The air up there: Five black men jump out of a plane in Baltimore
A skydiving tale of conquering fear and forging a brotherhood at 13,000 feet
I gather my senses, and a weird sense of calm overtakes me. My eyes water up. Everything whips past at speeds that feel closer to breaking the sound barrier than anything I’ve ever experienced. Wind crashes against my face at 130 mph. It’s impossible to hear. Feeling completely defenseless makes me alive in a way I have never experienced. Makes me alive in a way I never knew existed.
The opening triplet of Young Jeezy’s 2005 zenith Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101: “Thug Motivation 101,” “Standing Ovation” and “Gangsta Music.” When it fails to elicit a reaction, there’s cause for concern. But when Meek Mill’s 2012 “Dreams & Nightmares” doesn’t do the trick, we all quietly panic.
Hold on, wait a minute / Y’all thought I was finished?/ When I bought that Aston Martin / Y’all thought it was rented …
“Turn that down for a second,” George says from the back seat.
There are five of us. Me, Trevon (Tre), Chris (whom we all call Mayo) and Derek (who met us at the spot). We were all there for George, who is getting married in Atlanta in November and wants to cross an item off his “living list.” He hates the term “bucket list.”
“That sounds too much like death,” he told me an hour before, outside Tre’s parents’ house in Bowie, Maryland. He was scarfing down a bowl from Chipotle. “Let’s do everything we wanna do while we’re here. It makes for a better life story.”
But now, as Tre’s 2011 Nissan Maxima — “The Swain Train,” as we dubbed it — turns into the gravel driveway of Skydive Baltimore in Mitchellville, Maryland, it hits us. The driveway leads to an open field with parked cars, a mini-warehouse and planes. “I done did the DOAs / I done did the KODs,” Meek raps, with the volume nearly on mute. “Every time I’m in that b—- / I get to throwin’ 30 G’s …”
We are on the cusp of embarking on the most extreme sport on the planet. The five of us are about to jump out of a plane.
July 16, 2017. For months, it seemed nothing more than a fictional date. It would never get here. And even if it did, the weather wouldn’t cooperate. A pipe dream would be left as just that.
But what was a group chat idea in April spawned into May reality as we all watched blowout after blowout during the NBA playoffs. When Derek got the ball rolling by copping his Groupon ticket first, the stage was set. Talking about it was cool, but being about it was a totally different monster. Weeks went by. Eventually a quintet took shape.
Derek, Tre, George and I all went to Hampton together. Mayo is Tre’s oldest friend, from high school. We asked other friends, men and women, if they were down. Some initially committed but backed out for scheduling reasons. One friend asked, “Why the f— would I wanna jump out of a perfectly good plane?” Silently, it’s what we’d all asked ourselves.
In the weeks leading up to July 16, a brotherhood — we call it #FlightTeam — formed. What else would you call five people crazy enough to jump out of a plane? We’re all either in our early 30s or, in Tre’s case, months away from the landmark birthdate. We’re blessed with jobs in which we’re excelling. Some of us are in committed relationships. Life just feels good. And we wanted to try something new — something we’d remember for the rest of our lives. It was about seeking a thrill, but it was more about breaking the status quo. It’s hard to find statistics about black people who skydive. We knew of friends and acquaintances who’ve done it, but for the most part, what statistics wouldn’t tell us, the reactions we got when we told folks surely did.
“ ‘Brother, black people don’t do that,’ ” is what the author Touré playfully recalled a group of black men telling him before his 2007 jump. “I was breaking the rules of blackness as they saw it.”
“Skydiving?” Brian, a bartender at my local bar quizzed me. “Man, y’all n—–s wilding, for real. If you come back, at least I know you didn’t die.” He then proceeded to show me a video another customer at the bar pulled up on her phone of a woman slipping out of her harness.
“Well, you only live once, I guess,” Ryan, a childhood friend, said to me via text. He’s currently serving overseas in the military, and even he thought the idea was asinine.
“Y’all like the only black people I know personally … crazy enough to do this,” Mayo said with a laugh when he agreed to go. “Or the dumbest. But I’m with y’all, so what’s that make me?”
The peculiar truth about skydiving is there are two types of first-timers: those who research everything they can on the internet and those who go in blind. For myself — a reporter, writer and naturally inquisitive person — it was the former. There are the horror stories. There’s video of President George H.W. Bush jumping for his 90th birthday. The most impactful to me, however, is Will Smith describing his first skydive, in 2013 in Dubai. It spoke to a lesson far larger than that of jumping from a plane.
Fear, in a lot of ways, is death in breathing form. A byproduct of living in the world, fear is the reason so many wake up years later saying, “I wish I would have,” instead of “I’m glad I did.” Combating fear is why The Fresh Prince went skydiving. Anticipation is usually worse than the event itself. “You realize at the point of maximum danger,” Smith said, “is the point of minimum fear.”
Skydiving is actually quite safe. Just last year, the United States Parachute Association recorded 21 skydiving deaths out of approximately 3.2 million jumps — one death per 153,557 jumps. The number shrinks with tandem skydiving (with the instructor strapped on your back), with one student death per 500,000 jumps over the past decade. Since 2000, 413 skydiving deaths have been reported out of 48.6 million jumps. The fatality rate was 0.00085 percent. A person is far more likely to die from being struck by lightning or stung by a bee.
If we were going to die doing this, we had the worst luck known to man. Or it was just our time to go. We were cool with those odds. More importantly, though, none of us wanted to back out on our word.
