How Skydiving Changed My Life - James Hilliard

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by James Hilliard | B-35434 | Lincoln, Nebraska

In 2007, at the age of 23, I moved to a new city to be closer to family and finish college. Before moving, I hadn't given much thought to how I would support myself in this new location. Pilot certificates filled my wallet, and I already had a couple years of experience working as a flight instructor. Therefore, I knew my best chances for finding work would be as a pilot. Internet searches led me to the local drop zone.

I had zero interest in skydiving. Skydiving is something for adrenaline junkies with a death wish, or so I thought. I'd never been around it nor was I attracted to any extreme sport. In fact, I have a fear of heights and don't even care to stand on a chair to change a light bulb, let alone jump out of the proverbial “perfectly good airplane.” I wanted a job. Money in the bank and flight time in my logbook. That was it.

After a brief chat with the drop zone's management and a training flight, I found myself hauling meat missiles in a Cessna 182 every weekend. I curiously watched dozens of tandems, static-line students and fun jumpers bail out. Within a short time, I couldn't help but notice the similarities between skydiving and piloting an aircraft. Risk management, training, gear checks, attention to the weather, a balance of art and science ... it was all the same. Extremely professional and safety-oriented instructors taught static-line classes. Fun jumpers explained the ins and out of how gear works while I watched them pack between loads. Everybody seemed to be having a good time. Maybe these weren't all crazy people after all.

After six months, curiosity got the best of me. I signed up for a static-line training class. I still had no intention of skydiving on a regular basis, but I wanted to try it out and see what all the excitement was about. I wanted bragging rights among my friends.

I'll never forget the overwhelming feeling of kneeling on the floor of a Cessna, inches away from where I felt so comfortable as a pilot and having cold sweats thinking of what was to come. The door swung open. The wind roaring by the gaping hole sounded louder than I remembered. I felt the instructor slap my shoulder and loudly command, “Climb all the way out!”

Hanging from the strut, I came to a peaceful conclusion: I very well might be within the miniscule percentage of skydivers who die, but there was no way to climb back in. This was the most permanent, irrevocable, unchangeable circumstance I'd ever been in.

My fingers opened.

In the brief instant of freefall before the static line began deployment, I finally “got it.” I understood why everyone around me was so hooked on this bizarre sport. It was the most powerful, free, amazing feeling I'd ever had. After landing, I could barely walk back to the hangar because my knees were shaking so badly.

In the years since, I've made about 150 jumps, earned a B license and traveled to drop zones all around the country. All kinds of aircraft, jumps, scenic locations and friends made along the way will be memories with me for a lifetime. More importantly, I've learned life skills that carry over to situations outside of skydiving. Before every jump, I'm keenly aware of how there is no going back. The instant I leave an airplane, I absolutely, without a doubt will be descending according to the laws of physics. It's a decision that cannot be undone—yet I make the decision to go for it anyway.

Becoming comfortable with these thoughts has allowed me to make decisions as significant as moving across the country for a new job or as minor as having the confidence to ask a girl out on a date. It's allowed me to not just drift through life but to seize life by the horns and live boldly.

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