Leap of Faith – Vegas Style

By Dawn Ziegler ~

Leap of Faith! No, I am not talking about getting hitched in Vegas, unless it’s getting strapped onto a strange man and jumping out of a perfectly good air plane. WAHOO!!

It’s an adventure that takes your breath away, that’s for sure.  Tandem skydiving is the safest and easiest way to get introduced to skydiving.  Attached securely to a licensed instructor with a duel harness system, you’ll freefall at speeds so fast your face ripples.  Then after the parachute opens, you’ll float and spin through the air having a chance to view the earth below in a way you never witnessed before.  It’s sure to be one of the most extraordinary thrills of your life!

Today there are many more skydiving centers that have instructors with experience taking people with disabilities tandem skydiving.  Do not expect all centers to be able to accommodate different abilities especially when safety is the highest priority.  It’s important to ask questions and do your homework.

In the summer of 2011, I planned a trip to visit my niece, Jennifer, who lives in Las Vegas.  Wanting to do something adventurous, we decided to go tandem skydiving.  It was going to be a first for both of us…a great bonding experience for sure, and what better place to take the plunge than Vegas!

First we needed to find a place that had experience doing tandem dives with quadriplegics.  There were three skydiving facilities near Vegas that offered tandem jumps.  The first place was adamant that it couldn’t be done, and another one just wouldn’t return our calls.  So that left Skydive Las Vegas, the largest skydiving facility in Nevada which also specializes in first-time jumpers.  Perfect!

I called and spoke with the manager.  He said they have had many persons with a variety of disabilities come through their center.  However, he would not give me a definite answer over the phone as to whether they would take me on a jump.

Each case has to be evaluated on an individual basis to determine the safety of the jump.  Adequate equipment and an instructor with enough experience who was willing to take such a client up had to be available.  Sometimes this meant planning another day to go in before the scheduled jump date to work with an instructor to get the right harness fitting for the situation.  So I scheduled an appointment to be evaluated for 7 AM on the first day of my trip.

Skydive Las Vegas is located at the Boulder City Airport just 30 minutes from Las Vegas.  It shares the strip with the small planes airport, a helicopter touring company and a few other businesses.  It was a quiet drive there so early in the morning, and it was going to be a hot day with the temps already nearing the 90s.

We walked into the cool, air conditioned building where a class of 15 was already in session. It looked like they have clients constantly moving through a rotation of filling out forms, watching an instructional video, and going through skydiving training, all in one room.

John Luvera was the instructor who came out to evaluate me.  He had experience doing tandem jumps with both quads and paras on several occasions.   He asked me to describe my level of function.  I explained that I have a C5/6 spinal cord injury and have decent arm strength but no hand, leg or trunk use.  I also added that I can have some strong muscle spasms at times.  He asked if I could fold my arms across my chest and tip my head back…check.

The crucial component to the dive was to be able to control my legs and have them bent up and out of the way during our landing.  If my legs did not stay up, then on the landing they would catch on the ground causing us to be thrown face first into the gravel.  Ouch!

John felt confident he could take me up with the basic set up they used for people with no leg use.  That involved taping my knees and ankles together and putting a strap around my thighs that was used to pull my knees up in a bent position. To keep my legs like that, another strap connected the thigh strap to my chest harness.

Since my legs needed to be bent up for the landing, they had to stay like that for the entire dive.  With me in that position, it would make it more difficult for John to maneuver the parachute, so it was imperative that there be adequate wind.  John said to go ahead and schedule our skydive for 7 AM Saturday, but to keep in mind that I may go through all the training and still not be able to go if the wind was not good.  With that clear, we got our names in their books and were one step closer to jumping out of an airplane!

One unique feature at this facility was that their landing area was right next to their building.  Every time the next load of divers approached the drop zone, someone came in and announced it so you could go out and watch them jump and land. So as we were about to leave, the next group had just exited the plane.  Watching them drift down, swirling effortlessly, hooting and hollering, was awesome.  It gave us a good idea of what to expect, especially seeing the landing.  My excitement was building and I could hardly wait!!

