Have you ever been skydiving? I have. Do you want to know what it's like?

I'm a bit of a daredevil and thrill-seeker, but only with well-calculated risks. I had heard it said, back in the day, that skydiving was statistically much safer than driving your car and it's the biggest thrill you could ever have. And since I loved driving my '69 Austin-Healey and didn't consider it much of a risk at all (and who doesn't love a thrill?) I figured, Put me in, coach! As with many thrilling things the first time is, if not the best, at least the most memorable. This is the account of my first jump.

Yeah, I know the worn-out old saying, "Ya gotta be nuts to jump out of a perfectly good airplane." But most people who say that, wouldn't think twice about walking around on the roof of their house. Hey, I have a healthy fear of heights like the next guy, but that's why God created the parachute, right? Besides, there's not much difference between 40 feet and, say, 12,000 feet as far as what the sudden stop at the bottom can do to you, except that a parachute can't help you if you fall from 40 feet. Anything less than about 800 feet, and even with a parachute you'll probably still hit the ground like a rock.

I've jumped only three times but I'd do it again. Now I'm not talking about the jumping some beginners do these days, strapped to the front of an experienced jumper; you still get some idea of the thrill, but I consider it little more than interactive virtual reality. Besides, no one's strapping me up with some other guy for any length of time. It just ain't gonna happen.

No, I'm talking about the real jumping of the olden days, jumping alone, just you and your parachute. Three jumps, all solo. The first two were with the old-style round army surplus parachute (or canopy), and the last was with the newer-style square sport canopy. With the first style you land like a sledgehammer; but with the second (if you time it right) you hit the ground like stepping off the bottom step of your porch. Either way, any potential for injuries are greatly minimized by the mandatory training you receive before your first solo jump.

Yes, there's training required prior to your first solo jump. Wouldn't you rather have it that way? If not for the jumping, at least for the landing? A whole day training in my case in 1977 at the Hinckley Parachute Center in Hinckley, Illinois. Hinckley was, at the time, a small farm town surrounded by corn and bean fields, as was their little private airport outside of town. And in September in Illinois the corn and bean fields were getting pretty ripe.

Training all day, then if the weather's good you make your first jump right afterwards. It was a typical Illinois early September day on my 21st birthday: sunny, warm and humid. Our small class started with an orientation and some classroom lecture, learning all that could go wrong and what to do if it does. Then in the afternoon (for those of us left who didn't bail out during the "what can go wrong" session) was all about landing. In a nutshell, we learned how not to be a sledgehammer. We learned the same "hit the ground and roll" technique as taught in the military, then each practiced several dry runs jumping off of a high platform into soft sand.

All day, though I did try hard to pay attention, I just plain couldn't wait! I had made the commitment, paid my hundred bucks, and could barely contain my excitement about making that jump!

Then the time finally arrived to put on the gear! Yesss! There are really only two "iffy" things about your first skydiving experience: 1) You cannot also be the one flying the plane, and 2) You didn't get to watch whoever packed the parachute you're counting on for your life.

But hey, it wouldn't be much of a risk otherwise, would it?

Assimilating the equipment, I finally discovered why they call those one-piece zippered suits a "jump suit." That's what jumpers really use! And of course, the main parachute and auxiliary parachute are no-brainers (yes, there's a back-up in case the main one fails to open correctly).

But the funniest thing about skydiving gear is the helmet. Think about it for a second... even worst case what possible good is the helmet going to do other than maybe to keep your hair out of your face so you can see the ground as you slam into it? If anything, the helmet might be grateful that the human hanging under it broke its fall, right? I don't know... I suppose a mid-air collision with a goose or something during free fall is always possible.

When you free fall from any height, spread-eagle to the ground, you reach a terminal velocity of about 120 miles per hour in, if I remember right, about six seconds (with or without a helmet, by the way), and your descent rate maxes out. If you're in a head-first tucked-in dive, you'll reach about 220 miles per hour. So it doesn't matter if you're jumping from 1,000 feet or 20,000 feet except that the higher you start, the more time you have to get your act together in case of any difficulties.

The "jumpmaster" is the experienced jumper who makes sure the novices don't mess up. He or she gets to jump for free, but only after all the others jump out of the plane first. In other words if anyone refuses to jump, the jumpmaster has to forfeit his jump and ride the plane back down with the one who chickened out. This makes the jumpmaster very upset because then he doesn't get his free jump. This is a very important point. If you bail out on bailing out, you'll wish you hadn't once you're safely back on the ground, because the embarrassment you'll suffer will make you wish you'd jumped to your death instead. At least that's what our jumpmaster told us as we followed him out of the training center toward the airstrip.

As we walked, I looked around for our plane. Huh, I wondered, it must not be here yet. I was looking for something like a converted military cargo or personnel transport plane, with a nice big exit door out the back. The only thing out there was a very tired looking little high wing Cessna, with all the paint stripped off down to the bare metal as if it had been flown so much that the paint was worn off by years of wind resistance. Airport scrap, I assessed. About then, our jumpmaster stopped, turned to us and asked, "Now, which one of you wants to jump first?" My right arm suddenly shot straight up, as if it were a separate entity with a mind of its own!

