Perfectly Good Airplane.

There’s an old saying about skydiving that only a fool would jump out of a “perfectly good airplane.” Well, count me as a fool, because I let a bunch of friends convince me that skydiving would be an awesome adventure.

We all piled into our cars and drove out to the local grass-strip airport with a peeling “Learn to Skydive!” sign on the barbed wire fence. It was a beautiful summer day,  the sun was shining in the summer sky, with the clouds drifting lazily across the horizon.

Only a fool would jump out of a perfectly good airplane.

I could see for miles, smell the fresh cut grass and summer onions, hear the sound of a tractor in the distance….and feel my knees knocking and teeth chattering. 

I have to confess – I have a fear of heights. Not really a fear of heights themselves – I’m fine in a commercial airliner, or in a tall building….I just happen to have a fear of long rapid descents followed by sudden deceleration.We had seen the videos of skydivers floating gently in the air, and heard people talk about how great it was….and we were going to do it ourselves. I didn’t tell anyone that I was a bit nervous.  When we went zip-lining in Costa Rica, my nickname was “El Pollo Grande.”

Throughout the day, we did a lot of training – we watched videos, worked on climbing in and out of a mock-up plane, and jumped off a short tower – We were supposed to drop and roll…but my efforts were more like drop…..and thud. Not exactly a confidence-building exercise.

Throughout the day, we watched other groups go up and take their turn. While we were talkative earlier, everyone got more serious as our time approached. Finally….it was our turn. Three of us climbed into the back of a Cessna 182 with a pilot seat…..and not much else. It didn’t even have a door. We shoe-horned ourselves in a semi-fetal position, with one hand over our static line – because if it got pulled….our chute would open INSIDE the plane. We taxied down the runway, and lifted off,  and slowly soared skyward….taking large circles, like a hawk riding a thermal.

You’d think we were excited, right?  It was so quiet inside the plane, you could have heard a pin drop. We were all focused on the big open doorway on the side of the plane. There was only one way down…and that was it.

As we got higher, the only one talking was our jump master. He clearly had too much coffee, because he wouldn’t stop talking about how GREAT this was going to be. The more he talked…the more we kept…Getting quiet …..Getting nervous…and wanting to Get out of There.

Once we reached our jump height, the jump master would ask each person….Are you ready to skydive?  We all had to answer YES! Because if we didn’t, it would be a long ride back to the ground….then the walk of shame back to the car.  None of us were brave enough to admit we were scared.

Now it was my turn. The jump master said, “Are you ready to skydive?” I said, “Yes?” (while trying to sound convincing).  I followed his instructions to “Put your feet out and stop.” No problem there. I  grabbed the strut and put my feet out on the step.

“Turn and step out.”  No matter how mentally ready you are, it’s still a shock when you get your body out of the plane. This is not a natural motion. Your body has some sense of self-preservation, even if you don’t.  As soon as you clear the door, it’s like standing up in a convertible going 100 MPH.

“Go all the way out and hang”

At that point, you have to be committed. If you’re not, you SHOULD be committed. You start inching your hands out the strut of the plane, towards to red hand prints painted on the strut.

At least I think it was paint.

As you get closer to the hands, you realize that you can no longer keep your feet on the strut….no matter how much you want to. At that point….you have to hang on like a pair of pants flapping on a clothesline.

When you get to the end, the jump master says “Look up!” ,and you do….then you yell “DOT!”  (because there’s a dot on the underside of the wing). then….you, ALL OF A SUDDEN….

Let go.

Now, when you see it in a video, it looks like you fall slowly and gracefully.. You don’t.  If you’ve studied physics, you know that a feather and a rock fall at the same rate – a skydiver falls faster. At least that’s what it feels like. I wanted to scream so badly, but all I could do was grit my teeth and gasp as I fell like a REALLY FAST rock.  You’re supposed to count One Thousand One, One Thousand Two….Five while your chute opens  but it’s more like (run other way) 12345LOOKUP!

At that point,…..my chute magically opened….and I began to float slowly down, gracefully turning right…..then left……then right….then left.. Getting closer, am I on track? Drifting too close to that cow pasture….bring it back in….

As you approach the ground, you can hear the observer talking you in, counting you down to where you pull both toggles down to stall the chute, and run it in.

He kept saying, “You’re doing great!” “Looking Good!” …I think it was a recording.

I must have waited a bit too long, because when I stalled the chute, I STALLED THE CHUTE….and did a dramatic re-creation of that ski jumper on Wide World of Sports….The Agony of Defeat, indeed.

I rolled…and rolled…and rolled…and eventually came to a stop. I couldn’t hear anything. I wondered if I was dead…..as I began to hear muffled sounds coming closer, I realized that I was so tangled in the chute, it was drowning out the noise.

When I finally stopped rolling, and got my wits about me, I realized – I wasn’t dead! I was ALIVE! I was REALLY ALIVE!

…and that’s the whole point – it’s easy to be afraid BEFORE you jump. It’s perfectly natural to fear the unknown. It’s safe inside the plane, and it’s safer to ride back down to the ground…..but that’s not where the fun is. All the excitement and adventure happens AFTER you go out the door.  It’s safer to not ask for that promotion…..to not get on stage and speak…But you’ll never get to experience that adventure, or have that fun…or make that change until you jump.

THAT’S why you jump. The fear is there, but it’s only temporary. Once you jump, you can never see the world in the same way. Ever again.

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