Before I get to this week’s story: A quick note of thanks to all of you who joined us at the release party for my third book. Great craft beer from FEB, Bernies was a great venue, and we had a wonderful time. Thanks for making it special. Now on to the story:
Leaping out of a plane nearly 3 miles up sounded like a great idea… right up until the instant just before it was time to make the plunge.
Skydiving was the furthest thing from our mind as my daughter, Brittany, and I set out early on a Sunday morning headed to Red Bluff, MS. Rather, our plan was to do some hiking and maybe geocache along the way. But as we drove through Lumberton, Brittany commented, “Isn’t that a landing strip?”
I glanced over and sure enough, saw a small airport replete with parachutists landing right beside the highway. “Let’s stop and check it out,” she said.
What’s the harm in just ‘checking it out,’ I thought and replied, “Sure.”
A twin otter prop plane had taxied up and was refueling as we pulled into the nearly full parking lot. A stream of parachute enthusiasts were headed for the plane dressed in their colorful skydiving jumpsuits and wearing what at first appeared to be backpacks, but which were obviously parachutes.
We entered the tiny lobby amidst a buzz of activity. The lady who ran the front office gave us a quick overview. We could come back first thing on any Saturday or Sunday and for the low-low price of $1300, become enrolled in a full 7-step parachute school (otherwise known as the Accelerated Freefall Program) to become fully certified parachutists. OR for a mere $200 we could sign up for a tandem skydiving jump and defy death immediately.
While I stood there attempting to digest all of this, I looked over at Britt and saw the look. It was the look I saw on her face before we plunged 140 feet into the Blue Hole in Belize scuba diving. The look I saw before we climbed all the way up one of the pyramids in Tikal and then again to the top of the lighthouse in Pensacola. The look I saw as she climbed into a drag racer for her first trip down the track.
So when I heard her next words, I was ready. “Hey Dad, let’s give it a shot.”
My mind was screaming, Are you out of your mind? Not only no but absolutely no-the-heck-way no. But when my mouth opened, I heard myself say, “Sure, why not.” Minutes later, my credit card bill was a few hundred dollars higher and we were being instructed on the basics of tandem jumping, which took about 90 seconds. I mean, all of the brains and technique required are provided by the highly skilled instructor to whom we would be attached with a sturdy 4-point harness. “Each point can easily support the weight of a full-sized SUV loaded with the Saints offensive line,” they told us.
We then went into the office to watch the obligatory tandem skydiving video. It consisted mainly of the father of tandem jumping (who had this enormous beard and looked a lot like he might have once played bass for ZZ Top) sitting behind a desk with a very dour expression, relating the dangers of skydiving.
For the next several minutes, he pretty much scared the crap out of us about how plummeting to earth and being severely, perhaps permanently injured or killed was well within the realm of possibility. Of course, standing beside a bunch of other guys in the testosterone-laden lobby area, there was no way that any of us were about to back out. “Heck yeah, let’s stare the grim reaper right in the face. We’ll whip his butt,” someone said. It could have been me but I’m just not sure, what with the testosterone high and all.
“But what about Brittany?” you might ask. My answer is that she is… how do I say this… uh… crazy. Maybe not crazy so much as she has no fear. Well, okay, she has this thing about iguanas for some reason. But things that would normally scare the crap out of most young ladies, and many full-grown men, don’t phase her.
Next, we were handed a two-sided liability release form which basically reiterated the video, saying that we would almost certainly die should we be foolish enough to jump. After initialing it in 47 places without reading it, the next step was to get fitted for our jumpsuit and harness.
During the course of this phase, she asked us about 47 times if we had to pee-pee. And of course, every time she would ask, it would make me have to go. I think she finally stopped asking because it was taking about a day and a half for me to get fitted, what with all the bathroom trips. I pee a lot when I get nervous.
Once we had our jumpsuits on and our harnesses adjusted, we were instructed to go outside to wait in an area covered with a parachute-looking tarp. We were feeling pretty cocky by this time mingling with the other skydivers. Of course, I’m sure the REAL Accelerated Free-fallers were scoffing at the Tandem Jumpers outfitted with 4-point harnesses in lieu of REAL parachutes. But we were excited and having a blast looking forward to leaping out of the side of the plane nearly… nearly… uh… 3 miles up…gulp.
We boarded the plane and sat on the straddle seats. Imagine a long pair of bench seats running the length of the plane. We were comfortably seated all the way in the front… right behind the pilot… far from the door of death. With the door all the way in the back, I was happy to have lots of time to watch the other fools… er, jumpers. Since all of this had happened so fast, it still had not sunk in.
Imagine my surprise to learn that all the rest of the jumpers were in a group who leaped out at the same time so as to hold hands on the way down. That meant, suddenly, we were next and I was kneeling in front of the door on the edge of the plane with nothing between me and the ground but lots and lots of air. In seconds, we fell forward out of the plane and began our 60 seconds of free fall.
The first thing I noticed was that it was really, really, really cold. The second thing I noticed was that at 120 mph your cheeks flap around like my dog’s used to whenever he’d stick his head out of the car while we were driving. The third thing I noticed is that 60 seconds can seem like a very, very long time.
The fourth thing I noticed is that the videographer kept sliding over in my face motioning for me to do something. Bound together with my instructor, I didn’t have much freedom of movement, so I smiled my flapping cheeks and a gave a thumbs-up motion at which time we began spinning in circles.
I had forgotten that the instructor glued to my back had told me to give him a thumbs up to signal that I was up for doing some free fall acrobatics. When we finally stopped spinning, I foolishly gave him the thumbs up indicating that I was okay as opposed to giving him the closed fist indicating that I was about to lose my lunch. Of course, he interpreted this as my being ready to spin in the other direction and off we went.
I tried to yell, “Noooooooo,” but with my 120mph cheeks flapping, it came out more like, “Hfiermfaldfk,” which evidently means spin lots faster in sky diving language. After repeating a couple of these cycles, we had lost sufficient altitude for him to pop the chute. In about one millionth of a second, we went from 120mph to roughly 1 mph and everything that used to be in the top part of my body went rushing to the bottom.
Eventually, I recovered and managed to extract the harness straps from a very intimate part of my body and we gently floated for the next 45 hours. No, really, for about 5 minutes we sailed along and I got to watch the novice idiot below us (I was getting cocky being an experienced skydiver with a full 3/4ths of a jump under my belt) get off course and land in a cow field. Ha, ha, ha.
As we began our approach, I lifted my legs as high as possible and we proceeded to do a controlled crash in which we cartwheeled across the grassy area at the end of the landing strip. Actually, I made that part up; we cruised in just like pros (which one of us actually was) and came to a complete stop, at which time we fell over sideways in a slightly less than graceful motion. But we were on the ground safe and sound, not splattered and lying in little pieces as I had feared.
In summary, falling at 120mph is exhilarating, incredible, but most of all terrifying. My advice to anyone who wants to give it a try: wear a brown flight suit.
To see the full, terrifying video, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxUemgeubsg
Disclaimer: Frank Wilem is an author, speaker, and all around funny and entertaining guy. On this blog, his stories are based on his real life experiences, often with a satirical twist.
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