I’m pretty adventurous. I’ve climbed 3 active volcanoes. I’ve hiked up Kilimanjaro and rafted the Colorado river. I once cycled from London to Oxford (about 60 miles) on a steel-framed bike with a basket on the front just because I couldn’t think of a reason not to (and yes, it hurt). But there was one thing I’d been keen to try and never had: tandem skydiving. For some insane reason, I wanted to jump out of a plane.
But why? Why on earth would anyone want to fling themselves out of a perfectly good aircraft and hurtle towards the earth at 150 mph? Why would you want to experience the sheer terror of the ground rushing up towards you, knowing full well that the only thing standing between you and being plastered over the tarmac is a flimsy nylon bag?
You may well ask.
Why I wanted to try tandem skydiving
For me, it was simple. Like so many things in life, I wanted to do it because other people had done it and said it was cool. “Jump out of a plane!” they said. “You’ll love it!” they said. “Tandem skydiving is a once in a lifetime experience and you definitely shouldn’t miss it!” they cheered. And when it comes to peer pressure and FOMO, I’m a total sucker. If there’s a thing to be done I always want to try it, just in case I regret missing out.
But I was scared, too. Because, well, just look at it. Jumping out of a plane is clearly insane and totally suicidal. And it’s expensive! And so I put it off, and put it off, and never quite got round to it, until one day I couldn’t put it off any longer.
Tandem skydiving in New Zealand
That moment came a few years ago when I was travelling alone in New Zealand. New Zealand, as you may know, is one of the adrenaline capitals of the world. From skiing on an active volcano, to leaping off a bridge with a piece of elastic tied to your ankles, if it’s designed to give you a heart attack just for shits and giggles, it’s on offer in New Zealand. These guys eat fear for breakfast and laugh in the face of your pant-wetting. So buckle up. If you don’t do a tandem skydive in New Zealand, they won’t let you leave. Probably.
I’d left my then-boyfriend at home, but before I boarded the plane I’d told him that I planned to give skydiving in New Zealand a go. From the distant safety of London, it didn’t sound all that bad. Lots of people do tandem skydiving and live to tell the tale. Some of them even think it’s fun! I might enjoy it!
Of course, by the time I arrived in Wanaka, one of New Zealand’s tandem skydiving capitals, I didn’t feel so bold. Shit started to feel pretty damn real once I’d checked into my hostel and saw all the flyers advertising various crazy opportunities to jump out of a plane. But my boyfriend wouldn’t let me back out. I’d talked the talk, now he was going to make me walk the walk. He goaded and shamed and teased me until I had no choice. I had to put my money where my mouth was and do the damn parachute jump or I’d never hear the end of it.
How tandem skydiving works
But what even is tandem skydiving? Essentially, it’s jumping out of a plane with a parachute strapped to your back, and then hurtling to earth at terminal velocity while simultaneously discovering a sudden interest in religion.
Except rather than do it alone, you do it attached to a trained expert, so that when you’re sitting in the open doorway of the plane with the ground looking terrifyingly tiny far below, and you suddenly realise what a terrible idea this is, you’ll have no choice but to do it anyway. Because your instructor will jump, and since you’re clipped together, so will you. End of discussion.
The other advantage of this is that if the parachute does indeed fail there won’t be just one of you splatted face down into the New Zealand soil, but two. So at least you won’t die alone, which is nice.
Booking a tandem jump
So faced with my boyfriend’s peer pressure and my fear of regretting a missed opportunity, I booked my tandem skydive. And because I was on my own, and I was definitely only going to jump out of a plane once in my life, I decided to book the Full Monty. Go big or go home, right?
When choosing a tandem skydive, you basically have to decide how much you want to spend, and how long you want to freefall for. The higher the plane flies before chucking you out, the more time you’ll get to spend plunging headlong towards the ground with your life flashing before your eyes, and the more you’ll pay for the privilege.
How much does it cost to skydive?
I booked with Skydive Wanaka, who offer three options for tandem skydiving. Short, where you jump out of the plane at 9,000 feet and freefall for 30 seconds; medium, where you say your prayers at 12,000 feet and get 45 seconds to think about all the things you regret in your life; and long, where you start screaming at 15,000 feet and don’t stop for a full 60 seconds.
I opted for the last one, which at the time of writing costs NZ$469 (about £240 / US$330). In other words, £4 or $5.50 for each second of terror.
On top of that, I paid extra to have a cool Colombian cameraman come with me and record the whole thing. After all, I was on my own, and if I was going to risk my life jumping out of a plane just to prove my bravery I needed the evidence to show the folks back home. The video is at the bottom of this post, if you want to skip to the end.
What to wear for tandem skydiving
So off I headed to the airfield, heart firmly in mouth. To make sure I was comfortable for my tandem jump, I wore leggings, a long-sleeved top, and trainers. Over the top, they gave me a fetching bright red jumpsuit, goggles to protect my eyes, and a little stretchy cap to keep my hair from flapping in the instructor’s face. Plus, of course, the all-important harness, which would be the only thing preventing me from smashing into the ground. I just had to pray the instructor would remember to attach it properly.
His name was Jeff, and he was about to become my hero, my saviour, and my best friend in the entire world.
And so, after a briefing and a last-minute call to my boyfriend back home, to let him know I loved him and that if I died he could have my car, I and a few other foolhardy souls boarded the plane.
What is the skydiving plane like?
It wasn’t like any plane I’d been in before. A tiny little single-engine machine painted bright orange, this was nothing like the comfy jets with reclining seats and in-flight entertainment most of us are used to. This thing was designed to be uncomfortable. You’re actively meant to hate it, so that you want to chuck yourself out as soon as possible.
