Jumping out of a fully functioning airplane may sound a little irrational to some, but each year U.S. sky divers perform more than 3 million jumps - by choice.
The United States Parachute Association reported that first-time jumpers totaled more than 300,000 in 1999.
And sky divers aren't just Generation X thrill-seekers. The parachute association's 34,000 members range in age from 18 to 96. Of those, 11.4 percent are engineers; 8 percent are military; 7.5 percent are students; and 6.8 percent are in business management. Retired people make up 2 percent of the association's members.
While they're not strictly "extreme sports" enthusiasts, most sky divers enjoy being active.
Nearly 16 percent of parachute association members also scuba dive; 12.6 percent snow ski; and 6.5 percent enjoy flying.
Sky divers should be in relatively good shape. The gear, which is carried like a backpack, weighs about 35 pounds. The diver must endure the "opening shock" of the parachute. There will be temperature swings of about 30 degrees, not to mention changes in atmospheric pressure.
Some sky divers find breathing difficult during the first few seconds of the dive when they are falling at speeds upward of 100 mph. Imagine sticking your face out an open car window of a car traveling at high speed.
Jumps are made at about 13,500 feet, and the chute is opened at about 5,000 feet. Divers tend to fall about 1,000 feet every 5.5 seconds. Lisa Barnaby, co-owner of Skydive Monroe, said that it takes about 30 to 40 jumps to get comfortable with a free fall. After that, sky divers may try midair acrobatics and other challenges.
"It's not easy to control your body," she said.
There are three ways to experience your first sky dive.
Most first-timers choose the tandem jump, in which an inexperienced jumper "takes a ride" with an instructor. After about 15 to 45 minutes of instruction on jumping, falling and landing positions, the instructor and passenger are harnessed tightly together - to jump as one body. Tandem jumps cost about $150.
Divers seeking more independence and instruction can enroll in an accelerated free-fall class.
The accelerated free-fall program costs $235-$250 at drop zones in Georgia and South Carolina.
Skydive Atlanta owner Mike Powell said sky divers can jump alone after completing the seven levels in the free-fall program. Each level has different objectives and equals one jump. After six hours of Level One training, Mr. Powell said the diver jumps with an instructor at each side.
Some places offer yet another option: static-line jumping, in which the sky diver jumps solo but the rip cord is attached to the plane and is pulled automatically.
One of the most sobering moments in preparation for the dive is signing the release. Each jumper signs a multi-page waiver that repeatedly explains the risk of death and releases the facility from all responsibility. Drop zone facilities are not liable for injuries, even in the case of extreme negligence on their part.
"Basically, you're signing away all your legal rights to sue the drop zone and the manufacturer," Ms. Barnaby said.
Bill Scott, co-owner of Skydive Monroe, said the sport is no more dangerous than water skiing or playing Frisbee.
"Injuries can happen just like with anything else," he said. "But we try to minimize the risk of injury. Usually, it is because they aren't paying attention or following directions."
Mr. Scott said Skydive Monroe has only had a few ankle injuries in more than 7,000 tandem jumps.
Gwen Fulcher Young, wife of Augusta Mayor Bob Young, was tandem jumping with the Army's Golden Knights parachute team in April when she landed on a rough patch of ground and broke her ankle in three places.
Mr. Scott said his company reduces the likelihood of injuries by using weight standards and matching instructors and equipment to each individual.
Call (800) SKY-DIVE to be connected with sky-diving facilities in the area code from which you are calling. Other drop zones in the two-state area include:
GEORGIA SKYDIVING DROP ZONES
SKYDIVE ATLANTA: Thomaston-Upson County Airport, 65 miles south of Atlanta, (706) 647-9701 (weekdays), (800) 276-3483 (weekend), or at www.skydiveatlanta.com. Tandem jump: $155, AFF program: $230.
SKYDIVE MONROE: Monroe/Walton County Airport, 42 miles northeast of Atlanta, (770) 207-9164 (weekdays) and 207-6210 (drop zone). Tandem jump: $150, AFF program: $235.
ADVENTURE SKYDIVING: Richard B. Russell Airport, Rome, 65 miles north of Atlanta, (706) 295-5011; prices unavailable.
SOUTH CAROLINA DROP ZONES
SUMTER SKYDIVING CENTER: Sumter Municipal Airport, 50 miles east of Columbia, (803) 773-2466, 983-4760 (drop zone) or email@example.com; tandem or static-line jump, $160.
FLYING TIGERS SPC: Oconee County Airport, Seneca, one mile west of Clemson; (864) 654-0840, 246-1651 (weekdays), 979-0100 (drop zone); prices unavailable.
SKYDIVE CAROLINA! Chester County Airport, 35 miles south of Charlotte, N.C.; (803) 581-JUMP (5867); prices unavailable.