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Saturday, September 24, 2011

This weekend I took a ride on one of the fastest climbing special purpose planes in the country.  This plane has been outfitted with twin 750 horsepower engines and can take a full passenger load of 14 people up to 14,500 feet in seven minutes…which it did…and then we all jumped.  This was the first time I’ve ever not landed with the plane that I took off with. 

Good morning
It was 8:00 AM, I’d had one cup of coffee, and I was gearing up in my flight suit and harness.  I wanted to get the first jump of the day and this was it…we’d leave in roughly 10 minutes.  I was staring out the front window while an instructor tugged on straps and made adjustments to my gear…and I noticed the strangest thing…a hearse was pulling up out front.  I just love an ironic twist and this one got me howling.  No kidding…a hearse…this was a FULL SERVICE flight school.  If the jump goes well you get a video…and if it doesn’t…well we have a coroner waiting on you.  As it turns out the county coroner IS a regular here and another member used to sell hearses and the owner thought it would be great advertising to have one with his skydiving business logo on it. 
As I walked out to the Super King Air that would take me up my wife said I’ll see you in a few minutes and I said “yeah…I’ll be in the hearse if you’re looking for me.”
The Super King Air sounds pretty swanky.  I was picturing something like a G5 jet rigged up with nice leather, a kicking sound system, and maybe a small wet bar.  No.  We had a 5 step padded ladder that led to a sleek looking prop driven aircraft with no seats, a plywood floor, and a sliding plexi-glass door.   I guess the thought is why bother with luxury since nobody will be on this thing very long?  It’s a race car not a touring car.

It is worth noting at this juncture that it takes 80 seconds for the human body to fall to the ground from 14,500 feet.  We would free fall for 60 seconds and then pull the cord. 

My advice if you’re thinking about this
Make your commitment to jump before you go…certainly before you get in the plane, because there is nothing you will see from the open doorway at 15,000 feet that will give you any peace if you are unsure you want to do this.  It is a yawning expanse of risk…seemingly uncontrollable risk.  It is high, it is fast, and it is insanity to be anywhere near that door, much less be looking out it with thoughts of leaping.
If you get to the door and leap there is no going back and you’ll get the ride of your life.  If you decide not to jump and want to stay on the plane you need to know this…from what I saw of the planes return trip…you’d rather jump than remain a passenger.  I saw the plane on the way down… he passed us (keep in mind the direction I was going at the time.)  After we jumped he pushed it hard over and dove for the deck nose-first, leveled off, turned and landed about 4 minutes before I got back to earth. 
The plan
When you pitch yourself out the door your first job is to arch back.  You thrust your pelvis out and pull your shoulders and feet back.  This position allows your body to stabilize into a controlled fall…it’s tempting to say “flight” but that is the furthest thing from what’s going on at this point.  I think the arch maneuver might also have some physiological effect that keeps certain bodily functions from happening involuntarily…but this is just my guess.  This is gravity in its most raw state…it only does one thing…pull things back to earth.  It doesn’t care if you are 4 feet or fourteen thousand feet up, and it doesn’t care if you are wearing a parachute or not.  Gravity’s only job is to get you back to earth and it is going to execute that task with ruthless and unblinking efficiency.  It’s your job to make sure it doesn’t hurt.
I can’t tell you how many miles I’ve run to the old cadence “Stand up buckle up and shuffle to the door, jump right out and shout MARINE CORPS!, If my ‘chute don’t open wide, I’ve got another one by my side, and if that chute don’t open round, I’LL BE THE FIRST ONE TO HIT THE GROUND!”
That’s all good and motivating…but we always ran…and we never actually jumped.  Today I was actually jumping.    
Going up
We piled into the aircraft all facing back toward the tail.  There are no seats in this plane.  There is a bench up front where the co-pilot would be (another strange thing…only one pilot…think about it) that accommodates two people for a tandem jump and the rest of the cabin is basically a plywood floor.  At the rear there is a seat for the camera man.  A quick glance at the cockpit controls made me thankful that I was wearing a parachute…and I began wondering why the pilot wasn’t.  I expected to see the latest state-of-the-art glass cockpit with cool digital readouts and color screens.  What I saw instead was the same old grey sheet metal with crude toggle switches that I saw in old airplanes from my youth.  The rest of the passengers sit on the floor with their backs to the pilot in two casual but orderly rows.  They sit on their butts with the guy in front of them between their legs…two neat rows of parachute laden bodies all sitting in a leaning back position waiting for the “go” sign.

