Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer GERONIMO!!!

By Eileen Loh-Harrist

MARCH 1, 1999:  Now that I’ve jumped out of an airplane, I have just this to say: DO IT. You won’t 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). Let’s back up to two weeks ago.

The scene: My living room. The event: My husband’s birthday. He is opening a big gift-wrapped box from me. It’s 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?”

Him: (silence)

Me: “Come on! Whatdya think?”

Him: (silence)

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 won’t 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 don’t 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 can’t 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 haven’t done so yourself. “It’s just about idiot-proof,” Davis said.

Hurray! I was safe.

The principle of a tandem jump is this: You’re strapped to the front of the instructor, resembling a pair of mating insects. This means that when you’re falling, you’re both parallel to the Earth, with you below him. “It’s like a badminton birdie,” Davis said. “We’re the feathers. You’re 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.

Here’s 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: You’re awaiting the jump and you feel: 1) nervous energy, giddy until you put on this extremely unflattering skydiving outfit and tight harness, and you’re 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 it’s 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 you’re 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. It’s not that sick dropping sensation of a roller coaster – it’s flying. The wind is roaring in your head and you’re bulletproof! You’re invincible! You’re 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 you’re 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 you’re like me, you’re 11) unable to contain the stream-of-consciousness profanity that must have made my in-laws on the ground so happy I’d 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 you’re going to jump, makes everyday worries seem trivial. It’s a visceral, gut-level fear – and you conquer that. And you get to fly.

Try it sometime.

So ya wanna boogie – Tips for a first-time skydiver

  1. Make sure your skydiving operation and the instructors are all certified by the United States Parachute Association. If doing a tandem jump, your instructor should be a certified tandem master.

  2. Schedule your jump in advance, and make sure you mention this is your first time. This will give the instructor more time to work with you.

  3. Expect to pay between $150-$200 for a tandem jump. Some skydiving operations don’t accept personal checks or credit cards, so ask before you get there.

  4. Wear comfortable, non-restrictive clothing that will allow you to bend and move around easily.

  5. Wear supportive athletic-type shoes. Sneakers are best.

  6. Bring a warm sweater or sweatshirt to wear during the jump. It may be hot on the ground, but it does get cold at jumping altitudes – and the wind chill during a free fall can be extreme.

  7. Many skydiving operations offer professional video services; i.e., another skydiver with a camera attached to the helmet, taping you as you fall. If you’re interested, schedule a videographer at the time you schedule your jump.

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