Photos by Sheryl Jang
Article and commentary by Brady J. Frey
Most people would agree they’ve dreamed of flying; buccaneer adventures of Peter Pan, Harry Potter lobbing through a quidditch match, Superman powering to a dramatic rescue. Even when I aged, the dream never soured when flying became arriving two hours early at the airport – I still look out of the cabin window and wonder how it would feel to fly.
As a little boy I rambled to my mother about the clouds – apparently confused about exactly what they were – I used to ask her how they ‘hung’ in the sky. I sat on the coastline of Kittery, Maine listening to the gentle hum of the evening boats while dozing off to a star filled night. I dreamed long dreams of flying through the black, swimming through warm, dark waters, and picking stars with my outstretched fingers.
As I grew older, I looked for adventures on roller coasters or rock climbing or gliding in those bungied swings for a price… but when roller coasters no longer filled me with excitement, and I wanted something more thrilling than the every day life, I created this list. My first great idea for stepping out of my comfort zone was what seemed like the biggest thrill of all extreme sports: skydiving.
I researched Skydiving on the internet years ago, yet Sheryl wasn’t crazy about the idea and I figured warming up to a hot air balloon ride would be an effective gauge on whether she’d experience it with me or wait on the sidelines. Almost a year went by and she actively denied any interest in Skydiving while I continue to research local business and estimate cost for the adventure. I found Monterey Sky Diving had the highest Tandem jump in the world, and anything worth gambling like this, I figured you might as well do the most extreme you can. Sheryl and I discussed it as an option in the next year, solo or team, and with the coming holidays I ignored the idea save the occasional passing remark.
Weeks passed, and I became ill from a botched dental treatment that required some antibiotics and the rush removal of my wisdom teeth. January, save the trip to see my father in Arizona, was a slow month of recovery with most of the excitement dreaming of solid foods again. On my birthday at home, still laying on the couch healing, Sheryl gave me a small gift bag for my birthday. Inside were DVD’s of skydiving at Monterey, a Spider-Man skydiver, a skydiving t-shirt, and a card letting me know she planned a jump for us both! It was a great gift, but unfortunately the date was too close to me being sick, so we postponed the jump to March 1st (lucky enough, it would have been rained-out anyway).
For the time being, I kept it relatively quiet at work save my close coworkers… better to brag about it when I land. The owners of the company I work for, Chris Bently and Amber marie Bently, openly joked how they’d ‘never in a million years’ jump out of a perfectly good plane, that it was a ‘silly idea’, and teased that our insurance wouldn’t cover such an adventure anyhow. Sheryl’s brother told me I was nuts, Eugene made similar jokes with Scott.
So on February 29th I left work early to beat the commute traffic with Sheryl for the two and a half hour drive to Monterey Bay. We skipped down 280 past the 101 traffic, ate dinner at a half decent Mimi’s Cafe, and checked in after dark at the Victorian Inn. We slept early that night in preparation for the first morning jump.
That morning we woke around 7, cleaned ourselves up, dressed warmly, and headed downstairs to test out the continental breakfast. We walked into the dining area, and there’s Chris Bently and Craig Lipton grinning ear to ear. Now, I find out, Sheryl’s been planning this since November! Amber Marie Bently joins us, and we head down to the airport only to find Russ Jang, Jean Jang, Oscar Roqueni, Julian Joss and Jack Murgia!
The morning was cold with a gray, clouded overcast above the breeze. Slowly the sun drilled blue wrinkles into the sky through the Monterey Bay fog, covering what looked like an abandoned airport with a subtle, eery undertone. The hanger was military beige, with long, deep cracks in the paint from years of salt water beating gently on it’s frame. I teased about the possibility of not being able to jump today, with the poor weather, but it was on the minds of just about everyone as we said casual hopes of a beautiful day. First in line for the day, we passed the time outside waiting for the Jump Masters; each of us filling out 10+ pages of depressing contract with initials for release of liability, indemnity, expense for mishaps, rules and regulations, reminders of fatal danger, dates and signatures and the grand selection of music choices for our jump DVD. Afterwards, we walked inside to complete our financial obligations and prep for flight.
Raff, a Tandem Jump Master with over 12,000 recorded jumps, sat us down as a group to explain the subtle details of the flight, the jump, and the landing. He demonstrated positions of your hands, head, and body from the moment you needed to leave the plane until your feet hit the ground. Technical details aside, he offered words of wisdom that were exactly right: do the best you can to be in the moment.
