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Extreme air: Tales of fun and fanciful flights
David Ludvik jumps in a tandem jump, a type of jump reserved for novice skydivers to jump with someone who is licensed and experienced.

Standing in the doorway at 14,000 feet, Gainesville resident Diana Cardenas didn’t have a chance to rethink her skydiving plan.
She was strapped to an experienced instructor as she stepped up to the open door of the airplane whizzing above North Georgia.

Then, she jumped.

“Oh my word, the feeling of standing in the door of the plane, just looking down. ... it’s like going on three roller coasters at the same time,” she said. “You go free falling for about a minute. It’s so — you feel so free. It’s amazing.”

This time of year, lots of first-time skydivers gather up the courage to take the plunge, just like Cardenas. The warm weather and blue skies draw them to places scattered around Atlanta, where they can jump once with an experienced guide strapped to them, or they can dive into a full training program, learning to skydive solo.

Cardenas chose to take her first jump at The Farm, a skydiving center in Rockmart, northwest of Atlanta, which offers a general party atmosphere for skydivers. She said her group arrived at 2 p.m. but between other activities and just hanging out in general, they took off at about 6 p.m.

“It’s a very nice place. ... Everyone is just hanging out, music everywhere. It was very chill,” she said. “If you’re doing tandem (skydiving), you’re not doing much — you just get in the plane. They play music really loud, really exciting music.”

Then, it’s 15 minutes up in the air to the drop zone and away they go.

“Then, you’re ready to jump,” Cardenas added. “And you’re not even thinking.”

For Cardenas, skydiving was something she’d wanted to do for the past few years as a birthday present for herself. For David “Junior” Ludvik, skydiving started as something to do with his friends when they were in college.

Already studying to be a pilot, Ludvik decided to take a class — this was before tandem skydiving, or skydiving strapped to an instructor, was available — and got bitten by the bug.

He went on to be a pilot for Spirit Airlines, but after 9/11, Ludvik left his job for a career change — although he still wanted to fly.

“After Sept. 11, I got my skydiving license,” said Ludvik, who now instructs new skydivers at Skydive Atlanta. “It was a perfect opportunity, and I started skydiving full time.”

He and other instructors take groups out nearly every day for an extreme view of Atlanta. Some are studying for their own skydiving license — otherwise called accelerated free fall — and others are just out for their first time.

“We’ll go out with them, giving them hand signals and assist them in how to be a skydiver on their own,” he said of instructing the students going for their license. “There are seven levels, and after that they’re cleared to do some jumps on their own and perfect their skills.”

By skills, Ludvik means different ways of falling — or, flying — before you open the parachute.

Governed by the U.S. Parachute Association, licensed skydivers have completed hours of training and are accustomed to using their body as its own flying machine.

When you first jump out of the plane, you’re propelled forward in addition to losing altitude. This is when you can somersault, “sit,” stand on your head or fly on your back.

“The whole time you’re pretty much flying,” Ludvik said. “We’re full-body pilots — you fly in a sitting position, on our heads, standing up, on our back or on our belly. Any different axis you think you could fly on is how we fly when we’re out with our friends.”

And Ludvik said the initial drop isn’t quite like the drop you take on a roller coaster.

“I have yet to find anybody who can really put it into words,” he said of the experience. “You don’t get that roller coaster stomach drop. Roller coasters make you go faster than you would normally fall.

“When you leave the airplane it’s already taking you 70 to 90 m.p.h. across the sky. ... You’re going to move forward but also move down.”

What if you’ve done the jumps and the training, purchased your own equipment and received your skydiving license? Then, you can jump wherever there’s a skydive center for $25.

Often, licensed skydivers meet through an informal network of others — since it’s a small portion of the population who is licensed, everyone seems to know everyone — and even plan their vacations around places to skydive.

Or, you can take it to the next level like Hans Paulsen, a skydiving instructor at The Farm, who recently competed at an event in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“Five people from the U.S. were invited,” he said of the 2010 Dubai Championship. Other places he’s jumped include South Africa and Russia.

Ludvik said many skydivers will schedule vacations to include places to jump, if they’re not planning the entire vacation around it already.

“Most skydivers usually travel with their gear (a specialized helmet and parachute system), and we usually end up going on vacation with skydiving nearby, if it’s not a skydiving vacation,” he said. “It’s such a close-knit group that we know people all over the U.S., all over the world for that matter.”

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

If you’ve thought about going skydiving but haven’t quite made it up in the plane, you’re not alone. But if you do end up in the plane, 14,000 feet above North Georgia, there’s a likely chance you’re going to follow through with it.

“We’ve had some people back out, but 99 percent of the time, they go,” said Paulsen, who added that if he does get someone with cold feet he can usually talk them through it.

Overall, he advised, have fun.

“Go up for the ride; enjoy it,” he said. “Let the instructor work for you.”

Cardenas said she never had any second thoughts before she jumped. And after having such a good experience her first time, she’s planing on trying it again.

“Once you stabilize, I felt so secure,” she said. “I was looking all around — the view is amazing. You can see Atlanta from that far away, so that was really cool. ... We were turning around and doing flips. They make it so much fun.”