Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Pinnacle of Thrill

I'm a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. I love mountain biking, roller coasters, autocross (a legal style of car racing), flying, basically anything that gets me moving really fast and/or dodging obstacles. Most of my life there has been one thrill that I have longed to try. Skydiving. Some would say it is the pinnacle of the thrill world. Yesterday, my friends, I reached that pinnacle.

Let me start out with the lame part. I did what's called a static line jump. In a static line jump, your parachute is deployed by the static line, which is like a ripcord clipped to the airplane, immediately after exiting the plane. You fall for only about 5 seconds before the chute is fully opening.

Okay, now the disappointment is out of the way. The cool parts:
  1. I get to jump by myself. This means I also fly the canopy and land by myself.

  2. Unlike a one-time tandem jump where you don't really learn much, the static line jump is the start of a progression, where you always jump by yourself and work your way up to freefalls through a series of jumps.

  3. With the plane I was in, you don't just jump out the door. You climb out of the plane, out onto the strut underneath the wing, feet dangling 3,500 feet in the air, then let go. It looks basically like this:

I don't have many creative words to describe this experience, other than


I was surprised at how calm I was most of the time about the whole thing. I went to a 4-hour class Friday night, and then a 3-hour class Saturday morning at the airport to prepare for my first jump. None of that time did I really get nervous. The first moment of terror came as I was watching a student from last week's class trying to land. On your first jump, you have a radio in your helmet, with an instructor on the ground giving you commands to guide you down. In theory, they know how to get you safely to the landing zone, but it's sometimes hard to tell exactly where people are going to end up. The landing zone is a big field next to the airport hangars. I was watching this girl coming over the hangars, turning toward the landing zone, and I remember thinking, "Hm. I know I've never done this before, but she looks a little low. Actually she looks really low. Dangerously low. She's going to hit that hangar. Oh God." She disappeared behind the roof of the hangar. BAM! My stomach dropped. I had no idea what had happened, I couldn't see, but it sounded bad. Everyone ran toward the hangar.

Someone yelled, "Are you okay?"


Whew. Turns out she landed on the roof of the hangar. She twisted her ankle, but was otherwise okay. Needless to say, my faith in the radio man was a bit shaken by this incident.

Soon, it was my turn to jump. Actually I was the first student from my class to go up, and would be the first out of the plane. The first moment of serious butterflies came as the plane took off. I really love flying, but this was sort of an "Oh crap, what the hell am I doing" feeling as I watched the ground sink from under me, knowing that I would have to return to it by jumping out of this plane. No going back now.

[Transition to present tense!]

I watch the altimeter strapped to my chest. 1,000 feet. 1,500 feet. Seatbelts off. 2,500 feet. I'm sitting on the floor, next to the door, looking out the window, trying to orient myself and find the drop zone as we circle. 3,500 feet. My instructor cracks the door open to look for the jump zone and make sure I'm jumping in the right spot.

He yells, "DOOR!"

We reply, "Door!" to indicate we're ready. The door swings up underneath the wing. WOOSH! The blast of air is far stronger than I anticipated.

He issues the first of three commands: "Get your feet out and stop!"

I reach my left hand out to grab the strut, and the air blasts it away. Holy crap. How the hell am I supposed to climb out and hang on in this?! My instructor would later tell me that my eyes became enormous at this moment. I don't doubt it. It was my second butterfly moment. I finally reach out, grab the strut, put my feet on the step, and scoot out so I'm sitting on the edge of the door.

The penultimate [wink] command: "Get all the way out and hang!"

I reach and grab the strut with my right hand, and swing my body out of the plane so I'm squatting on the step. I shuffle my hands out along the strut, then step off the step and let my feet dangle in the 80-mile-an-hour breeze. I turn and look at the instructor.

He smiles at me. Time for the dreaded third command. "DOT!"

I look up at the powercat dot on the bottom of the wing, and let go. I throw my arms and legs back, and look up at the plane as I plummet. "One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand. Check." I turn my head back to check if my chute is opening. It's out, halfway open, still fluttering wildly in the wind. Butterfly moment three. I hope this thing works. A second later, woosh! I look up at my beautifully inflated canopy and breathe a huge sigh of relief. I pull down the control toggles and start my control checks. I spend three or four minutes soaring blissfully alone in the air as the instructor on the ground guides me down via radio.

I'm pointed straight at at the landing zone. I wait for the instructor to call out, "Flare, flare, flare!" at 15 feet above the gound. I pull both the control toggles all the way down, swing forward, stop, and set down light as a feather. Unfortunately, in class they told us they wanted all of us to do a PLF (Parachute Landing Fall) to demonstrate the technique. I could have just walked away, but I decide to appease them and fall down. I stand up, pump my fist in the air, and let out a "WOOHOO!" in a rare moment of Greusel exuberance. That was just about the coolest thing I'd ever done. I immediately decided it would not be the last time. I jumped again today.

1 comment:

karlie nicole mann. said...

my hands were literally sweating and my heart was beating fast from watching that video/reading this. which is hilarious. i can't even IMAGINE doing that - congrats my friend, you're brave.