Flying high above the forests and pastures of Brazil, a traveler prepares to jump out of an airplane to practice his new skydiving skill.
Three loud beeps cut through the rushing wind. I bring my wrist up to read my altimeter — a little over twelve thousand feet. A smile twitches on my lips. I’ll have a couple of extra seconds in the air.
We’re headed north to approach Boituva from the west. What remains of the forest looks like dark green islands jutting out of the sea of pastures and soy plantations. The fields extend as far as I can see. Just like how clouds assume familiar forms when seen from below, the patches of forest take on the shapes of animals and inanimate objects as we soar above them. One looks like a crown, another like a dog. The dog becomes a horse as we angle across the landscape. The horse turns into a hand playing the trumpet, then a woman in a chair with her hair cascading over her shoulder, and then a dog once again.
We’re moving towards cleaner air. You can’t tell from the ground, but the gray of São Paulo reaches all the way out here — a hazy smudge at six thousand feet. Farther northwest, the smog is barely noticeable.
A piercing light floods my vision, burning my left eye. I blink, move my head, and it’s gone. Rivers and ponds mar the sea of green below. The sun is turning them into quicksilver, the water reflecting the sunlight back into the sky with blinding intensity. The white buildings of Sorocaba glow in the distance, the red of the rooftops rich in the golden light.
It’s late afternoon. I’ll have time for one more jump after this one. It’ll probably be what my friends call a sunsetão. Putting on my goggles and helmet, I push the chin strap tight. It’s almost time.
Lucas taps me on the shoulder. I twist my neck to look back at him. The visor of his helmet is open. His eyes are piercing blue, his hair short and dirty blond. He looks more German than Brazilian. He’s from Rio Grande do Sul. I’ve never been, but it’s supposed to be normal down there.
“Pronto?” Lucas asks in Portuguese, searching my eyes for fear. Ready?
“Sempre,” I respond, projecting calmness. Always.
“Just like we practiced on the ground,” he says. “I’ll be outside, you’ll be in the door. I’ll do the movements, then jump. Wait a second, then jump. I’ll get stable, and I’ll be waiting for you — box position. Approach slowly and in control, then do the grip. Nice and easy. Suave. If you reach me with plenty of time left over, we can do it again.”
“Beleza.” I nod. Cool.
Looking around the plane, I can’t help but smile as I watch the others. Packed tight onto the two benches running the length of the otherwise gutted Cessna Grand Caravan, they almost sit in each other’s laps. Going over their jump plans, they recheck the pins of their friends’ parachutes and wish one another “bom salto” or good jump. Besides the AFF student getting ready for her first jump who looks like she has a date with Death, everyone is giddy with excitement. There’s something magical about the final moments on the plane, the smiles and handshakes, the anticipation and joy. It’s a moment of shared comradery before the rush of the freefall, the surrender to fate in between when you pull your parachute and when it opens, and the fun of the navigation.
There’s a rattle, and wind rushes into the airplane. I turn to see Lucas crouched down, looking out of the door. He must have just slid it open. Nodding at me, he steps outside, holding onto the bar above the door. His shirt wrinkles in the wind. Blue and white, it matches the backdrop of the sky and clouds. He gives me another nod from outside the plane.
I approach the door, and my right knee goes to the floor. My left foot goes out in front of me, my toes resting just before the edge. I’m scared of heights, but we’re too far above the ground for my brain to comprehend how high we are. There’s no vertigo, no fear. Looking down, I find the red of the dirt runway. To the left is the drop zone, an L of green grass. A large gray circle of small smooth stones called the alvo marks where the fields meet.
We aren’t above the drop zone. It’s out in front of us. The pilot messed up. We’re going to need to cross a good part of the city and the Castelo Branco, a major freeway, to get to where we want to land. That’s a problem for later though, as Lucas is already outside the plane.
I look up at Lucas. We make eye contact and nod. He rises up onto his toes, drops down in a crouch, and comes back up into his original position. He takes a step back and instantly plummets away from the airplane, chest facing into the wind as he falls.
