump from the sky about a dozen times that day. He clearly knew what he was doing and a flapping flyer to make up his tandem team wasn’t going to help. So, I sat back and tried to relax: not so easy to do when a) you’re harnessed at the thighs and tightly strapped to a complete stranger and effectively balanced on their lap and b) have a confession that needs to burst its way out of your mouth.
“I can’t always regulate the pressure in my ears.” I’d taken a personal decision to wait until the last moment to mention this and I garbled the words out quickly. “I know it’s my responsibility if things go wrong…I signed the waiver…I just thought you should know…in case I start screaming.”
I half closed my eyes and waited for Bundy to call the plane back to base but to my relief he didn’t seem phased. “I have trouble sometimes too,” he confessed. “It’s all the jumps I do.” I smiled just as he pointed the Go-Pro in front of us. This time my smile wasn’t for show.
Minutes passed as we climbed. I stared out of the window watching the world reduce in size. The land had become a patchwork of minuscule areas that grew smaller and more distant as I watched the altimeter change. It was nearly time…6,000. 7,000. 8,000…
We edged our way to the open plane door and I peered down. We were f#cking high up and my eyes were as wide as the googles I’d been given. “Cross your arms over your chest. When I tap you on the shoulder, put your hands up.” He motioned the same pose you’d use in surrender and it somehow felt fitting.
“Are you ready?” He asked, excitement in his voice.
I looked once more at the ground below and felt like I was on the edge of space.
Was I ready? It was a good question. Should I say no? As I stood on the periphery of indecision, Bundy’s eager presence and my own sub-conscious propelled us forward, taking the decision out of my logical hands. And just like that, I was no longer in the plane.
I gasped as my conscious mind scrabbled to get a grip on the situation. My heart pounded, my stomach flipped and for the briefest moment, it felt like I was on the downward trajectory of a roller-coaster. Except I wasn’t. I was free falling in the air at a speed over 100mph. And that’s when I started to scream.
There’s something about seeing the ground racing towards you that makes you holler for your life. Experience teaches us that when we jump, it’s a matter of milliseconds before we return to solid ground (with a thud in many cases) and I was convinced with certainty that any moment I would collide with the earth. But it didn’t happen. We were falling fast, but we were not even close to the ground and my brain flooded with confusion.
Just as I calmed my scream, my head starting to comprehend the wonder of the situation, which is when I felt Bundy’s tap. Like a well-trained soldier, I assumed the position and braced a smile, suddenly noticing the Go-Pro once again staring at me (how long had that been there)?
“Are you ok?” my skydive instructor asked, calm as ever.
“Yes,” I confirmed, amazed it was possible to conduct a normal conversation while falling from the sky.
“Are your ears ok?”
It was the first time I’d thought about it. I had some pain, but nothing worse than I’d experienced on a plane. It seemed adrenaline had the power to work magic on my ears and I gave a thumbs up.
The free-fall at 8,000 feet is only 20 seconds but it felt like a short version of forever before Bundy pulled the parachute cord. With due warning, I braced myself for the jolt of abrasion as the harness pulled me skyward and I had to stifle another scream as my inner thighs took the impact (something else nobody told me about). But it didn’t matter. I’d been flying through the sky, like a bird without wings and air-stream or not, I couldn’t move the smile from my face.
For the next 5 minutes or so, we glided gracefully towards the ground. At a much slower speed than in free-fall, I had the chance to truly look around. Bundy pointed out the slim strip of yellow sand that delineated the beach. Inland I saw a mass of green and in the not too far distance, the scratch of land where my adventure would come to an end. But not before Bundy handed over control of the parachute and taught me how to steer. Left. Right. Into a spin and near sickness. “Stop!” I squealed, this time with laughter – I didn’t want to imagine what vomiting in mid-air might feel like.
After a few more snaps on the Go-Pro, touchdown suddenly became “need to know” information and Bundy calmly proffered his final instruction – to start making a gentle running motion with my legs. Not one to dismiss good suggestions, I did as I was told and as the ground met my feel we were one of those tandem jumps that strolled to success.
It was the perfect landing.
And the perfect final memory of this once in a lifetime dream.
Pacific Skydiving Hawaii offers three jump levels and prices:
Regular: 8,000 to 10,000 (15-20 second free-fall) – $139
Ultimate: 14,000 to 15,000 (60 second free-fall) – $169
Extreme/Halo: 22,000 to 24,000 (100 second free-fall – $999
If you’re looking for tips on where to stay in Hawaii, check out my related article:
Beware: there was a significant amount of pressure to upgrade from the regular to an ultimate jump and the owner impressed on me more than once that I would be the only one bailing out at the lower level. Fortunately, I don’t succumb to peer-pressure (unless there is alcohol involved – then I fold at the merest sight of a shot glass). When I refused to upgrade for the enhanced experience, the owner tried the money angle “How much is that in British pounds”. Eventually, he gave up, but a less strong willed person should pack some resolve. The pressure only came from the manager (the crew were exemplary and the best part of the experience). Jump at whatever altitude makes you comfortable.
The company also offers a range of photography packages and although the experience is already expensive if you’re on a budget, I’d recommend digging that bit deeper into your pockets to capture the moment. The packages range from video and professional photographs (more expensive because the camera crew jumps with you) to the less formal Go-Pro on your skydive instructor’s arm (cheaper). Personally, I’m not a fan of being in front of a camera and the idea of having someone film my terror would only enhance the horror, so I opted for the Go-Pro shots, which offered more photos for less cost and I was extremely happy with my choice (the results are what you see in this post).
Clothing: wear something comfortable and that won’t blow around! I wore leggings, a very long t-shirt and running shoes and was fine. Jeans might be a better option to protect your inner thighs!
Take snacks, water and something like a book or iPod for entertainment/to distract you from your nerves and for after the jump as you wait for others to finish.
The entire process will take around three quarters of a day with a 6am start, including transfer to and from the airbase from Waikiki and waiting time before and after your jump. Things can take longer at peak times and at weekends.
If it’s your first jump, there is an excellent summary of what to expect here.
Want to read more travel planning tips for Hawaii? Click below.