This blog is focused on my upcoming trip to Australia, but I had an amazing experience yesterday that I would like to share with you all.
Like most people, I have always wondered what it would be like to fly. As a child I used to pretend that I was superman, an airplane, a bird, anything that flew through the air. I ran through the yard with my arms spread out like an airplane, simulating weird engine noises whenever I would make a turn or go into a steep dive. Well, yesterday I got to fly for the first time, and it wasn’t by riding in an airplane. It was by jumping out of one.
Skydiving has always been of interest to me as a natural consequence of my desire to fly. I have always wanted to do it, but never thought that I would until the beginning of fall last year. I decided to wait until spring to make my jump, as I wanted clear and sunny skies for my first time.
I got lost four times on my way to the skydiving center in Tullahoma, TN. I had to call the center twice for extra directions. I finally found the place and arrived 30 minutes before my scheduled time at 9:00 a.m. I met some of the other people who were diving (also first-timers), signed a form saying that I wouldn’t sue the company if I was injured and that nobody in my family could sue them if I died, watched a three minute video, and then sat down with the owner of the skydiving center to learn about how to position yourself during freefall. I was skydiving in tandem, meaning that there would be a guy strapped onto my back who would monitor our rate of fall, control our descent, and deploy the parachute.
Then I was introduced to David, who was my instructor and tandem skydiving partner. He gave me a huge jumpsuit to wear over my clothes and then took me over to the airplane hanger where he strapped my harness on. Then he put his parachute on, handed me some clear diving goggles, and we got into the plane. We were the first ones in the plane and the last ones out.
We were in a 1946 cargo plane, so there was no seating area, or any kind of area meant for people. We sat in a huge toothpaste-tube-shaped cylinder where they used to store luggage and cargo. There were thirteen of us crammed in there. Four of us were jumping tandem with an instructor, two people were diving alone, and there were three cameramen. We all sat on the floor with the guy in front of us sitting between our legs and leaning back on our chests. When we were only a few minutes away from making the jump we shifted onto our knees so that the instructor could strap himself onto our harnesses, and so we could put our goggles on.
The ride up was nice and easy. Everyone chatted kindly with one another and talked about how great the weather was for a dive. David asked me how long I had wanted to skydive and if I had any family or friends down on the ground waiting for me. I told him that I had come alone, and he laughed. “That’s the sign of a guy who really wants to do it,” he said. “This is going to be the greatest thing you’ve ever done, trust me.”
I asked David how long he had been skydiving and what made him do it for the first time. He said his brother and sister-in-law went skydiving to celebrate their anniversary and encouraged him to try it. He gave it a shot, loved it, and made it into his career. He had been skydiving for 3 and 1/2 years, and had over 700 jumps to his credit. There were several other people on this jump who had 3,000 or more jumps under their chute.
I had not experienced any anxiety or nervousness about the dive until we were about 6,000 feet in the air. The cargo hatch door was about ten feet in front of me, but I had an angle to where I could see the ground far below us. “Holy crap!”, I thought. ”I’m going to be jumping out of this thing in just a few minutes!” Amazingly enough, this anxiety quickly passed and I was back to normal. This surprised me more than anything. I had always thought that I would experience extreme fear and trepidation when I went on my first skydive, but aside from that brief moment, I felt no fear at all. While I sat in the cargo bay I wondered if I would feel that way once I was standing at the edge of the plane with the wind whipping through my hair.
Once we had reached 12,000 feet we heard a shout from the pilot crying, “Door!” The two people closest to the cargo hatch raised the door and immediately did Superman-esque dives into the air and vanished from my sight. The tandem divers ahead of me all started duck-walking toward the open door (the ceiling was too short for anyone to stand up) and dove out of the plane. Then it was time for David and I. We scooted right up to the edge.
Let me take a moment to describe the process of this kind of skydive. Once you reach the edge of the plane you sit down on the floor with both of your feet dangling over the side. The wind hits your feet at about 100 miles per hour so your legs immediately get blown to the side. But you have a 185 lbs guy strapped to your backside, so you’re not going anywhere. At this point you cross your arms over your chest and wait for your instructor to get you both out of the plane. He does this by leaning forward (or outward) once, then back, and then leans forward again, at which point you are flying through the sky end over end for the first five seconds of your freefall. When he’s ready for you to be in your freefall position he slaps both of your shoulders, and you immediately lay your body out flat and spread your arms in a 90 degree angle. You arch your back, tuck your legs together and hold them back like you’re trying to kick your instructor in the butt, and keep your head up. You fall in this position for 7,000 feet at about 120 mph, so your freefall lasts for about 40 or 50 seconds.
