“I’m a Jumper!” read the t-shirt behind the glass-case counter. I looked up and noticed a clipboard being shoved in my face. I smiled, half in a haze, at the woman smiling back behind the counter. I glanced behind me to find a place to sit, and found that all the sitting space was already taken up by other people in our group filling out their clipboards.
I moved to the side of the counter. My eyes gleamed through the short disclaimer paragraphs. I half smiled as I came to the section that said, “will not sue.” I looked over at my brother, who was filling out his form, to make a joke about it. Everyone else was intensely studying the form as if their life depended on it. I decided to keep my mouth shut.
Hmmm… maybe I was missing something, but I didn’t see how initialing these boxes was worth any focus at all. I half-initialed each box and signed at the bottom. The resurfacing thought of me suing was enough to still bring back a silent chuckle. I handed my clipboard back to the woman behind the counter. It amazed me that a 20-minute video about the “Three B’s For Beginning Skydivers” and a two-or-three-page waver/disclaimer was enough to prepare us to jump out of an airplane – even with being clipped on to the front of an instructor.
After everyone had returned their clipboards to the counter, the woman announced that our group would be split up into two groups: one with USMC, Sgt. Soper and his wife, and a second group with me, my brother James, and Arial (who had just graduated from high school). My brother had arranged the group and the scheduled the jump. This was his third jump, which qualified him to jump unattached to an instructor. He chose to go attached anyways. Hmmm, what would I choose if it were my third jump?
Sgt. Soper and his wife were taken aside to put on their harnesses and to get a pre-capped version of what they would be doing. I took the opportunity to take a look around the small dome-shaped, tent-like, hanger building. I immediately noticed two grungy teenagers very carefully packing their chutes in preparation for their next jump. Instructors spoke nearly in-audibly to one another, probably about who would take which student.
Framed, autographed pictures of people I didn’t recognize lined one wall – all saying, “Thanks for this once-in-a-lifetime experience” and “Thanks for helping me fly”, etc. Various sky-diving posters and photographer/videographer advertisements lined the other walls. My brother invited me to the back of the hanger-thingy building with him to watch the Sopers take off. We watched the blue airplane with about four circle windows along the side fade off into the distance. Nobody waved back at us. They must have been too focused… or nervous.
We waited around for what seemed like 20 or 25 minutes before we finally spotted a micro-tiny dot in the blueness high above our heads. Suddenly, and quite magically, six or seven parachutes appeared out of nowhere. We silently picked out the Sopers and watched until they were safely on the ground. We knew our turn was next.
I studied their reactions to their jump as I mentally prepared for our turn. They were both smiling and seemed a little jittery. Mrs. Soper couldn’t get her hands to stop shaking. Her instructor laughed and said, “look, my hands are shaking too.” He made his hand tremble.
She laughed and mocked back saying, “It’s OK. You did a great job out there.”
Now it was our turn. I met my instructor, a white, short South African wearing a t-shirt and desert-camouflaged pants. Arial was getting a full HD video and pictures of her jump. My instructor explained some of the maneuvers we would be doing before our chute opened. We would be doing a few slow rotations with our bellies towards the world and would also streak across the sky with our arms to our sides. Then he would put my hand on the little plastic ball to the side of the chute pack and I would be in charge of pulling the cord to open the chute.
Within seconds, I was harnessed, groinally adjusted (by me!), and found myself walking towards the blue plane. As I climbed the ladder, paying close attention to where I put my feet, I racked my head against a metal beam in the ceiling of the plane. I rubbed away the sharp pain and climbed into my spot along the bench.
Within what seemed like just a few more minutes, my instructor’s altimeter read 1000… or maybe it was 10,000 – either way, we were close to jumping altitude. In a thick South African accent, my instructor quickly previewed our jump one last time as he hooked us together at four points – two hip and two shoulder. A clear sheet of plastic (aka: the goggles”) was placed snugly over my eyes.
Suddenly the plexi-glass door was slid out of the way and those grungy teenagers were bailing out, diving into the sky. One second after them, went my brother and his instructor. Now, there was nothing but a little space that separated me from the open hole in the side of the plane.
