When I was assigned to write a story on Skydive Tecumseh, I called General Manager Shaggio Levesque to book an interview. However, Shaggio’s idea of an interview was vastly different than my idea of an interview. “I can try to tell you about it,” he said. “But it’s really one of those things you need to experience to understand.” And just like that, I had in my hands the interview opportunity of a lifetime. All I had to do was say yes and I, along with Homefront photographer and graphic designer, Nanci Heiney, would be taken into the skies to experience human flight.
I did not want to do this.
My fear of heights borders on the edge of white hot terror. Even as a kid there was a low and uncomfortable grumble of fear within me when I crossed a bridge or if someone pushed me too high on a swing. This fear was a manageable grumble until several years ago when my husband and I were on a cross country flight that experienced grave difficulties. From what I understand we encountered a wind shear as we came in to land. There was a harrowing tip of the plane and a sudden and forceful thrust back into the sky as the pilot aborted the landing. Severe weather then diverted our flight, and we aborted landings at two additional airports. This incident lasted for nearly two hours before we were finally able to land in an airport four hours from our destination. Upon landing, I begged my husband to rent a car and drive us home so I wouldn’t have to get back on the plane. The majority of people on that flight ended up at the car rental counter. It was that bad. The experience was chaos. At times, people were screaming. The woman in the seat next to me just cried and held photos of her children. In those hours, the once manageable fear sank in his ugly and monstrous claws and declared that he now owned me. I was his.
I cannot be more clear. I did not want to go skydiving. Yet what nagged at me was that I also didn’t want to be someone who was too afraid to go skydiving. I didn’t seek this out. It sought me. Not taking this opportunity seemed like such a concession to the monster, like I was finally and nakedly admitting that I was his. So in a moment of defiance, I booked our jump for five days later. I decided that I would simply keep it gray in my mind. I’d just push it aside as some hypothetical thing that was going to happen someday. This worked until the night before. I couldn’t sleep. In the morning, I couldn’t eat. The fear was spreading like a sickness throughout my entire body.
That morning, Nanci and I drove together to Skydive Tecumseh. We decided to talk about anything that wasn’t skydiving. I needed distraction. I was so grateful that she was there. As soon as we arrived, we were met by a staff that was simply full of joy. I was introduced to my jump buddy, Dom Baez. This was the man who was to be strapped to my back to take me safely through this adventure. He fitted me with a harness, taught me how to lean back into him during the free fall. He made me laugh. I was then handed over to Jeromy Alexander, the videographer who would be jumping next to us and recording my dive. He recorded a pre-flight interview, and, he too, made me laugh. These people were just simply happy. Their joy made the fear so manageable. There were moments when I felt like I was simply hanging out with friends. I started having fun.
Then the plane arrived, and we filed two by two into its belly. I had been so focused on the fear of skydiving that it wasn’t until I climbed into the plane that I remembered just how afraid I was of flying. As we ascended, my fear began to morph into actual physical panic and pain. I was trying to hide it and look happy, but I was trembling and trying not to cry. Nanci reached over and held my hand for a moment. Then Dom leaned into my ear and told me to close my eyes. He told me that we were going to take two deep breaths together. I felt each exhale evaporate just the edges of the panic. Then it was time.
I was to go first. The door was slid open. There was so much wind, so much noise, there were so many reasons not to jump. I knew that all I had to do was turn to Dom and say, “No, I can’t do this,” and I could stay in my seat and be free of this thing. But at that moment, I didn’t want to say no. I knew there was actually no freedom in backing out.
While I had never before jumped out of a plane, I knew this moment. I had been here many times in my life. I was either going to step off or stay comfortable. Be brave or be full of fear. Jump or sit back down. No one was forcing me. This was my moment to choose. So I stood up. I walked forward. I stepped out and put my feet on the running board outside of the plane, the toes of my shoes hovering two miles above the earth below. Dom laid my head back onto him as we had practiced, and he asked me if I was ready. I answered yes. And with that one yes to the fear-filled unknown below, we jumped.
For me, freefalling at 120 miles per hour was a complete absence of thought. My mind is often a chaotic place of thinking and analyzing and creating and worrying and fretting and evaluation. But the freefall was an all-consuming sensory overload. There was no space for anything other than the fall. It was a moment, simply for the moment itself. My mind was quiet.
When the parachute opened and the descent slowed, I quickly returned to thought. I quickly returned to fear. Our descent to the ground became much like the responsive readings from church — fears answered by assurances. Over and over I repeated, “Is the parachute working? Are we okay? I’m so scared.” Over and over Dom responded, “Everything is working. We are safe. I’m going get you to the ground safely, I promise.” At one point, he took my hands and gave me straps to hold. “This will make you feel safer,” he said. It was pure kindness. I sometimes forget how powerful simple kindness can be.
