The Silver Bullet

This is a story about my first skydive and how I learned to fly.

It was junior year in college. I had just returned to school for the fall semester and found myself with a lot of time. I had recently retired from college swimming and had a giant void to fill. I became a lifeguard, I joined a sorority, and I went white water rafting: None of these felt right. I looked up what it would take to become part of the Virginia Tech Skydiving team and ruled it out right away because of the cost. Even with a full time job, there was no way this broke college kid could afford skydiving.

Erin Bonilla's First Skydive at Skydive Philadelphia.First Jump – Skydive PHILADELPHIA

In the summer of 2010, I decided I wanted to finally go skydiving for my 29th birthday. The last time I had really thought about it was in college, but now I could finally afford to make the jump. I gathered a group of awesome friends and we all booked our jumps at Skydive Philadelphia, just north of Philadelphia.

Finally, the day had come when I would go skydiving. It was a LONG wait. Six hours of hanging around waiting, waiting, waiting. I can’t tell you how many parachutes we saw that “15 year old” pack as we waited patiently. Finally, we heard our names and it was our time to go up.

My jumpmaster and I were strapped up and headed to the plane when the cameraman pulled us aside to ask me silly questions. “Famous last words?” “Anything you want to say to your family before you jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” All I could think about was ‘OMG, I’m about the jump out of plane!’ What I didn’t notice was when the cameraman pulled us aside the others had already got on the plane. What did this mean? I was the last one in the plane therefore I was set to be the first one out of the plane.

The ride up to altitude was full of skydiver jokes, poking fun, and getting ready to do something so ridiculous I could only get five friends to come with me. Yeah, my heart was racing, but I wasn’t scared. I was excited. Then they opened the door, the cool air poured in to the cabin, my goggles defogged and we started towards the door. He said on the count of three we’ll go out. What he neglected to tell me was that he would trick me and skip the number three all together.

1… 2… SWOOSH! 

We flew out the door into the crisp blue sky. My body was telling me ‘this isn’t normal, you shouldn’t be doing this!’ It was a feeling I cannot explain; you must feel it for yourself. The winds force was so strong it kept filling my cheeks with air.

Once we stabilized in the sky and I realized my surroundings, it was so beautiful. The loud roar of the air, clothing flapping in the wind, and white puffy clouds below. It felt as though we were floating. We also happened to pick a perfect day to jump and got ourselves a full minute of freefall.

Before I knew it, the parachute opened with a sharp jolt. We were floating in the sky. My jumpmasters pointed off into the distance and said, “You see that? That’s Philly…You see that way over there? That’s New York City.” We floated down to the airport and landed safely on the grass. I immediately jumped up and thought, ‘oh hell yeah, I want to do that again.’

That jump was the beginning of the rest of my life. I had a new perspective on what was possible. Now, I wanted to become a skydiver.

Erin Bonilla under parachute at Skydive Arizona.The Silver Bullet – Skydive Arizona

For the whole next year, I started saving my money. In that time I researched great skydiving schools in the U.S., licensure costs, and what it would take to make it happen. I booked my flight and the first half of my United States Parachute Association (USPA) “A” license. March 2011, I was going to Skydive Arizona.

The only thing I can say is, being at Skydive Arizona was like a dream. Set in the beautiful red Arizona desert, the campus was its own little town. It had a bar, a bunkhouse, a pool, and even an indoor skydiving facility, SkyVenture Arizona. It had everything. The instructors were kind and professional. I spent a week doing my first nine jumps, parachute packing class, and indoor skydiving sessions. On my 6th jump, I decided to pay extra for a videographer/photographer to jump with us so I would have proof of my skydiving venture. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but after posting some pictures in a silver helmet and grey jump suit, a close friend called me “the silver bullet.” A new skydiving journey nickname emerged.

Not realizing when I booked the trip, April is the off-season for Arizona. The winds would pick up in the afternoon and become too dangerous for skydivers. This meant I had lots of time to relax, enjoy my new bunkhouse friends, and learn more about myself. I fell in love with Arizona and its vast, blue, skies. I knew when I left that I would be back soon.

Erin Bonilla after her 25th skydive to complete her USPA A license.Licensed Skydiver – WEST POINT SKYDIVING

Before leaving Arizona, one of my instructors suggested I go to a dropzone (DZ) in Virginia called West Point Skydiving. He trusted the owner and the jumpers there that he knew I would be in safe hands while finishing off my license. The people there were extremely welcoming and helped me as I made my way through the rest of my jumps. On one of my jumps, I had an instructor say some wise words to me that I’ll never forget. They said, “If you don’t show up, you can’t jump.” Those words have stuck with me and have translated into many aspects of my life since.

