The Stray bus pulled out of Kohutapu Lodge at 7:30 on Friday morning and our first stop was Huka Falls near Lake Taupo. Since visiting the incredible Iguazu Falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil, I have tried very hard not to be a falls snob. Huka Falls can’t compare with Igauzu but it’s impressive enough to be the most visited and most photographed natural attraction in New Zealand. Enough water flows down the mighty Waikato River that one could fill an Olympic sized swimming pool every 11 seconds.
When I was walking back to the bus I noticed that some of the Stray people were getting into a stretch limousine that had pulled in behind our bus.
“What’s the deal?” I asked one of the girls who was struggling to open the sunroof.
Her grasp of English wasn’t perfect so perhaps she didn’t pick up on the fact that I had absolutely no idea what was going on.
“Hop in,” she said, “you come with us.”
I don’t have to be coaxed to take a limo when the other option is the back seat of a cramped and steamy bus. I climbed into the limo and the driver closed the door behind me. We were on our way within seconds. I distinctly remember that ‘Fly Away’ by Lenny Kravitz was playing on the stereo as we pulled out of the Huka Falls parking lot.
Now before you get the impression that I’m incredibly perceptive, I should tell you that I was also the last of the six passengers to notice that ‘Fly Away’ was followed by ‘I Am Like a Bird’ by Nelly Furtado, ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ by the Steve Miller Band, and ‘Aeroplane’ by Red Hot Chili Peppers. I suppose I can claim to be something short of a complete idiot since they didn’t have to play ‘Danger Zone’ (from Top Gun) before I realized that the limo was sent to pick up people who had previously registered for skydiving. Apparently there had been a last minute ‘no-show’ so nothing seemed out of the ordinary to the limo driver.
While the fourth or fifth aviation-themed song played on the stereo the driver reached around and handed us each a clipboard and asked that we read and sign an indemnity form.
“Better to get this out of the way before we get to the airport,” she said.
No use reading the fine print in the comfort of a well-lit airport lounge when you can do it from the backseat of a limo with heavily tinted windows, I thought.
Once we got to airport we were shown the bathrooms and strongly encouraged to use them even if it didn’t seem to be necessary. After that we were ushered into a darkened lounge where we were shown a 90-second safety video. Of course nobody asked to watch it a second time so I figured we were good to go with as much training as you could pack into your average Super Bowl television commercial.
“Not so quick,” said the guy who entered the room once the video was done.
We spent the next 15 minutes with Chad watching two more videos and studying some printed materials. Chad promised that if we paid attention we’d be able to confidently make “the singularly most important decision of the day and perhaps our entire lives.” It was time to chose which photo or video package we would purchase.
I opted for the mid-priced package but Chad later took me aside and explained that because of my weight, I would be paired with the most experienced tandem diver (Andrew) and he’s the only one who does not like to carry a GoPro camera. Old school, I guess.
The good news was that Chad offered to send a second diver out of the plane just before me and that diver would catch everything with a video camera affixed to his helmet and a hand-held DSLR. There was a $15 surcharge for this service but that seemed more than fair to me.
One of the girls in my group remarked that she wouldn’t jump out of a plane for a measly $15. I reminded her that she was in fact paying them several hundred dollars for a chance to jump out of a plane. “Oh yeah,” she replied.
I was introduced to my tandem diver about 10 minutes before we boarded the plane. I asked Andrew if he was an ex military officer. He was. He said that he stopped counting his dives a while back but he knows that it’s somewhere between 10,000 and 10,500. Weather permitting he jumps 5 or 6 times per day, year-round.
Unlike my first 12,000’ jump in Las Vegas, we had to breathe through an oxygen mask while the unpressurized plane climbed to 16,000 feet.
