"Plummeting into the Abyss!"
What better sensation is there than flying freely across the blue velvet sky? To dive into white cotton-like clouds where the only audible sound is derived from the wind as it breathes through the skin. With what jealousy have I always seen pelicans and eagles masterfully manage and control torrential wind currents to carry them across open land and turbulent waters? This here is my dream: to float among birds and clouds and thusly partake in the thrill of flight! Technology has rewarded us with that privilege, not quite in the same way as the aces in the sky but certainly above ground and through the clouds like them. The airplane is the vehicle that allows us to do just that. Unfortunately, a breezeless cabin robs us of the wind and the chronic sound of engines pollutes the stillness of the quiet heavens. Though the experience transcends terrestrial two-dimensional transportation, its sensation only leaves me with appetite for more. Popular freefall rides at carnivals and county fairs are invigorating and quite enjoyable but far too short and much too close to ground to justifiably call it flying. The only drink that will quench this growing thirst can only be the ultimate, which is plunging into empty space without the aid of the noisy mechanical marvels of our time. The answer is SKYDIVING!
One Saturday morning I prepared myself for just that.
"Hey Jim! Are we ready for some skydiving today?"
Jim is a friend whose experience in skydiving surpasses my years of existence on this planet! He started skydiving in the Army and continued to do it as a sport many years since. He is now fifty-one years old and still skydives at least once a month. That morning, after having breakfast, we drove for about an hour to an hour and a quarter to get to the "drop zone" in Gainesville, Texas. We were driving North from Dallas. It was a little breezy that day and the sky showered us with scattered white clouds. We arrived at the small airport around a quarter past eleven o’clock in the morning. There were only two or three visible hangers in the airport. One single propeller and two twin-propeller airplanes were parked at the head of the runway just outside of the hangers.
We walked into a half empty hanger the size of three-quarters of a basketball court. A girl in her twenties was rolling up a parachute into a small backpack; she was packing it. When she finished, she started on another one, apparently that was her job. Another gal, in her thirties, was carefully and slowly folding her chute. She was obviously packing her own chute to make a dive.
"What choices do I have in terms of skydiving for the first time?" I asked the older
woman behind the desk.
"You can do a Tandem jump or an IAD jump. However, IAD requires a full day of
training starting at around nine o’clock in the morning and it is already past
"IAD?" I repeated with a questionable tone.
"Yes, that’s Instructor Assisted Deployment!"
"I will do the Tandem then!"
In a Tandem jump, the student is attached to an instructor whose backpack is equipped with a parachute big enough to carry the weight of two. Before the jump, though, the student goes through ground school, which prepares him for the fifty-second freefall ride and for the deployment of the parachute. In-flight, after the ripcord is pulled and the parachute opens, the student is given the opportunity to assist the instructor in guiding the fall to a safe landing. My instructor’s name was Mike. He had all sorts of certification with over thirty-plus years of experience. Jim assured me that Mike’s credentials were on the up-and-up: "US Parachute Association instructor/Examiner, FAA Certified Master parachute Rigger, and FAA Certified Flight Instructor." Mike, like Jim, had also started skydiving in the Army. With all these introductions said, Mike gave me about half an hour’s worth of training on the ground. He introduced me to all the equipment, gave me some instructions to follow, and coached me in the art of a proper plane exit. He also mentioned that part of my training would be conducted in the air while we dropped. I would be able to deploy my own chute, under the supervision of the Tandem Master of course, as well as practice turning, slowing down, and finally landing.
I was given a set of overalls, a helmet, a pair of goggles, and a harness. Our load consisted of nine to ten skydivers, including myself that is. We all got into the twin propeller plane and started our taxi. It felt as though we were riding a bus. It was a shallow and narrow cargo bay with worn-out carpeting. We all sat on the floor in two files and faced each other’s backpacks. I sat in front of my instructor and the thirty-something year old woman sat between my legs in front of me. Jim was in the other file in a similar configuration. During takeoff, we all leaned towards the front of the aircraft to shift the weight and help the plane take off the ground. And off we went! We ascended slowly. I watched the airport as it went into the distance. At this point, we had to yell to overcome the noise of the engines. Once above ground, we redistributed the weight evenly and opened the translucent hatch about a foot to allow air into the plane. It was a hot July day! The ride was cozy and the fact that I did not know anybody from Adam, except Jim that is, did not prevent the group from sharing and celebrating the experience with me. I felt comfortable and among friends. They all eagerly welcomed me with joy into the sport! A sort of fraternity developed as we climbed into the heavens.
We made long wide circles while rising. We were going to ascend to thirteen thousand feet above ground before we jumped out of the plane. I had an altimeter strapped across my chest and I checked it periodically. The plane ride was somewhat bumpy and shaky. We hit a small air pocket in the way. I was checking my altimeter at two thousand feet when, quite suddenly, the cabin became dark. The once unveiled clear blue sky abruptly hid behind a thick wave of dark black clouds. Unexpected thunderstorms are not uncommon in this area, also widely known as Tornado Alley.
"We cannot jump through those clouds like that?" Mike said in a low tone.
Thunder was then heard in the background. I clasped to the side of the seat-less plane just by the window when I heard yet another commanding voice, the source of which I do not know: "WE HAVE TO JUMP NOW!" The tone alarmed me of course. All of us started placing our helmets on. The fuzz around the plane was intense! The coolness yet rapid reaction of the crew to this unexpected event was dreary and surreal. I felt my back pulled into Mike, the Tandem Master. He was strapping me into his harness. We all got up with our knees buckled and back slightly bent. The plane shook in reaction to our brisk movements. I do not know what was so wrong with the plane that propelled this response from the group but I was already too deep into it to be able to back out and too much of a novice to voice an opinion.
One of the parachuters whose name I do not know opened the hatch all the way and started waving us to it. Then, the rest of the group started darting out of the plane, one by one in a quick succession. The small plane bounced as its cargo was jettisoned, a load at a time. I was speechless and somewhat numb at this point. Since I was the first one to get into the plane, I was the last one to exit, with Mike that is. It was my turn to approach the hatch and as I did it I saw the last diver plunge into the open air, head first, and quickly float away. I stepped onto the edge and looked out. What a sight! The wing was to my right, the plane behind me, and gushing air was streaking across my face like a hurricane. It felt a little cold too. We then dove into the dead of silence! The drastic sound of the engine was absent and all I could hear was the wind as it squeezed between the folds of my overalls and gear. I was falling into an endless bottomless abyss. All my senses were stimulated to the brink of numbness. Adrenaline drowned and clogged every pore of my soul. My extended arms and legs lagged behind me as I fell through the vacuum. I lost complete perception of time and complete sense of history. I was no longer a citizen but a free soul plummeting through the sky. My wings were my arms and legs, which allowed me to change course and speed. I was flying! My whole body rested on a bed of air.
The thought of approaching ground at a low altitude without an open parachute suddenly struck me. This is when I felt all sorts of movements on my back as Mike quickly proceeded to try to deploy the chute. I suddenly felt a tremendous force hold me and pull me up. The parachute opened! We were still falling fast though! At a much slower rate but fast nonetheless. I could only hear a soft whisper as the ground rapidly approached. "It’s too late?" I sighed with eyes wide-open and legs down and out, awaiting the inevitable.
"OK. Put your goggles underneath your helmet!"
"Ah? … What? … Ohhh! Yeah, yeah! Got it. I’m ready!"
"We’re at thirteen thousand feet; we are ready to unload! Go, go, go, go!"