I had arrived at my friend, Tim’s apartment a little after eight on a Friday night. I assumed it would be another night of drinking beer and watching baseball on the television. He had this new thing called cable TV and always got a good picture.
Tim said, “Frank and I are going to go jump out of an airplane tomorrow, want to come?”
“Sure,” I said with no hesitation. There would be hesitation, but much later.
The next day, we hopped into Tim’s truck and drove to Dalton, Georgia, carpet capitol of the world, and about an hour’s drive north of Atlanta. On the way, I imagine the cars behind us were being spattered with the testosterone that was overflowing from the body of that truck. We were, by God, going to jump out of an airplane. A feat few humans had ever attempted and fewer survived.
We got to the dirt field outside of Dalton and were met by our jumpmaster, a soft-spoken man in his late twenties. He checked out our gear and gave us our jumpsuits. We had to wear our own boots and bring our own helmets. Two of us had motorcycle helmets. Frank had an old football helmet and looked like Jack Nicholson on the back of Dennis Hopper’s bike in Easy Rider.
We went through our paces, learning to fall and to roll. We were given instructions on what to do if this thing or that thing went wrong – not that it would. We were hung up in a harness and given simulated problems where we had to cut away the main chute and deploy the backup. This was in the days before they did tandem jumps. They used a static line to deploy the main chute as you left the plane, but after that, you were on your own.
This went on for several hours while we cooked in the summer heat, wearing full-length jumpsuits, helmets, and heavy boots. We broke for lunch, having received a caution not to eat too much for obvious reasons. It was an unnecessary warning as we were too excited to eat. We sat around and watched the more experienced jumpers go up and come down, talking technique and style. I assumed we would have neither.
Finally, the moment arrived and we were given our parachutes to strap on. These weren’t the colorful sports parachutes you may have seen in air shows. These were the old, round, green, army chutes. The kind Germans used to shoot at. The jumpmaster checked our gear once again and we headed toward the airplane, a Cessna 182.
The 182 is normally a four-seat plane, but all but the pilot’s seat had been removed. That and a modification to the door to allow it to stay open in flight were the changes that had been made to turn it into a jump plane. As we stood by the door. ready to board, we met the pilot who would supervise boarding.
“Who wants to go first?” he asked.
“I would,” I said. We’re not quite to that hesitation part yet. This meant that I would be the last to get in except for the jumpmaster who crouched on the floor next to the pilot. We all crawled in, sat in our assigned spots, and stared at our portion of the bulkhead. We were all sitting on the floor and were too low to look out the windows.
As we started rolling across the grass toward the airstrip, a thought occurred to me that I probably should bring up here. At the tender age of twenty, I had never been up in an airplane before. I wondered, in a sort of detached way, how I felt about flying. I had been so focused all day on jumping out of a plane; it never crossed my mind that I would have to fly in one first.
The jumpmaster had several jobs to do. The first of which was to determine, based on wind speed and direction where to jump. He didn’t do this as scientifically as you might imagine. While over the landing zone, he opened the door and threw out a small weight with a long colorful flag tied to it. However far down wind it landed, the drop zone is that far up wind. The side benefit to this exercise was I got to be the first jumper to see the ground from three thousand feet approximately two inches to my left.
While the pilot circled back around, the jumpmaster went back over the instructions.
“When I say get ready, pivot out so your legs are outside the plane. Put one foot on the step. Grab the strut with both hands and pull yourself out of the plane. I will yell go and tap you on the arm. Let go as you push yourself off. I want to see a good hard arch and I want to see you look up at me as you go through the count. On the count of six, look up and make sure your chute has deployed.”
He had hammered the idea of the arch into us earlier in the day. To make yourself aerodynamic, you bend your legs at the knees, hold your head high, and spread your arms like wings, but slightly behind your back. This causes you to fly in a stable fashion. The count was to go through the process of simulating a real jump. On one, you completed your arch. On two, you grabbed the dummy ripcord, and pulled it on three. Four and five allowed the chute to deploy and by six, you should be hanging under the canopy. If, after a few jumps, you did everything correctly, especially pulling the dummy ripcord, they would take you off static line.