On the side of the plane near the back there is a clear Plexiglass door that slides up and down.  It is closed at the moment but in seven minutes time it will be our portal to destiny.  We taxi out without any fanfare.  I look around the plane and it’s just cool to see everyone decked out in their skydiving gear, everyone waiting for the short flight “up top” so we can do what we came to do.  It FEELS important.
As I looked around the cabin I saw a bunch of folks that could just as easily have been waiting in line for a $4 latte at Starbucks…but instead they were waiting to jump out of a plane from 14,500 feet.   There were no nerves showing anywhere.   The only person I saw that might have had a little bit of hand-shaking was a guy doing his first solo free fall jump.  He’d have an instructor holding his harness as he left but after they got him stabile he’d be on his own.  Even he didn’t appear nervous…nor was I.  I knew what was about to happen.  The door would open and I’d go out it…no questions in my mind. 
Apart from the mood of the cabin you also have to consider the mechanics involved in getting everyone up and out.  You might imagine that it would be difficult to get from a seated position where you are leaning backward with a 50 pound pack to a kneeling, and then standing position.  It is difficult…so they have a procedure that helps with this transition. 
You know the scary turbulence you sometimes get on commercial flights where people get bumped up out of their seats and they start getting nervous and chatty and the captain tells everyone to stay seated with their belt buckled and they put the drink cart away?  In skydiving it’s kind of the opposite.  When we hit our 14,500 foot altitude the captain puts us in a negative G maneuver that floats everyone off the floor for a moment or two so they can get their legs under them and prepare to stand.  Turbulence here is the sign to get out of your seat, roam around the cabin, and then ultimately jump out…this plane doesn’t even have a drink cart.
On top
After a short seven minute ride that took us higher and higher over the bean fields and woods that surround the airstrip I feel the negative G maneuver and I see everyone in front of me float off the floor as if they are in outer space.  Everyone floats for two seconds, there is some shouting as commands are given to open the door and prepare to jump.  This is it…it’s time…no going back. 
The Plexiglas door gets slammed upward and out of the way and its show time.  Folks that are jumping as a group are now fist bumping and slapping fives with their partners in a “good luck, see you on the ground, and if you die I get your gear” type of gesture.  The first group gets up, grabs the door frame, heaves once, twice, and BOOM they are gone.  There is nothing but thin, cold, turbulent air where they once stood.  
The thought came to me “Wow…those guys just jumped from a plane...they really did it…they are really gone…this is the real deal…and I think it’s gonna be awesome.”  The next jumper stands in the doorway and visually starts counting to five on one hand.  Once five seconds of separation has been achieved from the previous jumpers he is clear to go…five seconds goes by very quickly when it’s almost your turn to jump from an aircraft.  BOOM….he’s gone.   There is nothing but thin, cold, turbulent air where he once stood.  One more group and then I’m up. 
Mr. Solo Jumper is now in the door.  One instructor is on the outside of the aircraft facing as if he is going to walk back on board…he is holding a rail above the door to keep him on the plane.  Underneath his butt is 15,000 feet of thin air.  He has just his toes on the door jamb.  Normally this would be a precarious position but he hasn’t a care in the world.  He has his other hand on Mr. Solo.  The other instructor is behind him.  Five seconds later, BOOM…they are gone.  There is nothing but thin, cold, turbulent air where they once stood.  Now the only thing between me and the earth is an empty door and a gut-check. 
Stand up buckle up and shuffle to the door…
I’m shuffling toward the door now, hand on the fuselage to steady myself…I can “see” the abyss.  It’s a clear day but it looks a little hazy…might be my goggles…who knows…focus.  As I take my place in the doorway I’m going over procedures in my mind.  The last thing I want to do is commit a rookie mistake.  There can be no choking under pressure.  Cross my arms on exit, arch, wait for it to stabilize, when he bangs my shoulders the arms come out….look at the camera man…show off some…and enjoy the ride down.
My camera man is already hanging on the outside of the plane like some evil super-hero in the movies.  Who could hang out an open aircraft door like a spider at this height, at this speed, with only one hand and one foot?  No time to ponder it…I smile for the camera, take my spot in the door, we heave once (oh my God), heave twice (this is it), and BOOM…we’re gone.  There is nothing but thin, cold, turbulent wind where the old Steve once stood.  I say “old Steve” because the second I left that aircraft a “new Steve” was born.  The new Steve has jumped from an aircraft at 14,500 feet.  This is some real James Bond type stuff…the only thing that could make this cooler is if I landed in a speeding Aston Martin convertible, drove to the casino, won a bunch of money at Roulette and then killed a Russian spy.  Maybe that’s on tap for the next course. 
I briefly remember seeing the wing tip of the aircraft out of the right corner of my eye…that’s when I knew I had done it.  No two ways about it…the aircraft I got up here in is leaving without me…I am now skydiving.  There is literally no going back now…this is the definition of “commitment”.    
What’s it like?
