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How Falling Out of a Plane Almost Killed Me (go figure)

Skydiving planes are terrible, flimsy things, which bounce in the wind like corks in the wake of an immensely stronger death current. The instructors joke about how the ride down with a parachute is safer than trusting the landing gear of the plane. At first I took that to be an insider joke like us climbing instructors use on newbies who ask how safe our ropes are. Then I saw the plane. It looked like a real airplane had been torn apart and sold for scraps and this was all that remained. So when Pat told me to get on and watch my head, I surprised myself by listening. At that point running is no longer an option.

I never wanted to go skydiving, never talked about the way it would feel to fall out of an airplane from eight thousand feet, never even did any of the big jumps at the rock quarry in high school. I only dreamed about flying one time and the result was a video game-esque power bar, which constantly ran out and caused me to plummet towards earth. Being a rock climber, the adrenaline rush associated with falling is something we come to quite not like. If we're falling, it means something went wrong. Like rappelling, I have a hard time grasping the point of sports, which revolve around going down. For as long as I've been enjoying outdoors activities, the goal has always been to go higher. Lowering is just how we get to dinner.

But when my boss told me I was going on the skydiving trip, and that I wouldn't have to pay for it, I couldn't turn her down. Not because I'm brave, but because she trapped me mid-rant. I had just explained to my coworkers the importance of trying new things when Anna informed me I was about to be given just that opportunity. I was just trying to get them into rock climbing.

Once again, I hate falling.

As a professional of the outdoor recreation business, I've come to understand quite clearly that there are different styles of teaching. Everyone has a different approach to making participants feel comfortable in the extreme settings we put them in. Lots of instructors come up with stock jokes they repeatedly bounce off of clients’ ears like tired comedians. Others prefer to rely on their personal skills and good looks to provide a fun-filled experience for the entire family, and still others just don't try at all. Enter Pat.

For some reason, it's been a theme of my life recently that I get stuck with instructors whose confidence in their own abilities is supposed to squash all of my doubts and inhibitions. I can tell you with some certainty that it just doesn't work that way. Pat was lean, with eyes that said, "Don't Mess With Me." So I didn't. Pat's only words of encouragement in our two-minute "get-to-know-each-other-while-I-put-this-harness-on-you" phase were:

My name is Pat. I'm a professional sky diving instructor. This is what I do. Just trust me and have fun.

Unfortunately for Pat, and me I suppose, it's kind of hard to trust someone who loosely throws on a skydiving harness and avoids any form of a safety talk while all the other instructors are giving detailed plans of action to their participants. While everyone was lifting their legs and simulating free fall, Pat was rummaging around in his backpack and I was just standing. Earlier in the day, we'd seen Pat parachute down in a wing suit, which is one of those flying squirrel contraptions, which allows the skydiver to fly long distances at great speeds before releasing the chute. When he landed, I noticed he was wearing high top Chuck Taylors tightly tied several times around his shins. Thinking he looked like a crazy person I remember telling someone, "I hope that's not my instructor."

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At five thousand feet, solo skydivers jump out of the plane. Apparently it’s cheaper to jump out at that height and when you’re learning to skydive (here’s hoping you don’t make any mistakes), you’re not focused on the freefall so much as the landing. I don’t know the guy’s name, but there was one older man (compared to the twenty-something instructors) who jumped at that height. Well, “jumped” may not be the right word.

With an instructor behind and in front of him for support, the three crouched in front of the sliding Plexiglas screen, which protected us from the loud, cold air. When they opened the door it sounded like some wind god were trying to force his way onto the aircraft and then got pissed off because there wasn’t enough space in the twelve square feet for him. I remember watching the way the older man looked at the ground. He stood there for what felt like hours. I almost yelled at him at one point. I wanted to explain that I was the scared one—that he had to be confident otherwise I wouldn’t jump. That was before I realized that going tandem, you don’t really jump at all.

As we continued our ascent, I remember trying very hardly to make friends with Pat. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t scared (I was terrified). I wanted to hear him talk about how calm he was, but he didn’t say a damn thing.

