The first, and thus far only, time I've been skydiving, I had a man strapped to my back.
The man was my instructor, in charge of ensuring my safe landing in a grassy field, should I freeze up or forget to pull the ripcord. I was the 18-year-old, in charge of grinning like a fool through my flappy cheeks and shooting thumbs-up to the camera guy who'd jumped with us.
After about 40 seconds of freefall, when the altimeter needle started nearing the red zone on my wrist, I was still making chimp faces and enjoying my first taste of terminal velocity. The guy on my back had to pull the ripcord.
When he did, it only partially deployed, leaving us falling slower, but still too fast. Like any well-trained instructor, rather than yelling something panicky in my ear like, "Oh shit, we're gonna die!" he announced in a calm voice, "Don't worry, a line's caught, the backup chute will open in a second."
It did, and we floated gently to the ground. All was well until we arrived back at the hangar, when the man previously strapped to my back berated one of the workers for not packing the parachute correctly, well within earshot of me.
Good advertising, fellas. I'll be sure to tell all my friends about skydiving, Alabama style.
The first, and thus far only, time I've been indoor skydiving, there was no man attached to me. Just a young guy jumping around a 12-foot, 1,200-horsepower vertical wind tunnel nearby.
The guy was my instructor, in charge of correcting my posture and helping me keep aloft for my two allotted, one-minute flights. I was the 30-year-old, still in charge of grinning like an idiot through flappy cheeks.
No ripcord, no poorly packed parachute, no worry.
I was in a wind tunnel consisting of four fans above a specially engineered flight chamber, with wall-to-wall airflow. A taut mesh cable network provided the platform on which my instructor would stand and on which I'd occasionally belly-plant.
On this day, I was at Lone Tree's SkyVenture, located in a retail complex just south of Denver off Interstate 25. The two-year-old franchise location the company first launched in 1998 out of Orlando, Fla. runs one of the 12 recreational wind tunnels in the United States and 30 worldwide, according to my instructor, Josh. SkyVenture bills itself as the "safest, most efficient and realistic freefall simulation possible."
Josh says skydivers come to practice their formations for competitions, and the military sends newbies in for free-fall training. SkyVenture has even sold a unit to the armed forces of Brazil.
But tourists like me constitute about 90 percent of SkyVenture's clientele. And we've helped take indoor skydiving beyond one-time novelty status, even at $48 for an introductory flight and $15 for each additional minute afterward. Cheaper than a real jump, yes, but certainly still costly.
After a five-minute video and brief hand-signal training with a fittingly peppy Josh, we'd been ushered from a sterile classroom to an equipment area, where we put on gaudily colored onesies, as well as goggles, earplugs and helmets.
Then Josh sealed us into a waiting area inside the chamber, with doors into the tunnel on both sides. Through one door, he helped fliers lean into proper flight position arched back, arms forward, chin up, legs slightly bent before spotting them during flight. Through the other, he helped pull fliers from the air and re-ground them, placing them back in line for their second minute.
My girlfriend flew first out of our class of eight. She fell into a good flight position and managed a decent hover before drifting into one of the walls. Josh had warned us that this was normal for beginners, and advised us to simply push off with our palms to re-center ourselves. She did, and Josh grabbed a flap built into the jumpsuit's hip to help guide her around. When she'd hit good position again, a guy controlling the 120 mph-or-so wind speed in an adjacent booth cranked it up to loft her higher in the chamber.
As soon as her flight ended and her feet hit the waiting area's metal grating, Josh leapt to the entry door to receive me. I fell into his arms and the wind as gracefully as possible, and within a few seconds caught a stable drift. Then I, too, drifted uncontrollably toward the Plexiglass walls until he righted me, occasionally flashing a hand signal in front of my face or pointing at his chin to signal me to raise mine higher.
So there I hung, suspended in midair ... a smile on my face but no real adrenaline pulsing. Though the experience delivered a unique floating sensation, it of course lacked the thrill of scooting to an airplane door, surveying the ground below, then front-flipping into the abyss. Indoor skydiving feels more like crowd-surfing in a tornado, minus the cock-punches and ass grabs. Or like being buoyed in the Dead Sea, minus the saltwater burn.
And I floated on ... looking goofy, catching odd glances from my classmates and random onlookers while getting tugged on by Josh. For the last 15 seconds of my second flight, he jumped up into formation with me and twirled us around a definite highlight. (Never thought I'd write that sentence.)
After the whole class had gone through twice, Josh jumped back in to demo more advanced moves, as a sales pitch. The guy in the booth jacked up the wind speed again and Josh shot out of sight toward the vents, then dove into an upside-down, spinning float, executing some flips and other flashy moves. Though I didn't want to be, I was impressed. It looked fun as hell, maybe even worth the money for training.
As long as we weren't in Alabama, I'd still tell the willing to go skydiving first. But indoor skydiving proved worth a go. And the whole less-likely-to-die thing is certainly a plus.