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Jumping Out of Planes With School Teachers

We head to Otay Lakes for a sky diving adventure with UTC resident Nia Hilton hours before her best friend’s bridal shower
University City High School teacher Nia Hilton free-falling after skydiving with San Diego Magazine in Otay Lakes

The clouds must love floating above Otay Lakes. The prickly-fingered water a mirror reflecting the crinkly, scrub-covered hills of Otay Mountain Wilderness, green from winter rains. The dark line of the border, the denseness of Tijuana beyond. Their view is striking. They must never want to leave.

Nia Hilton probably shouldn’t be up here in the clouds, in a vibrating VW bus of a plane, crammed with bodies, excitement, and questionable judgment. She’s supposed to be at her best friend’s bridal shower later today. They’ve known each other since first grade, so attendance is mandatory. Hilton should be getting ready around now.

But instead, she’s strapped to a guy named Larry, about to front-flip from 13,000 feet. Will she make it on time? Will she make it at all? What is she doing up here, eyes wide, cursing in disbelief as she watches others tip out of the plane?

Well, it’s kind of my fault she’s here, actually.

Her life currently rests on the tension strength of a few yards of nylon and some webbing because I put out a call on San Diego Magazine’s social media, looking for someone who wanted to go skydiving. Hilton was the first to reach out. Full of enthusiasm, her email contained enough exclamation marks to fill a high school auditorium.

“I’ve actually been thinking about skydiving for my 30th,” she wrote. “Hoping to save up by September!”

I liked her immediately but didn’t call her until the day before we were scheduled to go. The state of media in 2024 dictates I should have been looking for someone internet-famous who would share this story to a million followers. But in my heart I knew all along that Hilton was the kind of person I wanted to take. She teaches theater at University City High School, staying into the evening to run rehearsals, often buying food for her students who are there late, too.

As the child of public school teachers, I have a soft spot for overworked, underpaid people like her who keep young minds fueled, often on their own dime. Plus, she was approaching a milestone. She was perfect. Still at school when we talked, she didn’t seem to think about it, she just… jumped at the opportunity.

“I told my students about the Instagram story, the email,” she said. “They kept checking in. ‘Hey, did you get a call? What’s happening? Are you going?’ So it was really fun, and it hyped me up even more throughout the day to say yes.”

University City High School Nia Hilton skydiving with San Diego Magazine above Otay Lakes
Photo Credit: Skydiving San Diego

The next morning, we meet at Skydive San Diego, out near the lakes, where a steady stream of people are being whisked away into the air only to float back to Earth a short time later. This assuages my own fears a bit. A busy skydiving operation is good, I think, like a busy restaurant. It’s the slow ones you have to look out for.

As we wait our turn, I ask Hilton what she was thinking, saying yes to jumping out of a plane with a stranger with less than 24 hours notice on a day full of important obligations. “This is a bucket list experience for me. It’s just an incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she says. “I saw the bride last night and let her know what was happening. She was so psyched for me. And also nervous.”

But a bit later, as Hilton is getting fitted for her harness, things start getting real. “Time to start praying,” she half-jokes. I hear a couple “Allahs” whispered in earnest.

“I’m Muslim.” She smiles, taking deep breaths and shaking her arms.

Hilton grew up in University City, attending UCHS herself before going to SDSU for undergrad and then a master’s in teaching. Born in Amsterdam to a British father and an Indonesian mother, Hilton moved to SD as a baby when her dad got a job at UCSD. She had plans to leave town after college, but she ended up moving back home in her early 20s to help care for her dad as he dealt with a cancer diagnosis. He died when she was 23.

University City High School Nia Hilton moments before jumping out of a plane to skydive in Otay Lakes, San Diego
Photo Credit: Skydiving San Diego

“My dad was a professor of geochemistry. I’m an only child, so it was just me, him, and my mom,” she tells me. “During the summers, we used to go collect volcanic rock or gasses from hot springs around the world. He’s a big reason I love adventures. Every time I do something that gets my heart racing a little bit, I think about him.”

“Is he watching today?” I ask.

“Oh, 100 percent, yeah. He’s here,” she says. “He’s here.”

We watch as the yellow plane takes off again and those ahead of us drop from the sky more than two miles above, like ants blown from a rooftop.

“That’s f-ed up,” an onlooker says. Waiting our turn gives me time to ruminate. In the lead-up to this story, I read about a single company in Lodi, CA linked to more than two dozen skydiving deaths. It’s impossible not to imagine all that can go sideways.

But I also realize we are living our ancestors’ dreams. Since the dawn of time, humans have no doubt dreamt of soaring like birds. But it wasn’t until 1797 that the first skydive took place in Paris, when the inventor of the parachute—André-Jaques Garnerin—lifted a fabric contraption complete with basket into the sky via hot air balloon and dropped, floating down slowly enough to not die.

Since then, people have been perfecting the technology to be able to jump higher and freefall longer. Some maniacs even jump from space—more than 25 miles in the sky—in specially designed pressure suits, plummeting at speeds exceeding 800 miles per hour. Adventure calls to each of us differently.

University City High School Nia Hilton skydiving with San Diego Magazine with a small yellow plane in the background
Photo Credit: Skydiving San Diego

Not everyone is into it, obviously. Tell someone you’re going skydiving, and you’re probably twice as likely to be told you’re nuts as you are to be asked if they can come with. Hilton just so happens to be my kind of crazy.

Then, before we know it, it’s our turn to be ants. First in the plane means Hilton is last to jump out. After everyone else has dropped through the large roll-up door, she scooches to the opening. Again, she’s praying. She’s clipped in front of Larry Barbiero, her professional parachute carrier, her legs dangling over the side. Behind her goggles, her eyes close. Her breathing becomes deliberate. Then out they go, falling at 120 miles per hour. After a tap on the arm from Barbiero, her arms fly outward and a smile blooms across her face. She’s beaming. Her tongue comes out. Her hands each sign “I love you” as she flies.

University City High School Nia Hilton with her tongue out while skydiving with an instructor over Otay Lakes
Photo Credit: Skydiving San Diego

About 50 seconds later, when the parachute opens, she starts screaming. Loud, joyous, high-pitched howls. Larry laughs behind her. “We did it,” he says. “That was awesome.”

A few minutes later on the ground, Hilton is beaming. Still hollering.

“I feel incredible,” she says. “What a brilliant way to celebrate coming into 30. My dad was 100 percent flying along with me.”

Days later, I ask her about the bridal shower and her students.

“It was a beautiful shower. It went off without a hitch,” she says. “I told everyone there about skydiving. And, all today, I’ve been showing my students photos and telling them it was such a great experience. You feel like a bird in the air. It’s almost an out-of-body experience as a human being.”

Then she laughs. “They say, ‘When I turn 18, I want to do that.’ And the bride says she wants to go, too.”

By Mateo Hoke

Mateo Hoke is San Diego Magazine’s executive editor. His books include Six by Ten: Stories from Solitary, and Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation.

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