I must be out of my freakin’ tree…
That’s what was running through my mind. There were a lot of things going through my mind, but that’s the one that was in bold caps.
By then, of course, it was too late. I was already outside the Piper Cub airplane. And this was all because I had been really bored.
It started a week before. I was new to the Albany, New York area. There hadn’t been enough time to make new friends. Most of the people I worked with at the high-end sporting goods store were snooty and pretentious, and I decided that I didn’t want to hang around them. So, one day I was looking through the phone book (this was almost 30 years ago. Don’t judge) for an unrelated service. I saw an ad for a local skydiving club.
“That looks good,” I thought. ” Let’s do it!” (I’m a tad impulsive). At the time, I was a Second Lieutenant in the New York Army National Guard. My infantry unit was not Airborne; we walked or rode everywhere. Mostly walked. Therefore, there was no requirement for any of us to attend the Army’s Airborne School, where soldiers get paid to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. This adventure seemed like the next best thing because everyone I knew who had gone through that training talked about how cool it was. There was another reason I decided to do it: I wanted to overcome my fear of heights.
I’m terrified of heights. I don’t even like being this tall.
So, I called the club and set up a training session for that Saturday. When I told my parents what I was about to do, my father let it be known that he would disown me if I followed through. I was defiant, and showed up at the small airport, with a check for $150. That was all it cost to put my life in dire jeopardy.
My “training” began by watching an hour-long video, the bulk of which was a legal disclaimer absolving the club, the airport, and the pilot of any responsibility should I become a dirt dart. The lawyer on the video was also a jumper, and it showed him, still in his suit, climbing out of the plane, hanging briefly from the wing strut, and disappearing.
WHOA! Back up the bus!
What is this bullshit? I thought I was going up in a cargo plane, and if I froze in the aircraft door, someone could push me out. That’s how it went in the movies. I looked over at my instructor, and blurted out, “No!”
“Oh, yeah!” he replied, grinning.
Now, I really began to get nervous, but before I could change my mind, we continued with my training. I jumped off a picnic table for 20 minutes, so that I could perform a proper Parachute Landing Fall (PLF). This was a cool-looking move where you cushioned your landing by absorbing the impact by keeping both feet together, knees bent, and then dropping onto the meaty portion of your thigh.
This did me absolutely no good because that’s not how I landed.
To see how it’s supposed to be done – check this out – https://youtu.be/KQwX8NtEn7w
From there, we went into a barn, wherein I was strapped into a mock parachute harness. Instead of hanging, I was standing on a step stool.
Instructor: “How does that feel? Not too tight? We don’t want to cut off your circulation.”
Me: “Nope, feels fine.”
Without any warning, he kicked out the stool, grabbed my harness, shook me violently, and screamed in my ear:
“YOU GOT A BAD CHUTE!!! WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO?!
Without any hesitation, I pulled the handle on my reserve parachute, and screamed back at him:
“I’M GONNA PULL THIS SUMBITCH!!!”
He let go. “Congratulations!” he said. “Most people freeze up with panic and hesitate for a few seconds before they pull the reserve. You’re gonna do just fine.”
Oh, no. What have I gotten myself into?
I was given a one-way radio that fit into a pocket on the shoulder portion of my jumpsuit. At first, I was confused why it was only one-way communication, meaning I couldn’t talk back. But then I realized that the instructors didn’t care to hear grown men and women soiling themselves on their descent back to Earth. That’s probably tough on morale.
The next part of the training session was getting familiar with the aircraft. I was shown how to scoot by butt to the open door of the plane, grab hold of the wing strut, and put my feet on a bar sticking out of the aircraft, directly beneath the open door. The instructor told me that he would give the word to step off the bar, and hang from the wing. He would then tell me to perform the hardest part: letting go. Gravity would take care of the rest. A cord called a static line would be attached to the handle of my main parachute, the other end to a ring on the floor. Thankfully, I’m a pretty beefy guy.
Next, I was instructed in the use of the toggles. These were cords which could be pulled close to the ground. They were connected directly to the parachute canopy. Pulling on them would trap more air under the chute, slowing the rate of descent, and allowing the jumper to land standing up. I really liked that idea.
