My Turn to Fly
I was just sitting there minding my own business, making no trouble whatsoever for anyone, when I suddenly thought of skydiving. I wanted to try it. For the thrill. For the personal challenge. For a conversation starter.
I lunged for the Yellow Pages. There they were, between "Paper Tubes & Cores" and "Paralegals." Listings for "Parachute Jumping Instruction." The very first entry shouted "SKYDIVE!!" in big red letters. Hey, they're in Hollister, just an hour's drive south from here. Hmmm. What's this? It says, "You've always wanted to do it, and now's your chance!" Gotta be fate. Next stop, the Web. Need to find out more. I'm the analytical type.
Let's try Yahoo first. Jackpot. A link to Skydive Hollister. Read some, link some, read more, link more, read more. This is looking okay. This is looking like a go.
I told a friend what I was considering, to make it real and not just a fantasy restricted to the confines of my head. "Are you thinking of doing this soon?," he asked. "Yes," I replied, with a surprising degree of conviction. Oh, yeah, did I mention that this was all a bit out of character for me?
I let a few more days pass before I managed to pick up the phone, but the time had come. I made a reservation for a tandem jump at 11:00am Saturday. It was on.
Saturday, April 19, 1997. Beautiful, sunny northern California is frowning a broken overcast after a bit of rain the night before. It hasn't really rained in the last month. Timing is everything, I lament as I hit the road for the trip to the drop zone.
After arriving about 10:30, I checked in at the desk and learned that no jumps had been made yet as they are waiting out the weather. It'll be at least a few hours before my flight. In the meantime, I'm instructed to go inside to view a video, listen to the pre-jump instruction from one of the tandem-masters, and sign the legal paperwork.
The paperwork part is interesting. You surrender any opportunity to sue anyone from the drop zone proprietors to the equipment manufacturers. It's all routine. Just read and initial. At the end you get to read a statement to the effect that you recognize that skydiving is an inherently dangerous sport that may result in your injury or death. This is not exactly news. The thing is that you must not only read this somber declaration, but you must also write it out in your own hand. You just have to swallow hard when you write that word "death." In spite of all of this, skydiving is still quite safe when performed properly.
Pre-jump instruction is minimal. This is good since tandem jumps are for fun and should not be burdened by too many necessary thoughts and operations. We are told how we will be harnessed to our tandem-master, how we will exit the plane, what positions to assume, what hand signals to expect, and basically what will happen between exit and landing. There's not much to it, really, and it's nice to know what to expect. Well, as far as one can reasonably expect when it's the first time, anyway.
With that behind me, I settled in to see what sort of crowd is attracted by skydiving. In a way, the tandem jumps are much like a very exciting, very expensive amusement park ride and it showed in the participants. They were mostly young and seemed to span the gamut from recent college grads to street urchins. A pretty even split between the sexes. Then there were the regulars, the real skydivers. I thought to myself that they appeared to be self-assured, confident strutting folks named Kirk, or Derek or Kristen. You know, those strong K-names. I was clearly out of my element.
A trip to the car to retrieve a book and I'm set to cool my heels for a while. I'll be in the sixth plane load. It might seem that all this time to kill would just contribute to a heightened anxiety level. This wasn't the case for me. I felt so well-prepared from all the reading I had done and from hearing the pre-jump instructions repeated for each arriving group, that I could practically visualize the complete jump in my head. I was going to do this and I was relaxed.
The word went out that the sky had cleared sufficiently and the first group could suit up and head for the plane. This routine was repeated as I watched one smiling group of happy tandem jumpers return while another one prepped for departure. It was encouraging and entertaining to listen to the comments of those who had just jumped. I couldn't wait for my turn to fly.
Now, after several chapters of my book, after several trips to the can to keep my bladder empty, and after patiently waiting for so long, my group was called to pick up jumpsuits and harnesses. Once we were in gear we were sent out to the sidelines to wait for the return of the plane and the tandem-masters from the last trip. The sky was now clear and blue and it was getting rather warm in the sun. I'm relaxed and happy as I sit on the bench by the hangar.
Eventually, the plane arrives and the pilot gets out to take a break. A little while later the shuttle van pulls up with the tandem-masters and video jumpers for our group. My tandem-master introduces himself. His name is Kirk. (Can I call 'em or what?) Someone asks if any of us do not have a video arranged, and I say that I do not. I am offered a video shoot by one of the crew who is training to do jump videos and I can choose to purchase it or not after seeing it. Sure, I figure, that sounds like a reasonable arrangement. They have a special helmet with a video camera worn by a skydiver who jumps with you. Afterwards, the tape goes in for a bit of post-production and it's ready to go when you are.