Words can’t really describe the sensation of jumping.  It’s not like “falling”.  Falling is what you do off a ladder and you think “oh no this is going to hurt and I might break an arm”.  When you “fall” you usually hit before you can even manage to say that much.  This is much different than falling.  I’m not sure if there is a world that accurately describes it…maybe that’s why they made up the word skydiving. 
Here you are thinking “OMG I am REALLY going fast and if this doesn’t work I am going to die badly…but they won’t have to bury me ‘cause I’m going to do a good job of that myself in about 80 seconds if this doesn’t go right.”
Throwing yourself out that door is a completely un-natural experience.  Some truths are so deeply ingrained in our gray matter that they are almost instinctual.  Jumping off stuff is one of those things.  Everyone knows that if you jump, don’t jump from something too high, and don’t ever land in a belly flop.  You are now forcing your brain to shut up and watch as you both jump from something very high and use the aforementioned belly-flop technique. 
The first thing you need to come to grips with when you jump is the new reality that you will not be landing with the plane that got you here…it’s gone.  Next is the exhilaration of free fall, followed by the view, the speed, the thrill, the view, the speed, the thrill….it’s awesome.  You simply cannot beat the feeling of free fall.  Nothing on earth compares to it.  Maybe if you could ride a cheetah on top of a moving bullet train you could get close…but it still wouldn’t be the same. 
The next thing I remember is the view…you can see everything from up here…there is almost too much to look at.  Then the camera man floats up underneath me…this guy is falling backwards at 130 MPH and filming up at me…from about 6 feet away…talk about surreal.  I actually tried to crack a joke with him but there was no way for him to hear me…what a rookie…cracking jokes in free fall.  After a few moments my tandem instructor smacks my shoulders to give me the all clear, I uncross my arms and assume the free fall position.  We are now officially less likely to die.  I didn’t expect it to be so fast, or so smooth, or so loud.  When you are falling at 130 miles per hour the wind absolutely roars and your face gets pushed into funny shapes.  They also told me that it would likely be around or slightly below freezing up top…if it was I never felt it.  I guess your brain ignores the thermostat when all the other warning lights are going off at the same time…its crisis management at its simplest…survive first, then deal with the small stuff.
It felt like an hour had passed but in reality it was 60 seconds.  It was time to pull the cord.  The camera man was right in front of me when it happened.  One moment he was 5 feet in front of me and the next I felt a smooth but firm jolt and then he was about a mile below me and falling away fast.  I could not believe the rate of speed at which we separated.  It looked like he was a goner…no way you could fall that fast and not die.  Apparently this camera man is known for pulling low.  He beat a lot of people to the ground that went out the door before us. 
One thing that surprised me was that after 30 seconds or so I started to get a headache…it was a strange sensation and I was surprised that it was able to cut through the fog of exhilaration enough that I felt it at all…but it was bad and getting worse.  After we deployed the ‘chute I realized that my headache was actually an ear ache…we had just plunged 10,000 feet in a minute and my ears hadn’t adjusted yet.  I’d work on that one the rest of the day.
After the fall
Now we were gliding.  This works exactly as you think it does.  It’s a nice slow descent that you control with the two handles that hang down in front of you…so easy a caveman could do it. 
This is the portion of the jump where you can sit back and enjoy the view of the world (or if you’re scared this is the part where your nightmare transitions to slow motion and you have a looonnng time to worry if you’re going to die on this jump).  If there were a way to feel like a bird this would be it.  You simply glide through the air like a bird with outstretched wings.  Some people might fly like a big, noisy, screaming, crying bird but a bird none-the-less…maybe this is the origin of the term “chicken hawk”…whatever the case, I digress.  It’s very peaceful and it provides a perspective on the land that you otherwise might never get.  It’s also kind of cool to be able to see the top of a parachute…most people look up to see them but I was the last one out the door so I’m looking down at half a dozen of them.
As a bonus I got an extra bit of excitement on my first jump.   My instructor looked down below us at our camera man who had an open canopy but was way off course and heading further away in a straight line and asked “What’s he doing?  Is he….conscious?  Is he slumped over?”  My first thought was “man if he’s asking ME this stuff then that guy must really be in trouble.”
I told him it did look like he was slumped over and I asked him if he had a radio.  He said he didn’t and that he had no way to tell anyone what was going on.  Our man drifted over one field and set of woods and then the next.  We watched helplessly and with great concern for what seemed an eternity and then the canopy turned and he headed back toward the landing zone. 
My instructor said “I guess he came to.”  As it turns out he never lost consciousness…he said he was good the whole time.  It reinforced the stakes involved. 
When we hit the ground I was already plotting my next jump.  If time allows I’d love to go back for the Accelerated Free Fall course…the tandem was a nice intro but there’s nothing like doing it yourself. 

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