So, there I am, terrified of heights, sitting on the floor of a small plane with the door open.
My left foot is resting on one of the Cesna-172’s rubber wheels while both of my hands are desperately gripping a metal wing support.
My right leg is dangling free. A stiff wind is blowing in my face. And the earth is 2,800 feet—about a half-mile—below me. Did I mention I’m terrified of heights?
“Ready… Jump!” my instructor yells, his command muffled by what seems like a gale force wind
The Years Before Tandem Skydiving
The year is 1976, nearly a decade before tandem skydiving was invented. So, there was no instructor strapped in with me to handle all the technical details while I enjoyed the fall.
Nope. Just me, a bunch of nylon attached to cords crammed into a pack snuggly strapped on my back—and a whole passel of nerves that needed tending to.
It was my first—and last—skydiving jump. But I had to prove to myself that I could do it.
My instructor, Bob, was thorough. Before I even saw a parachute, let alone got near a plane, he ran me through a series of drills, everything from how to position myself when exiting the plane to canopy control (steering the parachute), the dynamics of running (having the wind at my back), holding (facing into the wind), crabbing (moving diagonally to the wind) as well as the best procedure for reaching the designated landing area. Phew!
Practice Makes Perfect… Hopefully
Next, we practiced parachute landing falls by my jumping from a height of 4 feet. I jumped and tumbled until I could automatically transfer the landing impact from the balls of my feet to my calf, thigh, buttocks and ending with a roll over onto my shoulder.
Am I going to remember all this shit when the time comes? I thought to myself. But Bob wasn’t through with me.
After a short break Bob got to the real serious stuff, like how to react in the rare event of a “high velocity malfunction” (if the main parachute should fail to open at all) and a “low velocity malfunction” (if the chute should open improperly and not produce a good, full circular canopy).
Thankfully he explained how to cut away from the malfunctioning chute and go for the auxiliary reserve chute. I felt a smidgeon of relief.
“How long will I have to do all this, Bob?” I asked.
“Seconds,” came his reply. So much for the relief. But wait….
We still had to go over what to do in case of a powerline landing (I could only imagine it to be electrifying), as well as tree and water landings. Bob then declared me ready for my first jump. I wasn’t so convinced.
As the pilot lifted the plane, I tried to remember everything I had learned in the past three hours. Good luck with that.
My one great reassurance was that my parachute was attached to the plane by a 12-foot nylon cord, or static line, so that once I exited the plane and the cord ran out its length, my parachute would open automatically.
As the plane neared the jump altitude of 2,800 feet, (there’s that height thing again) and I could make out all the open fields for miles, Bob dropped a weighted piece of yellow crepe paper and watched its descent to get an idea of wind speed and direction. As he did so, I noticed a chicken hawk flying only a few yards from the plane. For a split second I wished I were that chicken hawk.
Bob smiled and tapped me on the shoulder. “Stand by,” he yelled.
No sooner had I positioned myself outside the plane than he yelled again, “Ready…..Jump!” Did I mention I’m terrified of heights?
I hesitated an instant to gather whatever feelings I could muster up, felt more good things than bad—and let go of the wing support!
My brain went blank. I could have even been passed out for a few seconds. But the next thing I felt was a tug on my shoulders and looked up to see a big, beautiful, full canopy above me.
I had approximately two and a half minutes of descent time to reach the target area. It took me a few seconds to locate the big white “X” that marked the landing area. Once located I reached for the steering toggles just above my head and started experimenting with the techniques I had learned about running and holding.
Caught up in the utter silence and care-free sensation of floating in midair, I failed to keep track of my rate of descent in relation to my forward motion and nearly landed in a copse of trees.
Fortunately I had the presence of mind to pull down on both steering toggles, accelerating my descent, and made a good parachute landing fall 10 feet before reaching the trees.
Lying face to the ground, I let out a yell, releasing my feelings for ecstasy and accomplishment—and the fact that I hadn’t broken any bones.
I confess that skydiving didn’t conquer my fear of heights. The take-away for me was sometimes in life ya just gotta let go.