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What I’m going to say now may seem crazy. Eight thousand feet isn’t nearly as scary as five thousand feet. After you get that high, the world kind of disappears and the cold air starts to seep in through the pores of the plane. All of a sudden, I felt a sense of calm rush over me. I felt strangely connected to Mark Twain. I don’t know why I was thinking about Mark Twain as I was about to fall out of an airplane, but I was. I had resolved that I was in Pat’s care and that I was nothing more than a weight on his chest. He’d done this before (presumably) and I just had to trust him to get me to the ground. He even strapped my harness down tighter (so it actually fit) and gave me goggles for the ride. I was strangely ok with the whole thing. I even thought of a poem I wanted to remember when I got back to earth, but that was before our parachute malfunctioned.

One by one, my fellow students, strapped to the chests of the nappy instructors, fell out of the plane. Our turn came sooner than I’d expected. When I mentioned earlier that I didn’t jump, what I mean is that ‘dangled’ would probably be a better word for what I did. Pat, with his quiet confidence, scooted us towards the Plexiglas slider of death. He then proceeded to lower us to where I was out of the plane and he was inside of it, holding on to the top rail.

As I looked down, I could only see two things. I could see my feet hanging in the air, and the earth eight thousand feet below them. Then I heard some sort of count and Pat rolled us out into the fall (no pun intended) air. The next few minutes were pure bliss. The wind was fast and clean, the journey was effortless, it was awesome. It felt more like floating than falling. But that was before our parachute malfunctioned.

Being an outdoor guide myself, I know I can be the best and worst type of participant. Because I know how the safety systems work in my industry, I’m always very curious about the protocols of other industries. I’m a total nerd for the stuff. So I knew that we jumped from eight thousand feet and that we’d pull our chute at five thousand.

I also knew we had a backup parachute if the first one didn’t work. I also knew the waiver I’d signed at the beginning was the most explicit, scary one I’d ever seen.

With my back arched and appendages outstretched, I heard a sound like a tarp flapping in the wind on the back of a truck, accompanied by my body being lifted towards a more standing-like position. I knew all of this would happen and felt great about it. Then, we went straight back to the freefall position. That, I knew, was not supposed to happen.

What happened next is kind of hard to explain because it happened very quickly and everything was instinctual. I heard a release, then another tarp sound, then was jerked back upright. When something goes wrong, your job as an outdoor guide is to remain calm, to be the voice of reason. Pat must have missed that day.

“F***! S*** !F***!” were the first things I heard (minus the asterisks) once I had regained hearing ability.

We had stopped falling, which to me meant things were good. I had no idea there was a lot more work that needed be done at this point.

“Here, take these!” Pat yelled and I reached up to grab the handles of the parachute, which are designed to help it steer (I only knew that because I had asked someone, not because he told me).

“No! Not those! These!” apparently I had grabbed the wrong thing. “Look left, pull left,” Pat was not very good at talking a participant through what I now realized had been a life or death situation. He then proceeded to unbuckle my chest strap and stuff some pieces of webbing down my shirt. It was all getting very surreal.

I was steering a parachute I’d never been told how to steer while Pat freaked out above me messing with things I didn’t understand. “Did you have to pull the backup?” I eventually asked.

“Yeah man. I’m sorry dude, that damn chute just wasn’t opening. I didn’t want to take you to the f****** grave with me.” Those words took a minute to sink in, but like a true (scared) professional, I did my best to make the situation better.

“No worries man, listen you got the second chute open, so me and you are good man,” I continued supporting Pat for the rest of the ride down while we watched for the ripped chute which fluttered down on a road not too far from the landing zone.

It’s funny how people become friends in dire situations. Pat, with all of his quiet confidence, continued to apologize throughout the descent and I did my best to let him know that we were on the same team. Honestly, I didn’t care much if we were texting buddies after the trip so long as I made it back to earth put together in a relatively similar way that I’d left it.

We landed fast.

Apparently backup parachutes aren’t made for slow landings, of friendly stops. They’re made to stop a falling person, fast.

I would later find out that we had fallen an extra thousand feet in the time it took for the first chute to not open and Pat to pull the second one. After we got on the ground, and Pat unclipped from me, I jumped up ecstatically. My adrenaline was on Spinal Tap 11. As my boss ran up to me and I started explaining what happened, I looked back at Pat to see his face flushed white. He was staring off into the distance. It had all just hit him. The other instructors would go on to joke with me about how I had gotten two rides for the price of one. I didn’t bother to tell them I hadn’t paid for either.

It wasn't until recently that someone asked me what would have happened if the second chute hadn't opened.

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