American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Summer 2021     ROADS LESS TRAVELED

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The Day I Touched the Sky

by Sara Luna

Cane in hand, Sara Luna stands in front of a sign that reads CSC; the Editor: Sara Luna was awarded an NFB National Scholarship in 2020. In 2021 she graduated from North Park College in Chicago with a double major in history and communications. She co-chairs the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS) and serves as first vice president of the Illinois Association of Blind Students (IABS).

I can't recall when my desire to go skydiving began. The idea of willingly jumping out of an airplane thousands of feet in the air and safely gliding down to Earth has always captured my imagination. At the age of ten I promised myself that I would go skydiving for my twenty-fifth birthday. Many years later I fulfilled that promise. I went skydiving shortly before my twenty-fourth birthday in June of 2021. My friend, who is also named Sarah (but with an h), was assembling a group to go skydiving on her birthday in June. I instantly knew I had to take part. It was the perfect opportunity to see old friends and fulfill a lifelong dream.

Once I made the commitment my excitement mounted as the day drew nearer. Then, on the night before the jump, my nervousness settled in. I began to dwell upon the inherent risks and dangers involved in this sport. While I literally lost some sleep due to these considerations, I still looked forward to my jump.

My group assembled at the Chicagoland Skydiving Center (CSC) early on the afternoon of Thursday, June 10. Our excitement was infectious. Of the six people jumping, five of us were legally blind. Every staff member at CSC was welcoming, considerate, and professional. They were all understanding and accommodating, and they did not make a fuss about the fact that the majority of our group members were blind.

Once we all checked in, we watched a video on the dangers of skydiving and the serious nature of our commitment. At this point some anxiety began to mingle with my anticipation.

As our group was too large to go up in one airplane, we were split into two groups of three. I was scheduled to jump in the second group, so I had quite some time to dwell on my decision to jump. As my group waited we got to see our friends in the first group take off in the airplane. At this point it dawned on me that I had never considered how incredibly loud the airplane was going to be. Thus I learned that I would have that wonderful noise to look forward to on my ascent.

Once our friends made their safe landings, it was my group's turn to meet our instructors and prepare for the jump. My instructor, Sparky, helped me put on my harness. The harness consisted of two large straps on my shoulders that ran down the front and back of my torso, two straps around my thighs, and a few other major straps around my hips and torso. After tightening most of the straps, Sparky talked me through each step of what was about to happen. He told me about boarding the airplane and making the ascent, and he explained what I had to do before and after we jumped out of the plane.

Once we finished the briefing it was time to go out and wait for our plane to arrive. Everyone in our group was joking and excited about what was to come. Sparky told me that his friend would be doing a solo jump right before us. He asked if I would be interested in engaging with his friend during our free fall. Out of curiosity I agreed.

When the plane arrived I was once again enveloped in the noise of the engines. We climbed the steps into the plane in pairs. As the ceiling was very low, we had to crouch to make our way to one of the benches that ran along either side of the plane. We buckled our seatbelts and were ready to take off.

Ever since I took my first flight at the age of sixteen, I have loved the feeling of flying on a plane. The immense acceleration, the feeling of taking off, and the knowledge that we are no longer tethered to the ground have always filled me with joy and wonder. On this day my joy at takeoff was amplified by my excitement. Due to the small size of the plane, the speed and angle of the takeoff felt much more dramatic than the sensation of taking off in a commercial jet. My anticipation mounted as we gained altitude. The joy in the plane was infectious as everyone shared laughs, high fives, and fist bumps.

Due to the noise from the engines, I expected to have some difficulty hearing my companions speak during the flight. Fortunately the engine noise was not completely overbearing, and I was able to hear my fellow passengers throughout the flight. Periodically I looked out the windows at the clear blue sky and white fluffy clouds. My perspective of the clouds changed throughout the flight. At first they were far above us. Eventually we were among them, all at the same height.

A few minutes into the flight I began the process of getting connected to my instructor, Sparky. The process involved sitting sideways along the bench so we were facing the back of the plane. Sparky had to link together sets of clips that were near our hips and two other sets that were on our shoulders. Once this was done he tightened all the straps on my harness one final time. As I put on my goggles, I asked myself how I had never once considered that the wind would be really cold thousands of feet in the air. On the ground it was 90 degrees F, but the warmth in the air dissipated as the plane climbed higher and higher. 

