If a fine line exists between bravery and stupidity, between exhilaration and anguish, between logic and the ridiculous, you’ll cross all of them and back again several times within a matter of seconds simply by jumping out of a plane. Now I know that. It’s not as if one of my lifetime goals is to compete in the U.S. National Skydiving Championships, which began Tuesday at Lake Perris in Riverside County. But when offered the chance to take one giant leap – an innocent tandem jump, leashed up to someone who’s done it more than 10,000 times, just to feel the same kind of adrenalin rush that an extreme athlete must live with on a daily basis – it seemed like a no-brainer. Turns out, the brain is the last to know just what an outrageous proposition this can be. Driving direction from the San Fernando Valley: From the 101-S, merge to the 134-E to the 210-E and take the 57-S. Merge onto the 10-E for 16 miles to the I-15-S about three miles. Take the 60-E toward Riverside for 12 miles and continue onto the 215-S for 16 miles. Exit D Street, go 1 miles, turn left at 11th Street, continue onto Chase Road, turn right at Goetz Road. Estimated driving time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (100 miles). 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREThe top 10 theme park moments of 2019 “There was a time when sky diving was dangerous and sex was safe,” Melanie Conaster, who co-owns the Perris Valley Skydiving School and adjoining resort with her brother and parents, tried to explain upon our arrival at the desolate area off Interstate 215. “Now, sky diving is one of the safest things you can do and sex …” By the way, Melanie, why are you limping? “I’ve made more than 5,000 dives in 14 years, and I did a stupid thing,” she explained, setting her crutches down. “I landed on ground that had a lot of dirt clods and I twisted my ankle pretty bad. First time I’ve ever made such a bad judgment.” Should we turn and run back to the car now or wait for rush-hour traffic to die down? Temperatures were nearing 100 degrees when we started a morning tour of the facilities in an attempt to make peace with what was about to happen. In the Bombshelter Restaurant, pictures and newspaper clippings fill every inch of wall space with those who’ve taken the plunge – from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Tom Green and Drew Barrymore to Andy Roddick and Mandy Moore to the crazy Bush twins. At this drop zone, the biggest in Southern California, they handle more than 120,000 sky dives a year. If anyone had bit the dust from a bungled jump, we would have heard about it. Right? For those who couldn’t stomach this whole wild, blue yonder thing, there was a safer option. A wind tunnel nearby that looks like a Disneyland rocket-ship ride is actually an eight-story tower shooting a 120 mile-per-hour column of air to simulate an actual free fall. Since sky diving is only for those 18 and older, the indoor SkyVenture is a place where kids can experience the rush, as well as a training room for those who want to practice maneuvers under much safer conditions. And, it’s bolted to the ground. It’s about 11 a.m., and the small group gathers in the sky diving school building. If you need to go to the bathroom, here’s your last chance, they tell us. Three others who were going to jump decide to go. I stay behind. This could easily come back to haunt me. I start filling out an information sheet. After listing all emergency contacts, how I’d like my organs donated and whether I cared to be left on life support, there are six more pages of legal documents to sign, initial and date. “By signing this document you are giving up valuable legal rights in the event you should be injured,” says the first paragraph. “You will probably not be able to win your lawsuit even though someone beside yourself was legally at fault.” Another paragraph to initial makes sure you know that “the landing area has trees, fences, power lines … . hidden holes, poisonous snakes, unpredictable wind conditions and other natural and man-made objects that can cause injury upon landing” and I have to promise not to sue any parties for anything. At the same time, a video plays on the TV showing a lawyer behind a desk who wants to make sure everything is out there about risks, waiver of rights and indemnity issues. Why do we even use a parachute? Your heart doesn’t start thumping until you’re actually ushered back into the briefing area. Someone hands you a blue jumpsuit to fit over your clothes. Another wrangles you into a harness. I’m not sure which leg goes into which loop, so Uli Stuewe, the unlucky ground instructor who’ll end up telling me everything that I’m about to forget, coddles me through the process. When we get ready to jump, cross your arms, get down on your right knee and tilt your head back, Uli says. That kind of sounds like he’s preparing me for the fetal position. I’m most distracted by the fact they’re not making me wear a helmet. A minute later – Don’t we need to take some written test or something? – we’re walking toward the revved-up plane like a group of Apollo astronauts. Spectators look at us to see whether they can sense any fear. Don’t get near me. I reek of it. The roar from the propellers drowns out any conscious thoughts. Two benches line the insides next to each row of