The smell of jet fuel in the morning... the dust of a hot southern California afternoon... the
swooshing sound of a canopy sweeping through the sky back to earth.
Angie Aragon works in the sky. Any given day, you might see her teaching a student as an AFF (Accelerated Freefall) skydiving instructor, donning a helmet covered in camera gear to record skydives as a videographer, or giving a non-skydiver a taste of the sky as one of the few female tandem instructors in the business. As in many extreme sports, men outnumber women in skydiving, and when it comes to tandem instructors, the proportion of women to men is exponentially lower.
"The tandem came into play a bit after getting my AFF," Angie says. "Eventually I started thinking, well maybe I can do tandems too. Then I'm like, no, because almost no women do it. Then I thought, well maybe I can. No, I can't. Maybe I can. It was a fight I had, confidence-wise. You see the men doing it, and you think, well, it looks hard. And it is hard. And that's why I was intimidated."
It takes a lot to intimidate Angie Aragon. A first-generation American, she grew up in the Orange County that doesn't make it onto ritzy reality shows. "My school was super ghetto," she says. "Girls generally got pregnant; the guys got kicked out of school and the next thing you know they're in jail." Determined, stubborn even, from a young age, she made her own path with a remarkable tenacity and clear-mindedness. "As first-generation American, growing up in the environment I grew up in, statistically lives are going in one direction. But I thought, well, if I go to college, if I get my bachelor's degree, then the chances of my siblings getting theirs has drastically increased, statistically. And the chances of my children also doing that, at minimum, has statistically increased. So I thought, if I make this move, and work hard and do what I have to do to get my bachelor's-the first person in my family ever to do that-then it changes the trend."
When financial aid and a full-time job failed to cover the costs of college, she walked into an Army recruiting office and joined the reserves. "I went in and said I want school paid for, and I want the least amount of commitment and the least amount of risk. I wasn't gung ho, like I want to go fight a war. That wasn't my goal. I was there to go to school."
Joining the Army reserves for three years allowed her to finish her degree, and when she left college, the company she'd been working for since high school, Grubb & Ellis, hired her as a commercial real estate broker. "I was originally hired to be an assistant to their accounting revenue person. I thought I was going to do something in accounting. Then I thought, maybe I can do business administration, something like that." Her degree, from Cal State Long Beach, is in business management. "I worked full-time and went to school full-time. By the time I graduated I'd already been working for them for seven years. They had a program called a runnership, where you work under one of the senior brokers for eighteen months and then go off on your own. In that world I was the only female Latina in commercial real estate. The only reason I got the runnership was that I had been there so long and really showed them what I was about."
The world of commercial real estate at that time was dazzling and exciting. "There was so much business. People were handing you checks! It was just so easy and everyone was making money and having fun with it. Then the market went completely in a dump. So I was still working my deals but it became super competitive, super cutthroat. The next thing you know I'm competing with really good friends I'd developed relationships with over the last years, and I was like, this isn't really fun anymore. I hated the feeling of having to go after my friends' business, but that was what you had to do to make it go. And I said, I've kind of done what I came here to do. I did the successful businesswoman thing and I'm good with that. I can maybe consider doing something else."
The first something else that came to mind was skydiving. A couple years before, while backpacking solo through New Zealand, she stopped in Queenstown to do her first skydive, a tandem. "I booked it in town and the dropzone was somewhere else. There were two chicks in the van that picked up a group of us to take us to the dropzone, and the interaction, the vibe, the energy, whatever you want to call it, between those two-their energy just got me. Something happened. Mind you, in my life, and my reality, I was stressing over deals. Then I come and I'm watching these two chicks, and their energy is just something that was unbelievable for me at the time. And I thought, wow, that's really nice. I want that. I want to feel like that."
On returning home from the trip, she went to her closest dropzone and signed up for the AFF program to become a skydiver.