My right arm had a bad habit of doing that. There was another time it had betrayed me like that, too, about ten miles off the coast of Florida on a large deep-sea fishing boat. When the captain announced, "Now, who wants to swim down under the boat with this screwdriver and clear the seaweed out of the pump intake?" my right arm had instantly shot up and volunteered me for that task, too. Then as I was about to dive off the side of the boat with the screwdriver in my teeth, I recalled the fact that we had just moved to a new fishing spot because our last one had become shark-infested. Nevertheless, I was already committed in the adoring eyes of the pretty young lady with me on our little fishing trip date. I live to report that the sharks hadn't followed us after all!

So anyway our jumpmaster, now satisfied of our jumping order, turned back and, as we followed him, my heart slowly sank into my feet as I realized we were headed straight for that little bare-metal Cessna! This is where I had my first of several second thoughts.

It was first-in, last-out of the open gull-wing passenger door as our little group crammed into the plane. Once inside and seated on the floor with my wide-eyed and silent fellow jumpers, my now heightened sense of observation absorbed my surroundings. I noticed the plane's interior had been entirely stripped out down to the "studs" as if with reckless abandon, except for the pilot's seat, which was already occupied by the pilot.

More second-thoughts flooded in as I focused on our pilot, which I considered to be one of the main safety features of this adventure. My first thought was, I'm ready to jump right now! He reminded me of a semi-crazed Viet Nam veteran chopper side gunner-turned-hippie that I had met once in a drug deal. As he started the engine, headset in place, the roar of the plane's prop (and the buzzing sheet metal skin of the plane) was overcome only by the blasting hymn of Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze, as if it were part of his mandatory preflight preparations, coming from an eight-track stereo the pilot probably wired-in himself one weekend. Okay, now I'm scared, I thought, as I stared at the back of the pilot's head. I loved flying, especially in small planes, but this all felt a little too "unregulated" for me!

Once the landing wheels parted company with runway, the pilot put 'er into what I felt was way more than the maximum climb rate for a steeply-banked turning climb with such a payload, and we spiral-climbed to the top. A fuel saving technique, I reasoned. Once we levelled off at 3,000 feet, my heart resumed beating and my breath came back to me as I thought, God Himself is surely with us!

Part of the jump master's duty was to visually determine the right moment to start "letting" us out; the idea being that we would each terminate our descent somewhere within the cleared airfield, rather than the tops of any airport buildings or amidst any of the surrounding mature agriculture.

He opened the gull-wing door (the one I so fondly remembered having the recent opportunity not to enter through), the wind rushing in at some 70 knots, and peered down to get his bearings, and, I assumed, check the airport wind sock for wind direction and velocity.

As I watched him, I thought, Pleeez see some reason we can't do this today. But wait, I don't want to ride this thing down with "Gunner" at the yoke, either. After a few seconds, though, our pied piper looked up directly at me and said, "Get ready!" My mind replays that fateful moment in slow-motion.

This is the moment that, as he had warned us, some have frozen absolutely immovable, and consequently drawn the curtains on the whole show. Because of my seating position in the plane (thanks to my mischievous arm), if I don't jump, nobody jumps.

Since I wasn't about to let that happen, during the ride up, as I anticipated this moment, I determined to metamorph myself into a robot at this command from him, and operate from that point forward as a mindless machine. I did this by resolving in my heart that I would be jumping to my death, and just accepted it as fact!

To this day, it still amazes me what a simple resolution that was for me to make!

The "Get ready!" command means to get yourself out the gull-wing door and position yourself outside facing rearward, standing with your left hand on the wing strut, right hand on the door jamb, left foot on the landing wheel, and right foot dangling. Burned into my indelible memory is the snapshot of how that little wheel looked just before I got out. It was surreal, turning lazily backwards in the wind as if waiting contentedly for me with nothing more important to do at the moment, filing its nails; then stopped suddenly at my glance (when Gunner put the brake on for me) .

I can still see it, sharply focused as a still-life foreground object contrasted against the unfocused hazy blue distant background of the checkerboard fields some 3,000 feet below. At that distance, the wheel seemed like just a part of a model plane suspended motionless by a string from the heavens. At that altitude, except for the rushing air it doesn't seem like you're moving at all.

Once successfully positioned like an obedient robot, gazing blankly at the tail wing of the plane rather than at the ground below, I just couldn't believe the spot I was in. It was completely unnatural. Never meant to be! I just couldn't accept what I was about to do. What the heck was I thinking? Bad enough that I was standing outside the plane as it was flying, much less what I was inevitably to do next!

Nevertheless (as if I had any options), I waited for the command that this whole day, and perhaps my whole life, had been all about; the command that, as far as I knew, would be the last word I'd ever hear in this world: "Go!"