Eventually we reached our desired altitude of 14,000 feet. It was time for people to start jumping. A few individuals were jumping by themselves, and they went before me. It was extraordinary and terrifying to see and hear the wind carry them away. One moment they were in front of the door, and the next moment they were simply gone.

Then it was my turn. Sparky and I slid down the bench together so we could squat in front of the wide open door. The moments right before we jumped were intense and terrifying. The sound of the wind rushing by, combined with the cacophony of the engines, was incredibly loud. I felt the cold wind rushing by as I looked out the door, and I saw the clear sky and white clouds that made up this cold, loud void. I thought to myself, I'm going to be out there in a matter of moments!

Sparky said, "Safety Position." This was my cue to place my hands on the two large straps that ran over my shoulders, along the front and back of my torso. Then Sparky said, "Ready! Set!" I never heard him say "Go!" because that's when we jumped. Our sixty-second free fall began.

Depending on the situation, sixty seconds can feel like an eternity or like the blink of an eye. This was by far the most terrifying and exhilarating sixty seconds of my entire life. As we jumped we were embraced by two powerful forces, the roaring wind and the pull of gravity. Briefly I saw the white airplane, and I caught a glimpse of the distant browns and greens of the ground. I distinctly remember thinking, This is actually happening! Enjoy it!

For a few moments I was so disoriented that I could not identify which way was up and which way was down. The overwhelming plummeting sensation quickly reminded me which way I was headed.

Everything about the free fall was intense—the cold of the air, the sound of the rushing wind, the almost smothering pressure of the wind stealing my breath, the plummeting sensation, the speed of our descent, the vivid white clouds and clear blue sky. Due to the strong winds, I found it difficult to breathe. I kept reminding myself to keep breathing.

During our free fall Sparky's friend, the solo jumper who left the plane right before us, appeared directly in front of us. I was completely baffled as to how he managed the perfect maneuver that brought him directly in front of us. As we had planned, he reached out and took my hands. Having him as a reference point helped me orient myself and remember to breathe. Eventually he let go, and Sparky and I continued our descent together.

During the free fall I never once considered the danger. I simply focused on taking in all the sensory information I could absorb. I enjoyed every second!

At the end of our sixty seconds, Sparky deployed the parachute, slowing our momentum. I expected this to be a physically jarring event. Fortunately, I was wrong. It was very comforting to know that the parachute was there, supporting us. I felt safe and secure, just as I did within the tight straps of the harness. I took a much-needed deep breath, and my ears popped for the third time in about seventy seconds. The abrupt absence of jet engine noise and rushing winds added to this almost tranquil portion of the descent.

At this point I looked around and noticed that the white, fluffy clouds were definitely above us. We were clearly amongst them mere moments ago. The greens and browns of the ground stretched out beneath us. It was a captivating sight. The knowledge that we were suspended hundreds of feet in the air, without the need for floors, sidewalks, or jet engines, was incredibly freeing!

As we slowly descended Sparky steered the parachute to execute spirals in the air. He asked me if I would like to steer, but I elected simply to enjoy the ride. It was wonderful to spin like that, hundreds of feet in the air. It was more exhilarating than any roller-coaster or carnival ride I have ever taken. As we spun, the horizon between the ground and the sky was visible to me at a severe angle. The spinning made me a bit dizzy, but it was still incredibly fun.

As we got closer to the ground, the air temperature changed. The air got warmer as I began to feel the sunshine more and more. When we were almost to the ground, Sparky gave me instructions for the landing. He told me to bring my legs up so they were straight out in front of me. Our landing was very gentle. We glided smoothly to the ground in a sitting position. Once Sparky disconnected our harnesses, he gathered the parachute, and we returned to the facility.

As I came down from the adrenaline rush, I began to reflect on what had just happened. Sparky and I just jumped out of an airplane at an altitude of 14,000 feet! The sixty-second free fall was intense, terrifying, and exhilarating. Once the parachute opened, gliding down to the earth was great fun, with stunning views. I literally fulfilled a lifelong dream, and it was absolutely worth the wait.

I looked up at the sky, feeling the sun on my face, and thought to myself, I was just up there, that it was the thrill of a lifetime! I would absolutely do it again.

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