The wind smacked me in the face at 90 mph (150 kph) when I stuck my nose out into the slipstream. For some reason I hadn’t expected it, only adding to the fear. Looking down, I saw the tiny little peg that passed for a step to get into and out of the plane, and 3,500 feet of open air between me and the ground. Two thoughts went through my head: the first towards the jumpmaster, “you want me to do what?”; and the second towards myself, “are you crazy?”.
The year was 1979, and I was still young and invincible. One of my young coworkers had mentioned that she was going to try skydiving and wondered if I’d like to try it too. After some thought it seemed like it’d be a great adventure, so I said yes.
And no, I wasn’t just trying to impress the girl.
Back in those days trying skydiving wasn’t a case of jumping tandem with an experienced skydiver strapped to your back, controlling everything, making sure that ripcord got pulled and you didn’t break six bones trying to land. It was more akin to what you’d see in the old war movies: first some ground school, then doing jumps with a static line to open the chute, then free fall if you were up to it. My goal was to do a free fall.
Ground school wasn’t too involved. The simple part was learning to assume the position – spreadeagled. This position was stable – you shouldn’t be tumbling in the air, so when you pulled the rip cord you wouldn’t get tangled up in the shrouds. (You’d think they’d come up with a less ominous name for the suspension lines hanging from the canopy.)
My next task was learning to land without breaking bones, blowing out knees, or landing on my head. The torture device for this training was simple, a three-foot platform with a few steps. I’d climb up and jump: feet and knees together, knees slightly bent, hip cocked to one side. I’d hit the ground, absorb the initial impact with my knees, then fall, rolling along the leg towards that cocked hip, then up onto my back, swinging my legs over and rolling back down the other side. Then I’d do it again.
And again. I did it over and over until I committed it to muscle memory, and by then my muscles were feeling so bruised it’s not likely they’d soon forget.
They showed me the gear, where the primary chute was along with its ripcord, where the backup chute was and how to deploy it. For the initial jumps the ripcord handle was a dummy; we’d attach the real ripcord to a static line which in turn would be attached to the plane’s frame. Jumping out, even if you panicked and froze up the static line would open the chute. But no free fall, apart from those first few terrifying seconds. I practiced on the ground with the dummy ripcord; simulate a jump, assume the position, count, arms in, grab the ring, pull, arms out.
And so it came time for that first moment of truth. Gear up. I joined another jumper or two, the pilot, and the jumpmaster, and we somehow sardined ourselves into a plane that seemed too small for us to fit in. Only the pilot had a seat. He took off – now it was do the jump or come back down with the pilot in abject shame.
Because we were doing static line jumps rather than free falls like the more experienced jumpers, we only went to 3,500 feet. 10,000 feet would be a long way to float with a parachute, you’d likely land in the next county. The moment of truth came all that much sooner.
The jumpmaster got us to the spot, checked the wind by dropping a flagged weight, and it was time to go. I was second. The first jumper got into position, got the count, and made the jump.
It was my turn. I crawled up to that open space where a door once lived and stuck my nose out, getting blasted in the face with a 90 mph slipstream. Oh shit. I stuck a leg out to feel for that tiny little peg – after stepping on 3,500 feet of nothing for a few seconds I found it – then it was time to reach for the wing strut. I grabbed it with one hand and crawled out into the full body slamming slipstream, the grabbed the strut with the other hand. Left foot on step, both hands on strut, right leg flapping in the breeze.
The jumpmaster: “Ready? Three. Two. One. Jump!”
I leapt out into the void and assumed the position. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, arms in, find that dummy ripcord ring, pull! The static line does its thing, the chute comes billowing out with a bang, and in a sudden moment I’m drifting in silence.
* * *
Ok, I’m going to fast forward here. Imagine if you will, I’ve successfully done six jumps with a static line and have proven to the jumpmaster I can pull that dummy ripcord every damn time. It’s time to do a free fall.
You’d think after doing six jumps I’d be getting used to the fear and adrenaline rush that comes with crawling into that plane, up in the air, and out on that precarious step. Au contraire, if anything the apprehension was worse as I now knew what I was afraid of. I was glad of the free fall jump as I knew it would be my last.
I climbed out on the step for the last time. In the back of my mind is the sure notion that if I don’t pull the ripcord it’ll be both shrouds and curtains for me. The jumpmaster counted me down and I’m off.
One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand. It’s not a long free fall, but it’s real. I pull the rip cord. The chute starts coming out, but it doesn’t seem to be opening.
I don’t think I mentioned one aspect of our training. We have to pack our own chutes. Sure, there will be someone to teach you how and check it, but ultimately it’s your own responsibility. I had a sudden fear that this time I’d done something wrong, and it was my last mistake.
Six thousand, seven thousand, eight thousand. Finally, it opened! This chute was a little different, it was contained in a sleeve. That added couple extra unexpected seconds to the deployment – they were the most terrifying seconds of my life. But they were followed by absolute serenity.
Once the chute opens, it’s quiet. The plane is gone and I floated like a cottonwood seed – no wind noise. I had an unobstructed view of the countryside, the adrenaline was still pumping in my veins, and if there was a noise it’d be me whooping and hollering. But I’m the quiet type, and as I drifted from the heavens in this bucket list moment, I let my grin do the yelling for me.