I think everyone should jump out of an airplane at least once in their life.
|I had thought about it for years, jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, but it was one of those things that was really easy to put back on the shelf of ideas for someday in the future. But like any reoccurring and nagging idea, it kept coming back around and I knew it was something that I just had to do. I had researched it, had even called around for brochures to be sent to me, and finally I knew too much to just put it away again. The jump school made it too convenient for any more excuses. No application, no medical forms, not even a psychiatric test were required for them to take you up 4000 feet and let you voluntarily climb out of a perfectly good airplane and potentially plummet to the ground. What couldn’t possibly go wrong? All I had to do was just show up early on a Saturday morning with $120 bucks for “jump school” and sign a simple “we’re not responsible for anything” consent form; just way too easy to put back on the shelf again. I liked school anyway and heck, it was a lot cheaper and a lot less commitment and paperwork than some of the other classes I had taken, so why not.
So I picked a Saturday in June on the calendar and kept my big plans mostly to myself, because I knew if I didn’t there might be the chance someone could say something that would change my mind again - especially my family. I did tell the girl I liked though, because we met every Saturday morning and she’d have to know because – well I’m sure you understand. My mind raced as the days approached as I imagined every possible outcome, most of them really really bad ones; what was I doing? My mind knows that I’m scared of heights, yet my heart couldn’t wait and what the heart wants – well you know.
The Saturday morning, as I remember it, was surreal and absolutely beautiful without a cloud in the sky. The drive wouldn’t take long, maybe an hour at the most. I already had everything ready, but me. It was going to be fine, what couldn’t go wrong? “Let’s just do it and get it over with and then we’ll know whether it was the right thing to do or not.”
I drove, met my girlfriend who just happened to ask
“Are you sure?”
“Ya. I’m sure.”
There was no turning back now; I was going to do It on this day or never.
When we got there and I walked into the hanger to pay and sign my life away, the man behind the counter asked
“Can I help you?”
I wondered to myself before I said anything if that is what the Hangman asks the prisoner as they are led up the Gallows and they meet for the first time.
“I think I’d like to Jump today?”
I have no doubt that it came out as a question, because really, I’m not sure how much thinking was really going on anymore. He smiled and said
“Fantastic, let’s get you signed up! The class is beginning soon.”
A meager payment and my signed name, it was just too damn convenient.
The training classes consisted of a mental and physical walk through of what the jump would entail. We learned some basic “safety” concepts and they talked about what to expect. They taught us about the parachutes and the mechanics behind the main and reserve. I wouldn’t have to worry about pulling the main chute, since I was going to be on a static line, but deploying the reserve they drilled into us. They taught us that it is not uncommon for the main chute to be tangled after being deployed and that there was a remote possibility we’d need to pull the reserve chute.
“If in the event your main chute is tangled, grab each line - one in each hand - and pull apart hard and kick your legs like you are riding a bike. Then look up and if your chute is still tangled, repeat. If after the second attempt your lines are still tangled, don’t think, just grab with both hands this reserve handle here and pull down hard. Time is of the essence because you’ll be falling fast by then.”
Got it, let’s hope not to use it.
We repeated this maneuver from the safety of the hanger for about a half hour, before moving outside to practice landings.
“As you drop, bend the knees and fall forward. The faster you’re coming in, the more important it is to bend the knees and roll. Knee injuries are not uncommon from people not bending their knees.”
Something until that moment, wasn’t on my long list of things to go horribly wrong today. We practiced jumping off a small ledge on the side of the hanger the procedure of dropping, bending the knees, and rolling. Dropping, bend the knees, and roll. Over and over and over again we practiced this maneuver for what must have been an hour before they told us
“congratulations - you’re ready!”
Never have I completed a degree so fast and never one that could take my life if I couldn’t remember one of the basic steps. Had Calculus carried such consequences, maybe I’d remember better how to calculate the instantaneous velocity of something. It’s also probably best that I hadn’t taken calculus just yet.
As we suited up, the instructor fastened a one way walkie-talkie to the front of the jump suite. This was to be my verbal lifeline to someone on the ground coaching me down during the jump. Once suited up I waddled off in the direction of the plane with my fellow classmates. I was told later that I looked like a turtle being marched off to an execution in my green jump suit and heavy parachute backpack. It did feel a bit like it could have been the end of me.
When we, my comrades of the “what the hell are we doing” brigade, reached the plane the instructor asked what order we all wanted to jump in. A moment of silence passed before I uttered that I’d go first. This was and would be my last conscious thought regarding the decision to go sky diving on that day as there absolutely was no turning back now. I would be the last one on the plane and the first one off. The unintended consequence of this decision was that I’d have the best view out the open door of the plane all the way up to altitude.
