Head in the Clouds

Falling, flying or floating? Choose your extreme adventure in central Florida.

I've certainly been accused of having my head in the clouds before, but over the next three days I would literally be soaring in the wild blue yonder. And I was terrified.

I like to think I'm somewhat of a daredevil (I've never met a roller coaster I didn't like), but to be honest, I'm pretty close to tears just getting on a 747. So when I was told I would be hang gliding, riding in a bi-plane and - eek! - skydiving above central Florida for this assignment, I tried to get out of it. But after much goading from my family, and being reminded that even my grandmother tried bungee jumping at age 67, I warily headed off to Lake Wales to begin my adventure.

Day 1: Freefalling

Why put off the inevitable? I believe in getting my biggest fear over with first. Florida Skydiving Center in Lake Wales sits at just about the center of Florida's peninsula. The sunshine and good weather here have made the Center a top jump location among skydivers since 1995.

As the morning sun rose, our ground school instructor demonstrated the landing position. I looked around at the other handful of people who had signed up for the 20-minute introduction to our first tandem jumps. We must be nuts.

Before I could chicken out, I was herded onto a plane. My stomach and heart were in my throat (thankfully I had opted out of breakfast). Before I knew it, the back door opened. I glanced back in fear at my partner, the jumpmaster. He grinned, counted down from three, and threw us off the plane. At 13,500 feet.

Wind whipped by at close to 120 mph. I screamed through the entire 60-second freefall, until the chute opened near 5,000 feet. Somehow, I managed to enjoy the view of the town below, even appreciating the unique glimpse of the carillon tower at Historic Bok Sanctuary.

Safely back on earth, I unabashedly kissed the ground. Life was renewed! I wanted to take it all in, so I started with a half-pound bacon cheeseburger at Crazy Fish Bar & Grille. Cheers to me.

Day 2: Flying

A little cockier now, I strolled into Fantasy of Flight, just off I-4 north of Lakeland, for a 1929 D-25 bi-plane ride. This would be nothing after skydiving, I thought, as I pulled on a leather helmet, goggles and a white silk scarf - la the Red Barron.

Up to four people can ride in the front cockpit during the 15-20 minute flight, but I went solo. The pilot wasted no time maneuvering into lazy eights and a few whoopty-do's, where the plane accelerates upward and then quickly downward, making you weightless every few seconds.

On the ground, shaky legs betrayed my bravado, but I smiled nonetheless. Next was a tour of the attraction, which puts you in the middle of a World War II B-17 mission, as well as three hangers stuffed with the world's largest private collection of vintage aircraft. With daily aerial demonstrations, lunch at Compass Rose Diner, hanger tours and bi-plane rides or sunrise hot air balloon tours, Fantasy of Flight is an all-day attraction.

Day 3: Floating

To top off my head-in-the-clouds adventure, I ventured to Wallaby Ranch in Davenport for hang gliding. Surprisingly, we didn't need to dive off mountains to catch some air. An ultralight plane tows the glider, which is set on wheels, along a grass runway. Once airborne at 2,000 feet, the tow rope or tug is "cut" and student and instructor coast back to the earth in a silent descent.

Of all my adventures on this trip, hang gliding was by far the most dreamlike. I moved my legs in the harness, just like they showed us in the course earlier that morning, and the glider coasted in a new direction.

The trip lasted about 15 minutes, but before we dropped below the tree line, I looked up and thought, maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to handle my next airline flight.

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