My interpretation of his speech since we did not record it: you’re free-falling at 120 mph while jumping out of a plane 3.4+ miles in the air- so much new experience is whizzing by you, it’s easy to miss the sincerity of the event. While it’s important to remember the technical details, don’t let the importance of the adventure pass you by. We’ll see you on the ground.
With nine companions and only four Jump Masters, we divide our group up by first come first serve (Jack, arriving late, gets the honor of going it with strangers, but having a full entourage to cheer his landing). Sheryl, Chris, Amber and I will go in the first flight – Julian, Craig, Jean, and Russ in the second – Jack with total strangers. Each of us meets our Tandem Jump Masters for flight gear, fond introductions, and with envelopes of money divvied up by the crew manager for your TJM, Videographer, and FAA certified parachute rigger (attempts to bribe management for the percentage divided fail).
While Sheryl gets to jump with Raff, Jean and I get to jump with Mike Eakins. Clean and concise with his teaching, he thoroughly reviews the basics of what will happen from exiting the plane, to pulling the chute, to feet on the ground again. Legs into the gear, I get the ever eventful full frontal grip of equipment strap from shoulder to thighs while we wait for Sheryl, Chris, and Amber to get suited up. Amber, for some odd reason, gets a full body red jumpsuit as an added bonus.
The plane pulls parallel to the airport hanger, and we walk with our Tandem Jump Master into the plane. The sun has kindly burned off any remnant of the gloomy morning fog, and we’re greeted with a day that should be clear for miles in any direction. When offered, I said I’d be happy to go first, and hurried onto the plane to take a seat… problem is, the seating isn’t like the military jumps you see in the movies with seats on either side of the wall. Behind the cockpit are two padded rows – half a foot wide, one foot off of the ground running parallels in straight line to the back of the plane. The structure allows you to sit saddle, with someone next to you and someone in front of you while you straddle the padded seat- facing the rear of the plane and arguably much more efficient than my original assumption. The downfall, then, is that first on the plane is last to jump, so Sheryl and I will jump after Chris and Amber. A minor technicality with my mind on the coming jump, and I accept my position rather than delay any further for a reorganization that means little to the ultimate payoff.
All players on board, everyone crams in sardine style for the fastest skydiving plane flight in the world. Monterey Bay Skydiving has a customized plane stripped clean of anything unnecessary to make the 18,000 foot climb happen in a matter of minutes. Before we know it, we’re ready to jump.
Mike straps me into his equipment and jokes about the coming jump. At 18,000 feet, the pilot cuts the engines and we’re ready for action. A few solo jumpers scoot forward and jump quickly out of the plane. Amber scoots forward with her Tandem Master while her videographer is already hanging out the plane, and takes the quick jump. Chris is second in line, and follows Amber’s lead. My videographer reaches out to the door, and hangs out of the moving plane in preparation of my jump. I yell barely audible words of encouragement for Sheryl and try hard to scoot myself forward. Today I’ve made the unfortunate decision of wearing chucks that have absolutely no grip on the bare metal floor. By now, Mike’s yelling at me to get it moving, and I finally get the idea to scoot less and stand up more only to get my right foot stuck on the ledge two feet from the door. I pull it up quick, make that awe-inspiring look at the far away ground, and feel Mike push us forward.
For a split second, you feel a subtle sensation of falling, but the physics catch up with the rest of your body and you begin your descent. At the time, I was too busy looking around at the impressive view coupled by the foreign sensations, but Mike is already quick to adjust my legs and body into the ‘belly to earth “arch” position’. Stabilized, it instantly sets in the coldness of the air (we’ve chosen a day barely 55 degrees on the ground), and I start to see a little condensation build up on the starter goggles. Not much of a bother, a slight look away, and the water whips off. The cold begins to wrap around my exposed hands, and up my dry sinuses – for a second my brain assumes I’m in some event that’s causing me bodily harm – but the overreaction quickly buries behind my overall awe at the sheer conquest of the world speeding closer to me. I’ve seen the curvature of the land from planes and from studies, but it’s a new animal from unsheltered eyes. Puffy white clouds break to the beautiful Pacific Ocean, greeted by green hills and mountains on cliff led shores. People scuttle along in machines that are yet too distant to account for, and then out of my peripheral vision my videographer Jackie pops into view fist clenched with excitement and grinning.
I see her lips move and I think she’s yelling me commands while shaking her fists. I mirror her hand movements, assuming I’m doing something wrong (you can enjoy it in the video) and then realizing I’m over-thinking my adventure again, loosen up for the remainder of the free-fall. Mike gently grips the top of my forehead, and for the first time throughout the fall I hear him clearly:
Here’s your birthday gift Brady!
