January 10, 2011

Classic WP: That time I jumped out of a flying thing

It was the summer I turned 18. I had just graduated from high school, and was still adjusting to the idea that, in just a few short months, I would be leaving my parents' house for a scary college campus. No matter that it was only three hours away and I was rooming with one of my best friends; it was a change, and change = scary.

As a kid, I wasn't usually one to take risks. I'd had the same friends nearly my entire life. I didn't like trying new foods, I watched the same movies over and over and over and over (oh, Dirty Dancing).

Any physical risks, especially, were out. I was that kid at summer camp who watched from the water's surface while her friends scaled the ladder to the high jump, then vaulted themselves into the lake in a perfect cannonball, with nary a desire to try it herself. It took me forever to learn to ride a bike because I was so afraid of falling. I couldn't even manage a decent cartwheel as a pre-teen because I was afraid kicking my legs up that high would make me fall over.

True story.

That's why, when my friend P said, "I think we should go sky-diving when you turn 18!" I just laughed.

And laughed and laughed.

Because, hello: P had been my best friend since age 5 when we discovered each other at Vacation Bible School. P had vaulted herself off many a high jump while I waited and watched; she knew better than anyone what a fraidy-cat she was dealing with.

And yet.

As I went off to college, started meeting new people, taking new classes and getting into the social scene on campus (sort of), it kept needling me. Jumping out of a plane. Who would expect it from me, the girl who never tried anything new? What a great way to show everyone the new, improved, one-quarter-of-college-educated, RISK-TAKER Shannon?

I called P before I could change my mind. "Let's do it."

On a chilly weekend in October, we headed to Canton, Ohio, and spent a day taking a different kind of course: How Not to Die When Jumping Out of Planes. We studied the planes we'd be jumping out of, learned the basic moves and techniques and watched videos of unsuccessful jumps. (After watching a tandem jump during which the instructor landed on top of the student, grinding her face into a pile of gravel, we immediately decided we were jumping solo.)

And then, it was time to practice. How do you practice jumping out of a plane? For starters, you have a cardboard replica of the actual plane inside the hangar (demonstrated here by my little brother, who'd come to support his big sister and hopefully not watch her plunge to her death):

Here was the plan: A cable would connect our rip cord to the plane, so when we jumped, it'd pull our chute for us automatically. No instructor to possibly land on us, but also no chance of newbie panicking and forgetting how to deploy the chute. We'd ride up in the plane, Step out onto a tiny platform attached to the wing -- first one foot, then both hands, then the other foot -- and then hang from the wing, letting our feet dangle. When the instructor (from inside the plane) gave us the OK, we'd let go. And fall. And hopefully not die.

It was finally time. We suited up, looking most spectacular...

...and a little like we were headed for an expedition in deep space:

Then it was time to board the plane, which looked so very much smaller and more rickety than we'd imagined:

Only three of us could go up at a time. P's boyfriend hopped in first, followed by P and then me. As we readied for takeoff, I suddenly realized: Last one into the plane jumps first. Gulp.

We took off into a lightly-clouded blue sky, with freezing-cold wind pouring into the plane. I noticed again how rattley the plane sounded. Please, God; please don't let the plane crash before we can even jump out of it.

In what seemed like three seconds, we were at 3,500 feet and the instructor was opening the door. There was literally no turning back now; the other two couldn't jump if I didn't, and there was no way I was making the pilot land the plane so I could march, humilated and un-sky-dived, into the hangar.

So I got onto my hands and knees, said a quick prayer (OK, who am I kidding: I was praying the ENTIRE time) and took the first step. Right foot onto the foot-long platform. Right hand onto the bar. Left hand on the bar. Left foot onto the teeny-weeny platform. OMG, I am OUTSIDE AN AIRPLANE THAT IS CURRENTLY HURTLING THROUGH THE AIR.

It was now or never. I let my feet go, so I was literally hanging from the airplane by only my fingers. I looked at my instructor. "BLARGH!" he yelled.

Wait. What?



I closed my eyes.

I let go.

There were a few moments of gorgeous free-fall, during which I felt completely weightless and terrified and exhilarated all at once. And then I felt my chute deploy, and catch, and I remembered I was supposed to do something. Look up, see if your lines are twisted, if they are don't panic, kick your legs and grab your steering toggles. The day's lesson came back in an instant. And after 30 seconds of kicking and untwisting...

...I was flying.

Oh, friends. If you have never done this, I don't quite know how to describe it to you. All I can say is that I was immediately brought to tears by the sheer beauty of the earth I was now floating gently toward.

In those first few moments, my breath was taken. I didn't know what to do. I was alone up there; no one next to me for me to turn to and say, "Oh. My. God. Are you seeing this?!" What is the proper response in those moments of breathless silence?

Me? I started to sing. And I sang and I sang, up where no one could hear me except God Himself, in a moment that was unlike anything I've ever experienced, before or since.

What, you can't see me? Here I am, still singing:

I don't remember now what I sang, but it really isn't important.

As I started nearing the ground, it occurred to me that I was actually supposed to slow myself down so I didn't break my legs when I landed. I grabbed the steering toggles and guided myself as best I could toward the waiting pick-up truck in the big field where we were supposed to land.

I wish I could tell you that, after my one-person concerto in the sky, I landed lightly on both feet, touching down just like an angel, beaming beatifically as the instructors drove to retrieve me.

But I didn't. My knees immediately crumpled under me and I pitched forward to land...directly on my face. After which I completed a truly ugly version of a forward roll and came to rest on my back, legs akimbo and parachute tangled around me.

Back on earth.

And with a permanent smile on my face.

5 backtalk:

Amber said...

I'm so jealous! I've wanted to skydive forever. My dad was in the 101st Airborne and was forever telling us about his jumps. He even kept his parachute and brought it out on occasion. (You can get up to some fun with a parachute when you live on long, straight roads in the country.) The closest I've come in bungee jumping, which I'm sure isn't close at all.

Summer said...

Wow wow wow. I never knew that.

What an awesome story. . . what a brave, brave girl.

I'm in awe!

wrestling kitties said...

Oh my gosh....just thinking about it gave me the nervous sweats! I could never ever EVER do that in a million years. I get scared walking up high staircases! And don't get me started on bridges.

However, I think that is AMAZING that you did that! VERY cool. And you looked awesome and totally rocked that jumpsuit! (Love the shoes)

I can't believe you didn't have an instructor on your back....aren't you suppose to have someone back there?! Scary.

Would you ever do it again?

Seriously, you are awesome.

the grumbles said...

you are insane, and amazing. i can't even imagine. but of course, the girl afraid of heights would not go skydiving. no way.

Ky • twopretzels.com said...

GREAST post.

And great shoes in that space adventurer picture.

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