The Dollar Bill Method
By Sequoia Schmidt

Learning to Fly “Just think of a dollar bill between your butt cheeks,” Rom tells me confidently.

“Excuse me?” I say, a little embarrassed.

“When you were in free fall last time, you were not steady because your hips weren’t down. Keep your hips down. The best way to do that is to squeeze your butt cheeks together just like you are trying to hold a dollar bill between them. This will level you out and allow you to stay stable.”

As a woman who wears high heels and prides herself on being able to show off her feminine curves, I tend not to push my hips forward. After many years of adapting and perfecting my “high heel wearing” posture, it feels unnatural to cast that aside and throw my hips as far forward as possible. The thought of pressing my hips that far forward transports me right back to ballet class. “Suck that tummy in,” my ballet teacher used to snap at us, “you are a stick. You are a single line from the top of your head to the base of your heal.” The idea of curves was not condoned in ballet.

While spending some time in the tunnel last week after my miserable second  jump, I began to feel the difference between unstable plummeting and stabilization in mid-air. By applying the advice Rom gave me (i.e.  the dollar bill method),  I was able to correct my aerial mistakes. Five minutes in the wind tunnel was all I needed to allow my body to adjust to stability in free fall, which gave my mind the much needed boost to be willing to retake level two and put myself back in the same position that almost induced a heart attack at 25 years old.

Due to my level two failure (see previous entry to understand why), I’m taking what is called a “refresher class”: a review of all the previous material from the first two classes. Following the class room activities, I head out to meet Rom in front of the model airplane on the main grounds of the flight school. There, Rom asks me to run through my flight procedure for level two  inside a model plane.

I step up to the edge of the cabin door and look down to see concrete. Once in flight,  my current view of concrete will be replaced with a view of the Earth below.

Rom is on my right. “Okay, now what?” he asks in his thick Brazilian accent. “I look at you,” I reply as my movements dance in synch with my words. “Okay, good to go,” Rom says, nodding.

“I look at the wing tip …” My body pushes out, “Out.” My body comes back inside the plane, “In.” Rom and I are moving together at this point. “Arch!” I say aloud as we exit the model plane onto the concrete.

“I check my altitude. I relay my altitude. I perform three practice touches. I wait for your signal. On your signal, my arms push backward and my legs straighten. I move in a forward motion for six seconds. I pull my arms in and re-center. I check my altitude and relay it to you. If given the okay, I fly forward for four more seconds. I stabilize.  I check my altitude again and lock on at 6,000 feet. I wave you off at 5,500 feet. I pull my chute at 5,000 feet.

“Okay. Great work,” Rom tells me. “Remember your dollar bill and let’s go over it one more time.”

We climb back into the model plane. The model airplanes are excellent training tools. You can mentally and physically prepare for what you have to do on your jump course. Perris has two of these models. One is in front of the school and the other is right next to the loading dock for the actual planes. Apart from the animated skydivers waiting to board the plane, the loading dock has a screen displaying the manifest for each round of jumpers who are heading up in that particular load, as well as the future manifests for the rest of the day.

I am seated in the front of the plane today. Thick, repugnant fumes of gasoline waft into my nose as the engine kicks over. I wonder how much pollution we are spewing into the atmosphere right now?

The plane takes off. We start to climb. At 1,500 feet we must unbuckle our seat belts. We do this because if anything happens to the plane below 1,500 feet, we are going down with it … “Lost” (as in the TV series) style. However, if we are above 1,500ft, our seatbelt is released so we can bail out and pull our chute to make it safely to the ground while the plane plummets without us.

The instructors like to joke around a lot. For example, on my last flight, my instructor thought it was appropriate to tell me that I was missing my goggles and shouldn’t be jumping. However, he told me this when I was only about two feet from the  exit door. Today, the instructors are continuing to repeat the following phrase: “Well, if you mess up at least I know that I’m going to land safely.” Not exactly the most emotionally encouraging words to be spoken at such a threshold.

We’re at 12,500 feet and are ready to jump. The pilot decides to circle and change his approach as the winds are blowing from the west.

“You ready?” Rom asks. My stomach is in knots. I swallow. “Yes,” I nod in response.

We step up to the door frame. I look over to Rom. He nods. I look out to the wing tip. It’s there. “Out,” my body moves with my voice. “In,” my body comes back ready to slingshot me out into the wind. With a deep breath, I feel the wind cocooning around me. “Dollar bill, dollar bill!” I tell myself as my cheeks press together and my hips extend forward.

Then,  just like that, I stabilize. My mind starts to relax a little and it just feels like I’m floating in air.

I am experiencing my “Come to Eagle” moment (just to be clear, that’s not actually jumping terminology, but I would like to put it into consideration for logbook lingo).

What I mean by my “Come to Eagle” moment is that there is something very natural about my body descending toward Earth. Well, at least more natural than my last horrific aerial experience.

There is friction in the wind and I am able to control my flight pattern based off this wind friction.  As my arms come backwards, my speed forward increases. My propulsion speed is based on my body. Every slight movement I make causes the wind to lift and adapt to my intended direction.

What an incredible feeling! I am actually flying. Really, literally flying.


sequoiaEntrepreneur, adventurer, and author Sequoia Schmidt currently resides in Los Angeles, where she is producing a motion picture about the life of her father, famed mountaineer Marty Schmidt. Her book, Journey of Heart; A Sojourn to K2, is a finalist in the 2016 International Book Awards. Sequoia is passionate about exploring the world and preserving its diverse landscapes and cultures.