There are some things in life that just shouldn’t be faked, but is skydiving one of them? Florida is the place to find out
Peering out of the plane at a particularly empty and beautiful-looking stretch of Greenland, I am paying more interest to being at altitude than normal. Now cruising at 39,000 feet, in three days’ time I will be hurtling earthwards at 13,500 feet. On Friday the 13th.
But can you simulate a skydive with any degree of realism? Florida is having a go. Set next to the screams and splashes of the Wet 'n' Wild waterpark, Sky Venture is a vertical wind tunnel. The idea is straightforward enough: dress paying customers in boilersuits and helmets, then blast them upwards with a 120mph column of air inside a Perspex octagon, simulating the sensation of freefall.
Our instructor, Greg, gets us kitted out and advises on ‘arching’, the standard skydiving position. With arms and legs spreadeagled, the idea is to raise your head, thrust your pelvis downward and thus arch your back. But it soon becomes clear that I'm going to need extra tuition; my first stint in the tunnel is chaos. I bump the walls before flying across the chamber to try to headbutt the controller behind the glass.
I finish by descending inexplicably to lie like a clumsy fish on the mesh floor. My second attempt is better, however, as I finally begin to establish some stability, and my final effort is a positive revelation: I manage to stay completely still, gently rotating in midair. Sky Venture attracts skydivers from around the world and, as I leave, the Russian national team are busy practising their routines. They don't touch the walls once as they change formation in a series of crisp, well-choreographed moves.
On the fateful Friday, I transfer to the manicured surroundings of Saddlebrook Resort, near Tampa. It is just down the road from the Zephyr Hills drop zone, established in 1990, open year-round and reputed to be the best in Florida. It is early morning, and the only sign of life at Zephyr Hills is a cat sitting by the office door. A newspaper cutting on a noticeboard refers to a local grandmother of 82 who made her first skydive recently.
It takes just 15 minutes to run through the tandem training – essentially, you are just there for the ride. Igor, my instructor, is a big, dark-haired Russian, living aptly enough in St Petersburg, Florida, who saw action in Afghanistan with the Soviet Air Force before notching up 4,000 jumps since 1986. Igor has experienced just the two parachute malfunctions, including one with a poor soul making his first tandem jump. "Be aggressive and positive," he suggests. "And never give up if you have problems, because the alternatives are worse."
As we wait, a gaggle of skydivers land with a rush of colourful canopies, some dragging their feet expertly in the swoop pond, a purpose-built, shallow stretch of water on which parachutists can "surf" on landing. Then the Tannoy announces: "Load two, 20 minutes", and a group of US Special Forces troops wander out, decked in black.
We get suited up and walk nervously out to our plane, a DeHavilland Twin Otter, an aircraft renowned for its capacity to climb rapidly, at about 1,600ft a minute. As we climb, someone rolls open the door at the back to let in some air, which I badly need, and the solo skydivers start tumbling out, looking up at us as they begin their descent to Earth.
"This is seriously crazy," I think. I am healthily scared. Igor's dark eyes have a faraway look; possibly he is anticipating the large dose of adrenaline I imagine will be arriving shortly. As we stand by the open doorway, gazing down at patches of green Florida through scattered clouds, it all feels utterly surreal. We rock forward, we rock back (called the hotel check) and then take one of the biggest leaps possible.
The first two seconds, no matter what people tell you, are quite a lurch from the normal. Your stomach vanishes while your overstimulated brain is yelling, "Get back on the plane!" But the only way out of this is to follow procedure. As I assume the arch, Igor throws a small drogue parachute to slow our descent; 120mph is the maximum speed at which human beings fall, a speed known worryingly as terminal velocity.
It is, without doubt, the maddest of minutes, deafeningly loud, bright and unreal, caught in a sun-filled storm of noise and speed. Then, just for kicks, Igor puts us into a series of dizzying spins. My endorphin-flooded brain struggles desperately to establish a point of reference; a wind tunnel this isn't. At 4,000ft, Igor pulls the ripcord. The jerk isn't anywhere near as severe as I'd been expecting, and with the canopy open we circle down. As the drop zone increases in size, we make a short detour upwind and literally step back on to terra firma.
The evening passes in a euphoric fog, and I head home a changed person. The next day I have a tennis lesson at the Saddlebrook (it is renowned for its facilities). And while my backhand gradually sharpens up, I can’t help but cast an occasional eye to the skies and think of the happy souls tumbling from planes somewhere high above.