He took my static line and clipped it to the handle bolted to the floor for that purpose. He then handed me a section of the static line.
“What do you want me to do with that?”“ I want you to make sure it is attached to the plane.”“ But I just saw you do it.”
“But if I made a mistake, you’re dead.”
“Good point,” I said as I gave the static line a couple of hard tugs.
About then, we reached the drop zone.
“Ready!” he yelled.
I assumed the position. At that point, I was hanging onto the outside of an airplane flying at sixty miles per hour, three thousand feet over the countryside. I’ve paid as much and stood in line at Six Flags for rides that weren’t this exciting.
“GO!” he screamed and tapped me on the arm.
We had now reached that moment of hesitation. I quickly went through my options. Get back inside, let go, or just keep hanging on.
“Go!” he repeated, tapping me a little harder. I think he was letting me know that option three was not a viable one. Since option one would be a hard one to live down, I went with two and pushed back from the plane, pulling back into a good hard….
There are a couple of things I want to explain here, and one thing that I really shouldn’t need to. The one thing is that the human brain is not really geared up for falling through the air at a hundred and twenty miles an hour. It doesn’t quite know what to do with that information and therefore quits processing any information at all. That brings us to the one of the things I wanted to explain which might save you time should you decide to try this sport.
Don’t waste a lot of time taking lessons, listening to lectures, and practicing procedures. We had just spent three hours covering every possible detail and contingency of this operation. At that moment, however, remembering my name would have been difficult.
The other thing I wanted to explain was that Chuck Jones had probably jumped out of an airplane at some point in his career. For those of you who don’t know, Chuck Jones was the cartoonist who drew Wiley Coyote. He obviously had first hand information about what a person (or coyote) does when suddenly confronted with the fact that there was no longer any ground under your feet. The flailing arms and pedaling legs are apparently deeply ingrained in some prehistoric gene. Not only was there was no arch, hard or otherwise, there was no grace.
At any rate, several days later – or six seconds in real time – my parachute opened. At least I guess it did. I never did look up to check. You would think this would be a very pleasing and joyful occasion, but I need to point out another lesson learned by trial and error.
This one is for the men. While still seated comfortably in the aircraft, make sure the straps that run between your legs and harness you to the parachute is located as strategically as possible. When the chute deploys, your velocity will drop from about one hundred twenty to two miles an hour. You will feel the brunt of this sudden deceleration at the shoulder straps and the seat straps. If the straps between your legs aren’t properly located, the result can be very painful. This will also make the rest of the ride down less enjoyable than it should be. That being said, when I did land, I was filled with a sense joy and wonder seldom repeated.
We spent the rest of that summer driving up to Dalton every few weeks and jumping out of airplanes. Since we only got a chance to jump once or twice a month, we never achieved the state of mind and proficiency to come off the static line, but it never lost the thrill, and sometimes the thrill hit a new high. I wanted to share one of those times with you.
One of the things you are taught in class is that once you are falling under the canopy, your descent is so slow that you don’t have a feeling of falling at all. Until you reach a point where you can see the horizon moving do you even feel like you are falling. Soon after that, you can look down and see the earth rising gently toward you. When everything comes together properly, you hit the ground as if jumping from a low bench, landing on your feet. If not, they taught you the technique of rolling to minimize impact. This method, which you practice many times, is feet, knees, hips, shoulder.
On about my third or fourth jump, the wind shifted and picked up while I was up there. Not having the experience to know this, I turned the parachute to face the same direction as always. In this case, I was facing the opposite direction I should have been. Not only was I facing downwind, which moves you faster, but the wind had increased.