Out pops the shoot and we slow to a peaceful, gentle float. Jackie continues to drop quickly so she can make it down before I do, but Mike’s in no hurry and he helps the straps shift down below by backside as if I were seated in a swing. Earlier I had complained that the straps felt so tight I couldn’t stand-up straight, and Mike quipped not to worry because when we’re in the air it’ll shift two inches off my shoulders… I notice by now he was right. The rapid fire, high adrenaline jump becomes as gentle as any Balloon ride, and we float. Mike explains the basics of controlling the parachute, and provides an example by gliding around a puffy cloud (noting FAA regulations forbid us to pass through them, which I was hoping for)- he pulls my goggles up for a clear, calm view of the Monterey Bay and allows me to hold onto the steering handles for our landing. We speed up and slow down with quick turns as I test the controls, and I confirm that I’m comfortable helping the landing. We descend softly to the landing spot, and step gently onto the ground.
The pressure in my ears needs a good pop, and I yawn and blow fat cheeks while holding my nose. I give Mike a well deserved thank you, and see the mini-bus that picks up the crew. Forgetful of my manners after the experience, I ask Mike if he needs a hand with his parachute, but he was almost completely done and I head to the bus. Sheryl, although last to jump, was first to land, followed by me, Amber, and Chris. Chris had the unfortunate gift of landing hard on his backside.
The second team – Craig, Julian, Russ, and Jean – are waiting on the sidelines to go up with one of the Jump Masters that guided us, and we hang out chit chatting about our experience while we wait for the second team to make it down.
After a few minutes of staring up at the blue sky, little dots become parachutes and we try to gamble who’s coming down first. Julian lands, followed by Craig in a bright yellow jumpsuit, then Jean, and then Russ. The same Jump Master for Chris landed Russ hard and fast on his backside as well, but this time with a greater speed, and Russ noticeably is uncomfortable… in fact, even weeks later, he’s going to the hospital to see if he chipped something! Both teams pack into the mini-bus for a quick drive back to the hanger to wish Jack off for a jump with total strangers.
Sheryl, Chris, Amber and I ride back to the landing site after the plane lifts off and wait for Jacks decent. Although Jack had the same Jump Master as Chris and Russ, his skydive is flawless and only earmarked by the fact that his pants hiked up so much he looked 50 years older and damaging any future chance for his son to have a sibling. I’m quick to comment the impending wardrobe malfunction, when Jack responds with the new motto for our adventure:
Well I wasn’t thinking about fashion, I was thinking about jumping out of a fucking plane!
Mission accomplished, we squeeze too many people into the mini-bus and head once again for the hanger. Sheryl was nice enough to pack a thank you card for everyone that attended, we test our DVD’s in the hanger now that they’re ready (while first time jumpers look on in interest) and say our goodbye’s to Julian, Oscar, and Jack who have to make it back to San Francisco.
The rest of us head back to Cannery Row for Mexican food and to pass the time. After lunch, Russ and Jean head back to San Francisco while Amber, Chris, Craig, Sheryl and I breeze through a quick walkthrough at the beautiful Monterey Aquarium. We settle that evening for drinks and light appetizers, head back to the room exhausted, ready for sleep. In the morning, we make our way through Santa Cruz for breakfast, and home to San Francisco.
It was nothing that I assumed it to be, in fact, it was better. I imagined a looseness in your stomach like you falling unexpected out of a building; in reality it was a controlled free-fall greater than any book or any movie could have described. The adventure is unique, and though I wouldn’t say I’ve come to a religious experience, it’s skewed my perspective on life for the better. Mike commented that it holds the same individual qualities to losing your virginity – undoubtedly unique and completely yours, for good or for bad.
The comparison rings true that regardless of what I do, it’ll be one of the greats I’ve challenged myself to accomplish.
In almost the same breadth, Mike was quick to note:
75% of people wouldn’t dare skydive… of the 25% that tell you they would, 50% are full of shit.
Sounds about right. Thank you Mike for keeping my life safe all the way to the ground and for being a great teacher – I look forward to future solo jumps with Monterey Skydiving. Thank you to all of my friends who helped Sheryl make this happen, and who experienced this adventure with me – it’s an impressive sign of friendship I hope I am lucky enough to return.
Thank you Sheryl: you made one of my greatest dreams come true. It may take a lifetime to return that debt.
Copyright © Brady J. Frey, all rights reserved. All trademarks and copyrights remain the property of their respective owners.