By Scott A. Williams
I have taken off in an airplane more often than I’ve landed in one.
Skydiving was the greatest physical thrill I have ever experienced. One of the veteran skydivers who spoke with me before jumping described his first jump as an “airgasm.” A just-landed skydiver who completed his first jump as I waited on the ground preparing to make mine said passionately, “It sure doesn’t suck!” Words were escaping him at the time.
When I visited friends that evening, they could tell how charged I was, even several hours after the jump. Their reactions ranged from “You are insane” to “I’d like to join you next time” to “I’d still rather play a round of golf at Pebble Beach.” Without meaning to play down another man’s dream, I know I could never find such a thrill in a round of golf.
Skydivers look for a high-potency thrill. They seem to have much in common with other thrill seekers I know, including motorcyclists and rock climbers, who make light of the danger that is at the core of their thrill while taking very seriously measures to protect themselves from the danger.
This was not only my first jump but also my first exposure to any organized sport parachuting group. It wasn’t long before I felt like one of the gang, as droll comments and good-hearted digs were exchanged within the group. “Joe, you know you’re vertically challenged,” one jumper said to another. “I may be short,” Joe explained, “but only on the ground.”
Once I had registered for my jump – and forked over the cost of a month’s worth of groceries – I was matched to a jumpmaster similar to me in height and weight, and assigned to a group of jumpers and a plane that would take us to an altitude of 7,500 feet.
My jumpmaster and instructor, both on the ground and in the air, was Don Heckman, U.S. Parachute Association license D-11835. Don has jumped over 800 times during 30 years as a skydiver. His cumulative freefall time can be measured in terms of days. In contrast, mine is 28 seconds. Don was a great teacher, answering my ongoing technical questions and describing principles of skydiving.
To reassure my rational side (which says, “You could get killed doing this”), Don explained equipment, materials and methods in detail. He showed me how to pack the main parachute, or canopy, and how to check the reserve chute, which has to be packed by a licensed rigger not less than every four months. Since we would be jumping tandem, he explained how our harnesses would be connected with hardware that he assured me “will lift several Buicks.”
Don helped me to visualize skydiving as a process: preparing to jump out the door of a perfectly good airplane, managing airflow as we plummet toward Earth, engaging the main canopy, “driving” the parachute and preparing for a gentle, stand-up landing.
To energize my thrill-seeking side (which says, “Oh boy, is this great!”), Don said simply, “You’re about to do something that very few people will ever do. Enjoy it.”
As my jump time neared, a one-piece cotton overall was provided. Such attire is known as a jumpsuit for a reason. I was asked to wear a tight-fitting leather helmet that looked as though it had been borrowed from a World War I aviator. I opted for plastic goggles, tinted yellow like a shooter’s and perforated along the edges to keep them from blowing off my face during descent. The last item of equipment for me was the nylon tandem harness designed to keep me securely attached to the jumpmaster who’d be holding my life in his hands.
Don reviewed my responsibility as his tandem. Though we were considered two passengers in the plane, we would function as one jumper. The front of his harness would attach to the back of mine with Buick-hoisting security and we’d jump out of the plane together. He demonstrated the proper freefall technique – concave arch in the back, head back and legs curled up behind. Our freefall would last nearly half a minute and cover a vertical drop of about a mile, and then he’d deploy the chute and enjoy what he called “a lovely view of the valley.”
Groups of five jumpers were organized and the order of jumps determined, though exact departure times depended on weather conditions and the duration of the jump plane’s run from airport to jump altitude and back.
Finally it was my group’s turn. Five of us – one single and two tandems – shoehorned ourselves into a venerable yellow Cessna 206. This was a dedicated skydiving plane. The interior had the harvest gold vinyl charm of an early 70’s Chevy Impala. The door was nothing more than a sheet of canvas, reinforced along the edges with wooden dowels. There’s little reason for more of a door when you’re planning to jump out of the aircraft anyway. Sitting on the floor of this noisy, crowded and stuffy old plane, I was beginning to feel the happy anxiety that accompanies a thrill in the making.
Our pilot, a twenty-something Dutch national, said “hello” to us all as he went through his pre-flight check. He explained that he was in America accumulating flight hours; he needed 2,500 hours in all to get a job flying with Royal Dutch Airlines. When he received clearance from the control tower, he taxied to the runway, pointed the nose into the wind and powered ahead for takeoff. During our slow ascent to jump altitude, the temperature dropped noticeably, providing a welcome relief from the early summer heat at ground level.
