What possesses someone to jump out of a perfectly good airplane? I’m not sure I know how to answer that. I’ve just known for a long time that I wanted to do it. And lately, it’s been a stronger urging than a simple desire – it’s been more like a “need” to do it. Why? To find out what the sky tastes like. To push myself to the limit. To stare fear down and laugh in its face. To learn to let go of an airplane. To get fullness out of life. To float above the world and then settle down into it with a new perspective. To find out what I am capable of. To live abundantly. To test my own boldness.
There are three kinds of reactions when you tell people you jumped out of a plane. Some people think you’re completely nuts and have no comprehension of what would drive you to do something so insane. Some people think you’re nuts, but at the same time they admire and possibly even envy your courage for doing it. Some people can completely relate because they have already done it or know that at some time in their life they will do it so they want to know all the details.
For those of you who want all the details, pull up a chair and let me tell you. I think this is an experience I’m going to want to talk about for a long, long time, so I’m just getting warmed up here. (I have to warn you – this is going to be long. I’m writing it for me as much as you.)
The day started early. I picked up my friend Jo-anne who, when she turned 40 a few years ago, had also decided jumping out of a plane was on her list of things to do. On the way there, we were like giddy little school girls. “Do you think we’ll really have the nerve to do it once we’re up there in the sky?” “What do you think it will be like landing on the ground?” “Do you know that nearly every person I talked to about this knows of someone who broke their leg coming down?” “Did you hear that we have to CLIMB out of the airplane instead of JUMP?”
We arrived at Adventure Skydiving at 9:00 a.m. sharp. Little did we know though, that a 9:00 start time is more like a recommended time to arrive – not necessarily when the class would start. We walked into the brightly painted hanger (painted about 6 different VERY BOLD colours – I suspect it reflects the personality of the people whose passion is jumping out of planes) and found our way to the office. There were several people milling around. It was hard to tell if they were staff or fellow first-timers. Most of them seemed to know each other, so we sensed that they were somehow connected to the place. One or two people were busy packing parachutes into their very small packs. One fellow in particular caught my eye. Everything about him screamed “California surfer dude without the surf” (except that he didn’t have blonde hair). Actually, he looked (and talked) alot like Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. On a cool morning, he was the only one dressed in a t-shirt and shorts. And there was a casual “how’s it hangin’?” air about him. I suspect that similar kinds of people are drawn to the surfboard and to the parachute. He didn’t look too bright, and my first thought was “that can’t possibly be our instructor.” (Of course, you know how this will end, don’t you?) After packing a chute, he went upstairs to the loft and played an arcade game while we waited.
In the office, we signed our lives away. Yes, we were aware that what we were about to do could lead to our deaths or at least serious dismemberment. Yes, we were willing to give up all our rights and never, ever sue the company. No, we did not have serious injuries or conditions hindering us from jumping. Yes, even if we died, we promised that our estates would never, ever sue the company. And one of the scariest things on the form – the ONLY thing they would guarantee was that the parachutes we would use had been used before! No, it didn’t say they had been used SUCCESSFULLY before – just that they weren’t new out of the box. For all we knew, they might have wiped the blood from the last jumper off the chute before packing it for us.
Around 9:45, our instructor (yes, of course, it was Keau-Reeves-look-alike-arcade-playing DUDE – what else did you expect?) gathered those of us who were taking a first-timer course into the classroom. There were ten of us – six twenty-something friends who probably bet each other while inebbriated that they had the balls to jump out of a plane (including one girl, who also talked about balls now and then), a 40-something guy and girl who knew each other but didn’t seem to be a couple, and Jo-anne and I.
One of the first things instructor-dude told us was “most of your chutes are packed, but we’re still waiting for some of the guys to show up to finish the rest. They’re still too hungover from last night, but they’ll get here.” And I said “oh, thanks for that little bit of comfort – assuring us that our chutes are being carefully packed by hungover party dudes”. Hmmm…
Some people have asked what I did all day, since I didn’t jump until 3:00. Well, there are alot of things to learn before you go up in that plane. One of the first things you learn is how to get out of the plane. It might seem simple, but believe me, that is by far the HARDEST part. No, you don’t just let go of the door and jump. You have to CLIMB out of the plane, stand on a step on top of the wheel, hang onto a strut coming down from the wing (all while the wind is blowing at you about a hundred miles per hour), slide along the strut up to the end, take your feet off the step (yes, by that point, you’re hanging in the air by your fingertips), bend your head back, and then let go. YES it IS as tough and heart-stoppingly frightening as it sounds.
So you can imagine – in order to get that all right when you’re 4500 feet up in the air, you have to practice. And practice again. And again, while instructor-dude shouts at you like a drill sargeant. In our case, after watching it happen several times on video, we all went outside to the roughly built wooden practice plane to go through our paces. “Slide your right foot along the step (while keeping contact so that the wind doesn’t whip your foot against the side of the plane), put your left hand out onto the strut, right hand out, then your whole body, placing your left foot next to the right – now slide to the end of the wing.” Yes it DOES have to happen in that order.