So by the time the market crashed, Angie's passion had already begun to shift. "I thought, well I'm going to try to fly video and see how that goes. I met Darren, my husband, right when I was cutting away from my 'real job.' He said, 'I'm going to Thailand, you should go.' And I completely went off the face of the earth. I was able to breathe for a while. I did my Divemaster for scuba, then came back and got into the mix flying video."
Over the next year, she worked at the dropzone as a packer and videographer, saving the money to get her AFF rating. As she took on more and built up her skills, she began thinking about tandems. She dismissed the idea at first, but it kept coming back.
"I talked to Jen Sharpe, who's a super awesome female role model in skydiving, and she was having a tandem course. She's five foot two, a hundred ten pounds, this amazing woman. So at one point I told her I was going to do it, and then I called and cancelled because my husband said, I don't think you should do it. He was afraid for me. Because he was already doing tandems and he know how hard it was. I had a point where I was like, maybe I shouldn't be doing this. And he said, 'I don't really think you should.' So that was a big thing. And then I talked to a couple people and Jen said, 'Just come out.' At that point I already had my ticket, I'd put my deposit down, and she said, 'Just come.' So I came. Mind you, at the time I had over 600 video jumps with tandems, so I was completely aware of what I was getting myself into."
A well-known skydiving maxim is that the only person responsible for your skydive is you. But tandem instructors have to take on more than that-they take on some of the responsibility for their student as well, by making sure their student understands what to do during the skydive, managing and checking the equipment, adjusting or counteracting the student in freefall should they adopt an unfavorable body position, flying the canopy, and dealing with any problems that occur.
Skydiving has advanced in the past few decades to become a remarkably accessible sport given that it involves human bodies, free from the constraints of any vehicle, falling toward the earth at speeds of 120 miles per hour or more. The breakthrough into becoming an activity almost anyone can try, at least once, was brought about by successful self-regulation of the sport, defined training programs, an emphasis on safety, and advances in technology, including the three-ring system, the tandem harness system, the ram-air or rectangular canopy (which replaced the older style of round parachutes), and automatic activation devices (see sidebar). Yet despite its increased accessibility, it is a sport taken seriously by its participants, and with good reason. Gravity, in the end, will not be denied.
Angie looks at skydiving with the same dispassionate, analytical eye she applies to much of life. "I look at the risk, how many professional skydivers that are full-time skydivers actually die skydiving, even though they're doing it every day. That number is so small. And it could happen in anything, it's just not so front and center. You get a situation with your neighbor whose daughter ran into a tree on a late night coming home from school, or get hit by a drunk driver... it happens. As long as I stay conservative and do what I'm comfortable with, and do it day in and day out, and don't party too hard the night before a big day of work, and keep my head on and my game on, that's all I can do. I'm going to go on living, doing what I like. I'm not going to change it. I'll just be careful."
She completed the tandem course with Jen at Skydive Kansas and came back to California with a new sense of confidence. She began doing tandems in addition to her AFF and video jumps, and found that being one of the few female instructors brought both challenges and opportunities.
"I had, and still have, my own very distinct things I need to focus on, which the men don't have to necessarily. For example, and this is so silly, but we have this huge parachute. It's got huge lines and is very heavy. Forty-five pounds on the back, packed. Once you land, the thing is all over the place. Just gathering it to throw it over my shoulder was very different because my hands weren't big enough to hold all the lines without doing a daisy chain on them. I have to daisy chain in order to be able to hold it all together, and the men don't have to worry about that.
"Also, training the students with as much time as I have. I'm smaller [than most of the male instructors]. I've got less surface area, I'm not as tall, I'm not always going to be able to muscle the student around. So making sure they're trained properly, that they're understanding me, that they're doing what I'm asking them to, that's been really interesting. You say it one way, and they don't understand. So you have to find a way to make sure that communication is coming through.
"A lot of times it's like, I don't know if you're going to try to kill me or not. So many things can go bad with tandems. If they do the opposite of what you ask them to, they could take you for a ride. It's my job to make it okay, but at the same time I know what could go wrong."
