“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Safer to Jump

The usual comment when I tell someone I went skydiving is,“Why would anyone jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” In my case I have the perfect reply: It was safer than staying on board.

That’s because “perfectly good” would not be used by any sane person to describe the plane that we were taking us up for our first jump. My first look at the plane was unsettling to say the least. It looked like it had been through the Battle of Britain. I half expected to see bullet holes in the fuselage and Nazi swastikas painted under the pilot window to signify enemy aircraft victories. I know the FAA requires annual flight inspections but this plane apparently hadn’t been anywhere near an inspector since the Korean War. No competent inspector would have allowed such a raggedy aircraft anywhere near a runway. It sat, unpainted and forlorn, the tarnished aluminum fuselage wrinkled and patched, off the edge of a small Kentucky runway. I peered inside; with the exception of the pilot and co-pilot seats, the interior was completely absent any seats, belts or panels. Just a bare outer skin and a scuffed up floor. Yikes!

I double-checked my parachute packing and crossed my fingers that the plane could at least gain enough altitude to allow my chute to open before the plane corkscrewed into the ground. It would be a race to see which of us impacted first. I didn’t need this anxiety on top of my raging fear of heights.

Which brings up the obvious question: Why was I doing this? The usual reason; my friend Ed.

This was just another in a long string of adventures—or misadventures—that we have shared over the years. From mountain climbing, to rafting, to glacier hiking, to racing cars and a dozen other adventures, we’ve dared and bet and ridiculed each other into unreasonable activities. A recurring theme is to find ourselves on the precipice of some peak or flailing through big whitewater asking each other why the hell we’re here. Skydiving was perhaps the stupid pinnacle of that long litany of escapades.

But, I was committed. Backing out now was not an option. Ed would never let me hear the end of it. So we went through ground school, which was a short classroom period explaining the basics of what would happen after we stepped out of the plane (a greasy spot in the worst case), how high we would be jumping from (too high), how to pull the ripcord (I paid particular attention to that topic) and how to guide the chute (in essence, pull on various random cords and pray). Then we adjourned to a nearby field and practiced how to exit from the aircraft and hit the ground. This involved jumping off a six foot high wooden platform and landing and rolling in the Kentucky dirt. Next we were hooked up to a static line and stepped off a platform to experience the feeling of a parachute opening. I closed my eyes before I stepped off the platform—how was I going to step out of an airplane at 6000 feet? I stood on the ground and watched Ed step off after me. I think I could see his lips saying a prayer.

No turning back now, we’d paid our money, spent a morning learning the basics, now it was time to hit the sky. Six of us, most first timers, clambered aboard the airborne version of the African Queen. Much to my astonishment, the engine sputtered to life and the plane actually managed to taxi onto the runway. My last hope for not jumping was dashed. I mean, I never thought this thing would actually fly.

We bumped down the dirt runway, I could feel the bald and patched tires clear the safe embrace of mother earth and we were airborne. The pilot took us up in a lazy spiral to jump altitude and I peered out the open jump door as the lovely farm fields of Kentucky became more and more distant.

The jumpmaster looked at us and asked who wanted to go first. Much to my shock I saw my hand, seemingly detached from my body, shoot skyward. I think at that point my brain said “we’re going to die anyway, may as well go out looking brave”. I lined up in the doorway, Ed next, the others behind us. The ground sure looked a long way down. I felt a tap on my back and the jumpmaster pointed to the door. Wait a minute, did he really expect me to go through with this? I gave him a look: “Who me?”

But I had come too far to turn chicken now. I grabbed a deathgrip on the wing strut, stepped out into the rushing air stream and onto the license-plate-sized platform, looked down at the fields below and let go. I think I heard Ed whimpering above my screams as I exited the plane.

What followed was terrifying. I was falling to my death. I would never see my family again. My friends would remark on what a stupid way to end a life. My wife would live a life of luxury and idleness from my life insurance proceeds.

And then I remembered I was supposed to be counting before pulling my ripcord. How many seconds had I been falling? Four? Ten? I was supposed to count to six but in my panic I forgot everything except my imminent impact with the earth. Pull!

What followed was the most wonderful feeling I’ve ever experienced. The chute popped, immediately putting the brakes on my plummeting body. After the initial jolt, my fall turned into a gently drift and as my heart slowly returned to a rate of something less than 200 I actually began to enjoy the feeling of floating above the earth. I could see for miles in all directions. I picked out the landing field far below and jockeyed my controls to guide the parachute to my target. This was awesome!

I landed near the target, hit, dropped and rolled. The landing was a little hard but I was pumped. What an adrenaline rush! Ed landed shortly after, one field over. We high-fived, whooped and recounted the jump over the next few hours.

Five weeks later, the plane crashed during another jump flight, slightly injuring those aboard. Like I said, not a “perfectly good plane”.

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