The flight up was just breathtaking. Mt Rainier was so close in the background and the hues of the sky seemed to envelope the tiny airplane as the ground turned from the vast array of sharp and hard objects on the ground into a painting resembling an enormous model railroad. The higher we got, the less my fear of heights toiled on my mind. “Bend the knees and roll. Bend the knees and roll;” the mantra began in my mind. It was absolutely breathtaking and serene, even with the rattle and hum of the plane. Within minutes we were there… and I was up.
When the instructor tapped me on my knee and motioned a “thumbs up”, which I was taught to reply with a “thumbs up” if I was ready, I don’t remember being ready. I did what I knew I was supposed to do and handed him my static line and grinned as I put my thumbs in the air. Besides, I knew that I had to get off the plane, either willingly or by force, because nobody could get pass me as I was blocking the door.
The view was amazing as I crawled out under the wing of that airplane. Mt Rainier off to my right, just stunning from that vantage point. I identified the lake, which I was told not to aim for and the two roads I was to use as a box guide to stay within on the trip down, and the little dot on the ground that I was to aim for – way way down there.
I was ready as I gave my final “thumbs up” to the instructor and prepared to let go of that perfectly good airplane. Every part of my being was prepared and ready now, except apparently my right hand. It was the final hold out and must have been where the last logical part of me resided. When the rest of me let go as I jumped from under the wing -- I could just feel my right hand lingering for a brief second longer on the stabilizer and that is where I suspect the turmoil of my jump began. I felt the static line wrap from around and behind my neck as it forcibly yanked from under my chin and snapped my head back abruptly. I could tell that I had been spun forcibly around, I don’t know how many times, as the parachute deployed and the excitement began in earnest. I must have only had mere moments to myself as the rush of air enveloped me and my mind struggled to regain footing some rapidly decreasing 4000 feet up in the air.
This calm voice came over my lifeline from the ground
“Your lines are tangled, pull and kick.”
I didn’t have time to process this command… lines tangled… I looked up… Fuck. I grabbed in each hand the lines to the parachute and pulled apart hard and peddled my bicycle up a hill like I’ve never peddled before. I paused, looked up and at the same time heard from my lifeline
“Still tangled, pull and kick again.”
Fuck. Plummeting to the ground, check the first item off my list of things that could go horribly wrong. I grabbed for the lines again, peddled my bike, forgot how to breathe, and paused. Looked up. ‘Oh Holy Fuck – they were still tangled. I then shut my eyes, took a deep breath and said to myself, look again. As I did I could hear from my lifeline “Good Job” and I could see, and more importantly could feel, that the main parachute had deployed finally as I gently seemed to float in my picture.
‘Oh how amazingly gorgeous the view was, even the lake I wasn’t aiming for. I began circling around, staying within my boundary lines, and just absorbed the spectacular view from my new perspective. Then from my lifeline I hear,
“Ok now, let’s have some fun. Pull down on both handles.”
Ok, sure. We were taught in class how to turn left, turn right, and to slow down by pulling on the lines so I obeyed the suggestion and pulled down on both lines. I could feel myself just slowing down a bit, then all of a sudden I began falling backwards as the chute began to collapse. I quickly let up on the lines and uttered to myself “Yea - we won’t be doing that again…” and I resumed my gentle circling and went back to my breath taking sightseeing even though the ground kept getting closer – very fast.
My lifeline soon began coaching me into the landing pattern and my mantra began again; “Bend the knees and roll; Bend the knees and roll.” I knew by my speed and how fast I was dropping that I’d be on the ground soon. As I swung around the runway one last time and my lifeline couched me into my final approach, I knew I was going fast – maybe too fast. “Bend the knees and roll.” We had practiced the landing so much and I pulled on my lines like I had been taught and in the last second pulled hard on my lines to slow me down as my feet started to run along the ground – so much so that within seconds the parachute was now going faster than I was and pulled me to the ground. I was actually back on very firm solid ground and in one piece no less. Never before in my life had I appreciated the firm solid foundation of the ground before like I did right there in that moment.
My lifeline looked over at me and asked if I was ok. I just simply looked back at him and proclaimed
“Oh yea. I think I’m just going to sit here for a bit.”
He smiled back and nodded and went on coaching the next arrival. I sat there until the last of my comrades were safely on the ground. I then waddled back to the hanger, checked everything back in and they gave me my Certificate of Completion. I suppose that was better than the other certificate I was in line for on that day.
The entire drive back I was on an adrenaline high. Flashes of memories of the spectacular view started to sear in my mind. I think that I must have been grinning from ear to ear when we arrived at the restaurant for lunch. The hostess asked
“would you like a seat in the bar or in a booth?”
I looked at the bar, with those seemingly tall stools, and then at the low sitting booths and said
“the booth please.”
I had been high enough already on this day and my appreciation of being close to the ground felt better in that booth. That adrenaline high lasted a full week before it started to fade and became what is now just a big grin when I think of the day I mostly willingly chose to let go of a perfectly good airplane.
I know that I will go again someday. Truly amazing and spectacularly beautiful from way up there. Who wants to go with me next time?