Postie, the Stray bus driver, was the last to arrive at the airport and the first to board the plane. From his vantage point at the opposite end of the plane he thought that I looked “apprehensive” as we took off. I’ll admit that I was uncomfortable but it wasn’t a case of the jitters. In fact it was quite the opposite. While everyone else sat on benches facing the back of the plane, I was seated on the floor, strapped to my tandem diver, and facing the front of the plane. With the plane climbing at a very sharp angle I was forced to hold a semi-reclining position for the entire flight. After that 20-minute abs workout it was a huge relief to sit up straight even if this did entail dangling my legs out the open door.
The last few seconds on the plane went very quickly. Andrew removed my oxygen mask, slipped a set of plastic googles over my glasses for the fist time, and then pointed to the camera for one last on-board photo.
I assume this is the photo they will enter as evidence at the coroner’s inquest should they have to prove that I jumped willingly.
This is the point where you start to remember every second as a distinct event. I remember the roll-up door opening with a clang. I remember seeing the guy with the cameras stepping over me and out the door. I remember the way he waved goodbye as leapt from the open door. Seconds later I swung my legs out over the edge and Andrew inched forward so that he was seated on the edge of the plane and I was suspended 16,000 feet over, well, the town of Taupo.
There was no countdown. No last chance to back out. No final chance to cross yourself, or wet yourself for that matter. About two seconds after the camera man jumped, we were out of the plane and doing summersaults in an attempt to catch up to him. I don’t know how that works but were soon face to face at the 15,500 foot level.
For a good part of the 50-second free-fall we were an arm’s length away from the camera. When he backed off, we did the occasional summersault or banked turn. I didn’t feel this was entirely necessary to get the adrenaline rushing but it was good just the same.
With winds at terminal velocity (192 kph) temporarily rearranging your cheeks, jowls and lips, sub-zero temperatures, ultra thin air, and the fact that my tandem diver was the one diver who shunned GoPros but loves to do summersaults during the free-fall, there was no longer a question of whether I was getting my money’s worth or not.
The chute opened after about 50 seconds and everything was instantly quiet and peaceful. The wind was no more than a light breeze. The air was now warm and you no longer gasped for oxygen. And best of all, the views from the standing position are incredible. Andrew let me take the controls for a while and we did some big looping circles, a few pirouettes, and a few other fancy maneuvers whose names escape me. He asked to take over for the final descent into the airport. I did not argue.
It looked like we would have a rather hard landing until the last few seconds when Andrew did something that caused us to gently glide in across the grass. We ended up with me sitting and him standing – just as it was meant to be.
Wait, there’s more…
After working 30 years in the horse racing industry, the last 15 as a handicapper, television commentator and “analyst”, I often find myself looking at various situations with a somewhat cold and calculating sense of detachment. What are the odds of this or that happening, I often ask myself. Am I really in grave danger when I jump out of a plane while strapped to an experienced diver?
I knew going into this situation that something like 24 people were killed in skydiving accidents in the US in 2013. Bear in mind that’s 24 deaths out of roughly 3.2 million jumps or one death for every 133,333 jumps. I can live (or die) with those numbers.
To take this one step further, as any good racehorse handicapper would, one must look at ALL of the variables. We know the mortality rate for skydiving in the US but does this apply to skydiving in New Zealand? What’s the safety record of Skydive Taupo. These are the questions one should be asking.
I thought about these things yesterday when our bus driver was telling those who had pre-registered for diving that they would be the first Stray passengers to do this since January 7.
That’s a fairly significant date as it’s the last time a Skydive Taupo plane actually landed on the runway rather than crashing into Lake Taupo.
Yes, on January 7, this company’s plane carried six Stray passengers to the 10,000 foot level before encountering engine trouble. Everyone bailed out and the plane crashed into the lake. Thankfully everyone was wearing a parachute. Had this been a regular passenger plane, everyone would have been killed as the plane took only seconds to fall from the sky.
I know that many people would avoid Skydive Taupo at all cost. Not me. The cold, calculating stats guy in me reasoned that Skydive Taupo’s planes, parachutes, pilots and tandem divers are probably the most thoroughly inspected in the industry (at least this week) and thus much safer than the industry average. How could I not take odds like that?