“There’s a skydiving club here and they’re jumping this afternoon. Let’s go do it.”
Sometimes I act without thinking things through and this was one of those times.
“Sure!” I answered. “That sounds like fun.”
We were out of town working on a project at Cray Computer Company in Eau Claire Wisconsin and the evenings were pretty boring. Jumping out of an airplane would certainly perk up an evening. We left work early so there would be time for training before my first jump. My friend, who had suggested this outing, already had done many jumps. We arrived at the little airport near Eau Claire and found the skydiving club office.
“I want to try skydiving.” I said to the only person in the room. “How soon will the jumping start?”
He coughed and cleared his throat a couple of times but the coughs sounded suspiciously like choked laughing. I don’t know why a balding, forty-six year old guy wearing a business suit asking when he can jump out of a plane would be funny.
“I assume you have not jumped before?” he asked after regaining his composure.
“Yep, this will be my first jump.” I answered proudly.
“Well there is some paperwork and a training session you’ll need to take. I can start you on the paperwork now and when one of the trainers arrives you can start the training session. If you get started early enough you could finish the required training for the first jump today but it will be too late for a jump. We’ll be out here all day Saturday. You could train today and get your first jump then.”
I was a little disappointed but agreed to the proposed schedule.
“You probably should change clothes too.” he told me, still smiling much too broadly. “The training includes jumping from a tower and rolling on the ground.”
“I have a change of clothes in the car. I’ll be ok”
He had me fill out a few papers identifying my next of kin and who to call to pick up my body if there was a problem and an agreement that said I was completely responsible for this and if I died, it was not their fault. I finished the paperwork and changed clothes before the trainer finally arrived.
We went though all of the equipment and how it worked. Then he explained how the jump would actually take place.
“We have a new program.” he explained. “It’s called Accelerated Free Fall. You jump without a static line on your first jump. Two jumpmasters will go out with you. One will climb out of the plane and hang onto the wing strut. You climb out next to him and hold on. Another jumpmaster will get into the doorway, partly out of the plane. Each jumpmaster will be holding on to you. Then you all count one, two, three and all jump on three.”
“Ok, but why do all three go out in one jump?” I asked
“Some people freeze up on the first jump and don’t pull the rip cord. Your jumpmaster will do that if you don’t. Also there are some exercises you do on the freefall portion of the jump. They will monitor those to be sure you do them. And now we’re ready to do the next step of the training. You will jump from a tower that simulates the speed of your landing with the parachute.”
We walked out to the training area where the instructor demonstrated the proper body position for landing and how to roll when you hit the ground. I did that a few times and had no problem so he told me to climb the tower and jump off.
“That tower?” I asked as I looked up the ladder.
“That’s it. Just climb up there, walk out to the other end and jump out onto the grass. And don’t forget to bend your knees and roll when you hit the ground.”
Now I started to worry. The tower looked at least as high as a two story house and I was going to just jump off with no protection. Swallowing hard, I climbed the stairs and walked to the end of the platform. This was not as high as a two story house; it was more like the top of the Empire State building! The people down there looked like ants!
Then I realized they were ants. The tower was about ten feet high. The trainer and my friend were standing there watching and waiting so I took a deep breath and jumped off. I plummeted down through ten feet of free fall, hit the ground with my knees bent, rolled and popped up on my feet. Perfect!
“Well it looks like you’re ready.” the trainer said. “See you Saturday. We start at eleven. If you get here early, you’ll have time for two jumps.”
Saturday morning came and I was nervous but very eager to take that first jump. We arrived at the jump club before ten thirty and sat around for half an hour. Finally people started to arrive and my trainer called me over to get ready for the jump. First I had to find a jump suit that fit and, at six foot four and two hundred pounds, that wasn’t easy. But we found one slightly tattered one that I was able to squeeze into so the next step was to get the parachute on and review the process one more time.
I was introduced to my jumpmasters and I started to worry again. One was a little girl, about ninety pounds and five feet tall and the other was a boy only slightly bigger than the girl. Together they didn’t weigh as much as me and their ages added together would be less than mine. What could they do if there was a problem?
We walked out to the plane that would take us up and I really got worried. The people who ask why anyone would ever jump out of a perfectly good plane obviously never saw a skydivers plane. The single engine, four seater plane had no door on the passenger side and had no seats inside except for the pilot. There were extra pieces of metal welded on the struts and the paint job looked like it had been done with a broom.
We got into the plane, which was quite a procedure. One of the jumpmasters climbed in and squeezed as far back as she could into the far corner behind the pilot. I climbed in and sat on the floor next to her. Then the other jumpmaster squeezed into the space next to the pilot. With no seatbelts and no door, this seemed a little dangerous but they didn’t seem worried.
We practiced the procedure of climbing out and jumping off three or four times before they decided I was ready. The pilot started the engine, went through his preflight checklist and taxied out to the end of the runway. With a tremendous roar (no door on the plane) the little plane started rolling down the runway.
It is truly amazing how fast the ground goes by when you are almost touching it. It seemed like we went two miles down the half mile runway before we lifted off. I think we must have been over the weight limit of the plane. The engine never eased off of the deafening roar of takeoff as the pilot flew it in circles and climbed slowly and steadily to ten thousand feet.
Ten thousand feet! We were two miles above the ground and I was going to jump out with nothing but a scrap of cloth to keep me from becoming a messy splat on the distant earth. There was no way to talk over the noise of the engine so the jumpmaster in front of me turned his head enough to see me and signaled that we were going out.
He pulled himself up and out holding onto the door frame. He stepped out onto a bar that had been welded onto the landing gear and climbed completely out of the plane. Next I was supposed to follow him, standing on that little bar and holding onto the wing strut.
Forty-six may not be so old but after being crushed into a near fetal position for a twenty minute climbout, my knees didn’t want to move. Slowly I worked my way out and suddenly I was standing in a ninety mile per hour gale holding onto a skinny little bar and looking down at two miles of empty air. A second later I felt the other jumpmaster grab my jumpsuit. I looked over and she nodded indicating that she was ready.
One! Two! Three! I leaped off of the little step feeling a little like someone jumping off a bridge to end it all. The world swirled around me and there was no up or down. After what seemed like an eternity of whirling in the wind we stabilized and there was the ground again, far below me. I could feel the reassuring grip of the jumpmasters on each side of me.
I was flying! The wind pulled at my face as I rushed through it. I did the ‘circle of awareness’ looking into the eyes of each jumpmaster and then at my altimeter to assure the jumpmasters that was conscious and functioning. We did a couple of slow spins in one direction and then back again. This free fall stuff was really fun!
I was supposed to pull the ripcord at four thousand feet but I was having such a good time, I forgot about it. At thirty five hundred feet I remembered. Grabbing the handle, I yanked it so hard that it flew out of my hand and probably into the next county. The parachute opened with a jolt and suddenly I was gently drifting down toward the ground.
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