“So you wanna jump out of a plane?”
As I waited to exit the aircraft, that deceptively simple question, asked so casually by my editor several weeks ago, swirled through my head like the 120 miles per hour gust of wind that would soon be buffeting my body as I dropped 14,000 feet in approximately 6 minutes.
Of course, I said yes. “Sure, set it up. I’ll do it.” I replied, trying my best to sound even more offhand and unconcerned than my boss. Being a photographer I have a certain devil may care, swashbuckling image to maintain you understand, and as quickly as I agreed to this potentially life threatening little adventure I promptly put it out of my mind.
The wheels however, were in motion. I was scheduled to meet the following week with the fine folks of Carolina Sky Sports in Louisburg, N.C. In business for over 32 years at their present location, they came highly recommended. Their brochure, filled with attractive young women falling through the beautiful blue heavens, even said senior citizens and handicapped people have made successful jumps. Well, what the heck, if they can do it…
Still, at the risk of ruining my reputation, the only way I was able to get to sleep the night before my jump was to tell myself I didn’t really have to do it. Maybe I’ll just go and take pictures, I thought. Not surprisingly, David Wilson, the owner of Carolina Sky Sports, had other ideas.
“So, you ready to jump out of a plane?” he said by way of greeting as I walked through the door. “Sure,” I said, feeling suddenly as though I’d stepped into an episode of The Twilight Zone.
After a brief introduction, I was escorted into a side room where I watched a video detailing many of the, shall we say, less pleasant aspects of the skydiving experience, things such as broken bones, death, etc. The narrator detailed all these things while maintaining a wonderfully pleasant smile, however, which was somewhat reassuring. I must admit though, by the time I finished filling out the numerous liability forms, a feeling of distinct unreality had overtaken me. Was I really doing this?
Upon reassuring one and all that I wouldn’t sue, my family wouldn’t sue, my dog wouldn’t sue, etc, I was introduced to John Lyman, an instructor who’s been with the company for 5 years. If there’s any one thing that kept me together, literally, through the whole experience, John’s laid-back demeanor and calm assurance should definitely be singled out. The guys a pro through and through and it was obvious from the second I met him.
After running through a short set of instructions regarding exiting the plane, the correct position to maintain in the air and how to land (instructions I would spend the next half hour desperately trying to remember) I was outfitted with the standard gear of helmet, gloves and jump suit. Since this would be a tandem jump, which meant that I would be jumping with an instructor literally strapped to my back, I was also fitted with a harness. Since this harness would be the only thing securing me to my instructor, and since my instructor was secured to the parachute, I made sure that baby was nice and tight. They haven’t lost anyone yet, but with my luck I wasn’t taking any chances.
As we made our way down the runway towards the turbine powered Dehaviland Twin Otter plane that would carry us to our jumping point, we were accompanied by a camera man, an affable Hungarian named Peter who supplied several of the photos for this article, and two other, more experienced jumpers who would be taking the plunge just before me.
The 14,000 feet climb took about 5 minutes, not enough time, thankfully, for any real sense of terror to set in. Once we reached a height of 9,000 feet, John hooked our harnesses together and began going over the jump instructions for the final time. During the flight I noticed him watching me out of the corner of his eye. I understood. He later told me about several people who had passed out because they simply forgot to breathe. I guess doing something that goes against millions of years of human evolution can do that to you.
As we approached our designated altitude, the door of the plane was opened and our two more experienced passengers exited the plane. And so, of course, the moment of truth had arrived. Would I carry on the swashbuckling legend of my photojournalist forefathers, or would I crawl into the nearest corner and cower like a sniveling child?
As I half walked, half crawled toward the plane door with my instructor strapped tightly (a little too tightly) to my back, I passed from grim determination into a sort of euphoric denial. This is completely insane but what the heck, you only live once I recall thinking. Actually I wasn’t thinking anything, it was more of an out of body sensation which, upon exiting the plane, turned into a sensation that felt something like this: HOLY#%$$**&!!!!!
I didn’t experience any of the tunnel vision or shortness of breath that I had been warned about, but my brain definitely sped into hyper-drive trying to process an experience it had no reference for. For the first few minutes it was so overwhelming I can’t recall many details. The pictures show me smiling, but it’s the type of smile I’ve seen in pictures of serial killers and the profoundly disturbed. I seemed to be enjoying myself anyway.
The fall lasted approximately 6 minutes. We were in freefall for approximately 2 minutes and, finally, the chute opened at 5,000 feet. Despite the somewhat disconcerting jolt caused by the opening of the chute, I admit I felt a great sense of relief.
It was at this point that I truly began to enjoy myself. The rest of the ride was basically a 4-minute, indescribably lovely (the weather was perfect) trip through the outer limits of experience. And oh yeah, I stuck the landing perfectly.
After a lot of shouting and high fives I thanked everyone for the great experience, got in my car and headed for home. I didn’t get far though. I was so pumped with adrenaline I could barely drive. I eventually had to pull into a gas station and simply sit and stare into space for 10 minutes. Finally my head cleared and, reputation and sanity intact, I let out a huge yell, put my foot to the gas and turned up the music. Loud!