“I watched him strap on his harness and helmet, climb into the cockpit and, minutes later, a black dot falls off the wing two thousand feet above our field. At almost the same instant, a while streak behind him flowered out into the delicate wavering muslin of a parachute — a few gossamer yards grasping onto air and suspending below them, with invisible threads, a human life, and man who by stitches, cloth, and cord, had made himself a god of the sky for those immortal moments.” – Charles A. Lindbergh, contemplating his first parachute jump, ‘The Spirit of St Louis,’ 1953
A few days ago, I went skydiving for the first time.
My dad, my three brothers, and I packed into a truck and drove more than 250 miles for the privilege of jumping – intentionally – from a working plane.
I now know what it feels like to, as the saying goes, “sign your life away”. The waiver form that is required of each jumper contains more than eighty boxes that must be checked and multiple lines that require a signature. Some of the boxes, when checked, indicate that the jumper (or his/her surviving family) will not seek litigation against the skydiving company, the instructors, the aircraft manufacturer, the parachute manufacturer, the owners of the property being used by the skydiving company, and on and on. Essentially, if anything happens then the jumper assumes full responsibility. Another of the boxes, when checked, indicates that the jumper understands that PARACHUTES DO NOT ALWAYS WORK PROPERLY. That sentence was actually written just like that on the waiver, bold caps included.
And still we all signed; we all went through with it.
I stepped into a harness that ran over my shoulders, around my waists, and through my legs. On the back of the harness were a few clips where my instructor would connect himself to me. A few clips that would keep me attached to the person that had the parachute. I wore a leather helmet similar to what old-time football players wore. This wasn’t for my protection, it was so that if I panicked and threw my head backwards violently I wouldn’t knock my instructor unconscious. Him being awake is an important factor to the whole “open the parachute at the proper time and remain alive” calculation.
When it was our group’s turn, we climbed into a tiny airplane. The five of us – my dad, brothers, and I – along with our personal instructors filled the entire plane. We straddled a bench seat and sat silently while the plane climbed through the clouds. Mountains that loomed over the horizon while we were on the ground were tiny triangles that I could cover with a thumbnail. The farms that once stretched out around us, clinging to the banks of a large river, were indecipherable blotches split by a curving hairline crack of water.
At 13,000 feet above the ground, it was time to fall. A side door opened and I slid from the bench seat to the floor and stuck my feet outside, feeling the cold air rush past my legs. My instructor gave me a thumbs up, I returned it, and then I felt the grounded comfort of the airplane leave my body as my instructor threw us both into the open air.
It took a few seconds for me to remember to breathe.
The clouds rushed by us, the horizon line climbed towards us, and gravity welcomed our weight as the wind rushed through my ears and deafened the world.
We fell at more than 120 miles per hour, covering 8,000 feet in something like 45 seconds. Somewhere around 5,000 feet, my instructor released the parachute from the bag on his back and our descent slowed dramatically as the chute opened up and we floated above the earth.
As the waves of adrenaline coursed through my body, I finally understood why people are willing to throw themselves from working airplanes. It wasn’t about falling, it was about flying.
And for that brief time, I saw the world from an angle that most never do.