Contributed by Mike Di Paolamdipaola@nyc.rr.com tweeting from @M_DiPaola
One surprising thing about leaping out of an airplane in a tandem jump: there’s no last-second opportunity to chicken out. I would not have objected to a moment to think things over, but when one is attached to a skydiving instructor, one’s will is not one’s own.
There was one other pair of tandem jumpers in the plane, as well as two soloists–skydiving trainees, neither of which hesitated at all when they launched themselves from the airplane door with arms akimbo, like vestigial wings.
My jump, on the other hand, was more of a push, dictated by Matt, the healthy skydiving instructor tethered to my behind. We looked like stuntmen in a high-budget gay porn film. Affixed, crotch-to-butt, with me as the bottom, we dragged our arses across the floor of the Cessna Grand Caravan as one — “skootched” I believe is the correct verb — then queued up to the open door, 13,500 feet over what looked like Long Island.That moment at the door, when I could have used the briefest second to collect my thoughts and measure my feelings, Matt shoved the two of us into space.
Whoosh. Tremendous roar — wind ! — in the ears. So began fifty-five seconds of freefall …
But I get ahead of myself. I’ve wanted to jump out of an airplane ever since I watched a film of Captain Joseph Kittinger step out of a high-altitude Air Force balloon, which he did without so much as a pause on August 16, 1960. He made his leap at 102,800 feet above the Earth, so high that he could see the curve of the planet and the darkness of space. So high that he had to wear a pressurized suit, like an astronaut. I am gobsacked when I watch the film of him stepping over the side — when he chose to step over the side — as a camera mounted on the balloon filmed his tremendous descent. He looked so puny, so insignificant. So brave.
Two things: One, the glove on Kittinger’s right hand malfunctioned and his hand swelled to double its size. That happened just before he heaved himself out of the gondola.
Two, Captain Kittinger didn’t hear, as I did over Long Island, a whoosh, nor did he feel the rush of air in his face. “No wind whistles or billows my clothing,” he wrote in Life magazine that month. “I have absolutely no sensation of the increasing speed with which I fall.” Why not? Because when you’re 19 miles above the planet, the atmosphere has only 1.5% of its density at sea level. He didn’t even have the feeling of falling.
At first. Eventually, five minutes or so after he stepped out, he’s hurtling down at 614 miles an hour. That, he felt.
That was 56 years ago, and no one has yet topped Joe Kittinger’s jump. Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner is currently training for a higher leap in a project sponsored by Red Bull. Red Bull!
So anyway. I knew my little jump over Long Island, attached to Matt at the arse and crotch, wouldn’t be quite so dramatic, but it was exciting enough. While the turbo-prop Cessna made its ascent above the clouds, I inspected the interior of the little aircraft. It appeared to be held together in part by duct tape and chipped paint.
I thought about the waiver I had signed — again and again — which absolved Skydive Long Island of any possible wrongdoing if it should splatter my guts and carcass all over eastern New York, even if my death or injuries were “caused by negligence” or by other unspoken faults or errors made by the company, pilot, instructors, or any entity ever associated with Skydive Long Island. My heirs would never be able to sue them.
So. When we were about two and half miles over the drop zone, I wanted to take stock of myself, see if I had the yarbles to throw myself out of a plane, like my hero Captain Kittinger had done. But one doesn’t really have that option on a tandem dive, and so Matt unceremoniously shoved us both out the door at once. In the all the excitement, I even forgot to yell “Geronimo.”
As the Earth rushed up, I briefly wondered what I would do if Matt passed out or had a heart attack or an epileptic fit or an out-of-body experience. I did not know where his ripcord was, or whether I’d be able to reach it. If Matt did go all non compos mentis for any reason, I’d have about one minute to figure this out, face down at 115 miles an hour.
I didn’t dwell on these mordant thoughts. If I was going to die, I wanted to enjoy my last minute of life. The Atlantic Ocean, the line of sand dunes along the south coast of the island, verdant farmlands, forest — all of it life writ large — and larger and larger as these things get closer and closer. It’s beautiful up there. If one did die from this activity, the last views of the world would be spectacular.
After we had dropped and spun for about 8500 feet, Matt yanked the cord, wherever it was, deploying the parachute. The resultant jolt on the torso is harsh — a full-body wedgie. The whoosh of wind calms, the air warms, and then we glide toward the windsock and the airfield. Matt did stuff to the ropes that made us bank and swoop on the approach. Nice.
And then we landed on our feet, standing erect like men. My left calf was bleeding for some reason. That torso jolt left a little mark on a shoulder. I felt like a sore puppet.
One day I hope to step out of a plane on my own, like Captain Joe had done. Until then, it is a pretty sweet thing to leap or be shoved at 13,500 feet. I’ll have to take a course before I can jump solo and I shall, if it’s the last thing I do.
For more information on leaping out of airplanes, contact Skydive Long Island.
Mike Di Paola lives in New York and usually writes on environmental and animal welfare issues. He has a passion for science-fiction, especially that which keeps the science and fiction separate. He believes time travel is possible–but only forward, and at your own pace. His short stories include “The R Strategy,” “Termination Shock” and “Natural Deselection” (all proceeds go to benefit Fauna & Flora International) and are available at TheWriteDeal bookstore.