Feature: Taking the Plunge

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Jumping from 14,000 feet offers breathtaking views and a chance to share amazing personal experiences with others.

By LINDSAY SLATER

Usually, my thoughts are very loud in my head. I’m a thinker. There’s always something to be thought about and analyzed and fixed. If we aren’t breaking our situations down to the minutest details, we aren’t breathing. Skydiving takes that chaos away from me. All I hear is the rushing of the wind and my brain almost can’t comprehend how beautiful things are in that moment. Not just the scenery, but also the courage of letting go even if just for a moment. The mind is completely clear, and I’m just along for the ride…

It is a slightly chilly morning as we arrive at the Chattanooga Skydiving Company hangar. There is just a smidge of cloud cover, but it is enough to make me worry we won’t be able to jump today.

My weather fears are quickly dispelled, and I find my personal quest for this article intertwining with the endeavors of two couples whose unique stories and respective experiences make this assignment seem almost too perfect.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]The skydiving company is located in Jasper, Tenn., about a 45-minute drive from my home in Fort Payne, Ala. The hangar houses the office, picnic tables for eating and signing your life away and dog Cinnamon – the unofficial mascot happily trotting around greeting guests.

Of course, the hangar also is used to pack parachutes and for relaxing while waiting for your turn to jump.

As I prepare to sign my waiver, the two couples are working on theirs. Zoe Mitchell and Dean Pavlou both recently graduated from college and are preparing for their second jump. Neither Jocelyn Veit nor Nathan Sosa has jumped before. And Nathan – he’s never even been on a plane. I think to myself he deserves brownie points for deciding to jump from the first plane in which he’d fly.

Getting harnessed up and the wait afterward allows me some extra time to mingle and talk with the staff and other jumpers.

Justin Silvia, owner and president of Chattanooga Skydiving Company, opened the business in January 2012. His family has been involved in skydiving since 1960. He recalls his first jump on June 17, 1984, in Pepperell, Mass.

“I still remember that jump very well: the smell of the plane, the sights, the sounds. It’s always great when you can turn your passion into a business,” says Silvia, who now has almost 10,000 jumps under his belt.

It’s a passion that he enjoys passing onto others, whether it’s a repeat jumper or someone brand new to the skies.

“The greatest thing is the excitement as soon as someone lands,” Silvia says. “That’s a great feeling.” When it comes to skydiving, people generally fall into two categories – those who have always wanted to do it or those who say there’s no way they ever could. So, what is it that makes people want to jump out of a plane?

Silvia turns the table on me and asks why I want to jump. My answer is that it is a combination of several factors. First, I fall into the category of people who have always wanted to do it. Second, it almost seems like a rite of passage in a way.

“I guess it could be a number of things,” Silvia says, answering my question. “Movies, peer pressure, alcohol, knocking it off the bucket list, people who want to live and see the world … the list goes on.” If someone, like me, chooses to jump again, the reason seems almost crystal clear: they’ve been hooked. “Once you jump, you know if you’re addicted,” Silvia says. “If you’re anything like me, once you do it, you’ve got to have more.”

I understand him, as this is my second skydiving experience, with the first coming just a few short months earlier.

We are the first tandem jumpers of the day. Zoe, Dean and I load into the plane with our assigned instructors to whom we will soon be attached. Pilot Travis Shields flies us to our altitude, and in a few minutes, the door opens and the three of us are out: Dean first, then Zoe and finally myself.

The funny part is that before you jump, your instructor is giving these instructions that you’re probably going to forget as soon as you are in the air. If I did what I was told by my instructors, it was my subconscious doing the work.

“ARCH! ARCH!” Silvia yells as we are tumbling out of the plane. I throw my arms and hips back, and that is the most work I have to do.

Amazing views greet me. There’s the Tennessee River down below and the Chattanooga skyline can be seen off in the distance. Silvia does a couple of 90-degree turns to allow for different vistas. I am having the time of my life with a permanent smile striped across my face.