A moment later came the big G word, and with the sound of my fearless leader's voice still ringing in my ears, I launched myself rearward into an arched spread-eagle-to-the-ground formation as required, and began yelling my count, "one thousand, two thousand,..." while feeling as if I had left my stomach back at the plane now droning in the distance above and behind me.

The idea of counting aloud is that by the time I reach a count of "ten thousand," if my parachute hasn't opened yet, it's okay to suspect there may be a problem; and my jump master was expecting to hear me count, to rate me on it later.

Now here's a phenomenon: no one told me that when you yell in mid-air during free fall, you can't hear yourself for whatever reason; but because I guess I felt that I should be able to hear myself, I recall consciously upgrading my yelling to screaming at the top of my lungs.

Anyway, after about "four thousand", my mind now logging events in millisecond intervals, I felt the strong backwards pull of my deployed little pilot chute pulling my hopefully well-packed main parachute out of its backpack, and maybe ninety-five milliseconds later was suddenly jerked into a hanging upright position, swinging side to side a bit.

This being done, I was to look up and inspect my newly opened gift to make sure its canopy was fully open, the lines weren't tangled, and everything else was cool with it; then grasp the steering toggles that should be hanging there above me, and then look to the ground below me for the big red arrow on the airfield. The arrow was just a very big sign lying on the grass next to the runway, moved around by a member of the ground crew, that was meant to direct my steering to the landing zone.

Well, I looked up, checked the equipment, thanked God (a step I added myself), and grabbed the toggles as required; but when I looked down, I was so awestruck by the sight of my own feet hanging there with nothing but thin air under them, I became instantly spell-bound! To say that I was enjoying the ride would be a gross understatement! Fully entranced with the enchantment of it all, suspended in time as well as in air, I slowly turned this way and that, scanning the horizon and enjoying the view. It was a feeling I'd never felt before. I wanted the moment to never end! I might have hung there for days if it had been up to me!

When I finally snapped out of my trance and remembered I still had things to do, I looked down to find the arrow, but it was nowhere in sight! Crap! Where am I? Hard left toggle and rotate 360, and it should come into view somewhere, right? Ah, yes, good, there it is! Okay, arrow guy, I heard myself thinking, I'm with you now! (I have to laugh as I'm writing this, thinking now about what I must have put that poor arrow guy through, scrambling to keep up with me during the "enchanted" portion of my descent.)

As I now paid as much attention as I could on following my red arrow directions, I realized that the ground was coming into focus much too soon for my taste. But what choice did I have? The most incredible experience of my life was about to be over, with only one challenge left at the bottom: time to concentrate on how to not be a sledgehammer on impact.

There was only one teeny problem, though; I was still a little too far from the landing zone. In fact, it became clear to me that I wasn't about to make the airfield at all.

I suppose that if I had been following the arrow the whole time, I would have at least landed somewhere on the cleared airfield. In my case, however, I was about to drop in, unannounced, on the adjoining full-grown bean field. My touchdown roll, though, (which happens faster than the mind can register) must have been fine; suffice it to say that there was no pain!

I'm not sure I've ever felt more alive at any other time in my life, before or since, than I did as I picked myself up off those forgiving bean plants! As I gathered my parachute and began heading back to the airport, my feet were still walking on air! I can still feel my heart in my throat as I laughed out loud, which was my only way of restraining the tears of joy that weren't supposed to happen to a "manly" man.

Approaching the training center, my mind still back in the air, I was reluctantly brought back to earth only by the jubilant congratulations of my now angelic-looking girlfriend and the others that had come with me to watch. My buddy Doug couldn't wait to tell me, "Hey, next time, I'm doing it with you, man!" (which he did).

Then, some time after returning my equipment (including some entangled bean plants) to the training center, helmet yet unharmed, my jump master came over to me, a big smile on his face, to present me with his handshake and my Basic Jump Training Course Successful Completion (read: He's Still Alive!) certificate, after which my friends and I went home and celebrated heartily.

All joking aside, skydiving is one of the safest and most thrilling sports known to mankind. All of the instructors and veterans of the sport are very seriously dedicated to ensuring that every jumper has a truly exciting and rewarding experience every time. It is an elite brotherhood of thrill-seekers, banded together by the thrill of the jump and the thriving of the sport, who gladly welcome all newcomers with open arms. I highly recommend it to anyone who's ever considered it. I guarantee that it's a memory you'll keep with you the rest of your life.

Sometimes, in order to find life, you have to let go of it and take a flying leap of faith...

"For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it." - Jesus

"God is ready to assume full responsibility for the life wholly yielded to Him." - Andrew Murray

(Author's note: Now think of God being the jumpmaster and Jesus being the arrow guy, and consider the striking parallel.)

1 comment:

Deb Burg said...

I just loved this article! Not sure my 55 year old body wants to jump from a plane, unless it's on fire, but I was fascinated with the vivid description of skydiving.