Wednesday, May 14, 2008

“If at first you don’t succeed, don’t try skydiving”

The wind gusted past the open door of the plane so loudly it was deafening. I climbed out of the plane by grabbing firmly to the strut as my feet groped for the wheel. Hanging on tightly I lifted my feet. My legs whipped out behind me in the wind stream. I let go and made a terrific, aggressive arch. I felt resistance from my chute but not a jerk as expected. Instinct took over as I reach up for something to hold on to, my toggles. Gripping firmly I pulled down both handles.
Over the one-way radio in my ear came a command, “Yellow chute, turn left”. This meant pulling my right toggle down hard and raising my left. Shortly after came more instruction, “Green chute turn left 90°.” A realization hit me, I don’t know what color chute I am. I was forgetting all I’d learned earlier.
That morning during the five hours of ground school I had formulated a mental list of all the life-saving highlights:
1) Climb out of the plane onto the wheel, holding the strut. This I had remembered.
2) Look at the Jumpmaster for sign to let go. This I forgot.
3) Let go and arch back immediately because the chute is attached to the plane by the static-line, which opens the chute automatically. Thank goodness or I could’ve forgot to open my parachute and you wouldn’t be reading this.
4) Look up to make sure chute is fully inflated and clear of tangles. I forgot
5) Pull down the toggles (strings with handles hanging down from the chute) to fully inflate cells. Instinct took over and I did it anyway.
6) If they did not inflate properly or the lines were tangled then pull the release cord and pull the handle for the emergency chute.
When we had come to the emergency chute information I became concerned and had raised my hand. The gruff Jumpmaster looked at me with frustration because I had been asking questions all morning. ‘The Jumpmaster’ was the title she deemed herself. She was obviously proud of the fact that she worked in a predominately male profession. She was tan and muscular but short. Her hair was short too, brown and curly. Her voice was dramatically sharp like a Chihuahua trying to sound tough.
“Have you ever had to use your emergency chute?” I asked thinking how different the two of us were. I professed my femininity with my pink flowered shirt and barrette holding my long blond hair. I was pale from being indoors mothering my four young children. I was taller with softer curves. My dimpled cheeks and gentle smile prevented me from ever looking ‘tough.’ The Jumpmaster looked to be in her twenties, me in my thirties. I was sure I looked like just a cookie-baker to her and I could tell she didn’t have a clue why I was there.
“Just once,” she answered with a look of painful remorse, “It broke my leg. You see the emergency chute is not the same as your main chute. It is smaller, with less drag. You come down hard and fast. If you’re lucky you’ll only break some bones but hopefully you’ll be alive.”
After ground school we ate lunch and I was hoping it wouldn’t be our last. Then we signed a waiver stating that if we died, our relatives wouldn’t sue but would pay for damages to the equipment!
As we approached the plane, I overheard a man tell the pilot to reach the 3500-feet jumping point quickly because the wind was really picking up. Looking across the dirt runway, I saw that the air socks were whipping frantically. I wanted to say, ”OK, maybe it’s not a good day to die,” but somewhere inside me I really wanted to do this. The plane was small with only one seat for the pilot. It was old and I was glad I had on a chute. Awkwardly I maneuver my bulky equipment to squat in the back next to the other two novice jumpers. I noticed the distinct scent of nervous perspiration.
Watching the altimeter strapped to my chest, I knew when we reached the 3500 feet mark. The first guy got in position by the door. As the door opened our ears filled with the sound of the rushing wind. As he let go of the strut we heard a loud thud. Panic ensued as we rushed to the tiny window but couldn’t see him. “It’s only the hook of the static-line,” the Jumpmaster yelled with a look of amusement at our obvious terror. At this point everything was going through my head, five hours of everything: arch back, pull release strap—NO! Don’t pull release strap, will break leg.
The Jumpmaster motioned me forward. She eyed me over in a worried sort of way. I’m sure she thought I didn’t have the stuff to do this. Then, female to female, she coached sternly in my ear, “I want you to be aggressive.” She’d warned us that she hated chickens at the last minute and threatened, “Don’t do it ‘cause I’ll throw you out anyway and deny it in court.” She didn’t know me at all.
My husband knew me and that’s why he gave me this experience for my birthday. He knew I’d cliff dived, scuba dived, surfed, rode motorcycles, climbed mountains, loved roller coasters, and ached for new adventures. The Jumpmaster and I weren’t so different inside—we both had a yearning to participate in life not be a spectator. We were both driven to experience sensations and thrills.
I gave her a wink and, appearing confident, climbed out of the plane.
After going through my list and realizing I was lucky to be alive, I looked up at my parachute. It was green and perfectly inflated.
Glancing down at my altimeter I saw it read 4000 ft! How could that be? I was supposed to be going down. For five hours we had discussed and rehearsed every scenario possible except going up­. It was always assumed we’d be going down¯! I noticed the other two chutes below me were drifting up and away from the airport also.
The wind was so fierce it lifted us. The sound of the wind terrified me as it whipped and tore at my chute. It all seemed so fragile: nylon cloth, rope, and a strap were all that was between sure death and me. My hands were numbing from the tightened grip on my toggles. I was holding on as if my strength was keeping me up.
What could I do? I wished I could ask, but the radio didn’t work that direction. My heart was pounding hard deep inside my heavy jump suit. Even though no one could hear me, I screamed. Finally a voice calmly stated, “It looks like you guys are in for a long canopy ride so enjoy it while you can.”
I looked down at my feet, dangling in the background of the earth’s geometric patterns, and at my altimeter that read 5025 feet! “I’m flying and even going up,” I thought. A sense of purpose and thrill of the moment filled me. Deciding to relax and have some fun, I pulled my right toggle down hard causing a full 360° turn. Then a stern and concerned voice came over the radio, “Green parachute stay facing the airport.”
Yellow chute seemed close to landing and a vehicle was approaching the new would-be landing spot some distance from the intended one. The extreme wind caused a new horrifying event, the yellow chute began to collapse. He was in the rare air pocket we had discussed only hours ago and falling like a bullet. I watched helplessly above. Then as if the hand of God scooped him up, a gust of wind lifted the chute. Miraculously the chute was tangle free.
The unpredictable wind shifted direction. We all started drifting back towards the airport. The other two skydivers landed safely near the airport as periodic instruction came over the radio to adjust to the changing course of the wind.
The vehicle went back at the airport as I got closer to the target. Anxiety mounted as my landing neared. The earth appeared painfully hard the closer it got. I saw the airport owner, Jack Guthrey, rushing towards me yelling, “Pull down your toggles when I say”. Surprised I could hear him and it made me realize how close I really was. I seemed to be falling rather fast and felt shaky inside. “Now,” he shouted. I pulled the toggles, which slowed my decent. I landed with a little jolt, but still standing.
Jack helped me gather my chute and then put out his hand to shake mine.
“Fine landing,” he stated, “I came out to meet you myself and inform you. Your jump made the record at our airport for the longest canopy. You were up there for 30 minutes! The normal jumps are a five minutes decent. Congratulations, you really got your money’s worth today.”
This jump took place April 1991


Britt said...

What a fabulous story! It gave me quite the anxiety rush! I'm glad you're alive today. Don't do anything else that's going to take my mommy away early in life!!!!!

Aim said...

Wow Anita--What an exciting story! I knew you were and artist, but I didn't know that you were a writer too!