After about 50 seconds or so, Silvia pulls the chute. People tend to have a fear of skydiving, I think, because they feel like something is going to go wrong with the chute.

My favorite part is the canopy flight. There is nothing, I repeat, nothing, like floating through the air and looking out over God’s creation. Nothing. I could try all day to explain it to you, but you’ll never understand me unless you see it for yourself. It’s so incredibly beautiful.

As we are descending, Justin says, “It looks like they got the tarp out.” I have no clue what he is talking about. As it turns out – and as Silvia and I are about to land – Dean is on bended knee in front of Zoe with an engagement ring. The tarp Silvia had referred to moments before is stretched in the landing area and hand-painted with: “WILL YOU MARRY ME, ZOE?”

“I made up my mind about this time last year that I wanted to ask her to marry me,” Dean says. “I wanted to wait until after graduation, and I wanted to ask her in a special way, one that she would remember. My friend suggested skydiving, and I thought that was a great idea.”

Mitchell, who happily and tearfully says “yes,” almost misses seeing the proposal signage.

“I kept asking my instructor if we could land in the pasture across the way,” Zoe says. “He kept saying no and then he pointed the sign out to me and said, ‘That is why we can’t land in the pasture.’ I started crying as soon as I saw it.”

Getting the opportunity to share in this special moment adds to the euphoria of my jump. I head back to the hangar and watch as another group loads up and jumps.

Next, it is Nathan and Jocelyn’s turn. I take off my ear warmer headband and offer it to Jocelyn to borrow for her jump. She gladly accepts it, as I told her the wind can be overwhelming for the ears. It doesn’t bother some people, but I prefer to have mine covered.

I feel like a parent sending her children off into something new and exciting. I am so excited about the experience I know they are going to have. After Jocelyn and Nathan land, they share a big hug.

“Getting to the edge of the plane was the worst part,” Jocelyn says. “But, after that, it was like all my stress was gone. It was awesome.”

“This has opened a whole new world for me,” says Nathan, adding the most exciting aspects of his first jump are “the peacefulness and freedom” and “being in the moment.”

Silvia understands. “If you live in the moment, you aren’t out of control,” he says. “People worry about the past and the future too much, and they would be more content if they could learn to live in the moment more often. Just stepping out of the plane, it’s very freeing. It’s a whole lot of fun.”

Silvia invites anyone who is considering skydiving to come to the facility and hang out and watch.

“I find that a lot of people have preconceived notions about a lot of things, skydiving included,” he says. “Many times, I’ll have people come in with someone else who’s scheduled to jump and they end up jumping, too. Seeing it for themselves has a great effect on changing their minds.”

Some people worry about the potential for mishaps. Silvia says statistically, you would be more likely to get in a car accident on the way to skydive than get injured from the jump. Accidents are rare in part due to back-up systems that help reduce risks.

“Occasionally, when you’re dealing with humans and mechanical devices, things can go wrong,” Silvia says. “We have automatic activation devices on all our packs that deploy the reserve chute, if it’s needed. I can’t say that it’s 100-percent safe. It’s an extreme sport, so there are risks associated with it.”

But the positive effect it can have on someone’s life is what sticks out in Silvia’s mind. He recalls a jump with a lady about 10 years ago.

“She was taking care of her mother who had dementia,” he says. “She had done that the last 10 years or so, and she said it was the first time she’d had off in awhile. As soon as we opened the chute, she just started crying and crying, she was so happy. When we landed, I started crying, too. It was a positive moment for her, and that meant a lot to me.”

If you’ve jumped before and are looking to get your license to jump solo, Chattanooga Skydiving Company offers training. “Someone can get their A-license in 25 jumps,” Silvia says. “The first nine jumps are direct supervision jumps. I require the jumper to do tandem jumps in the beginning for the purpose of teaching them how to fly the parachute, and it keeps them in a controlled environment.”

The company also offers instructor training for those who would like to take others on tandem jumps.

For more information on Chattanooga Skydiving Company, including rates and training information, visit chattanoogaskydivingcompany.com.

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