I gripped the frame of the exit door with Hulk-like strength, except for the Hulk-like, and strength bits. Suffice it to say I used everything I had to hold on. In my experience, there’s no greater motivating force within a human being than fear. The jump light turned from “two minutes” yellow to green. Time to go. I don’t know if I remembered to take a breath. Forgetting to breathe in everyday terrestrial life is an issue for me as it is, no doubt at the moment of exit I had accidentally become nearly ‘oxygen free.’ Air starved brain notwithstanding I did remember to lean out, lean in, then launch, and let go of the plane.
My body tumbled in the wind wash created by my earthward trajectory coupled with the rapid westward bearing of the Twin Otter aircraft.
“Breathe, and calm the fuck down,” I said to myself.
After a bit more negotiating my body finally arched into a V shape. Legs up, head up, plummeting toward earth in gravity’s firm embrace. With the flight of my person finally stabilized I could take a moment to connect with this singular experience; moving through space at over 120 miles per hours without mechanical assistance. The sensation is indescribable, and not commonly known. Why? Fear? The result of good decision making? You decide.
I can’t speak for others who choose to jump from 14,000 feet with no more than a nylon lifeline, but I have to believe that some of them leap, or at least made their first jump for the same reason I did; to slay a dragon. To confront fear in the now, or never. To stand over it, perhaps for the first time with a triumphant smile. If only a smile of sweet relief once we’ed reconnected with mother earth.
One’s inaugural exit, that first jump is exponentially more mind-blowing than any of the next hundred, thousand, or infinity and beyond. It’s a threshold that cannot be recrossed. On my very first solo jump, I experience a minor equipment malfunction. I say minor because in hindsight everything worked out. However, as it was all going down, I thought I might have a one jump career, and be remembered as the most unlucky skydiver of all time.
On a first AFF jump, (Accelerated Free Fall, Category A) one exits the aircraft at 14,000 feet gripped by two instructors. At 6000 feet the ‘pull’ sequence is initiated. If you the student have freaked out, one of the instructors, assuming you haven’t shaken them loose in a wild tumble, pulls for you. As for the “wild tumble” bit, youtube.com offers an endless supply of “oh shit” scenarios @AFF SKYDIVE GOES BAD. On my first AFF jump, I pulled the ripcord, at which point I was on my own. Thankfully the chute deployed. I dialed my freak from 11 to 9. Next order of business, fly the thing. I reached for the control toggles, gripped and pulled hard to free them. One complied, the other did not. Suddenly I was in a death spiral; corkscrew spinning under canopy plummeting from 5000 feet. I distinctly remember thinking, “Are you fucking kidding me???”
The six hours of ground school that morning had scared the shit out of me. Videos and anecdotes had elaborated on everything that could go wrong, and there I was starring in a new episode. Somehow I found clarity in this “now or never moment.” I let go of the left control toggle and went after the right ‘stuck’ one with both desperate hands. Eventually, it came free at which point the ocean blue Saber II canopy leveled out. Just like that, I survived.
It’s a numbers game, skydiving. I’ve known jumpers burned severely when their path crossed a set of power lines. I’ve known jumpers who are dead now due to equipment malfunction. I’ve jumped a mere fifty-five times, mostly without incident, a total novice. I know the odds are that if I keep jumping one day I’ll end up taking “reserve ride.” Also known as a ‘cutaway,’ a reserve ride occurs when one’s main chute fails at which point that panicked soul pulls a handle to cut/release the bad chute, and pulls another to deploy the reserve canopy.
Though I’ve not had the pleasure, I assume this operation is accompanied by increased heart rate, heavy breathing, and a healthy dose of holy FU#K style “oh shits!” The beauty of a reserve chute is that, well, it’s available. It’s a second chance to survive the day. Your day. Your kid’s day, assuming you have kids. Your parent’s day if they happen to still be with you, your friend’s day, and your life insurance company’s day. If the reserve fails, someone’s looking at a lot of paperwork!
I’m currently on hiatus from the sky life. That said, I know that learning to skydive has been one of the most transformational experiences of my seemingly endless life. Seemingly endless? Yes! Once I entered the red zone known as midlife, time while flying by seems to have been doing so for eons. I will go back to jumping when the time is right because the experience is life-affirming, and it gives me something I just can’t get inside “a perfectly good airplane.”
If we have roadblocks in our lives, they are most likely made of fear. If they are in fact made of fear, they are most likely difficult, if not seemingly impossible to surmount. We as a culture have a fair amount of shame attached to fear, and so we bury it, deny it, negotiate with it, and finally relegate it to the ego basement. Avoiding fear is comfortable, useful, life-saving …or is it? Nowadays when I find myself in a place of deep fear, I remember my time in the sky. The only way forward, the only way through, is to let go of the plane.
Have thoughts on the subject? Please comment. Life is bigger and better with shared experience!