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Tripping high above New Zealand: Free falling and feelin’ fine

Tandem skydiving over Lake Taupo.

Approximately 4,500 metres above New Zealand, my behind is firmly planted on the cold metal floor of the plane, while my feet dangle outside, being whipped around like a flag in the breeze. With both hands, I hold onto the shoulder straps of my harness, which is attached to Brad, my tandem skydiving guide. I briefly glance past my feet at the Google-Earth-like view of Lake Taupo below and realize I am about to jump out of a plane.

"Are you ready?" screams Brad over the roar of the plane's engine.

Just before we begin hurling toward Earth at terminal velocity, a thought crosses my mind: "Shouldn't I be more frightened?"

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As we slip out in nearly upright posture, I experience the stomach-in-throat sensation of a steep roller-coaster descent. Within seconds, Brad manoeuvres his body so that we are falling belly first, which prolongs our free fall.

The sensation of falling so fast is so foreign that only bits and pieces of the experience register in my consciousness. I can hear the whistle of air flowing past my ears. My face, hands and ankles feel cold. The air resistance pushing against my palms reminds me of holding my hand out of the window of a moving car. I notice a cloud to my right and wonder what it would be like to fly directly through it. Below me I see the shore of Lake Taupo quickly coming into focus. I realize I have yet to make a sound since exiting the plane – scream or otherwise – but decide it is too late for a hearty woo-hoo! Instead, I turn my head back to Brad and yell: "This is amazing!"

As someone who has struggled with anxiety for the better part of their adult life, I am surprised by my calmness. I have experienced greater stress during much more innocuous activities. Before a research presentation, my palms would get cold and sweaty, my heart would race uncontrollably, as thoughts of potential catastrophe swirled in my mind: "What if my research has flaws?"

And yet, here I am, free falling at 200 kilometres an hour from a distance of eight stacked CN Towers, and I am feeling merely a fraction of the jitters that accompany speaking at a conference. Somehow the potential for slamming into the Earth evokes less fear than being grilled by nitpicky senior scientists.

Brad interrupts my thoughts: "Hold onto your harness!"

A moment later, I feel like a marionette whose strings have been abruptly tightened. Our parachute opens and over the next five minutes, Brad and I glide in the breeze, descending ever so gently. We chat about our careers and other mundane matters as though we're seated in a coffee shop. I'm surprised (and yet relieved) to hear that this was Brad's 12th jump of the day.

My mind again drifts to the question, shouldn't I have been more scared?

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Maybe it was the near-complete lack of control over the experience. Once you're up in the plane, there's really only one way to return to terra firma with your ego intact. And it's not as though I jumped out of the plane, as much as I was strapped to someone who did.

Whatever the reason, those 60 seconds of free fall definitely placed my earthly anxieties in stark perspective.

I'm ready to go again.

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