I was still moving relatively slow compared to free fall, so I didn’t have a sense of speed until I got close enough to see the horizon in front of me. It didn’t’ look right, so I looked down. The ground was coming at me very fast. I was accustomed to seeing the earth reaching up to pluck me gently from the sky. Now it was about to slap me out of the air very hard. What I truly believed would be my last thought in life was, “Well, it’s been fun.” Most of you have probably already guessed that I lived through this, although with some possible brain damage.
A few seconds later, I was about to impact, so I bent my knees and turned to the side, chanting, “Feet, knees, hips, shoulder, feet, knees, hips, shoulder.” Gravity had other ideas and it turned out to be feet, SHOULDER! I slammed down on my side, but I immediately realized that I was alive, and I didn’t think anything was broken.
I also realized that my parachute was still open and was flying across the field at about fifteen miles an hour with me still attached to it. At this point, I would like to retract my earlier statement about the lessons being a waste of time. After a quarter mile or so of sliding across a very hard and rocky plane, I suddenly remembered something the instructor said.
“If you ever find yourself in a position where the wind grabs your chute and drags you across the ground, do the following.” My memory was that this was a very silly thing at the time I heard it. “Grab the shroud lines closest to the ground and start pulling them toward you. Eventually, this will let the air out of the canopy and you will come to a stop.”
Guess what? It worked. I finally stood up and gathered my parachute around me for the trek back to the landing zone. I was beaten, bruised, and bloody, but I was alive. When I finally got back to where everyone else was, my adrenaline turned to anger as the jumpmaster casually looked up and asked, “Where you been?”
Okay, since you asked, one more story. As I mentioned earlier, the first time I jumped from a plane was also the first time I flew in one. I actually took off in eight airplanes before I finally landed in one. I was supposed to land in one before that, but that particular pilot turned out to be a stunt flyer. After enduring loops, barrel rolls, and buzzing the people on the ground, (“If you don’t come away with grass in your flaps, you didn’t do it right.”), I decided I would take my chances with the chute and told him goodbye at three thousand feet.
The plane I actually landed in was a DC-3. The big twin-engine plane was used by the early airlines and in WWII as transports. There were twenty or so skydivers that were flying from Atlanta to Columbus to jump in a field close by with some soldiers from nearby Fort Benning. We were delayed for several hours while the mechanic replaced a part. This didn’t make me feel great about it, but everyone kept talking about what a great old workhorse the DC-3 was.
Finally, around lunch, we all boarded, stowed our gear, and sat on the floor around the plane. Like the Cessna, all seats had been removed – this was strictly a jumper’s plane. As we took off, I realized that not only had I never landed in a plane, I had never been in one over Atlanta. While the rest of the jumpers sat around and discussed formations and such, I wandered over to look out the window at the city below.
I was probably in awe as any first time flyer at the tiny little houses with the tiny little swimming pools. I couldn’t figure out exactly where we were, so I looked ahead to the horizon to see if I could spot any landmarks. That is when I saw the left propeller stop spinning.
Listening to my finely honed sense of self-preservation (the fact that I was jumping out of planes notwithstanding), I moved to the rear of the plane and put on my parachute. No one paid any attention – many people were working on and adjusting their rigs. I looked down at the altimeter on my reserve chute and saw it climb past two thousand feet. It wasn’t until I started fiddling around with the door that someone noticed.
“What are you doing,” someone asked.
“Well,” I said, “the left engine just quit, and I thought I’d beat the rush.”
I hadn’t noticed in the excitement that the plane had been turning for the last several minutes. One of the more seasoned jumpers went forward, then came back and said, “We’ve lost an engine but the pilot says don’t worry. He can land with one engine without a problem. He’s done it many times.”
We were told to sit and distribute our weight evenly while the pilot took us back to Peacthree-Dekalb Airport. I was the butt of many jokes as everyone needled the rookie about wanting to jump out of the plane just because it had lost an engine. I felt foolish and embarrassed until I felt the plane descend toward the runway for my first landing. That was when I noticed that all the laughing and joking and stopped. It had gone deathly quiet on the plane and I’m sure everyone was praying.