Friday, February 6, 2009

Half an Airplane Ride

I found this among my old sent e-mails, and decided it would be fun to add it here. This is from the summer of 2006, and I'm probably still in shock from the experience.

So, I took half an airplane ride yesterday. Yes, I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane at 14,000 feet in the air, and lived to tell about it.

Why did I do this? I don’t know that I have a satisfactory answer, other than to say that I’ve always been utterly terrified of the idea, and so I’ve felt that I could not let it remain unchallenged forever. The opportunity presented itself when my buddy Rick received a jump as a birthday present and invited me along. I couldn’t refuse without giving up some self-respect, so I ignored the loud and insistent voice screaming “NO!” in my head and signed up.

Now, as to what it was like… to borrow a phrase from Herman Wouk, it feels like starting life over again with a million dollars. The act of exercising the willpower required to leap from an open door in an airplane so high that individual landmarks on the ground below are almost indistinguishable infused me with a sense of personal power. No matter how difficult or frightening any future situation may be, I will never again have to do anything as hard as that.

The three of us, Rick, Oliver (his brother) and I, took off with a couple of other fools in a small single-prop airplane, facing backwards on two parallel benches. The plane’s angle of ascent was so steep that we had to brace ourselves against the window frames to avoid sliding backwards into the tail. Normally, the flight itself might have been scary; knowing that I would shortly be exiting the aircraft in quite an informal manner overshadowed any trepidation over actually being in the plane. Interestingly, I didn’t feel anything I could recognize as fear on the ride up. The nature of what I was actually feeling remains resistant to analysis, but I think it was simply an awareness so heightened that every single detail of every passing microsecond was noticed and marked.

Once we arrived at our ceiling, our tandem instructors (to whom our backs were tightly fastened), gave us last-minute instructions. Two solo divers went out first, casually calling out “See ya!” as they bailed out, quickly disappearing into the slipstream. Then it was Oliver’s turn. As one of the other skydivers had said earlier in the flight, his eyes were huge with some unnamable emotion as he knelt in front of the open door. The light turned green, and he was gone. It was my turn next. I felt as though my body was on autopilot as I moved towards the door and knelt at the edge. Looking out, the reality of what I was doing hit me like a sledgehammer to the face. Suppressing the panic that swelled in me then is the hardest thing I have ever done. I heard Rick shout something, but I couldn’t spare the mental resources to notice what it was. Then the moment arrived: launch.

During the next few seconds, I lost my mind. No rational thought or focus of attention was possible; my consciousness was paralyzed. I know we rolled a few times as some automatic part of my mind registered the transition between sky, ground, and sky again. Then, suddenly, I came back to myself and could think, although I could not really process anything that was happening. The plane had disappeared, and the other skydivers were nowhere in sight. I (and the instructor strapped to my back) were falling alone, with nothing between us and the ground but 14,000 feet (2.5 miles!) of air. I found that I had no mental space for fear, wonder, or any relatively trivial questions such as what would happen if our chute failed and we hit the ground at 125 MPH. The only emotion I could feel was a mad glee, the apotheosis of glee. Even my own survival was a distant, secondary consideration. There’s no way to convey the raw, overwhelming fury of sensation. I have never felt more alive, more stuffed with vitality.

65 seconds after this new existence began, the chute opened, firmly arresting our descent. The ground seemed to have grown no closer, although we had closed half the distance. The remainder of the trip down was spent swooping to and fro, occasionally cutting tight, high-g circles, and laughing crazily. The instructor pointed out some features of the view, but I really had no interest in looking at some mountains far off in the distance. I could have been over a featureless desert and the experience would have been unchanged.

Eventually, the ground swooped up and caught us, and after unhooking from the instructor, I ran over to embrace my fellow jumpers. Oliver’s wife noted that whereas we seemed like condemned men as we walked to the airplane before the jump, we were positively swaggering afterward. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but the video evidence leaves no doubt.

We are all going to jump again soon. I’m not certain why. It’s going to be a long time before I really have a grasp on this experience.

I don’t know how intelligible this account was. I am still in shock from the experience, and possibly appear totally insane to other people. Or, rather, more insane than I normally appear. Hopefully, it was entertaining.

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