I tested my newfound, post-cancer fearlessness by skydiving with the Red Bull Air Force
The life-changing question from my good friend and publisher arrived during one of our regular back-and-forth editing email sessions:
Melissa: Would you, if I could even set it up, be interested in skydiving to write a story with the Red Bull skydivers? They could possibly send one of our writers to fly with them at the Capital Airshow kickoff, and it’s all filmed and stuff. I’m guessing you might have to see if you could get off work and I don’t know if that’d be a problem… but it might be TOTALLY worth it.
Me: Um, I am SO down to skydive! Like WAY down. I probably wouldn’t have been before cancer, but I’m way into saying yes to everything these days. 🙂
And that’s how I found myself, on Oct. 3, just one year and 16 days after finishing treatment for Stage IIB cervical cancer, strapped to Red Bull Air Force pilot and Skysurfing world record-setter Sean MacCormac as we prepared to make a tandem skydiving jump above the California Capital Air Show.
Six of us, including the plane’s pilot, another tandem team and fellow RBAF Pilot Jeff Provenzano, got real close real fast as we crammed into a teeny-tiny Cessna and began climbing to 8,000 feet over the Sacramento Mather Airport. Before I knew it, the pilot was giving us the five-minute warning. “OK,” Sean said from behind me, as he tightened the straps connecting us and handed me my goggles. “Now you can’t go anywhere without me.”
Can we talk for a minute about what these guys actually do? The RBAF essentially travel the world looking for the next airborne thrill. Jumping out of a plane in a kayak, parachuting into stadiums, BASE jumping off buildings, zooming across the sky at 125 mph in a wingsuit—it’s all in a day’s work. In fact, while doing a little fact-checking for this story, I stumbled across my tandem partner’s IMDB.com page, which credits him with stunt appearances in Iron Man 3 and The Hangover Part III. Not only that, the RBAF was instrumental in this little event known as dropping Felix Baumgartner from the edge of space last October. I wasn’t just jumping with the best-of-the-best; I was putting my life in the hands of some of the most fearless dudes on the planet!
Still, by all rights, I should have been scared out of my mind. This is the same girl who, at 8 years old, insisted on riding the county fair Tilt-A-Whirl alone, against everyone’s better judgment. I could handle it, I insisted. I was no baby. But once I was strapped in and experienced the first whirl-and-tilt, I screamed bloody murder and the gruff carnie had to stop and let me and my utter embarrassment off the ride.
I hadn’t thought of that experience for more than 20 years, but I was sure it would play itself out again at some point on this skydiving adventure—maybe when I was stepping into the harness, or climbing into the plane, or creeping up to altitude, or shuffling to the open door and “dangling” (Sean’s words) my legs over the ledge—and I’d call the whole thing off, riding the plane safely back to Earth, my embarrassment trailing behind me like a spent parachute.
But I never once wanted to turn back. Not even as my legs dangled out that open door over nothing but blue sky and a few brownish-green squares of Sacramento Valley farmland. Or when Sean expertly leaned us out, then in, then heaved us out the door.
Our 30 seconds of free-fall went something like this: Wind. FEAR. Wind. Can’t. Breathe. HOLY SHIT I’M FLYING. There’s Jeff with the GoPro on his helmet—reaching out his hands? OK! I’ll grab ‘em! I AM TOTALLY DOING THIS! Can Jeff see that I can’t breathe? Seriously, I can’t breathe, but this is fucking amazing! Sudden inhale. I can breathe! What are those hand motions between Jeff and Sean? Jeff’s letting go! Oh! Right! It’s time to pull the chute! I’m supposed to reach behind to his right hip and find the pull…where’s the…oh! Got it!
A slight upward jolt, and…
Poof. The two of us were floating in the most serene, silent, bluest sky.
“Holy shit I just jumped out of a PLANE!”
The 20-year skydiving vet with about 18,000 jumps under his belt (who probably does jumps like these as warm-ups) chuckled as he expertly navigated the chute.
