What happens when you jump out of an airplane at 15,000 ft?
It takes a certain kind of person to leap from an aircraft into thin air. It takes guts, and courage. You won’t be alone, though; most likely you’ll be harnessed to an experienced ‘jumpmaster’ – some of whom have skydived over 21,000 times. However, you will be fighting your most basic instincts of self-preservation. “For some 60 seconds you plummet toward the ground at 124 miles per hour,” says NZONE Skydive’s Ann-Louise Riddell. “That’s terminal velocity!”
Luckily, when you go skydiving in New Zealand you’re not merely thrown out of a plane without training. Riddell explains that when you sign up to skydive with her company you’re assigned a tandem instructor, attend a pre-jump briefing and are talked through a demonstration outlining what happens from aircraft exit to landing, as well as what procedures will be completed even before you make your way onto the plane – all very reassuring.
What actually happens on the skydive itself? “It takes approximately 25 minutes for the ascent, as the plane circles the surrounding area providing spectacular views of the entire region,” explains Riddell. “Upon reaching the desired altitude the instructor attaches the passenger to his harness, then checks and adjusts their frap hat, goggles and gloves…”
When the pilot signals the time to exit the aircraft, the instructors position themselves at the edge of the door. “It’s then time for the instructor and passenger to make the ultimate leap of faith,” says Riddell. Presumably, it’s also the time most people begin to panic and perspire? “There are only two to three seconds of pure terror,” she claims. “It’s between the moment you launch yourself from the plane and the instant your body reaches terminal velocity.”
The tandem instructor then deploys the ‘drogue’ parachute; a device that stabilises the joined jumpers during freefall. “Freefall time from 15,000 ft is approximately a minute,” says Riddell. “At altitude 5,000 ft, the instructor deploys the main canopy and there is a relaxing flight under canopy for about five minutes back down to the ground.
“It’s a dreamy end to an extreme adrenaline fix!”
North to South
More than one million tandem skydives are made every 12 months, and there are skydiving centres all around the world. However, skydiving in New Zealand – with its beautiful mountains, lakes, rivers and mind-blowing natural vistas straight out of epic fantasy – is one of the most popular places to do it on Earth.
“Every year there are 75,000 skydives in New Zealand,” says Riddell. “At Queenstown we’ve jumped over 180,000 people in the last 21 years, making us one of the most experienced operators in the world.”
There are more than 20 skydiving outfits in New Zealand, but having started out back in 1990, Riddell’s company – operating out of Queenstown on the South Island – are one of the oldest and best established.
There’s something very natural about how adventure, adrenaline and skydiving in New Zealand all combine to make the perfect setting. “Queenstown has been deemed ‘The Adventure Capital of the World’ by some,” Riddell tells us. “It’s the birthplace of both tandem skydiving and bungee jumping in New Zealand.”
Sharing the Experience
By dropping people out of planes for more than two decades NZONE have accumulated lots of experienced instructors. Ricky Anderson, 24, has been skydiving with the company for six years. What keeps him jumping out of a plane day after day? “It’s a job that’s easy to get out of bed for in the morning,” he says. “And in a word, it’s fun!”
Ricky reckons the appeal of skydiving in New Zealand is pretty obvious. “It’s one of those childhood dreams so many people have: being able to fly,” he argues. “This is the closest way to living that dream.”
When you go skydiving in New Zealand you can opt to add on a bonus jumper to film your experience. Ricky worked as one of these videographers before getting his tandem rating a few months ago. “Going from camera to tandem is a different buzz all together,” he says. “Camera is the extreme side of it where you fly around and go on fast canopies. Tandem is more about sharing the experience – there is someone else there and you get to palpably share their excitement.”
Ricky loves the community skydiving creates and how there’re always new people to engage with. His advice for new and anxious adrenaline seekers is simple: “Just relax!” he urges. “A lot of people ruin their skydive by not relaxing. The key is to give in to what’s happening, to relax and enjoy.”
It all sounds awesome. But how does all that equipmenty stuff work, you know, to make sure you don’t feel a bit flat at the end of the jump? “Tandem skydiving requires equipment with several differences from normal sport skydiving rigs,” says Ann-Louise Riddell. “All modern tandem skydiving systems use the drogue parachute, which is deployed shortly after leaving the plane in order to decrease the skydivers’ terminal velocity.”
It all sounds a bit technical, but reassuringly safe. “This is necessary for proper parachute deployment,” Riddell says. “It lengthens the duration of the skydive, allowing the skydivers to fall at the same speed as any videographers.”
And what’s the other main kit stuff involved? “Tandem skydiving systems also use larger main parachutes to support the additional weight of two passengers,” Riddell explains. “Tandem parachute rigs are equipped with a main and reserve parachute.”
Now that’s reassuring.
Paying the Price
So what can you expect to pay for the leasure of skydiving in New Zealand? Well, prices for a tandem skydive start around £130, rising to about £220 depending on what country and height you chose to jump from (jump altitudes can range from 9,000 ft to 15,000 ft).
Are a few precious minutes of falling with style worth the money? The consensus seems to be: basically, yes. “There are a few things you just can’t miss when you go to New Zealand, and skydiving is definitely one of them!” says Malin Broberg, a Kiwi connoisseur of extreme high altitude adventures.
“I’ve done skydives all over the world, and this was without a doubt the best,” Broberg claims. “The scenery is amazing; I can’t think of a better place in the world to do it. To start with you get the amazing snow-covered mountains and the beautiful lake beneath you, but to top it off you get an amazing crew working to make sure you get the best experience possible!”
And it’s not only veteran jumpers that seem to dig skydiving in New Zealand. Adrenaline virgins seem to love them too. “Since I was experiencing sky-diving for the first time, I wanted a good feel for their people, their processes and their equipment,” says Aggie, an American first-timer who goes by just the one name. “NZONE did not disappoint.”
Aggie seems to have been impressed by the company’s set-up. “My jumpmaster, Nikki, had completed over 8,000 jumps,” he says. “Their facilities were well organised, their system was simple and all of the equipment they use looked brand new.”
His adds: “If you decide to do it and you can make the money work, jump from 15,000 ft. You get a minute of freefall, and your pictures and video will be like nothing else you can get in the world.”