While Kirk is adjusting and mostly tightening my harness until I can barely walk, my video person begins taping by asking me if there is anyone I want to say goodbye to. Hah, hah. I do get the joke, though, and have a hearty laugh.
Kirk and I are the first to board the plane. Oh, I guess that means we'll be the last ones out. In all, there are five tandem pairs and three video heads on our flight.
I'm seated next to the pilot, so I alternately enjoy the scenery outside and examine the altimeter as we climb to jump altitude. Kirk reviews instructions with me and attaches our harnesses. The view is terrific. The valley below, the Monterey peninsula and bay, and the peaks of the Sierras in the distance are all easily seen. Still I am feeling no nervousness or anxiety. Rather, I am feeling very prepared mentally. I seem to be blocking out any cognitive realization of what's about to happen.
After a flight of around fifteen minutes we reach our altitude of about 14,000 feet and there begins a flurry of activity as the door is removed and the jumpers begin making their way out. It is quite a sight to witness people expelling themselves from the plane and then feeling the plane rock slightly and then stabilize as they do so. More eerie, was my feeling of being the last to go, seeing an empty space which moments before was crammed tight with people.
We're up. My video person pivots about the door opening and hangs on to the side of the plane. Kirk and I, with me in front, are squatly shuffling our way toward the door. And there I am, in the doorway, looking down in near disbelief and feeling quite unnatural being so exposed to the open air this way, the wind howling by. There's no time to consider any of this, though, since with a quick shove we are out and on our way.
As I had been prepared for, there was really no sensation of falling that I felt. What it seemed like to me was diving with a gasp into a very deep swimming pool, the wind being like the water as it rushed across my face and up my nose.
Following the exit I managed to take the proper arched position with my legs bent back and my hands out in front of me as I enjoyed the flight of freefall. I use the word "enjoyed" with a bit of ambivalence. What I really felt was sensory overload. One moment I found myself concentrating on the scenery, the next moment on my posture, the next moment simply amazed at where I was. I was in brain fibrillation. And then, my video person swooped in for a close up. Cool. I attempted to wave and smile, but it just isn't that easy when you're going over 100 miles an hour with your cheeks flapping in the breeze.
The signal tap on my shoulder went unnoticed as I suddenly felt a rocking instability and got a little worried before I realized that the canopy had been deployed. We were now floating upright and all was quiet and peaceful. Wow. Kirk loosened up and re-adjusted our harness setup and I was more or less in a sitting position with the harness now supporting my legs. From here we were going to drift slowly back to the ground. I had no idea where we were headed and it never occurred to me to even think about it as I was still in a state of utter astonishment.
At this point I took the control lines and learned how to steer left and right by pulling the alternate lines. As I had no idea where we were going, I just took instructions to go left or right. Also, along the way we paused to practice the flaring maneuver for landing which, again, I was going to be responsible for carrying out. This was pretty wild. It was like putting on the brakes in mid-air. I did that a few times and then we continued to work our way down.
For the first time I became aware of the other jumpers from my flight who were now below us. Still, it was all very dreamlike and it was difficult to control where my attention was. Everything was a distraction to my mind. And then I realized that my arms were getting not only tired from holding on to the control lines, but they seemed to be getting numb. I hung in there as well as I could but needed some help with steering.
As the ground began to work its way up toward us, I prepared for our final approach and was pleased to see that we were headed right for a painted plywood target directly in our path. I'm not sure if there was any real significance to that, but I gave it some anyway. Kirk gave me the command to flare and I pulled on the control lines to bring us in for a soft landing. We were down.
Our harnesses were disconnected and I stood up with a smile and a sense of accomplishment and wonder. I exchanged high fives with one of the other first-timers in my group and gazed into the sky knowing that I would forever see it in a very different way.
We loaded up into the van for the ride back to the airport and it was only then that I reflected and thought to myself, "Hey, I did it."
So, was it everything I expected and wanted it to be? The answer is mixed. In reality it was all an experiment and, while I liked it and I'm glad I did it and I would enthusiastically recommend it, it didn't turn out to be something that I felt I needed to make a regular part of my life. I don't plan to go through certification training. That's okay, though, since it's all part of the discovery process and because I now have an appreciation for skydiving that allows me to relate to those who do make it a part of their life. I have spent a precious few moments off of Whuffo status.
As I think back on the experience and as I review my video with its Toad the Wet Sprocket soundtrack, the feelings I get are of fondness and affection. Those feelings surprised me at first, but they make a lot of sense now. I think you have to jump to know what I mean.
I went skydiving. It was a thrill. It was a personal challenge. Ironically, but true to form, the big party on the Saturday night of my jump was cancelled. My new conversation starter had to wait. It's okay, though, I'm contented.
Blue skies always.