By Eileen Loh-Harrist
MARCH 1, 1999: Now that Ive jumped out of an airplane, I have just this to say: DO IT. You wont be sorry.
That advice in place, I guess I could end this column now and go out for a nice lunch. But I do feel compelled to give you, reader, an explanation (not to mention my editor would just kill me). Lets back up to two weeks ago.
The scene: My living room. The event: My husbands birthday. He is opening a big gift-wrapped box from me. Its a magnum of champagne with a note: Do not open until you have jumped out of an airplane. Me: Whatdya think? Whatdya think? Huh? Whatdya think?
Me: Come on! Whatdya think?
Eventually, my husband got used to the idea, and by the end of the night was even calling people and bragging that he was going to go skydiving (rendering it impossible for him to chicken out). Ha! Ha!
Four days later, we were heading down Highway 61 to Grace, Mississippi, home of Zoo City Skydivers and not much else.
To start off, we had to sign a lot of scary legal waivers, saying that if you splat on the ground, you or your estate wont sue the company. As I have no estate, I signed happily.
Then, we put ourselves in the capable hands of skydiving instructors Chuck Davis and Frank Maxcy. Both are certified tandem masters, meaning they are licensed to strap themselves to your clumsy, inexperienced ass and hurl you both out of a reeeeally high aircraft. And, since they dont want to die or get hurt any more than you, they will pull the rip cord for you and land you both safely in case you freak out and cant function.
Davis showed us the tandem parachute, explaining its features: the small drone parachute, which slows your free fall; the main parachute (or canopy as we cool skydivers call it), a backup canopy, and a little computer that will deploy the main canopy at 2,000 feet if you havent done so yourself. Its just about idiot-proof, Davis said.
Hurray! I was safe.
The principle of a tandem jump is this: Youre strapped to the front of the instructor, resembling a pair of mating insects. This means that when youre falling, youre both parallel to the Earth, with you below him. Its like a badminton birdie, Davis said. Were the feathers. Youre the ball.
Next, they showed us the skydiving arch: back arched, head tilted back, arms and legs pointing up. We practiced this attractive pose using a beanbag chair patched with duct tape.
Heres the routine: The instructor attaches himself to you while in the plane (in our case, a Cessna 182, which is about the size of a large couch). You reach 11,000 feet or so. He opens the door. Both of you swing your legs out and place your feet on the wheel ledge. You tilt your head back, tuck your hands into your chest and wait for the instructor to roll you forward. Then you hit the arch position and enjoy the free fall.
At 5,500 feet (indicated by an altimeter on your wrist), the instructor motions for you to locate and pull the rip cord. You do that, the parachute whooshes up, and then you float gently down to Earth. Easy! Right?
Okay, now here is the reality of a first skydive: Youre awaiting the jump and you feel: 1) nervous energy, giddy until you put on this extremely unflattering skydiving outfit and tight harness, and youre 2) anxious and excited, then you get into the teeny tiny plane and you are 3) really tense by now, and the plane takes off and its the longest freaking airplane ride ever, and you keep looking at the trees and buildings disappearing below you and wondering if you will 4) hurl, and then you reach 11,300 feet and the instructor opens the door and all the cold air is whipping by the airplane, and youre supposed to swing your legs out and put your feet outside the plane onto that narrow ledge, and this feels: 5) incredibly wrong and against every natural instinct you have, and you stare down at the patchwork of Earth moving below your shoes and it is 6) just surreal, and then the instructor flips you out of the plane and it is 7) WHEEEEEEE!
At first, the ground and horizon and sky are wheeling around like a weird dream, then you straighten and you are flying. Its not that sick dropping sensation of a roller coaster its flying. The wind is roaring in your head and youre bulletproof! Youre invincible! Youre Superman! About 35 seconds later, the instructor tells you to pull the rip cord. You: 8) do it, and it jerks you up and the world goes eerily quiet, and youre floating. He shows you how to steer the parachute so that you can glide over to the landing strip, and you 9) pull your knees up so your instructor can put his feet down first, then you 10) step down, with no more of a jolt than hopping off a stoop. Next, if youre like me, youre 11) unable to contain the stream-of-consciousness profanity that must have made my in-laws on the ground so happy Id married their son.
Then you 12) get to jump around a lot and drink champagne.
Skydiving may not be for everyone. But if you do it, it will change your life I promise you that. Looking down from that height, knowing youre going to jump, makes everyday worries seem trivial. Its a visceral, gut-level fear and you conquer that. And you get to fly.
Try it sometime.
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