Since the evaluation didn’t take long, we had some time to kill.  We went into Boulder City to have breakfast and then checked out the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, both just minutes away from the skydiving center.

Two days later we were back…

Skydive Las Vegas offers complimentary shuttle services from the Las Vegas strip twice a day at 8 AM and 12 Noon normally, but it was not wheelchair accessible.  Since our jump was scheduled for 7 AM, we had to drive ourselves anyway.

They said to plan to be there for about four hours, but they usually get people through faster than that.  Honestly, it was too early for us to care, we just hoped for good wind.

After the paperwork, we watched the instructional video and began the training session.  At that time, John came and got me and took me to the next room since my situation was different.  He showed me the harness and demonstrated how they were going to use the extra straps.  All that was left was to get the jumpsuit and harness on.

But there was a problem…no wind.  John informed us they were going to plan on taking us up on the fifth load assuming the wind picked up.  He said we could leave but to stay within 15 minutes of the center.  Having some time to kill, we went into Boulder City again to checkout another café and eat some breakfast and wait for their call.  About two hours later, we got a call, but again they were delaying our jump.

About 30 minutes passed.  I was outside at a small touristy hat shop when I heard the breeze rustle the hanging chimes.  I looked at Jennifer and said, “Do you hear that?”

Just like that my phone rang and a voice says, “We’ve got wind!”  Looking at each other, we both simultaneously felt a nervous stir in our stomachs as the anticipated moment was now upon us.

As soon as we arrived back at Skydive Las Vegas, we were hustled into the attached hanger to get our jumpsuits and harnesses on.  Four of the instructors worked together to get the harness situated just right.  My friend, Sami, was there to help “stand” me up so they could make the final adjustments.  [This could’ve also been done with me on the floor, but Sami and I do this for transfers so it was quicker this way.]  When the manager and my instructor were satisfied with our setup, John went to work on the straps for my legs.

I was impressed how everyone worked together, and how respectful they were.  They asked for direction on how best to move me as they worked to secure everything.  Safety, of course, was their first priority, but they also wanted to be sure my skin was not being compromised by the tight straps.  So, since my legs were taped together tightly, they put a towel between my knees for cushion.  With all in check, we were ready!

It was time to head outside and begin boarding the plane.  They used a 2009 PAC-750XL skydiving airplane that has the capacity to hold 8 tandem jumpers (16 people) at one time.  Besides Jennifer and me, there was a bachelorette party of six women doing the tandem jump with us.  One by one they climbed into the plane and sat down in front of their instructor.

After my instructor got in and seated, another guy put one of his arms under my knees and the other around my back, picked me up, and set me inside the plane where my instructor immediately began attaching our harnesses together.  It was at that moment when the plane engine roared and we began to move that it all became real…we were going to jump out of a plane!!

Since I had to be loaded last, I got to sit on the floor smack next to the door…which also meant I was going to be the first one out.  As we started down the runway, the door remained wide open, so I asked, “We’re going to fly with this door open?”

Laughing, John said, “No, we’ll close it before lift off.”  And before you knew it John slide the door closed as our speed reached over 200 mph and the aircraft left the ground.

Skydive Las Vegas offers the highest skydive in Nevada.  It took about 12 minutes before we reached 15,000 feet MSL (mean sea level) which is the highest altitude allowed without oxygen.  And since this skydive center is at the lowest drop zone altitude in Nevada, students get nearly a full minute of freefall.

During the flight, we caught glimpses of the Las Vegas Strip, Lake Mead, and the Colorado River.  If you missed them, there would be a chance to see them on your dive down along with views of the Hoover Dam, Mt. Charleson, Red Rock Canyon and the Valley of Fire.

As we approached the drop zone, I remembered what the instructor said during training, “When it’s your turn to jump, your instructor will slide the two of you into position with your legs hanging out the door.  At that time, your instructor may give you a signal or just go…either way, you will be pushed out the door!”  Ha, no turning back now!