What else did we practise? Well, when you let go, you have to put your legs shoulder-width apart, throw your hands above your head, and arch your body. This is the part where instructor-dude said “guys, this is your chance to thrust your hips forward and shout to the world ‘I have a very large penis!'” Yes, he was that classy. Once you’re arched, you have to count 5 counts, and then check right and check left to make sure your chute has deployed properly.
This brings us to the really interesting part… how do you KNOW that your chute is deployed properly? Well, there are 4 things to watch for – the right shape, no cords wrapped around it, no spinning, AND it hasn’t forgotten to deploy entirely. Trust me, you want to memorize these malfunctions if you ever take the leap. They are firmly embedded in my mind. I even dreamed about them last night.
And if it malfunctions, you need to know how to get rid of your main chute and deploy your reserve. This is the part where you think “What the @#!!@$! am I doing planning to jump out of a plane with a chute that MAY NOT deploy?” But, by that point, I was pretty committed, and if there’s something you should know about me, it is this – I AM STUBBORN. Once I decide to do something, it would take broken limbs or a raging tornado to change my mind. Since neither of those things had happened, I was in for the long haul.
With all that training spinning around in my brain, we took a break for lunch. My greatest fear was that I would forget something essential when it really mattered. “Was that punch right and then punch left to get rid of my chute and deploy
the reserve? What if I punch left first? What if I put my right hand onto the strut before my left hand?” Oh, my whirling, twirling brain!
After lunch, we had a few last minute things to learn – like how to control your chute once it is fully and properly deployed, how to tell which way the wind is blowing, how to land, etc – and then it was test time. Yes, there’s a test. I guess they don’t want to take anyone up in that plane if they’ve been sleeping through the course. Forty questions later, I handed in my test and went back to the hanger to wait for the green light to jump. Instructor-dude came out a few minutes later and called each of us over to let us know what we got wrong and what the right answers were. No, there was no 50% passing grade on this one. One single mistake could mean your life. I got only one wrong, and once he’d ensured I knew the right answer, I had to initial the question I got wrong so that he couldn’t be held liable for mis-instructing me.
By this time, my family had arrived to watch the excitement. (Well, most of my family – Nikki’s still at her friend’s cabin and was quite happy to miss watching me jump out of a plane.) Marcel, Julie and Maddie were there, as were my Mom and Paul. Once again, it’s interesting to note the differences in people’s reaction. My kids – well, Nikki hated the idea of watching me, Julie is dying of jealousy and is determined to get a job there so she can jump as often as possible, and Maddie was so busy making friends with a couple of other kids hanging around there that she was fairly oblivious to what was going on. When it comes to parents, it’s different too. Mom was thrilled to watch, and probably would do it herself (she’s a bit of an adventure junkie too), while Marcel’s mom was horrified and probably spent the whole afternoon at home with her rosary praying for my survival.
Jo-anne and I were the last group to go (there were two or three jumpers per plane-load and only one plane, so it took 4 flights), so we watched everyone else jump first before we suited up. In the second plane-load, one of the twenty-something party dudes came back down in the plane. He’d lost the nerve and couldn’t jump. I hope his ego survives the ribbing he’ll inevitably suffer.
“Jo-anne and Heather – time to suit up.” It was our turn. First you find a jump suit that fits. I slipped into mine. Sweaty arm-bands. Yuck – someone had used it just before me. But by the time I had it that far on, I didn’t want to bother finding another one. I’d just have to put up with the reminder of someone else’s fear.
The pack they slide onto your back and buckle to your shoulders and legs is HEAVY. And by three o’clock in the afternoon, it was HOT outside. Between the jumpsuit, the parachute, the helmet, and the fear, I was sweating. And dry. All at the same time. Both Jo-anne and I were feeling excrutiatingly parched, but the last thing we wanted to do was have to undress to pee, so we didn’t drink anything.
When the plane was ready for us, we climbed on board. The plane… hmmm… what can I tell you – it doesn’t instill a great deal of confidence in you. For one thing – it’s tiny. The interior is smaller than the interior of a volkswagon beatle, and you have to get four or five people in there WITH packs on their backs. You feel like one of those clowns that piles out of the tiny car at the circus, along with seven of his closest friends. You have to fold your body into painful shapes, crouching on your haunches to fit into your tiny space.
Once we got in, we looked around and realized it wasn’t like those NEW VW beatles – it was more like one of those old hippie beatles from the seventies. Forty years past its prime. The interior is ancient and it’s held together with red duck tape. I put my arm on the small arm rest, and it fell off. Nope. Not a real confidence booster!
As much as it seemed like an old beater (I half expected to watch the runway through a rusted hole in the floor), the take-off went smoothly. It was my first experience in a small plane, and it was a rush. I loved it. It feels somehow more visceral and connected to the sky than a flight in a air-pressure-controlled jet. I’d love to do it again sometime. Perhaps the next time I’ll do it without jumping out, so I can enjoy the ride a little more.