Don discussed what to expect for the jump. “When that door opens, there’s nothing out there. You’ll feel pure adrenalin.” The adrenaline was pumping me up already. The thrill of anticipation was like a hundred five-year-olds on Christmas Eve compressed into one skinny grown-up.
I asked Don if there were customary words on exit. “Yelling is good because that means your breathing,” he laughed. “ ‘Geronimo!’ is traditional but ‘Oh, shit!’ is more popular. I can hear you for about the first second. After that, our speed makes it impossible to hear anything clearly. When we’re under canopy, we can talk as casually as we do on the ground.”
The 206 kept working its way higher and higher. I looked at the altimeter that Don wore like an oversized watch on his wrist. He said, “You’re 4,000 feet taller than you were on the ground!” Finally, at 7,500 feet, the pilot initiated level flight. On a “thumbs up” signal from the pilot, the single jumper (this group’s spotter) rolled open the canvas door. As promised, there was nothing out there – not for a mile and a half, at least. What a rush! The Pioneer Valley was laid out neatly below: the signature bend of the Connecticut River at the Oxbow, the mountains of the Holyoke Range and the airstrip where our flight had originated. The curvature of the Earth was apparent from this lofty vantage point.
The pilot reduced airspeed to prepare for our departure. The spotter went first. With a smile and a wave, he simply stepped out of the airplane. Next, I watched as the other tandem team wiggled in unison to the open door. In an instant they were gone. Into my head popped the image of Bugs Bunny, in the role of the barber in The Rabbit of Seville. “Ehhh….next!”
A safe exit, Don had explained earlier, involved rolling low to avoid the plane’s rear stabilizer, which would be moving toward us at the plane’s airspeed as soon as we jumped. With Don attached to my back, I hung my butt out of the door and curled my legs back under the fuselage. This position put the desired arch in my back. I concentrated on Don’s directions: head back, legs curled under, back arched, focus on the wingtip, not the ground. As a rock climber, I was never bothered by heights so I snuck a quick glance down just to see how far up we were. Yes, we were considerably up. I fixed my attention on the tip of the Cessna’s wing and called out to Don, “Ready!”
“This is it!” Don shouted. We jumped. Immediately I felt the most powerful acceleration I’d ever experienced. All the superlatives in a Ginsu infomercial cannot begin to do justice to the thrill of falling so fast. Within a couple seconds, however, the sensation of speed was gone. Except for the roar of wind rushing past my ears, it was like hanging motionless in the air. Is freefalling the inspiration behind the term “suspended animation”? The plane was long gone and no physical items were close enough to help relate the speed of our descent. The law of gravity ensured that we quickly reached terminal velocity of about 109 miles per hour, depending on temperature, relative humidity and drag.
Our freefall lasted 28 seconds – a couple seconds longer than Don had anticipated, he said later, because we achieved good stability right away. On Don’s signal (a solid yank on my jumpsuit sleeve) I prepared for the canopy. Don pulled the ripcord. The main chute deployed, applying abrupt and forceful braking. These were air brakes, of course. The reduction in speed was so intense, it felt as though we were going up.
All at once I could talk to Don again. Though I wanted to say something profound, something worthy of a wordsmith, all I could manage was, “This is so cool!” At our altitude of 2,500 feet, I could pick out familiar buildings: the Tower Library at UMass, the old Courthouse in Northampton, the Tri-County Fairgrounds. “NORTHAMPTON,” painted in large white letters, showed along the tarmac at the airport.
Though two-thirds of our downward journey was over in 28 blazing seconds, the remaining third would require several minutes of gentle, gliding descent. Fully extended, the canopy is actually a multi-layered semi-rigid wing. Don steered a zigzag course as we progressed slowly toward our intended destination, a one-meter target circle near the runway. Don let me drive a little; a tug on the right rudder to go right, left to go left. As we came within a few hundred feet of the ground, objects were now close enough so the sensation of falling became noticeable.
Don observed some spectators standing too close to the target circle for his comfort, so he steered us wide instead. “I could hit that target dead on if I wanted to, but we don’t want to take a chance of landing on anyone.” Just as impact seemed imminent, Don pulled down on both rudders simultaneously and stalled the canopy. We landed standing up with no more impact than you’d feel if you skipped the last step while walking down stairs.
It was over. I was back on solid ground, experiencing a natural high unmatched by anything I’d known in my lifetime. With sincere and vigorous enthusiasm, I thanked Don for the ride and he congratulated me on a great first jump. The spotter, who landed just ahead of us, saw my animated return to Earth and walk over. With a grin a mile wide, he shook my hand and said, “Welcome to skydiving.”
What an initiation.
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