Maybe you've been to New Zealand, but have you been above it? Imagine seeing the West Coast's craggy rainforests, snow-capped Southern Alps reflected off Lake Matheson, sleek Fox Glacier and mighty Mount Cook—all at once. Skydiving's open-air views make this possible, making the scenery as memorable as the jump.
For many of us, the thought of leaping out of a moving aircraft thousands of feet above the ground is terrifying. But the experience can actually be quite liberating, especially for first-timers who typically jump tandem. That is, attached to a jumpmaster who's made more than 500 solo leaps and has been skydiving for at least three years (according to the United States Parachute Association's standard). There's not much to do but arch your back and enjoy the view.
"If you like the view from the ground, you're going to love it from the air," says Shane Rampy, a marketing manager for Champion Aerospace who organized dives from a vintage World War II B-17 bomber onto a Florida beach last March.
A typical first-time jump starts with 30 minutes of training. Then, your small plane climbs to 12,000 feet, and you jump: The freefall lasts 45 seconds, and leads to a six-minute cruise to the ground with the chute open. Many novice jumpers are surprised that tandem instructors have so much control over their direction and speed, accomplished by tugging on steering lines. When you're ready to go alone, take the week-and-a-half-long Accelerated Freefall (AFF) course, where you'll learn to pack your own chute, and then, in nine jumps, land in water and execute basic group dives.
To help you get your money's worth for those six minutes and 45 seconds, we've rounded up the world's ten most scenic freefalls. For the purposes of this list, we skipped the so-called extreme jumps. BBC's nature documentary "Planet Earth", for example, captured adventurers parachuting down the almost 1,000-foot vertical shaft called Cave of Swallows in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. The World Air Sports Federation has actually made a stand against these BASE jumps (an acronym for buildings, antennae, spans and earth: the four fixed objects from which one can jump). Proximity to rocks is certainly scenic—but decidedly unsafe.
Opt for a view of the Manhattan skyline instead. Blue Sky Ranch, in New York's Hudson Valley, offers glimpses of Gotham on clear days, plus a palette of foliage in the fall and sunset jumps each and every evening. Or, feather down onto untouched Namibian sands or a leafy Australian winery, the sun warming your back.
If those are too prosaic for your tastes, join Skydive Everest, to be held in October 2008. It's the first skydiving program in front of the word's highest mountain, and it will be filmed for National Geographic's television channel and a standalone documentary. Thermal gear and an oxygen system are required for these high-altitude, low-opening (or HALO) jumps that drop divers—even those who've never parachuted before—from 29,500 feet. (That's the altitude at which commercial planes fly.) The cost is $36,500 per person; add $1,500 for a 10-day guided trek through Kathmandu and Sherpa lands, with majestic helicopter tours and yaks to lighten your load.
Unusual aircraft can be another source of eye candy for your dive. The Collings Foundation, a Massachusetts-based organization that maintains historic aircraft, owns a classic B-17 bomber that travels across the U.S. for educational purposes. At any point on the tour, the foundation will rent the plane for $4,500—and provide instructors for up to 10 jumpers and a pilot. "The bomber weighs between 40,000 and 45,000 pounds, so its full reach is only 5,000 feet," says Ken Miles, director of operations. "But the climb can take up to 25 minutes, with amazing views." The jump is even more thrilling thanks to the B-17's bomb bay, which the jumpers must straddle before diving. Last year, the foundation was hired for a memorable landing on Florida's Emerald Coast sands at sunset.
Wherever or however you jump, skydiving is a way to experience the world from a fresh, and very broad, perspective. For comprehensive lists of skydiving locations—there's nary a metro area without one—consult the USPA's Web site.