I love that title. Replace the “I” with “Ross” or “Joey” and it could very well be an episode of Friends.
Last week my son said "I mean, I might want to do it...but it's still crazy!" and it made me think about the time I went skydiving.
Skydiving is a perfectly fine activity for many insane human beings. You have to a certain type of crazy, though. Your average garden-variety lunatic would not be able to graduate the training. The cunning Hannibal Lector type of smart-crazy is called for.
The training consists of a half-day’s activities. We jumped off a 5-foot platform to simulate landing (landing with a chute, of course…they don’t prepare you for the other eventuality). They suspended us from the ceiling of a barn by a tangled mass of lines so you feel like a fish that just gulped down twelve fishing worms. (The goal in the latter exercise is to learn to bicycle kick to spin around and untangle the lines).
There is a lot of emphasis on locating the ripcord to your reserve parachute and pulling it. ‘Cause if you don’t, you die.
You learn that toggles are handles above your head, and they are used to steer. Pulling down on a toggle collapses the back part of the parachute and you turn in that direction. Pulling down on both toggles makes you fall faster, because it effectively collapses half of your chute. The instructor said it’s a lot like being on a rollercoaster. I love rollercoasters.
The plane I jumped from was a single-engine Cessna. Its wings extended from the top of the fuselage (NOTE: I love that word, fuselage. I finally got to use it. Sweet.) Thin struts extended from the tips of the wings, connecting to the fuselage (twice!) at its bottom. These struts will be important later on, when I get to the step: GET ALL THE WAY OUT AND HANG.
The Cessna was very small inside. There was one seat, and the pilot sat in it. He never even called dibs. He was a selfish man, obviously. I sat on the floor beside him facing the rear of the plane with my legs extended. The JumpMaster sat on top of my legs. Two other jumpers were crammed into the back cavity of the plane, stuffing it like a Thanksgiving turkey (NOTE: Happy Thanksgiving!).
The JumpMaster had gone to high school with the other two guys in the back, so instead of taking us to 3,500 feet he had the pilot take us to 4,000 feet.
Training and flight = $80
Insurance = $30
Bonus altitude = Priceless.
The wind shook the small plane as it circled back toward the airport. The JumpMaster clipped a cord onto the small pilot chute in my backpack and then he clipped the other end to the pilot’s seat. When I jumped, the cord – called a static line – would pull the pilot chute from my pack, which in turn would pull my main chute. Barring accidents. In which case, I would pull the reserve (or die).
The JumpMaster opened the door. The hinges were at the top, so the bottom opened outward and clipped to the wing above us.
The wind rushed inside and the noise from the engine flooded the plane. Look at my eyes¸the JumpMaster gestured. He didn’t want me to look down at the ground and freak out. He studied the ground below us, and he said:
PUT YOUR FEET OUT AND STOP
I knew how to do this. We trained on it for an hour. There was a little step above the plane’s wheel. I turned to the doorway and put one foot outside the plane. The wind ripped at the leg of my jumpsuit. I scooted forward – just a little bit – and I found the step with my toes. I brought my other foot out and planted both feet firmly on the step. I never broke eye contact with the JumpMaster. He rewarded me by saying:
GET ALL THE WAY OUT AND HANG
I went hand over hand along the thin strut under the wing. My body flapped like a flag in the wind. When I got to the tip of the wing I looked back at the JumpMaster. He gave me a thumb’s up. I looked up at a red dot on the wing above me and let go.
Make sure I am in perfect form, legs apart, arms open and head back.
Wow, the plane is really far away already. It’s like a toy…
It’s like a postage stamp…
There’s my chute. Wow, it’s way up above me. It’s almost like a postage stamp, too.
There are the toggles. Grab right one, grab left one. Give each a tug. The chute is fully inflated. I’m...safe?
Where’s the plane?
At this point my body went into what is called “sensory overload.” Basically, your brain freaks out from the change in external stimuli. It’s very weird, being surrounded by nothing for at least 4,000 feet in any direction. At first I felt like I was going up. The wind swirled around me. For a second I was sure that if I saw the plane I would try to climb back in it, and wished for it to appear.
I looked down. My feet dangled below me, dancing on almost a mile of air. The farmland below looked like graph paper.
I calmed down and started to experiment with my toggles, turning in each direction. Then I tried the trick where you pull down on both toggles so you fall faster. I pulled them way down below my waist.
My stomach leaped up my throat and smacked me on the bottom of my chin. I let the toggles up, fast. No more of that silliness.
The ride to the ground took about five minutes. It would have been 30 seconds without a chute. A one-way radio in my ear started telling me where to turn, guiding me down to the circular landing area. It was a perfect landing, I hit with one foot with less impact than walking down the steps on my front porch. Right in the middle of the runway.
I hurried out of the way of the waiting Cessna and ran over to the ground crew, who helped me get out of my rig and jumpsuit. A surge of adrenaline coursed through me, starting a natural high that would last for a week. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. That night I acted out the story for friends, family, and several strangers.
Someday I’ll do it again. And when I do, I’m going to 12,000 feet so I can free-fall for a minute. I’m just like my son. It may be crazy, but I still want to do it!