In order to receive an “A” license, a student must complete 25 jumps proving that they are capable of all safety and control components of the license. On one of my last licensure jumps, we could see a thunderstorm rolling in and we knew we had just enough time to get one last load of jumpers up into the sky. Because I was still a student, I had a radio on my helmet to help the ground-instructor communicate with me as I came in to land. Once my parachute opened and got my bearings, I noticed the storm had rolled in much fast than we expected and I could see dark clouds closing around me. The instructor came on the radio and said, “Congratulations, now get your ass on the ground!” I circled my way down to the ground and landed without any difficulty. Not even 10 minutes after my jump, the sky opened up and poured down on us. Timing couldn’t have been more perfect and now I was a licensed skydiver.

Space DIVERs – Col. Joe Kittinger & Felix Baumgartner

In 2012, I found myself with a unique opportunity that I never thought was possible. At the time, a friend worked in public relations at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. She wrote me one day and said, “What are you doing on Wednesday? Can you be at the museum at 9 am?” She let me know that Felix Baumgartner—a skydiver attempting to jump from the edge of space—would be giving a private interview with CNN and we could come watch. This was an extremely special moment as both my husband and I could go together and I would get to meet one of the top skydivers in the world.

We arrived that morning before the museum opened and our friend greeted us into the main hall. We stood off to the side as Felix Baumgartner walked in, but then we realized that another person walked in with him, Colonel Joseph Kittinger. I was without words as Col. Kittinger was a living legend and we just might get the chance to meet him. He was a decorated U.S. Air Force war hero, a Vietnam POW, and at the time the standing record holder for the highest skydive. A true American hero.

Our friend brought us over to Col. Kittinger and we shared a few words. I told him that I was a beginner skydiver with only 33 jumps at the time. He was so friendly and immediately jumped in to say, “I only had 31 jumps when I did my big skydive!” I was flooded with inspiration and thanked him for taking the time.

We watch the CNN interview take place, got a chance to look at Baumgartner’s pressure suit up close, and stood quietly in the back. After the interview our friend brought us over to him and we had a chance to speak for a few minutes. Felix was very friendly and we shared a few brief words about his upcoming record breaking jump. Later that year, he went on to break the record by skydiving from 127,852 feet and falling at 843.6 mph. I am so thankful our friend invited us that day and it is an experience I will never forget.

Erin skydiving for Yuri's Night.Yuri Was a Skydiver Too

Every year on April 12, people all over the world celebrate our accomplishments as humans in space. That date is special because it is the anniversary of both Yuri Gagarin becoming the first successful human to orbit Earth in 1961 and the launch of the first space shuttle in 1981. Upon reentry on Yuri Gagarin’s first legendary spaceflight, he had to eject from the capsule and travel down my parachute. This means that Yuri was a skydiver too.

To honor this occasion in 2012, I organized a Yuri’s Night—a global non-profit devoted to the celebration of this day—themed day of skydiving for people the DC area. Overall it was a really fun event with friends in honor of human spaceflight.

Erin Bonilla jumping at Skydive Arizona during the rookie roundup weekend.

Virginia Skydiving Center and Back to Arizona

After a few months jumping at West Point, the DZ moved to a new airport and changed the name to Virginia Skydiving Center. I continued to jump there on-and-off for a while and enjoyed my time getting to know the jumpers. Unfortunately the DZ was 2-2.5 hours away from my place in DC and that distance was starting to take a toll on me. If I can say anything about skydiving in Virginia, the weather is completely unpredictable. Skydivers will say this is part of the sport, but I often felt depressed when I would make an effort to get down there and not get to skydive. This started a downward spiral of on-again-off-again jumping, recurrency jumps, and general lack of excitement for the sport.

Around that time, my husband and I decided to move to Arizona reigniting my drive to get back into the sport. With all the great memories I had from skydiving in Arizona, this was my chance to get back into the sky and really learn the skills I needed to become a good skydiver. The excitement wore off pretty quickly. I realized that I was walking in to one of the top DZ’s in the country, there were way more expert skydivers than newbies, and I had other things going on in my life that gave me more excitement. The combination of those factors eventually led to my retirement from the sport. I have no regrets leaving the sport and maybe at some point I will get back in the sky.

Skydiving was one of the most exhilarating sports I have ever participated in and it opened my eyes to what was possible. After completing my license, I thought to myself, ‘If I can do this, think of what else I am capable of.’ Having these transformative experiences have since pushed me into my interest in spaceflight training and what else may be in store for the future.

 

About the author

Erin Bonilla

Erin Bonilla is pursuing a master's degree in Adventure Education with a concentration in the psychosocial components of human spaceflight selection and training. She believes that through the development of a baseline approach to behavioral health within the astronaut selection process we can minimize long term psychosocial challenges and increase participant enjoyment.

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