windows, looking like something out of a World War II movie set. I slide all the way to the back with Uli, sandwiched between him and another guy whose bulging parachute backpack leaves me no room to escape. A third member of my team, Koji Mizoi, is documenting this whole thing with a video camera. He starts asking questions that I not only can’t hear, but don’t want to pay attention to. The voices in my head are telling me to shut up and enjoy it. “This is way too loose,” Vinny Palmieri, an instructor helping another tandem jumper, says from across the way as he pulls on my right shoulder strap. Palmieri, a North Hollywood resident who flies to work in his own private plane, tries to look serious. Uli smiles and says everything’s fine. I look at Koji and ask: “You’re getting this all on tape, right?” From the altimeter strapped on my left arm, it shows we’re approaching 13,000 feet – about 2 miles up. Out the window, it looks like any piece of barren land you’d see flying over the Midwest from a 747. Except this time, a side door of the plane is wide open, and those across from me start sliding down toward it. One by one, they disappear downward, like they’re flushed away. The last to go, I edge to the opening only because Uli is sliding my butt down the bench. Koji hangs from a bar outside the plane. “Your shoe is untied,” Palmieri points out to me, seconds after he reached over and untied it. I’m laughing on the outside. From the doorway, it seems the entire world is in my field of vision, and it would be really cool to just sit here for a minute and take it all in. Cool … that’s the other sensation. It’s about a 40-degree difference up here. This jumpsuit, which seemed too warm down below, isn’t enough to stay warm now. These are the longest moments I’ll ever experience. It’s not about overcoming a fear of heights, which I don’t have. It’s that every one of my instincts is telling me that jumping isn’t the natural thing to do. I’d say a prayer, but I couldn’t hear myself anyway over the propeller noise. “Now!” Uli yells after he reaches over to fold my arms, push my knee down and tilt my head back. “Holy (expletive)!” The free fall isn’t at all like a roller-coaster dip. Your stomach doesn’t go up into your throat. It’s as if you’re spread out on a cushion of air, and a tremendous wind is blowing in your face. There’s no linear concept of the plane above or the ground below. All the moisture in your mouth is gone. If not for the goggles, your eyes would probably dry out. The rubber-face torture that causes you to lose all sense of dimension and direction lasts about 50 seconds, but seems like an eternity. Uli grabs my left arm to remind me that, at 5,000 feet, I’m supposed to reach around with my right hand and pull down on the golf ball that’s attached to his parachute line. The time comes, and not a second too soon. The pull upward from the chute opening isn’t as jarring as I thought, and the immediate sensation is the sudden quietness. Uli can talk to me easily. He points out the shoreline over the mountains where, if it was a clear day, you could see Catalina Island. I pull down on the left handle of the chute and glide toward another vista, where Big Bear Mountain is visible. For about three minutes, the peaceful easiness through the still air is a miraculous feeling, like we’re on some kind of cable wire suspended above. The speed with which we’re approaching the grass landing strip is hardly noticeable. But it quickly comes into view, and all Uli tells me to do is lift both my legs up and we’ll make the landing on our rear ends. Gliding in, we do just that, sliding on the grass about 30 yards to a safe, soft stop. “What did you think?” asks Koji, who reached the ground moments earlier to record it all. Since I had shut off my processing filters minutes earlier, it was hard to put anything into words. I had to catch my breath and rethink this whole gravity issue again. Back at the restaurant, seeing Melanie with a smile on her face reminded me of the quote I saw painted on the wall just inside the wind tunnel. It was from da Vinci: “Once you have tasted flight, you will always look to the heavens, for there you have been and there you will long to return.” “I wish the feeling you get after you jump is something we could bottle because after a little while, you forget just how exciting it actually was,” Melanie says. “It’s not just a one-time thrill.” Meaning, you can come back and do it again. Just remember to keep your shoes tied. Tom Hoffarth can be reached at [email protected] and (818) 713-3661. U.S. NATIONAL SKYDIVING CHAMPIONSHIPS Site: Perris Valley Skydiving drop zone in Riverside County, 2091 Goetz Road, Perris, CA. Phone: (951) 657-3904. Dates: Aug. 23-Sept. 11. Tickets: All events are free to watch and open to the public. Competitors: More than 750 in 26 events within the disciplines of free-fall style, accuracy, canopy formation, artistic and formation sky diving. Schedule: Today through Saturday: free-fall style and accuracy landing competition; Saturday and Sunday: sport accuracy competition; Wednesday-Sept. 4: canopy formation competition; Sept. 1-4: artistic events competition; Sept. 5-8: 4-way competition; Sept. 7-9: 8-way competition; Sept. 9-10: 16-way competition; Sept. 10-11: 10-way competition; Sept. 8-11: canopy piloting competition.