I found out later that each person on our flight had a different experience, created just for them. Some twirled around in their parachute, some had the chance to steer. Our jump buddies had read each one of us, understood our tolerance for this adventure and adjusted to fit what we wanted and needed. For me, this was about taking on my monster, and he was a powerful and ugly beast. I didn’t need a twirl. I needed assurance to keep the monster at bay. That is exactly what I got.
Our landing was perfect and easy and ended with an exhale of gratitude and relief. I had such gratitude that this thing I did not want to do had been offered to me. I had such gratitude for Dom’s kindness. I’m not sure I could have done it without the kindness. My relief wasn’t about being on the ground. The relief was knowing that the monster was not there in the landing. I had defied him, and he had evaporated into the sky.
Would I do it again? I’ve been asked that so many times, and I think I might. However, I don’t believe the measure of success is whether or not I would do it again. The great measure is that I now know that I can. This changed me. I now know that there is something within me that is strong enough to chase that white hot fear into the greatest of heights. I now know there is something brave enough inside of me to go toe to toe with the great expanse of my terror, to say yes when my fear screams at me to say no. I now know that I can fall into the unknown and survive. The fall dissolved the monster’s claws. He no longer owns me. That freedom did not come from sitting back down. Rather, it came when I finally stood, walked forward, and with a fearful but determined yes, willingly fell into the arms of a vastly open and wild sky.
A Chat with Shag
Skydive Tecumseh has been helping people to experience human flight since 1964. They offer a wide variety of experiences and services to accommodate everyone from first time jumpers to those wanting to learn to skydive to experienced jumpers.
We chatted with Skydive Tecumseh’s General Manager Shaggio Levesque to answer two of our most pressing questions.
Sara: Given the nature of the skydiving, I imagine you get a lot of questions on safety. How do you assure potential jumpers that their safety is at the forefront of their experience here?
Shaggio: Skydiving has come a long way since the 1980’s. The improvement in both gear and safety and training has been dramatic. It used to be that gear was the number one cause of injuries or fatalities. Today, a total malfunction of gear is extremely rare. Today, in the world of skydiving, most accidents are human error, and a big part of that happens when skydivers push the limits of their own abilities.
However, there is a huge difference between a tandem skydive or a student skydive and an experienced jumper who chooses to push his or her limits on their own. There are stricter rules in place for both tandems and students, and we simply do not take those risks when others are involved. At Skydive Tecumseh we are proud of our safety record. It starts at the very top and is preached all the way down through the organization. Could an accident happen? Yes, it could. But, we do the best job we possibly can in looking out for each other and trying to prevent it.
Sara: The first thing one notices when they walk through the door of Skydive Tecumseh might possibly be the joy. Everyone we interacted with was just so happy. Can you explain why?
Shaggio: Why are we so happy? It is a fact that as a skydiver you just will not earn as much as you would in a “real job.” We could all go out and get those “real jobs” and be stuck at a desk or an office, but we realize the freedom that skydiving gives us. In general, a working skydiver no longer cares about “keeping up with the Joneses.” A working skydiver knows that life is much more about experiences than it is about possessions. We sacrifice cars, living conditions, 401k’s and other things in life, but we are not staring out an office window thinking about that two week vacation we will get to use once per year. Once you realize what is important in life and you are able to be around people that feel the same, it is hard not to be so happy.
First time jumps
Upon landing, after the harnesses and goggles were removed, Nanci and I gathered with our two fellow jumpers from our flight. We were all first timers, and we wanted to share and try to put to words the amazing thing that had just happened to us. Each one of us had just experienced something unique and thrilling, and joyful.
Nanci: “I knew that this could possibly be the only time in my life that I’d have the chance to do this, so I wanted to take it all in. I wanted to make sure my eyes were open the entire time. I wanted all of it. I wanted to see and twirl and not miss a single moment. It was amazing and thrilling, and when I looked out over the world, it was just so beautiful.”
Christian: “How would I explain it? It was a rebirth into earth. Everything felt so new and your senses were opened up, and there was nothing to say, words weren’t enough. You just had to experience everything and take it in. The environment of this whole place feels so authentic. Usually when you are working with customer service, everyone around you is grumpy and demanding. But here, when you touch ground, everyone is purely ecstatic, you are around all of these people who are purely full of joy. This is a beautiful place.”
Kyle: “The experience is absolutely incredible. I’ve never experienced a rush like that. The freefall is inexplicable. I don’t know where to begin. It’s like a whole chill gets sent up your body. And you live in that chill for what feels like a long time.”
VIDEO PACKAGES • • •
For an additional fee, customers can have a freefall videographer leave the plane and fly alongside them to capture their experience forever. The video is then digitally produced and set to music, and will generally include an interview with the customer on the ground before the flight, sequences in the plane, a video of the freefall, and the customer’s reaction upon landing. This video is a remarkable keepsake that allows the experience to be relived with family and friends. For an example, visit the Homefront Facebook page to view Sara Hilton and Nanci Heiney’s skydive videos.