As with most things, the first step in skydiving is the scariest. From circling a date on the calendar, showing up, strapping on gear and boarding the plane, most maiden skydivers don’t get second thoughts until the plane door opens, wind hits their skin, and the view below is tree tops and riverscapes.
Tandem instructor Ian Abele says most fear is left behind on the plane. Once Danielle Sanzone leapt out the open door from 9,000 feet above ground and plummeted toward earth at 120 miles an hour, her mind was focused on taking in the topsy-turvy view around her. There’s Lake George. There’s the Hudson River.
“Where’s the Saratoga Race Course?” she asked the instructor buckled behind her, curious if she could glimpse any of the Travers Stakes madness on her descent.
“You’re kind of moving around while you’re free falling, so I would see the ground coming and then I’d see the sky and then the ground and then the sky,” chuckled Sanzone, 29, of Troy.
Sanzone was one of 25 people to jump out of a plane Saturday at Saratoga Skydiving Adventures to benefit Make-A-Wish Northeast New York on its 25th anniversary. As the event website put it: “This ain’t no bake sale.”
In her sixth year as a wish granter for the local organization, Sanzone has helped children with life-threatening illness, sending them to London, on Disney cruises, to Nickelodeon hotel in Orlando, Fla., and more. The chapter serves the 15 counties that make up area code 518.
She raised just over $1,700 for the second annual skydiving fundraiser, aptly titled Wish Jump 2012. Last year, nine participants opted for the adrenaline-fueled fundraiser and had so much fun that Make-A-Wish decided to make it an annual event.
“There’s such a variety of ways people support us,” said Tim Riley, marketing and communications manager for Make-A-Wish Northeast New York. “It’s everything from kid’s birthday parties to car shows to motorcycle cruises to boat rides to jumping out of airplanes.”
He wouldn’t be jumping Saturday, opting instead for a camera to document the day’s events: from the small planes grumbling as they took off, to the tiny floating people suspended by blue and red canopies, and ultimately, the shrieks and “Oh my gods” once they land.
When Dave Donaldson poked his head out from the open plane door 9,000 feet above Airway Meadows Golf Course, he could only make out trees. His tandem instructor, on the other hand, was making sure this was the spot, known as the Heber Airpark “drop zone.”
“Once he located it, he was like, ‘All right, are you ready?’ ” recalled Donaldson, 28, of Canajoharie. “He stuck his foot out on this little step and the next thing you know he’s saying ‘1, 2, 3, go!’ ”
It felt like only a few seconds of free falling before his instructor warned him to hold on to his harness.
“It was really exhilarating and pretty horrifying, too,” he said.
Abele, the tandem instructor, says this was actually about 30 seconds into the descent. He pulls the chute at 5,000 feet, hoping the canopy fills with air slowly and completely by 4,000 feet so that it doesn’t feel like slamming into a brick wall at 125 mph.
“You can get hurt,” says Abele, who says the trained “flyers” will wait a while before pulling the chute so they can do back flips and front flips and 180-degree turns and 360-degree turns.
“The more relaxed you are, the better you fly,” he said. “If you’re stiff as a board you’re going to be wobbling with your head down, feet down and all around.”
Donaldson had time to relax once his parachute completely opened and he slowed to about 15 to 25 mph. All in all, it was worth doing again, he said, especially for a good cause.
There were a few moments Sanzone thought she might back out. When the plane door opened was one of those moments.
“Really?” said Tom Wells, her tandem instructor, who had been listening in as he geared up for another jump. “You were great. Maybe a tad nervous, but hey.”
Wells says it’s pretty rare that someone actually refuses to jump once they’re in the plane and up in the air. There was one time that he had already jumped out of a soaring plane from a tether and turned around to take video of tandem jumpers still inside the door.
“They just said, ‘Nope, I’m not going.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t really have a choice, I’m going,’ ” he recalled. “But it’s really, really rare. Usually I can just say, you know, ‘I’m with you. Whatever happens to you happens to me and I love me, so come on.’ ”
Skydiving was definitely a memorable moment for Sanzone during her time with Make-A-Wish. She describes it as an extreme moment, but not necessarily her favorite.
“It’s definitely a different experience, because you can’t really put words to say how you feel when, you know, a kid who has leukemia hugs you as he’s about to board a plane to go to Disney World or he just met his idol Spiderman or something,” she said. “Those were memorable moments for me.”
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