Skydiving

by Eric Postpischil
[I wrote this a few hours after jumping off an airplane.]

I did it; I just jumped off an airplane and fell more than two miles—eleven thousand feet. It is unbelievable. You jump and you are like not attached. Everything is gone. You are just falling.

Okay, let's see if I can get everything down before I forget it. The memory is fading really fast. It is just not as real now as it was up in the air. Unbelievable. I am not going to do that again.

To start, there was a lot of waiting. They are pretty busy at Pepperell. And the camera person, Jos, was busy, so I was not able to get a videotape of my jump. I had chosen to wait for a chance of getting videotaped, but it did not pay off, and so it was late when I jumped—by the time I landed, it was dark.

I put on a jumpsuit, and the instructor put the harness on me and reviewed the procedure for pulling the ripcord (check altitude; at 6000 feet count to three, signal the instructor with hands, look for ripcord, pull left hand inward, reach with right hand, pull ripcord), and then we went out to the plane.

At the plane, we practiced where I would sit, connecting my harness to the instructor's (more checks and hand signals), opening the door, looking out, getting out, and jumping. (That is the really stupid part. Don't do it.) Where I sat is right next to the pilot. On the way up, I sat facing back, toward the instructor and away from the instruments. For $13 each, Kevin and Bruce came along as passengers. They saw me jump, but that is nothing compared to jumping. I mean you really jump. Off the airplane. In the air. The plane ride was not bad; I have been on a commuter flight in a larger plane that was worse as far as vibration and noise go.

When the plane reaches 9,500 feet, I had to turn around (turning toward the pilot, away from the door, in case it opens) and get on my knees. The plane is really small (it holds four people plus the pilot in a space not much bigger than the space under a desk), but turning around was not as much of a problem as I thought it might be. Then the instructor connects your harness to theirs at four points and attaches your ripcord. (Instructor and student each have a ripcord that releases the parachute.)

Then the fun begins. The instructor opens the door. They have to guide the pilot a bit, so they have to lean out. When I was in the plane on the ground and we leaned out, it was pretty scary, because on the ground you could feel the leaning out and you could imagine being way up high. But when we actually leaned out at 11,000 feet, it was not so bad. Don't ask me why. So we leaned out, and the instructor guided the pilot a bit. I put my hand out. There is quite a strong wind, but the wind does not actually start until a couple of inches away from the plane—the air near the plane is very still, relative to the plane.

Then we get out of the plane. Practicing on the ground was good; it was actually easier in the air. Of course, the worst that could happen to you is you fall out, and that is not a problem. So we got out, standing on a flat plate above the wheel and holding onto a diagonal wing strut. It is pretty cold, windy, and noisy out there, but your attention turns to other things very quickly. The instructor asks if you are ready to skydive, and if you are stupid enough to give an affirmative answer, they sway back and forth with you a couple of times, one, two, and three, they jump.

Unbelievable. First you are on a plane, which is not so bad, and then you are out in the middle of nowhere. The plane is completely gone, and you are falling to Earth at a hundred-and-something miles per hour. Your attention on the plane is nothing compared to how alert you are all of a sudden. Leaving the plane is unbelievable. You are not attached. Not to anything. You are way up in the air, and you just jumped off an airplane.

And now you must remember to arch your body. (You want to make a shuttlecock shape, so that your torso turns into the wind—downward, with the parachute on your back upwards.) Afterwards, the instructor told me we did three backflips before stabilizing. I knew we were tumbling (and falling to the ground fast), but I had no concept of which way we were tumbling. I could tell it was slowing down a bit though, and it finally stopped, went back a bit, and stopped. Then the instructor releases the drogue chute which slows you down a bit (to 120 miles per hour), checks a few things, and gives you the thumbs up. That is really good, because the drogue chute is needed to open the main chute later.

So now you are falling and stable and can look around. So I looked. It was getting dark, but I could still see some features—fields, trees, roads, and of course lights. Look at altimeter, look around, look at altimeter, look at moon, et cetera. I don't think looking is a big deal; I have seen the same view from planes. You are still falling though, and you have time to think about the fact that you are actually there, falling...

As I said, I had seen enough of the view, so a bit after passing 7000 feet, I just watched the altimeter. At 6000, you count to three, signal, look, reach, and pull. It is about thirty seconds from leaving the plane to pulling the ripcord.

I did that, and you can hear something happening, and then tugging, and then pretty quickly you are hanging there in gravity again instead of falling. And it gets very quiet; the 120-mile-per-hour wind is very loud and contrasts greatly with the silence when you are just hanging and there is nothing around.

The instructor manipulates the canopy for a while and then says, well, we have a landable canopy, but it's got a tension knot on one side, and we would have to steer to compensate. It seemed like we were going pretty slowly though, so it was not scary.

Gliding under the canopy lasts a lot longer than the free fall, and you are somewhat confident that you are safe, and you get to help steer the parachute to the field. You pull—very hard—on the handles on the left and right that increase the drag of the parachute on the corresponding side and thus turn you in that direction. I was told I did well, but I was pretty confused about what the instructor wanted at any given time. (Don't pull was the instruction—okay, on which handle should I not pull? I was confused whenever the context changed.) We spent a long time (several minutes) turning this way and that. It was getting really dark (the sun sets faster when you are falling at sunset) and hard to see the ground, so I could not tell where we were. Some flashing lights I saw and thought were attached to some building turned out to be a car. Whoa, that changed my frame of reference; then I knew that empty ground in front of me was the landing field, not some featureless far-off plain. So we keep steering on the way down, and before you land the instructor tells you to put your feet and knees together and lift them up, and right before you land the instructor tells you to flare, which means to pull hard on both handles which slows you down. Partly because of the knot problem, we landed kind of hard and fell, but it was not much more than what you might get tripping ordinarily.

I broke a shoelace. It was only a decorative shoelace, one of those on the side. I don't think anybody picked shoelaces in the "Eric's Broken Body Parts" pool, though, so I get the money. My left ear still has not recovered from the pressure change, but it is not broken, so it does not count.

It was pretty exciting. You absolutely cannot imagine it. I was really up afterwards. Lots of adrenalin and some shaking in my fingers. It is unbelievable. Did you know you can jump off an airplane, fall eleven thousand feet, and land safely? Unbelievable. I am not going to do it again though. That would be stupid. Once makes sense, but I am not going to do that again. Except I do not have videotape, damn. The memory fades very, very quickly; I could feel it fading at first, and now it is a small fraction of what it was. After I got home, I made a couple of phone calls and was really excited—talking fast, taking really deep breaths every so often, still jittery—but that was nothing compared to right after the jump.

Unbelievable. It is worth doing once.

Copyright 1991 by Eric Postpischil.