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  • Paul Bonfiglio

Leaping Beyond Limits: A Skydiver's Journey Through Fear and Freedom

Skydiving transcends mere sport—it's a shift in perspective. The oft-repeated refrain,

"Why jump out of a perfectly good airplane?"

This was a mantra I knew all too well. It had become a blinder, a thief pilfering the thrill of free fall from my grasp. That is until life cornered me into a standstill. Stranded at a life's crossroads, bereft of direction, the comfortable solutions and strategies had failed me amidst a tumultuous juncture, marred by grief over a neighbor and friend's passing and the personal brush against the grim specter of COVID. Alone with my thoughts, I was compelled to distill my existence into a list of aspirations I had not yet realized. Topping that catalog of uncharted desires, edged in bold resolve, was a pledge to myself: Embrace the sky. So, in a leap away from the shackles of

"never" and towards a horizon of "now," skydiving became my defiant answer—a free-fall towards reclaiming life's reins.

The day I finally gave into the gravity of adventure began with a spur-of-the-moment call to SkyDive California. The voice on the line told me,

"Show up before two o'clock, and you're airborne,"

I darted from the house, armed with just a banana and some granola, my stomach fluttering with anticipation. Half an hour later, my car tires crunched onto the gravel of SkyDive California's lot. Striding towards the front door, I was greeted by the co-owners, whose smiles spoke of countless first jumps and landings. A brief orientation followed—five minutes of video, a whirlwind of paperwork—before I was told to linger by the building and await my instructor. Then, as if in queue, one, two, or three parachutes blossomed in the sky, twirling down toward me like dandelions in the wind. A bystander's off-hand comment revealed one of those distant figures was my soon-to-be instructor. Soon enough, Bernard and Mattie introduced themselves. Bernardo, my tandem guide through the skies, and Mattie, eager to immortalize my free fall on camera. And with that first jump, the world transformed: the blues of the sky deepened impossibly, the greens of the earth radiated vitality, and as I landed, every sensation was magnified—like the fanciful snozzberries of my childhood tales, reality seemed re-flavored by the adrenaline of the skies.

My inaugural leap into the electrifying embrace of skydiving wasn't just a personal milestone; it represented a broader challenge to the stereotypes associated with disability and high-adrenaline pursuits. There I was, having vacated the comfort of a faultless aircraft, feeling an indescribable rush of elation. This experience crystallized a mission in my mind: to illuminate the often-overlooked potential for individuals with disabilities to revel in and contribute to extreme sports. Consider this vignette of inspiration: On November 27, 2023, as reported by the Texas Tribune, Texas Governor Greg Abbott—who navigates life in a wheelchair—partook in a tandem skydive in Fentress Tennessee. Sharing this skyward dance was none other than 106-year-old World War II veteran Al Blaschke, a man who pinned his name in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest person to tandem skydive. Their joint descent from the heavens shatters limiting beliefs. It's a vivid demonstration that, while certain physical conditions may preclude some from skydiving, the spirit of human endeavor knows no bounds. A governor who's conquered mobility challenges and a centenarian skydiver has laid down the gauntlet:

"If they can soar, so can I."

And so can countless others who may feel shackled by their physical limitations. Their story is more than mere record-breaking—it's a clarion call that extreme sports are not the sole province of the traditionally able-bodied. With the indomitable resolve modeled by these trailblazers, nothing will deter me from embracing skydiving as not just a sport but as a testament to the boundless capabilities of the human spirit.

Diving deeper into the world of skydiving meant enrolling in the Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) course, which was the obvious next step. It was there that I encountered Ian, my ground-school guide. In the intimacy of a modest room, as we exchanged stories, the inevitable pondering of safety surfaced. Ian leaned in, a sage prepping his pupil, and unfolded the concept of "micromorts"—mortuary speak for the slim chance of curtains-calling during a given activity.

"Think of it,"

he said, eyes alight with the thrill of everyday gambles.

"Skydiving's 8 micromorts equate to far less than what you'd rack up on a cross-country motorcycle road trip or even during a full-length marathon."

"A scuba dive? That's 5 micromorts."

"Rock climbing scores a modest 3."

"Do you need that surgery with a side of general anesthesia? You're looking at 10."