Being one of very few female instructors means she is often in demand. "I have females who want to jump with a female. I had a passenger who, maybe something dramatic had happened in her life, but she didn't want to jump with a male instructor. One of the other instructors was messing with her, and she was actually really fearful and starting to cry. He didn't mean to make her cry, obviously, but she was just very, very sensitive. Maybe something had happened to her. But she felt very comfortable jumping with me. She requested me. And I was really careful and cautious of her feelings and things like that. I bring that to the table, which the guys don't. There are also women who can only jump with women. During the month of July, we have a lot of Middle Easterners who come out, who are traveling, so I'm in high demand in July."
Taking male passengers can have its own unique dynamic. "I get men that are like, 'I want to jump with a girl.' Or I'll walk up to a passenger, 'Hi, I'm Angie, I'm going to be jumping with you,' and you'll see them go, 'Yes!' I've never been asked for my phone number. They're not going to take it to that next level. But it's this really, really funny thing when they get a female instructor and they look over at their buddy and he's like, 'Why didn't I get a female instructor?' It's just hilarious.! "I've had a couple situations where I'll walk up and they'll be afraid. You always know because they ask, 'So how many times have you done this?' in a different way. So I'll say, 'Oh, this is actually just my second jump.' Then I let them linger with that for a little bit, let them soak it in, and then I say, 'Hey look, I've done this quite a bit.'"
Most people who are a minority of any kind in their profession face some degree of added pressure and extra attention. While at times a liability, it's also a chance to shine, to offer a glimpse of what's possible. For new female skydivers, seeing other women doing it and having other women to look up to can make a huge difference, a fact of which Angie is well aware. "I think that's always in the back of my mind, being a big sister, and being where I'm at right now in a sport that's mostly male-dominated. I'm constantly aware that the girls doing this are kind of watching what I'm doing. And that's great. At the same time, I'm still just myself. Sometimes I try to think, well, maybe I should behave a certain way at the dropzone or be a certain way. But this is just what I am.
"It's hard. Being who you are is probably the hardest thing, one of the hardest things you can take on."
In addition to skydiving, Angie has started teaching scuba one day a week. "The fact that I'm skydiving and working on the island on a regular basis, I can't even believe how lucky I am to be able to do that. I'll come back after diving for a day, and I'll come back here and skydive, and I'm like, God, this is amazing. I can't believe I'm actually earning a living doing that."
Angie currently has over 2,300 skydives, including more than 700 tandems, and she is sponsored by some of the biggest brands in skydiving, including Mirage Systems, Icarus Canopies, and Larsen & Brusgaard. She sits in the house she bought during her real estate days, with her husband at her side and their dog at her feet, contemplating the work, the sacrifices, the many paths and people that have led her to this moment. From the family that gave her reassurance that she was loved and that her opinion mattered, to the two women in New Zealand whose energy inspired her. From her time in the Army that allowed her to finish school, to the trip with Darren to Thailand that helped her reset her life. From the heights of the sky to the quiet depths of the sea. And, running through it all, a fierce determination.
"It's always been really challenging to do the opposite of what people are thinking you're supposed to do. It's kind of an uphill battle. Physically, mentally, and just in general. I think what I've always done is set my sights on a given goal, and then nothing else mattered because that was the most important thing. If there's anything that's going to be remembered about me it's how goal-oriented I am. I think that my parents would confirm that. There's no stopping me once I want that one thing so badly. So that's always just been my drive.
"When I was maybe five, six years old I was out playing with all the kids on the block. My mom was out looking for me, trying to find me, and the next thing you know she's found me with a lineup of four or five of the neighborhood kids, telling them how to climb this tree to get up to that wall, to get onto the roof. All the parents were like, your daughter's trying to kill my kid. But I've got them all lined up, I'm explaining the situation and how we're all going to make it happen, so I think I've always been like that.