Telling your mom you’re about to jump out of a plane is almost as much of a rush as jumping out of the plane itself. “Ma,” I said the night of July 15. “I wasn’t gonna tell you, but LaToya said I probably should.”
“Justin, what? Is she OK? Is she getting married? I can’t lose out on a potential daughter-in-law. Are you in trouble? Boy, I told you don’t go messing up this good job!”
“Huh? What? No! I’m skydiving tomorrow. I’ll be fine. Trust me.”
“Going by yourself?”
“It’s like four of my boys going with me. Tre’s going.”
“I mean, are you jumping out by yourself?”
“Hell, nah! I might pass out. I need someone to pull the cord.”
“OK, fine. Call me when you get on the ground. We ain’t telling your grandma until you get back on the ground, though.”
In the car, we swap stories about telling our loved ones. In George’s words, he had to get his “affairs in order.” We’re an hour away from doing something we never really believed would happen, and we’re laughing. It’s these small moments that define a brotherhood. The order of jumping is finalized. I demand to go first (if you’re considering doing this, jump first, because watching your friends get vacuumed out of an airplane is a haze of monumental proportions). We crack jokes on each other. We predict what we’ll say as we jump.
“I’m definitely yelling ‘Free Ghost!’ ” I say, alluding to this season of the Starz series Power.
“Maybe I’ll yell out, ‘It took four All-stars to beat LeBron in the Finals,’ ” Tre says moments later.
The mileage on the GPS slowly trickles away. The weather is sarcastically perfect — as if Mother Nature is telling us, “Y’all ain’t blaming me. You’re jumping out that damn plane.” The wardrobe: Fatigue shorts, Nike Air Max and a black tee with, in hindsight, a fitting lyric from Future and Drake’s 2016 loosie “Used To This”: Beat the odds/ Do numbers/ And remain humble.
The moment was at our fingertips. The five of us knew we’d leave this field as different people. First, the paperwork. “Basically, you’re signing your life away,” Derek said. “You either sign it and jump, or don’t sign it and don’t jump. Either way, they’ve already gotten your money.”
Speaking of dead presidents, we all paid $125 for the “media” package that came with 200-plus pictures and video of the experience. Then came the wait. This was the worst. Groups in front of us went up in planes, jumped and parachuted to the ground. They resembled giant, colorful snowflakes. We all stood and watched, occasionally placing videos on Snapchat, as well as Instagram stories. The jumpers were all supportive and energetic, the consensus being, “You’ll thank yourself for doing it while you’re in the air.” As we expected, we were the only group of black people jumping together, although two people came after us — but one stayed on the ground and worked on his laptop as his daughter got set to skydive. Then came the moment three months in the making.
Trevon, George, Chris, Justin and Derek, come to the front.
Immediately, we all realize there isn’t a “class” we’ll take beforehand. The tutorial? It’s the instructor telling you what and what not to do. Within 10 minutes, we are strapped in harnesses and later to our instructors on the seatless plane — which holds 10 people at the most. My queasiness, which had been faint 30 minutes before, increases in severity the higher the plane climbs. There’s no backing out. We are at the point of no return.
“Damn, we’re pretty high up. This it?” I ask, looking out the window.
“Nah, bro,” says Mike the instructor nonchalantly. He’s on his 11th and final jump of the day. “We’re about halfway there.”
The Maryland terrain now resembles a Google map. I look around the plane, attempting to gauge the collective mindstate. Mayo is quiet. Derek doesn’t seem too much bothered. George is at peace in the back of the plane. But Tre? Tre, he has What the entire f— did I get myself into? written all over his face.
The door opens. It’s a passage to the rest of our lives. That’s another aspect you’re not truly prepared for: seeing a door open on a plane and clouds breezing by underneath. Mike inches us closer to the edge. He asks me if I prefer a straight plunge or to backflip out. Not that it matters, as I was kind of seated in the doorway and my legs were already dangling out.
It’s at this point where a person simultaneously feels heaven, hell, life and death. It’s a high, the greatest sex, the greatest weed … the greatest anything, really, could never replicate (OK, well, never is pushing it). But, true to form, “Free Ghost!” were my last coherent words.
As quickly as the free fall begins, though, it’s over. The parachute deploys. Whipping wind gives way to an eerie silence as I float toward the launchpad. You see how big the world is. And how small you are. You realize how peaceful the moment is. How the freedom of that exact moment surpasses the trepidation of the months, weeks, days and hours before. Skydiving made no sense at all until it made all the sense. I was temporarily suspended in air and left to my own thoughts. The air up there isn’t the enemy. It’s the ground where the problems lie.
The entire experience is over in five minutes. I was back on the ground quicker than it took to get in the air. Tre, Derek, Mayo and George are soon behind. The ride-back recap session was legendary. Viewing our videos, we saw the same experience from each other’s point of view. Over a week later, the five of us still laugh about the moment that brought us together and put us face to face with our own mortality. It’s a feat we’ll take with us to homecomings, weddings, baby showers and certainly George’s wedding later this year.
“A week later and it’s still a trip,” Tre says with a laugh. “[I just keep thinking], did we really do that?”
A thought populated my mind that night after the jump, as I boarded a flight to Boston. It was a piece from Jay-Z’s 2009 “Forever Young.” It spoke to not only what we five had just done, but succinctly about conquering fear.
Fear not when, fear not why / Fear not much while we’re alive/ Life is for living, not living uptight / Till you’re somewhere up in the sky …
Jay-Z inadvertently reminded me of something George had said. His words applied to life, personally and professionally. It applied to taking the great risks to produce the great rewards we all seek in life. “When I realized I could die,” said the groom-to-be, “that’s when I started living.”