Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Joy of Parachuting

One day, back in 1978, I looked “parachuting” up in the Yellow Pages, found a local “school”, and signed myself and a friend up for a Saturday morning expedition. This would be the fulfillment of a long-held dream.

Growing up in a town with a flying club, I expected to find a hanger, a few planes, and a tarmac runway. As we rattled up a dirt road to the address given, we were greeted with a 3-bay garage, a large expanse of grass, and a single airplane, reminding me of Sky King (which reference only children of the 50’s and 60’s are likely to appreciate). A scraggly looking fellow sauntered out to greet us. Some part of me was beginning to think this was not such a good idea. Being told that the primary training for flinging myself out of an airplane was to jump off this fellow’s workbench did nothing to allay my growing anxiety. Lynn, on the other hand, seemed to grow more excited with every moment.

My dread increased as we piled in the plane and headed toward the sky. Lynn was eager to go, so she was in the front seat, chatting and laughing. I sat in the back, trying not to be sick as my heart bounced like a drunken basketball between my throat and the pit of my stomach. When the time came, she stepped out on the wing, assumed the position, then jumped and did a perfect swan dive. Then she was out of sight. The pilot was circling as I moved into the front seat. Too humiliated to suggest we just turn around and go back, I went through the motions. Let me tell you what this involved.

The plane was a 4-seater, with wings atop the cockpit. Outside the passenger door there was a steel plate, about one foot square, which served as the step into – and out of – the plane. A strut began at the bottom of the plane and ran diagonally upward, attaching to the wing about four feet from the door.  First, you turn in your seat so your feet are on the steel plate outside the door and you are looking along the length of the wing. Next you reach out and grab the low end of the strut with your left hand. Then you haul yourself out of the plane, pivoting toward the front of the plane while grabbing the upper part of the strut with your right hand. (Remember, the plane is high up and moving.) Finally, you lift your right foot in the air and turn your head to the left so you can see the pilot and hear his direction to JUMP. It was at this point that it occurred to me that the pilot was going to have to land this plane with me standing out there.

JUMP! Such was the force of the command that I let go, and jumped backward, stepping off into empty space. After a moment the parachute opened and I had the opportunity to take a moment and look around. I felt like a milkweed seed, floating gently in space. The compelling experience was of total and complete silence. I fiddled with the controls on the chute to turn myself around and enjoy the landscape. Too quickly, the earth came up to greet me and I landed (with exactly the force of jumping off that workbench).  I was relieved and satisfied.

When the pilot landed the plane he came over and allowed as how he got a good laugh over my departure from the wing. “Your legs started going like you were running”, he chuckled. “You’re damn right, I was trying to get the @#$% back on that airplane”.

Clearly, there is a death-defying element to parachuting, and this experience taught me a lot about the gift of life. It is also perhaps my best example of moving through fear to achieve a desired goal. But most importantly it gave me a story to tell, one that has left people doubled over with laughter, especially when I act out the process of getting myself out of that darned plane. Do you have a story that you can share today?