Call me gutless, but I've never had the desire to jump out of a perfectly good airplane and hurl myself at the earth like a rock. Given my fear of heights, skydiving was not at the top of my bucket list.
But there I was, perched 14,000 feet over Chester, looking out the door of a single-engine turbine airplane traveling 100 miles per hour. On the count of three, I would step out into nothingness and plunge to the ground at twice the speed of a freight train.
What was I thinking?
Flashback two weeks earlier when I made the call to Skydive Carolina, one of the premier skydiving centers in the Southeast. For months, I had been prodded by friends to take the big leap. Skydiving, they promised, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The biggest and baddest roller coaster ride couldn't compare to the exhilaration of free-falling for 55 seconds.
For some unexplainable reason, I decided I wanted to do it. I took comfort knowing Skydive Carolina logs some 30,000 jumps a year from its full-service facility at the Chester Catawba Regional Airport. Every instructor in the 18-member tandem team has made more than a thousand jumps - some of them, several thousand.
But what was it going to feel like falling at a speed of 120 miles per hour? Was I going to experience that awful stomach-in-the-throat sensation you get on some amusement park rides?
Fortunately, gravity isn't the only force having its way with you when you freefall, explained Skydive Carolina General Manager James La Barrie. During the drop, your body collides with air molecules, creating an upward force that is equal to the force of gravity. At this point, you will continue to fall at a constant speed known as terminal velocity.
"Because the airplane is moving at 100 miles per hour, the transition into terminal velocity happens very fast," La Barrie said. "What you feel is a rush of air much like you'd feel if you stuck your head out the window of a car going 70 mph."
Reassuring as that sounded, I was concerned my brain would not accept the science and I would freeze at the critical moment.
"When the door opens, everything in your being tells you this is crazy," La Barrie conceded. "The fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in. But the moment you let go, you immediately feel wonderful. There's nothing to compare it to."
I was sold. I signed up for a tandem skydive on the spot before I could chicken out.
The morning of the jump, I nervously made my way to the registration desk to sign the requisite wavers. As I waited to be called in for training, I watched a half-dozen skydivers parachute through the air, dropping effortlessly onto a field beyond the air strip.
With every plane load that landed successfully, I became more and more excited about my pending flight. After watching a short video, I was outfitted in a jumpsuit, cap, goggles and harness. My instructor, Joey Freeman, showed me how to position my arms and legs during the freefall.
Before I knew it, I was making my way across the tarmac to the plane. Straddling a bench in front of my instructor, I looked out the window as we went airborne. It was a little unnerving at first riding with the door wide open, but I was soon preoccupied with the beautiful scenery below.
At about 10,000 feet, Joey began to tighten the harness straps that bound us together. Although it was somewhat constricting, I didn't mind being so closely attached to Joey. After all, he was the one wearing the parachute.
It took no more than 15 minutes to reach skydiving altitude. And then things began to happen quickly. Joey scooted me along the bench to the doorway. I crouched as instructed and crossed my arms over my chest.
We rocked backwards and forwards three times, and that was it - we were out the door. No time to hesitate. No time to rethink my decision.
And just as La Barrie had professed, an instant of panic turned into sheer pleasure. It was an indescribable adrenaline rush. For nearly a minute, we raced toward the earth at breakneck speed. It was only later when I watched the video of the skydive that I realized I had an ear-to-ear smile on my face the whole way through it.
After a couple of fun spins, Joey pulled the ripcord and we went from freefall to floating. If it wasn't for the increasing size of the objects below, I would never have known we were still descending. It was a slow, peaceful five-minute ride back to terra firma.
The landing was as smooth as the descent. Thanks to a mild headwind - and Joey's mad skydiving skills, we padded to the ground on our feet.
I've watched the video a dozen times since I made the jump, reliving the thrill of those first few seconds when you realize you are totally free, falling unimpeded through space.
As adventures go, this one deserves a top spot on your bucket list. Go for it!
What: Tandem skydives
Where: Chester, located between Columbia and the Charlotte area
Cost: $179 to $209 for a tandem skydive, depending on the day and time you schedule your jump
Contact: (803) 581-JUMP or visit www.skydivecarolina.com