He’s nothing more than a shrinking blur of blue below, and I let my heart beat once more as he falls away. I need to give him time to create space. The point of the jump is to let him get away from me and catch back up in midair. It’s practice for tomorrow’s harder progression jump.
Lucas is a distant figure, black against the ground. He’s drifted behind the plane. The eyes of the other athletes burn into my back. Had I waited too long? Launching myself out of the airplane, I’m swallowed by the wind.
Time slows down as the air rushes over me, enveloping me. It roars in my ears and runs away from my mouth. Dancing across my body, it pushes and yanks, testing to see if it can seize control and send me spinning like a rag doll. I fall faster.
My eyes are open, but they barely register the blurs of colors that are the ground and sky. I’m gauging up from down by the feel of the wind on my body, completely focused on how my body rides through the air.
The force of the wind gets stronger as I fall faster, accelerating towards terminal velocity. Soon I’ll be falling at a thousand feet every five seconds. Hands out in front of me like I’m diving into the ocean, I plunge headfirst towards the ground.
The wind catches my arms and chest, trying to blow me onto my belly. I extend my legs fully back and point my toes to compensate, keeping my body at an angle to cut faster through the air. I need to reach Lucas, and every little movement affects how I fall.
I’d been worried that I would take too aggressive an angle out of the plane, be blown into a backflip and lose time, but my exit was perfect. My legs aren’t blowing loosely behind me. I’m still angled down in a dive, toward Lucas. Without raising my neck — I don’t want to bring my head up and slow my fall — I search for him with my peripherals. He’s flying on his belly, facing me, his legs out behind him, knees bent at forty-five degrees, and his arms out in front waiting for me.
I fall faster, closing in. I’m going to need to move forward through the air to reach him, but I need to get on his level first. Holding the angle of the dive for one more second, I strain to keep form. I hold it for two more seconds. For three more seconds. My legs are firm, my toes pointed.
Lucas is smiling. I’m almost on his level, and I still have plenty of time. Bringing my head back and training my eyes on the horizon, I push my pelvis forward and roll my shoulders back, bending my knees to forty-five degrees so my feet stick up and out behind me. My shoulders and elbows are at right angles as I hold my hands out in the air — eagle arms. The wind plays on my palms. I use it to test my weight, knowing I can use the wind to hold me steady, to go up and down, and to turn with the slightest movement.
I’m in box position, falling through the air belly first. Pushing my pelvis out as much as possible to help me fall faster, I keep my head up, only shifting my eyes to look at Lucas so I don’t increase drag. Another second holding the best box position that I can, and I’m on his level.
Relaxing the position slightly so I’m falling at the same rate he is, I dip my left knee slightly to turn to face him. Extending my legs farther out behind me and bringing my arms in slightly, I slide forward through the air. I approach him in control, bringing my arms slightly forward when I’m a body length away to slow down, then extending my legs farther back to keep moving towards him.
His grip on my forearms is strong as we grasp each other in a double Roman handshake, falling together through the sky. I look at my altimeter, the tail end of the strap streaming up as we hurtle down. We are at over nine thousand feet. Lucas winks at me and lets go, running away through the sky.
I wait a few seconds and then give chase, angling forward and down through the air. I catch him easily, and we form the grip again, plunging toward the city, still far from the drop zone. I watch the feet fall away by the hundreds on my altimeter. We’re at less than six thousand feet.
Letting go, Lucas waves at me to call the jump, flies to the side, and pulls his parachute. Dipping my right knee to angle away, I bend at my waist and bring my arms back to track away, flying forward through the air toward the drop zone. The air rolls back over my face and body, and I can feel myself shooting forward.
One second. Two seconds. Three. My left hand moves out in front of me to help me stay stable as my right hand drops back to the hacky-sack-esque ball sticking out of the side of my parachute. Grabbing the ball, I hurl it to the side and wait for my parachute to open.