“But you can’t do it until I call ‘Pull’ over the one-way radio 2 times,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked him.
“Because if you pull on them before you you’re almost to the ground, a gust of wind could send you sideways into the power lines,” he answered back.
Important safety tip: Don’t pull on the toggles until the nice man on the radio tells you to.
The training program was finished, and now it was time for me to go skydiving. To say I was nervous was an understatement. I was doing Lamaze while I was waiting to board the aircraft. It was pretty windy at the time. A bunch of jumpers were free falling (no static line) from 10,000 feet. As one woman neared the ground, she pulled down on the toggles, and the air current almost slammed her into the tail of the plane parked on the tarmac.
The instructor turns to me and says, “It’s your dime, and I won’t tell you what to do, but I’ve got 800 jumps under my belt. I wouldn’t go today if I were you. Come back tomorrow.”
I took his advice, drove home, and tried not to think about what lay ahead of me the next day. Lying in bed that night, I was shaking like a leaf, but I felt that I had to follow through. My cousin Mike agreed to go with me and take photos to be displayed at my funeral.
Upon arriving at the airport the next morning, I learned that my original instructor wouldn’t be there, and that another one would be talking me down.
He’s probably in church. That sounds like a REALLY good idea right about now.
As I was waiting for the rigger to finish packing my parachute, a gaggle of skydivers came over and started busting my chops. They pointed at my chute and joked that it was filled with used Kleenex. I began to worry that it was.
Finally, it was time for takeoff. Everyone was still making jokes at my expense, including the pilot. For a while, he just started at his instrument panel, until another skydiver pointed at a large button and said, “That one.”
“Oh, yeah,” said the pilot.
Up we went. The view was spectacular, but I wasn’t enjoying it. The pilot cut back on the throttle. This was the signal that I was going out the door. I sat in the opening, grabbed the near end of the strut, and started to put my feet on the metal bar. I couldn’t do it. We were in a different aircraft than the one I “trained” on. The bar I was able to put both feet on the day before with room to spare, had suddenly shrunk to the length of something kids get in their Trick-or-Treat bags on Halloween. While I tried to stand on it, I stared past my boots at the freeway 3000 feet away and thought:
This might have been a bad idea.
Eventually, I didn’t need to worry about that anymore, because suddenly I was hanging from the wing, with my feet in the air. The pilot yelled at me to let go. I hesitated briefly (somewhere near Albany, New York there’s a Piper Cub with deep claw marks on the wing strut).
I was no longer one with the plane. Looking up, I checked my canopy. A panel was missing, but what really got my attention was that my risers-the straps that connected me to the canopy-were twisted. Remembering my 5 hours of training, I pushed out on the risers, while making a bicycling motion with my legs. This did the trick. Slowly, I spun around.
“This is so cool! I can see Lake George!”
I was probably up there for 5 minutes until Newton’s Law took over. When I was at about 200 feet, the radio crackled to life:
“FLARE, FLARE, FLARE!”
“What the Hell is this? I’m waiting for ‘pull.’ I don’t know what ‘flare’ means.”
I was getting closer to Earth; the ground was rushing up at me now. The day before, my buddy told me not to pull on the toggles until I was told. So, I didn’t. I remember thinking something like, “Thank God I got Blue Cross”. And then impact.
FEET, KNEES, CHEST, FOREHEAD…
It was pretty windy that morning. My chute was still filled with air, and it was dragging me along the ground, which at that moment was a cow pasture. I was helping a farmer plow his field…with my nose. Manure was piling up in front of me, so I was literally “shit-faced”.
And then, it was all over.
I heard someone calling my name. It was my photographer, Mike. He was ecstatic. “That was awesome!” he yelled. “The crash! It was awesome!”
The instructor helped me up and shook my hand. “Congratulations!” he said. “You had a good jump, and you lived through the landing.”
If I hadn’t been so stunned, I might have asked him why different instructors were teaching different verbiage to their students. I was so thankful that I’d done it, and that I was still alive, so I kept my mouth shut.
Previously, I mentioned that I had done this to overcome my fear of heights. That didn’t work; this only reinforced it. From now on, when I fly, I stay inside the aircraft.
It’s not as windy in there.