“Reach up,” he coaxed. “Pull down on that cord there, see it?”
We made a slight downward-right turn as I pulled. Then he took over, and my hands returned to the straps on my shoulders.
“You know, you’re fully supported, so you can let go of your straps. Put your arms out. Fly!”
My arms shot straight out to the side as if I were a 5-year-old playing “airplane” in my living room. “Woooooooo!” I yelled (even though I promised myself I wouldn’t). I could tell he was focusing on our descent. The winds were a gusty 23 mph. Once they reached 25, the team would call off the rest of the day’s jumps.
“Do you want to try a hard turn?” Sean asked. I hesitated for a second then acquiesced. With one quick, fluid movement, we swooped in a downward, stomach-dropping radial arc.
In a rush of adrenaline, I found myself blurting, “So, I had cancer last year. And I figured if I could make it through treatment, I could probably jump out of a plane. I mean, I kind of faced anyone’s worst fears and lived to tell about it, right? So, um, thanks. For making this experience so incredible.”
It was the truth! For adrenaline junkies, these guys were some of the most relaxed, genuine, fun-loving gentlemen I’d ever met.
Soon we were landing—a bit harder than planned, due to a wind gust that dragged us a few feet in the dry field—and Jeff was pulling me off the ground and throwing me a high-five. “Mandy! You just jumped out of a plane!”
Hell yes, I did. And I was ready to go again. Maybe this time I’d even attempt those flips Sean tried to talk me into while he was suiting me up.
Who was this fearless carefree adventurer, and what did she do with the girl who couldn’t ride the Tilt-A-Whirl? The girl who always volunteered to stay in the boat and man the flag during wakeboarding sessions?
I guess while I was showing cancer the door last year, I just decided it was time for her to go, too. The thrill of overcoming each new challenge—every scan, every eight-hour chemo session, every trip to the hospital for the latest scary procedure—made jumping into the unknown seem not only manageable, but empowering. Transformational, even.
Right before we jumped, I felt Sean take in a deep, yoga-style breath. I leaned back and yelled the only question I could think to ask.
“Do you still get nervous?”
“Sometimes,” he yelled back. “But not today. Not for jumps like this.”
See? Even fearless daredevils get scared sometimes. But that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that it’s not about whether you live with or without fear, but that constantly rising to the next test is what matters. That going for the challenges that will make you feel like a total badass just for attempting, whether you land on your feet or on your ass in a dry field, is what makes life worth living. And how freeing is it to let go, especially when you have the support that will let you spread your wings and fly? Even if you yell “Wooooooo!” when you promised yourself you wouldn’t.
Ready to test your daredevil mettle? Check out the following skydiving centers in our area:
Parachute Center Skydiving
23597 N. Hwy 99 | Acampo, CA
(approx. 4 miles north of Lodi)
209-369-1128 | Parachutecenter.com
“The Parachute Center is one of the largest and oldest drop zones in the United States, serving the sport since 1964,” according to its website. No reservations necessary; the Parachute Center is open daily and can accommodate jumpers who arrive between 9 am and 3 pm. For a list of fees and more info, visit parachutecenter.com.
24390 Aviation Ave.| Davis, CA
The recently closed Skydive Tahoe directs all interested parties to SkyDance SkyDiving in Davis, a facility open since 1987. “We have worked tirelessly for over 25 years to provide our customers with the safest aircraft and parachute equipment, along with a capable staff of highly trained and experienced instructors,” SkyDance’s website says. Visit Tandemskydivingschool.com for loads of information, pictures, online price specials and more. Open Wednesday – Sunday 8 am – sunset; Monday and Tuesday 8 am – 5 pm.
1020 Airport Road | Lincoln, CA
916-434-7700 | Skydivesac.com
Skydive Sacramento in the Lincoln Regional airport is a full service Drop Zone offering rigging services, coaching, training, tandems and more, according to their website. The center offers all kinds of rates and packages, plus training in myriad skills. Open Wednesday – Friday, 9 am – 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 am – 8 pm.