When I reached the edge of the plane I swung my legs out, sat down, and looked out of over the ground some 12,000 feet below me. It was beautiful. The ground was nice and flat, and full of green trees and farmer’s fields that were cut with beautiful criss-crossed patterns in them. I could see the tops of houses and buildings speckling the countryside like pepper, and before me, a seemingly endless horizon where the clear blue sky never quite touched the ground. The wind was loud in my ears and blew my hair all over.
Some of you maybe be surprised to learn this, but I am a man plagued with incessant self-criticism. Everything that I say and do is filtered through a lens of intense inspection and examination. I do not know if this will ever leave me, or if it is an affliction that I must contend with until the morning dew shimmers over my grave, but it has been a vital part of my consciousness for as long as I have been self-aware. It has been of great benefit to me because it always forces me to try to do better, to be better, to experience more, to learn more, to love more fully, to grow more wisely, and to gnaw at the bone of life and suck the marrow out of it. It has also been the cause of much private despair, displeasure and self-doubt over my failed enterprises and lack of accomplishments.
So I must trust you to believe that I am not trying to fabricate any sense of bravado when I say that I felt no fear. There was no anxiety, and no tension. I was utterly devoid of pain, grief, and worry. I felt no affliction of the mind or the soul. I looked out upon that beautiful earth and was surprised to feel complete peace within myself. In that moment, I owned the world.
I have experienced some dangerous and lethal encounters. I have been on my deathbed in a hospital, been in serious car accidents (I was not driving in any of them), experienced the early stages of drowning (when my lungs began to fill with water), swam with dangerous and predatory animals (at times I was unaware of just how dangerous they were), choked and saved (twice), had a roof collapse on me, and if you believe anything that my brother says, was saved from a puffer fish and certain death when we were swimming off of the coast of Maui. But in spite of it those situations, and many other life-altering decisions and experiences, I have never been affected by an event so singular as when I fell like Icarus from the sky.
David and I rocked forward, and back, and then fell out of the plane. We tumbled end-over-end for a few seconds and then got into freefall position. It was incredible. I was falling at 120 mph, hurtling towards the earth and my possible destruction. The wind whipped past me with incredible ferocity. The rush was absolutely exhilarating. My heart rate skyrocketed from the intense experience, but I was not afraid. I was extatic. I felt a fullness of life that I had never experienced before. I was Zen.
To my great surprise, I did not see the earth approach me as I fell. The view from 12,000 feet was no different from the view at 5,000 feet when David deployed the parachute. David pulled the rip cord and I felt a gentle tug in the harness as we slowed from 120 mph to 15 mph in less than a second. We began a slow descent to the earth, which took around seven or eight minutes. There are two cables that run down from the parachute with strap handles on the end of them, which are used for steering. I took them and steered us slowly to the left, and then again to the right. Then David told me how to do a spiral, by pulling down hard on one strap and letting up on the other. I pulled hard with my left hand and suddenly we were in a tight spiral dive, with the horizon spinning incredibly fast before our eyes. I tried it several more times and laughed with joy.
The landing was not as I thought it would be. I remember seeing videos of military operations where those guys would hit the earth fast and hard, and have to do a roll on the ground to try to avoid breaking a leg. This was as light as a feather. You cruise into the grass with your legs up high like you’re doing an ab workout and land on your butt, to absorb the shock. In our case though, we came in a little too fast, so David yelled at me to put my feet down at the last second. It was such a gentle touchdown that I didn’t even know I was on the ground until I felt the parachute falling to the ground behind me.
When it was over I spent a while chatting with David about the dive, and I thanked him and gave him a big hug. I got out of the harness and returned the jumpsuit, and spent a little time hanging out with the other divers and the people who worked there. They gave me a certificate to show that I had completed my first skydive and I drove away from that little airport with the pulse of life rushing through me.
They say that a man can’t know the scope and fullness of life unless he has tasted love, poverty, and war. I have experienced the first two of these criteria but am yet to know of the last first-hand. I suppose this means that I am only two thirds of the way there, but I believe that the awesome power of my first skydive has thrust me a little closer. It is an experience that I hope to undertake many, many more times and shall never forget.