We scooted on our butts quickly towards the door. I quickly tried to remember the “3 B’s”… Basket, Bastard, Banana! No wait, Bug, Bunny, BANANA! No, BIG, Buhhhh, BB… Yeah, a lot of good the three Bs did me. The earth stretched out in front of us like an iMax screen as we stepped up to the jump step.
One giant thrust and the airplane was suddenly above us. I only caught a quick glimpse of it as we toppled backwards head over heels. And then head over heals again.
The noise of the air rushing by my ears was intense. It sounded like the noise an airliner makes as it comes in for a landing… except louder and not from the inside of the cabin. Just for kicks, I tried to scream at the top of my lungs, but could only hear the sound of that air blowing by us at over 100 MPH.
Now we were in the Banana position in the air: arms outstretched and balanced on our belly buttons – slowly rotating in a circle, viewing the horizon around us 360 degrees.
I looked down at the world as we fell towards it. I must have had a head cold too because one side of my forehead felt like a knife was stabbing into it. I blotted out the pain and the worry that my forehead was going to explode and focused on our next maneuver.
The instructor grabbed my hands and moved them back towards my waist – signaling that it was time for the sky-streaking move. Quite impossibly, the air got even louder as we shot a good 25 meters across the sky head first.
After completing the maneuver, we continued to fall belly first, arm out like wings. I felt my hand being moved back onto the plastic ball. I paused a second or two and then gave the ball a good, hard tug. My instructor sloppily and quickly grabbed for my chin and the strings of the chute. It didn’t open.
I tipped my head back towards the air above us and saw that the cords on one side of the chute had ripped out of the chute pack and were fluttering in the air high above the canopy. The instructor released my chin and was now quickly searching the other side of the backpack for the reserve chute. We plummeted faster and faster towards the earth. Just kidding. The chute opened just fine.
For the next few seconds it felt like the sky and the earth were using us as a tug of war. My harness felt so tight – like I would be ripped out through the bottom of it and pulled by gravity to my timely demise.
Gradually we slowed and I got to adjust in my harness a little. The instructor let me hold the handles and maneuver the chute. The overwhelming noise of the wind was gone now and I could see other parachutes far below us- each taking their turn to land.
My instructor said, “Hey, Joey! Look right!” Off to the right, gently floating down towards us was my brother (hooked to the front of his instructor). We waved to each other and signaled a thumbs up.
I called over, “Hello James!” and he said, “Hello over there ol’ chap!” What a couple of goof-offs we are. I bet I looked just as silly spread eagle hooked onto the front of my instructor like a baby in a Snuggly.
“Top o’ the monin’ to ya ol’ boy!” I called back. Then my instructor told me to look left. Arial hoovered just slightly above us sort of dangling from her instructor. We all looked pretty silly: goofy smiles on our faces, dangling from our instructors, waving at each other from a mere 20 or 30 feet apart.
We floated around in the air for awhile it seemed before our turns to land. We did a quick last-minute barrel-like maneuver by pulling hard on the left handle. It made my gut go into my chest sort of like on a theme-park ride but much more intense.
I lifted my feet up for the landing, just like they showed on the video. My instructor pulled hard on the handles at the last second to slow us to a near halt at just a few inches from the ground. As soon as my instructor’s feet hit the ground, he yelled, “OK. Put your feet down!” I dropped my feet and felt the gravel slide below my soles and we skidded to a quick stop.
People were there to grab our chute, and I was unhooked from my instructor. I ran and caught up with James and Arial and headed back towards that weird-looking building thing. Once inside, we had our harnesses removed and were each given a jump book to record our first parachute jump. My instructor said, “Thanks for pulling the cord and saving my life.” I laughed at him.
Will I do it again? I don’t know. My instructor did a great job of making me feel safe and secure and that everything was under control. It was also a unique and quite awesome event that I have found myself reflecting on the past few nights as I stand in the shower or lay in bed waiting to fall asleep.
I have a wife and three kids, no life insurance (what a rush), and I was ultimately insured by a sturdy harness, four carabiners, two chutes packed by an 18-year-old kid, an altimeter, and the experience of my instructor. If any of those had failed, death would have been a pretty sure thing.
On the other hand, from what I observed, everyone doing their jobs seemed professional and competent. It was a lot of fun… well, that and my brother paid most of it for me. Maybe I will do it again someday.