Inside there were simply two long benches, and a handrail to hold onto. We boarded in reverse order, so the people who were going to be first out would be last in. I was the only one who was going all the way up to 15,000 feet so Jeff and I climbed in first, straddling the bench and shuffling all the way to the end to make room for the other jumpers. Then we bumped and juddered our way along the runway and lifted into the air, the roaring of the engine and the sound of the wind rushing past making conversation all but impossible.
Is skydiving scary?
I suppose the answer to that question is: it depends. If you’re a proper adrenaline junkie with a dozen bungee jumps under your belt, you might just be excited. But if it’s your first time doing a tandem skydive, I’d say yes, it’s scary! In fact, it’s bloody terrifying. You’re about to jump out of a perfectly good plane! Of course you’re going to feel anxious about it if you’ve never done it before.
But the thing is, once you’ve paid hundreds of dollars and you’re airborne with a muscular instructor clipped to you, there’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to suck it up.
Getting ready to skydive in New Zealand
So up we went. I concentrated on the stunning view of Lake Wanaka and the landscape of New Zealand spreading out like a carpet beneath me, and tried not to think about dying. But as the ground got smaller and further away, the further I had to fall, and the longer it was going to take to scrape up all the pieces when I hit the floor at 150 mph.
As the last to jump, I was forced to watch as the others went before me. At 9,000 feet, and then again at 12,000 feet, two by two my fellow tandem skydivers and their instructors shuffled up to the doorway and tumbled out. They made it look so easy. All you have to do is move to the entrance and lean over the edge. Simple, right?
Jumping out of a plane
And in a way, it kind of is. Because you have no choice in the matter. Once you’re clipped to your instructor, if he goes, he’s taking you with him. And, oh boy, he’s definitely going.
Finally, it was just the two of us left, and by this stage I was feeling pretty nauseous. The pilot took us up to 15,000 feet – which, by the way, is a very long way up when there’s nothing between you and the floor but thin air. Jeff nudged me towards the doorway, we paused for a moment on the edge, and then before I really had time to register what was happening, he toppled us both out.
And then we were falling.
What does skydiving feel like?
Before I booked, I asked a few people this question. “It’s like you’re touching the sky!” said one. “It’s like floating on a cushion of air!” said another. “It’s the closest thing to actual flying you’ll ever do!” gushed a third, “You’ll feel like Superman!”
It feels like you’re hurtling towards the Earth at 150 mph. Because that’s exactly what it is.
It’s like that time you foolishly jumped off that slightly-too-high cliff, and in the few seconds before you hit the water you felt your stomach touch the roof of your mouth. Except instead of two or three seconds of airtime, it’s sixty.
It’s like that time you stood on the 10-metre diving board and looked down at the pool way, waaay below, and then jumped in and got water up your nose and thought you were nearly drowning and emerged at the edge of the pool, spluttering and gasping for breath. Except instead of 10 metres, it’s nearly 500 times as far.
In some of the photos I look like I’m having an amazing time. You might think I’m smiling, but I’m actually screaming for dear life. My heart rate has hit rocket speed and I’m barely breathing. I’ve just been thrown out of a perfectly good plane and now I’m plunging towards the ground faster than I’ve ever travelled in any car or train, the wind blasting in my ears, with nothing between me and certain death but 15,000 feet of nothingness and a total stranger wearing a small backpack.
Is skydiving safe?
It wasn’t exactly that I thought I was going to die, not really. Skydiving accidents are extremely rare, and I did trust that my instructor had done everything correctly and that in due course the parachute would indeed open and we would be fine.
It was simply that falling at 150 miles an hour feels, well, utterly dreadful. The rush of adrenaline makes you think you’re having a heart attack, all your internal organs rearrange themselves, and your brain goes into panic mode.
Humans are not meant to fall that far or that fast and survive, and your body knows it. Every cell is screaming at you that this is very, very wrong.
I tried to look around and enjoy the view, I really did. I tried to imagine I was flying. But when Superman flies, he’s in control. He’s not dropping like a stone, he’s moving forward. Tandem skydiving is absolutely nothing like flying, no matter what they may tell you.
And the plunging and the screaming and the stomach-in-mouth thing went on for a full entire minute.
And then Jeff pulled the ripcord, and the parachute opened, and everything went quiet.
Landing with parachute
Once my internal organs had migrated back to their proper places and I knew for sure I wasn’t going to die, I actually enjoyed this part. As we floated gently towards the green of the airfield with the parachute billowing above us, I was finally able to look around and enjoy the view. And what a view! One thing I will say for tandem skydiving in New Zealand: they don’t half put on a show.
And after skidding in an undignified fashion over the grass and collapsing ungracefully on top of poor Jeff, I was safely back on the ground. Tearful and a bit dazed, but alive.
Would I recommend tandem skydiving?
Of course, this was just one person’s experience, and maybe I’m not cut out for adrenaline sports. If you are, you’ll probably love tandem skydiving.
As for me, well, it was a few years ago now, but it’s been an experience that has stayed with me ever since. And although it wasn’t fun, I absolutely don’t regret giving it a go!
So if you want to try something that I can guarantee you’ll never forget, do a tandem skydive. You may love it, you may hate it like I did, but you’ll definitely never forget jumping out of a plane.
But as I say at the end of the video, “I won’t be doing that again.”
Watch my tandem skydiving video
You’ve read the story, now see what it was really like. I paid a tonne of money for this video, so you might as well watch it!
If you liked this, why not try some of my other adventure posts?