I was trying to imagine how my body was going to react to the jump.  Once you exit the plane, you fall at about 120 mph.  My biggest concern was if I’d be able to catch my breath during the freefall.  I had a plan, though, to take a deep breath right before we jumped since it’s easier to inhale than exhale.

That plan failed!  As John turned us toward the open door, the force of the wind caught my breath and I couldn’t breathe.  There was no time to panic because we were out of the plane before I knew it.

“I was watching Dawn as they hung out the side of the plane.”  Jennifer recalled.  “Then John lunged out the door and they just vanished instantly…I was shocked at how quickly they disappeared!”

Not even noticing the ground below us, I focus on my breathing until I got a few breaths in and out.  It didn’t feel like falling like one might imagine.  I just remember the force of the air on my body and having the sensation of being suspended in air.  Then with a sudden surge as John pulled the rip cord, our bodies were lifted up as the parachute caught wind and filled.  But then something went wrong…

After John pulled the rip cord, the jolt from the parachute opening snapped the strap that held my knees to my chest, dropping my legs straight down below me. John, not aware of what had happened, asked how I was doing and I yelled back, “Good, but the strap broke!”

He replied with, “The strap broke?  Uh Oh!”  That’s not what you want to hear when you’ve just jumped out of a plane and have between five to seven minutes before reaching the ground!  But then he immediately added, “That’s ok, we’ll fix it,” as if it was no big deal.  And again he asked, “Pretty amazing up here, isn’t it?”

Time seemed to stand still for the next couple of minutes.  With a calm urgency, John moved to get my legs back into position.  Not once did I sense panic from him which demonstrated his experience and confidence.  Alternating between pulling on the pant legs of my jumpsuit to bring my knees up and keeping us on course toward the landing area, John worked quickly without hesitation.

As soon as my knees were high enough, he held them with one hand and reached with his other hand for the strap that had now slipped down around my ankles.  With a strong tug, we pulled the strap back up to my knees.  John grasped the carabineer, and with a single motion, he pulled up my knees and clipped the carabineer onto my chest harness.

Then in a fluid motion, John grasped the parachute handles, slid my goggles off my face and asked, “What do you think of the view up here?”

I took in a deep breath and looked out around.  I was in awe of the beautiful sharp contrasts between the rich brown textures of the dessert, the deep red hues of Red Rock Canyon, and the electric blue water of Lake Mead and the man-made ponds. I noticed how the mountains surrounded the whole area, framing the valley below.  There was nothing but peace and solitude to absorb.

John guided the parachute into a series of twirls and spins.  I couldn’t help but hoot and holler, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

The landing area approached much too quickly.  As John steered us in, I could see three guys on the ground waiting for us.  Then, running along as we neared, they caught me while John slid his feet down for a perfect landing.  Without thinking I yelled, “Let’s do it again!”

Shortly after, Jennifer landed and hustled over with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.  She sat down on the ground and gave me a big hug.  That was our special moment…an experience to be cherished forever.

[Skydiving is a dangerous sport.  You jump out of a plane at 15,000 feet.  Even when the best equipment is used and every safety precaution is exercised, there is always a margin for something to go wrong.  It is very important to make sure a facility has qualified instructors who have plenty of experience working with people with disabilities and has strict practices for servicing and replacing equipment.

Skydive Las Vegas has been operating a very safe and successful skydiving center since 1993.  The safety of their students and staff is top priority.  They use the most advanced technology parachute system available and rotate it out after it is a year old.  All their skydiving gear is serviced and maintained by FAA Master Parachute Riggers.  All of their instructors are USPA qualified and have between 3,000 to 14,000 jumps experience.  I would tandem skydive with them again and highly recommend them to others, with or without a disability!]

Skydive Las Vegas is still going strong today.  Recently they had the American Council for the Blind come out to their facility where they took about 30 people out for a first time skydiving experience they’ll never forget.  See the video here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1QaYXtiBNQ

Go to http://www.skydivelasvegas.com/ for more information on the Skydive Las Vegas center.