The plane climbs higher and higher, circling around the small airport. I kept glancing out the window and watching for the runway. Our landing strip was right next to the runway. One of my greatest fears was that I’d jump out of the plane, lose my bearings, and have no idea where to come down. (I forgot to mention that just after we arrived in the morning, we saw someone jump and she floated WAY off course – they had to send a truck out to try to find her.) The sight of the landing strip was a bit of a touchstone for me while I grappled with my fear.
Jo-anne was the first one out. In preparation, the instructor (not our classroom instructor, but a cuter, friendly, less crass instructor who instilled a great deal of confidence by looking at us with his beautiful relaxed eyes, and believing we could do it) had her kneel down as though she were kissing the floor. He removed the pilot chute from her pack and held onto it (he would deploy our chutes by releasing the pilot chute after we jumped.) Once we reached 4500 feet, he opened the door. Wind filled the plane. A few moments later, he nodded to Jo-anne, smiled reassuringly, and gave the command “Get all the way out!” Inching past him, she slid her right foot out, then her left hand, her right hand, and her left foot. “I’m going to slip!” she shouted to the instructor, and sure enough, before she’d reached the end of the strut, she slipped. Like a shot, she disappeared beneath us. I glanced out the window just in time to see her chute deploy. Whew! Even though she hadn’t managed to follow the instructions to a T, she’d survived. If she could do this, I could do this!
We circled once more, and then the instructor nodded at me. I knelt close to the door in front of him and kissed the floor. With the wind whipping at my face, the instructor leaning over me, and the fear gripping me, I felt suddenly claustrophic. Let this be over soon, I prayed silently. I didn’t mean the jump – just the odd prostate position I had to hold next to a wide-open plane door while he prepared my chute. He tapped my shoulder and I sat up. Then came the command I’d waited for… “Get all the way out!” Aaaahhhh! This was it! I was about to leap!
I can hardly describe those next few seconds (they felt more like minutes but were really very short). I think my brain and body went into survival mode. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t feel – I could only act. “Right foot, left hand, right hand, right foot.” I was numb – the fear felt like a cloud wrapped tightly around me constricting my breath. “Move,” was all my brain communicated to my body. “Do not think, do not look down, just move.” And move I did, inching along the strut like I’d practiced. I felt the instructor’s foot next to mine, coaxing me along. My feet left the step and I was hanging. For only a moment, though. I glanced at the instructor, looked up at the red dot on the wing they’d told us to look for (to ensure we were looking up when we left the wing and were ready to launch into the arch position) and let go. Wow! I let go!
While the climbing out felt like a suspension of feelings, thoughts, and emotions, the letting go felt like they had all come back, sharpened to 150% in their focus. Adrenaline rushed through my veins. The thought I remember was “I have just done the scariest thing I have ever done (by choice) in my life!” As the thought entered my mind, I felt the gentle tug of the chute deploying and my body following it into an upright position. I didn’t have time for the five count. I don’t think I even THOUGHT of the five count. Before I knew it, my chute was perfectly deployed and I was floating. FLOATING! 4500 feet above the earth!!!! Now I know what the sky tastes like! It ta
stes incredible. It tastes like a life fully lived.
As I floated down from the plane, I had the feeling that my perceptions were powerfully enhanced. Every sight and sound and sensation was bolder than it had ever been. Every moment felt like a lifetime wrapped in a second. “This is so much more than I could have dreamed of,” I thought. “I have never felt so alive!”
Coming down is much easier than I thought it would be. A ground controller talks you down through the radio strapped to your chest. “Jumper 2,” he says, “45 degrees to the right,” and you tug your right toggle and feel your chute turn to the right. At 45 degrees, you release the toggle. A few moments later, “Jumper 2, Jumper 2, 90 degrees to the left,” and you see the runway beneath you. From up above, I watched Jo-anne land successfully on the designated landing strip. I saw my family near the hanger. “Jumper 2, you’re doing just great.” I was headed directly toward the windmill at the Steinbach Mennonite Heritage Museum. “Jumper 2, 180 degrees to your right,” and the landing strip was in front of me. “Jumper 2, relax and get ready to land.” The ground was quickly approaching. “Jumper 2, eyes on the horizon. Ready, now FLAY!” and I pulled down hard on both toggles, my feet touching the ground. My body collapsed straight forward, gently crumpling to the ground.
I stood up, threw my arms into the air, and shouted. “Woohoo!” I looked around me and saw the video camera pointed toward me. “Woohoo!” I shouted again and leaped into the air. I was alive! SO alive! More alive than I’d ever been!
Before long, I spotted Julie and Mom running toward me. I gathered my chute and headed toward them. The world was strangely silent. I saw the plane landing on the runway in front of me, but I heard no sound. The only sound that registered was the sound of my own breathing, strangely loud and accentuated in my ear. It was the sound of life. My life.
There you have it – the story of my jump. It was all the things I dreamed of and more. It was life-affirming and life-altering all at the same time. When I looked at myself in the mirror that evening while I brushed my teeth, I saw a woman who I respected more than I ever have in my life. That woman in the mirror had jumped out of a plane. She was incredible. She was bold. She was powerful. I went to bed knowing that if I can jump out of a plane, I can do so many more powerful things in my life. Watch out world – here I come!
Only 38 things left to do on my list!