"Even your casual dip in the pool is a 12."

"And then there's the natural marvel of childbirth, tipping the scales at 120 micromorts."

"For the daredevils, BASE jumping stands at 430, while Everest, the mother of all mountains, towers at a staggering 37,932."

He painted a picture not just of risk but of relativity, arguing that life itself is a play of odds we blissfully ignore.

"With skydiving," Ian continued, "it's seldom the gear that betrays you at USPA sanctuaries. More often, it's the dance with gravity at cruel altitudes or bungled emergency maneuvers."

Taking it all in, I realized Ian wasn't just teaching me about free fall; he was instilling the wisdom of measured risk—revamping my view of not just a sport but the dare in every day.

After the detailed prep talk in ground school with Ian, the wind decided to play spoilsport, and my first AFF leap was scrapped—safety first. Yet, undeterred, I returned at dawn, ready to carve my trajectory from sky to earth, solo. In the hangar, Ian and Sarah walked me through the drill again, the USPA's meticulous safety must-dos echoing as a comforting mantra. Harness inspected. Container? Check. Pilot chute, main chute, risers, cutaway handle, reserve static line, reserve handle, and reserve parachute—each piece familiar under my diligent fingers. Even the steering toggles and my Automatic Activation Device (AAD) seemed to whisper a confident "go ahead." We revisited the dive flow, mapping out the arc from ascent to descent and talking through the increasingly familiar dance of flight. Disclaimers and warnings settled in the back of my mind as the propellers roared, a soundtrack to my burgeoning dream. Strapped to the bench, the ascent began. At 13,000 feet, the routine kicked in:

right hand, right foot, left hand, left foot. Checking in! checking out!

Propelling myself into the vast blue embrace of California. The wind tearing past, I plunged, throttling towards terminal velocity at 120 miles per hour. The roar of the air was deafening, a rival to the thundering pulse in my ears. At 5,000 feet, the practiced motion—I wave off, pull the ripcord, and the world yanks back with a jolt of fabric and force. My chute unfurls, a blooming promise of life. I check my altimeter; it's all clear skies and opportunity. I steer towards the "playground", gliding down through the pattern etched into my mind by Ian's thorough guidance. With the radio crackling Ian's voice into my ear, I descend into my first solo landing. My feet kiss the earth; I've done it—standing tall, the dream of becoming a skydiver is now rooted in reality.

Having conquered my Category A jump, the checklist for a skydiving aficionado stretches out before me. Next up? Joining the ranks of the United States Parachute Association (USPA), which isn't just about ticking a box—it's a gateway to responsibility, ensures that any daredevil dives involving third-party property are covered. The USPA's roadmap is my odyssey, guiding me through sequential category jumps—A, B, C, D, and the pivotal E. It's in the transition between D and E where the training wheels come off. The once-reassuring presence of an instructor peels away, and there I am, carving my solitary path through the clouds. Yet before the coveted license is in hand, a thorough initiation awaits—category jumps and coached ventures up the H1 and H2 echelons. It's during this pilgrimage that my logbook burgeons with narratives and nuggets of wisdom scribbled by mentors evaluating my performance, while my A License Progression Card Application for the USPA flutters with anticipation, a paper-winged promise of the freedom to come. With each precise alignment of training, experience, and documentation, the privilege to plunge through the skies solo crystallizes—a liberty recognized across the Americas and in most corners of the globe. Indelibly etched in my mind are Ian and Sarah's guiding mantras, a rhythmic litany for safe passage:

"Paul, remember your pull priorities—pull, pull at the correct altitude, pull while stable, and pull if your instructor pulls."

They echo with the gravitas of the gospel. And then, the landing liturgy:

"Land with a level wing, choose a clear area, commit to at least a half flare, and prepare for a PLF. And always, always into the wind."

With these principles as my compass, the vast skies become not just a playground but a domain where competence and confidence reign, allowing me to transcend boundaries and embrace the full expanse of the blue yonder.

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1 Comment

Angelina Barbour
Angelina Barbour
May 15

Such a well written piece that allows me to believe that even I could give it a try! (I could if I would shed my fear, but it makes me want to!) Glad you didn't let your circumstances and fears stand in your way of having such an amazing experience! Thank you for sharing! - AB

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