The time I plummeted 14,000 feet

Monterey, October 7, 2001

I went skydiving with friends near Monterey, CA. We arrived at the jump center at about 1pm. We were going to be making tandem jumps, which means you're attached to an instructor who does all the real work. There were many forms to fill out requiring us to sign away our right to sue the jump center in event of INJURY OR DEATH. Then we watched a video tape made by the inventor of the tandem jump harness we'd be wearing. The inventor explained that the harness was still considered experimental under federal regulation and that use of it could result in INJURY OR DEATH. It may seem like I'm harping on this INJURY OR DEATH thing, but I can tell you these warnings left an impression.

I thought there'd be some basic training after all the INJURY OR DEATH warnings. Instead we simply waited in a big room with a bunch of other jumpers. The jump center was doing back-to-back flights and sending each load up as quickly as they could. We were on the 5th flight of the day. While we waited we read parachuting magazines. We discovered the unfortunate "Incident Reports" section, which described accidents that usually resulting in death by plummeting.

Our turn came after about two hours. They called our names, and our jump master loaded us into black jump harnesses. No flight suits. I kept expecting the basic training to begin, but there didn't seem to be any. After adjusting our harnesses, our jump master introduced us each to our instructors, whom we'd be harnessed to. My instructor was named Paul. Paul had a helmet, and I asked if I'd be wearing one too. He said no, but that he'd give me protective goggles. It turned out he'd forgotten the goggles and had to run back for them.

Harnessed and goggled, we climbed onto the plane. I wish I'd thought to ask what sort of plane it was. The cargo cabin (us being the cargo) was a narrow tube just wide enough for two people to sit side by side, and long enough for about six pairs of two people. There were no seats. There were seat belts hooked into a groove in the wall, but we didn't use them. I sat on the floor between Paul's legs. After everyone was settled, the jump master shut the door and we took off. Nothing about skydiving had seemed real until the moment of takeoff. When we left the ground I laughed excitedly. I'd had no fears or attacks of nerves. The door of the plane was clear plastic, and there were windows, so we could see the ground receeding below us. Now it was real, alright. We climbed for ten or fifteen minutes.

During the climb, Paul hooked my harness to his. I finally got my basic training. It was this: "When we jump, cross your arms, put your head back, thrust your hips forward, and bend your legs backwards between mine. When I tap your shoulder, spread your arms out. When I tap it again, cross them." Okey doke. Then Paul explained that we could slide to the door on our butts and drop our feet over the edge, or duck walk on our knees, then get to our feet and jump out head first. I wanted to go head first.

At 14,000 feet they opened the door and the wind rushed in. Several experienced jumpers went ahead of me, but my friends, John and Fahmida, were behind me, so I would go before them. The woman beside me who would've preceeded me balked. So, Paul and I got on our knees and duck walked to the door. The moment of truth.

This is the point that I always wondered about when contemplating skydiving. I thought I had the nerve to jump out of a plane, but how could I know until faced with the reality of it? And there's the hook. Looking out an open door three miles above the earth was the most unreal moment of my waking life. I wasn't afraid because my brain hardly knew how to interpret it. Nothing else in my experience had prepared me for this moment. It wasn't like leaning too far over a balcony railing. There were no parallels. It was an alien experience, almost an abstraction. In short, it was like a dream.

I jumped without hesitation.

Of course, I had Paul on my back. I don't know what jumping alone is like - yet - but Paul was definitely a comforting influence. Together, we went careening out the door of the plane. I put my head back, thrust my hips forward, folded my legs back between his, and he guided us into free fall. The first moments were exhilarating. It didn't feel like falling at all. Only the constant wind reminded me that we were rushing to the earth. The fall was completely comfortable and peaceful. After I relaxed into it, I could look around. We spun gently. There the ocean, there the mountains. There the plains, there the city. I spotted a blimp that I had noticed when we drove through town. We were above it. I saw Paul frequently checking the altimeter strapped to his wrist, which made me happy, oh yes.

After about a minute - that seemed like much longer - Paul tapped my shoulder and told me he was going to pull the 'chute. I crossed my arms and steeled myself for what I was sure would be a wrenching jerk. The harness dug into my thighs and armpits. Deceleration was sudden, but not as harsh as I'd anticipated. We were gliding! Suddenly everything seemed different. Though I'd felt almost no sense of falling during free fall, I felt very precariously suspended beneath the open parachute. Paul adjusted my harness to give us a bit more breathing space, and I felt a tinge of gut level fear as the straps loosened. Overall though, the constant tension on the harness provided a good sense of security.

We looked around some more on the way down. Paul pointed out more jumpers above us who were just opening their 'chutes. Then I got my next lesson. The parachute was steered by a pair of nylon straps with hand rings. There was a pair of rings for the instructor and another for the student, so Paul could give me control of the steering. To land, we were going to have to pull down on the straps while simultaneously lifting our legs. It's called flaring. We did a test run. I couldn't get my legs high enough, so Paul had me adjust my own harness to give my legs greater freedom. Adjusting my harness was the scariest part of the whole ride. I had to scootch the harness down my thighs, shifting my weight and forming a little seat.

We flared a couple of times on the way down, and I watched the ground rise up toward us. There was the landing field coming up quite fast now, other jumpers landing ahead of us. I spotted Tony and Andy, two more friends who stayed on the ground with cameras, and hollered for their attention. We made our landing approach, Paul steering us in tight turns. We dropped closer and closer to the ground, and Paul yelled "Flare!" Because of the trouble I'd had raising my legs, I was so focused on them that I completely forgot to pull down on the straps. I landed squarely on my butt from three miles up! Fortunately it was soft ploughed soil, and the landing was as gentle as if I'd sat down from a squatting position.

So that was my first jump. In hindsight, the entire experience seems dreamlike. It was so different from anything I've ever done, and there was just so much information coming into my brain, that's it's hard to isolate particular moments of it. It's like an overload of data, densely compressed. But I loved it and I'll definitely go again. And once you get your free fall license, you can do anything up there. Next stop, skyboarding!