Jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft is not a natural act.
So let’s do it right, enjoy the view.
Gunnery Sergeant Highway- Heartbreak Ridge
One spring day my youngest son Christopher approached me and said, “Dad, when I graduate from High School would you take me skydiving?” Since I wasn’t paying much attention and knew that he wouldn’t graduate for another year, and knowing his tendency to change focus, I said, “Yes”. I didn’t know much about skydiving, but it sounded fun. I didn’t think any more about it until a year later.
A year had passed when graduation time rolled around and Christopher approached me one day in late May and said, “Dad, do you remember when I asked you last year if you would take me sky diving when I graduated from High School?” It had slipped my mind, but upon further reflection I answered, “Yes son, I do remember. Do you still want to go?” I was hoping that he had lost his enthusiasm. “Yeah, I have four of my friends ready to go. I’ve even called Skydive Chicago and made a reservation.” I guess he was serious.
Two weeks later, the caravan headed west on I-80 to a place in Illinois that seemed perfect for the event. Flat farm land (like most of Illinois) was all the eye could see for miles around. Five teenagers accompanied by one or both parents made the trip. As we arrived at the site I found out that there was only one parent stupid, I mean brave enough to join the fearless teens; me.
Since none of us had ever jumped before, there was a required two-hour class that we all had to attend prior to jumping. I was slightly nervous and yet excited at the same time. Backing out would not be an option. During the course, the instructors gave us all the gory details. Because we were novices, we would all jump tandem; an experienced diver would be tethered directly behind us as we jumped. I was a little disappointed until I learned that we would still be in control of pulling the chute, reading the altimeter, and steering the canopy to the ground. Then the instructor fiendishly said, “The airplane will take you up to 13,500 feet where you will free fall at speeds up to 120 miles per hour.” I noticed a lump in my throat at this point of the lecture. He continued, “After one minute of free fall, you will pull your chute and peacefully float the remaining 5,500 feet to the ground.” Assuming the chute came free as intended, I thought to myself.
When the instructions were completed, we all gathered in a large garage area and were outfitted in our jumping suits. From there we walked as a group to the waiting plane, already roaring with the sound of the engines and rotating propeller blades. Yelling over the din of the plane the instructor directed us to enter, and as we climbed inside I noticed that it didn’t have any seats. We were told to sit on the floor of the plane and as we began our climb, I nervously glanced around to look at the faces of Christopher and his friends. They didn’t look to be as nervous as I felt, but I tried to hide it the best I could.
Upon reaching the planned altitude, the plane leveled off and I thought to myself, “This is going to be easy.” All was well, until very shortly one of the men walked over to the side of the plane and lifted what looked like a garage door. As I peered out over the edge of the plane’s floor, my face turned white (I didn’t actually see it turn white, but based on my heart being up in my throat, it makes perfect sense). All I could see was sky. My mind became occupied only with falling at this point. I sat on the floor, my heartbeat escalating, nervously thinking about the possibility of falling 13,500 feet without a chute. What would it feel like to hit the ground? Would I die on the way down? (Rumor had it that in all of these cases a person would die of a heart attack prior to impact. I could not confirm if this was true.)Would I be saved by a last-minute miracle? I tried not to dwell on the 120 miles per hour, but kept thinking about the feeling of falling off a high cliff or from the Sears Tower. I was frightened, but had nowhere to go. I was stuck. I didn’t have long to think about it.
The instructor grabbed us two by two and as I saw another twosome go in front of me I held my breath until it was my turn. I didn’t feel my partner behind me as I jumped. I expected a huge lump in my stomach, the kind you get on a roller coaster, but it never came. It felt wonderful as I fell, sprawled out like instructed, and I had no feeling of the speed at which we were plummeting. Because I had to read the altimeter ever few seconds, checking for the targeted altitude when I would pull the cord for the chute, I believe I missed much of the thrill of the free fall.
The one minute free fall went by quickly and at the appointed time I pulled the cord, the chute opened and we began the remaining float, lazily gliding to the ground. All of a sudden I saw a body falling in front of me without a chute, going extremely fast, and I immediately thought of Christopher. I was once again terrified as I thought Christopher’s chute hadn’t opened and he was racing quickly to a waiting disaster on the ground. I finally realized the body was the cameraman, videotaping the entire event. He eventually pulled open his chute when he had positioned himself below the rest of the group.
All of that excitement lasted only a few seconds and I finally calmed down and enjoyed the rest of the time, soaring quietly to the ground. This part of the jump was the most peaceful thing I had ever experienced. You could see for miles around and the only thing you heard was a slight breeze as you slowly descended to the earth. Based on where we were, it looked like we were going to over shoot our landing spot, but because of the height it was an illusion and my calculations weren’t accurate. We finally approached the ground and I remembered the instructions on how to land; knees bent and ready to run as we hit. The landings all went smoothly and as I stood on solid ground, I quickly gained my confidence back and even became cocky when I said, “Let’s go do it again!”
I was asked afterward if I wanted to buy a copy of the video, but since I didn’t want the terror displayed on my face to be forever immortalized on tape, I politely declined. Christopher got a copy for himself and we viewed it a few times upon returning home. All in all it was a great experience, one I would highly recommend. Despite all of my bravado, I have yet to repeat the experience, figuring that one time is more than enough. Christopher went on to jump out of many airplanes during his seven-year stint in the Marines and subsequent time as a Green Beret. Why would anyone want to jump out of a perfectly good aircraft? For the thrill and excitement don’t you see? Or as Tom Petty sang, “I wanna free fall, out into nothin’, gonna leave this world for a while.”