Jump out of a perfectly good airplane
May 1996

Lying in bed with Sabrina late that night in the dark, my heart racing, eyes fully dilated, sure she could hear the beats--they were shaking the bed, weren't they?--she broke the silence: "are you asleep?" "No," I quickly and nervously replied. We were wired. Absolutely terrified and physically saturated with adrenaline. "I can't believe we jumped out of a plane" she said. "Yeah."

I announced months before that I wanted to skydive after my graduation. I had a student worker named Al Etienne who was a bugs-in-your-teeth kinda guy. He would set me up. Sabrina wanted in and would be in town to see me graduate. Albert (not the skydiver) consented to join us at 5am on a Saturday for the chance to take the big ride.

HQ was a tent on a small airfield in Pascagoula, MS. While waiting for our turn an official US jet arrived. The Assistant Secretary of Defense was in town for some reason. The jet pilot came over on his break. He was all Top Gun. Six foot three, slight belly, chrome mirror sunglasses. Perpetual chewing-gum on the molars. 'Skydiving huh? I took some of them navy guys up one time off of San Diego. They were all done up in their batman suits. 45 thousand feet, 20 miles out. They pulled at 800."

Suddenly we weren't so nervous.

My jumpmaster was a slight man--total weight with the jumpee has a max--but he was ex-military with 3000 jumps and no broken bones. This was the guy I wanted to be attached to. He would be wearing the parachute. I'd be wearing him.

I remember walking across the tarmac feeling like an adventurer. This was easily the most adventurous thing I'd ever done. There was no hesitation. Even riding up on the plane, sitting next to the open door, I wasn't nervous. The ground fell away, but I was held securely by my seatbelt. At these altitudes, the ground looks like a map. Humans didn't evolve at these heights. We don't have a developed sense of fight-or-flight to a map. Your conscious mind can talk your body into some pretty amazing things because of this. (Note: this is why skydiving is much easier than bungy jumping)

There was one bench on the plane. The tandem folks sat on it. There were also a couple of videographers and one solo jumper with a Captain America helmet. My tandem master told me to kneel on the floor in front of him, facing away. It was time to attach the four 5000lb tensile strength buckles.

I took a long look at him and then the open door, then back to him.
"I don't think I can do that."
"Just come down here..."
"Well, see, that would require me to take off my seatbelt. I'm not sure I can do that."
"It's perfectly safe..."
"That's easy for you to say. You've got a parachute on!"
"You can't jump if you don't."
"I see."

I leaned way over toward him, put him in a headlock, unbuckled my seatbelt and assumed the position. My feet were flattened in a forward-flexed way. It was painful beyond words, but I wanted my tandem master--my parachute--attached ASAP.

While grimmacing through the process I was eye-to-Captain-America-helmet with the solo jumper. Close quarters makes for forced conversation: "So, first time?" I just stared at him while I was being worked on. Finally he asks something else: "Why are you doing this?" "I just got my Master's Degree and I wanted to do something really challenging." Sarcasm in defense of fear. Ask a stupid question ...

Back on the bench. We arrive at the designated altitude and coordinates.

"JUMP JUMP JUMP!!" screamed the pilot. It's never comforting to hear the pilot yell, but "jump"? Definitely not calming.

The soloist was in the door. He was standing 2 inches from me. I was sitting facing the back of the plane. I could have wiggled my right leg out of the door. Out of the plane. If I wanted to. I didn't.

Just after the jump announcement, the soloist lept through the door with a yell. He disappeared almost instantaneously while the yell attenuated to nothing in slightly more than a second. It was then that my lizard brain helpfully reminded me that man was not meant to fly. "Shut up you! You had your chance on the ground. We're going out this door!" I responded, not out loud of course.

We were next. I was now officially nervous, but destined to do it. My eyes were those of a self-journalist, documenting my actions. My videographer stood in the doorway, reached out with his left hand toward the back of the fuselage, and grabbed a handhold. Simultaneously, he stepped his left leg out onto a small wood footrest. He then stepped forward out the door. The wind spun him around. He ended up riding the plane as if on a running board. He looked right at me and smiled. I have rarely been so creeped out.

But it was also undeniably cool. We duck-walked into position at the door. I tucked my head back onto his left shoulder while he peered over my right. We rolled out of the door.

I recall quite clearly the wind start to rush about me, covering me like a suit. We did a full roll, and somehow my eyes were open. I saw the plane in the sky near, but receding. I actually thought this: "This isn't like the cartoons. I can't climb back up there."

14,500 feet up. I didn't feel like I was falling. I felt stationary and the wind was passing me. My tandem master tapped me on the shoulder and I assumed the position: arms like a football goal and legs bent at the knee.

I was hurtling toward the earth.

I even thought so in those words. I could see the Gulf, the land, clouds. I felt like an alien in the environment and suddenly wanted to be down on the ground. It occured to me that by happy coincidence I was headed there about as fast as possible. I could just relax and soon I'd be there. Cool. Now I was enjoying myself.

We fell for about 45 seconds and then he opened the main chute and my pain really began.

The pain in my groin was almost too much. It squeezed tears out. All sound stopped. In freefall I wouldn't have heard a bomb go off on my back, but now my tandem master's whispers were loud screams. Only 3500 feet to go.

We floated slowly. Through clouds. The circulation in my legs was totally shot. But that didn't stop them from reaching out to the ground. I was terrified. My lizard brain could understand how high up I was and was screaming for me to get away from the edge. Two thirds of a mile up and my leg doesn't understand that it can't reach the ground.

I stammer something about cutting the ride short and my man starts to corkscrew us down fast. This centripetal force only makes the pain in my legs worse, but we're coming in for the landing soon enough. He hands me the controls. I take them. I know to pull hard to stall the chute/wing when we're just about to bottom out. I do so and we almost walk away. It was awkward, but I didn't snap, uh, I mean break, uh, stop his streak of jumps with no broken bones.

Time constraints left Albert without a jump. He was disappointed, but has yet to get up there to this day.

My second time: August 1998