Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Did I Ever Tell You About the Time...

...I Jumped Out of an Airplane?
The flyers appeared all over the campus of Oklahoma State University on a sunny spring day in 1985. Come learn about skydiving! We were in college to learn, weren't we? Four friends and I went to the lecture, which turned into a commercial for a group called Sky Dive Chandler.
What did we learn? That we, too, could jump out of a perfectly good airplane for $20 that weekend. All we had to do was find the tiny airport in Chandler, Oklahoma. And bring $20. And sign a waiver. I think the only question anyone asked was whether or not we could drink beer (that would be No).
The Chandler airport consisted of a rusting Quonset hut hanger and one short runway. There must have been 40 of us there, mostly college-aged men. We learned how to pack a parachute - though we didn't have to pack our own. We learned about the harness, and how to wear it properly. We learned where the freaking ripcord was located, and how to pull it.
After an hour of rudimentary instruction, conducted by the same young Sky Dive Chandler club members we met on campus, everyone filed out of the hangar onto the tarmac.
There sat a dirty red and white Cessna.
"Where's the plane we're going to jump out of?" someone asked. "All I see is this little red piece of shit."
I reasoned that if they used a really nice airplane, no one would want to jump out of it.
I don't remember how they decided the order in which we would jump. I do remember that we could only go one at a time, and that we spent all day standing around waiting. With no beer.
During the third or fourth flight of the day, before the next sky diver jumped, we watched the plane suddenly fly in a tight circle over the airport, over and over and over. None of us knew why this was happening, and in due course the plane straightened out and disgorged its human cargo. When the plane landed, we learned that it had caught fire, and the pilot circled until the fire blew out.
Oh, OK.
A few people left after that, but the hearty (stupid) ones stayed.
My turn came just as the sun was setting. My sky dive would be a night-time experience.
With my harness in place and the parachute on my back, I climbed inside the small airplane. The instructor who was already on board was busy trying to light a joint as I settled into my seat. We began to taxi down the runway, and as we picked up speed, the pilot began to thump one of the cockpit dials with one hand.
"Ah, there we go!" he cried, and suddenly we were in the sky.
I don't remember what the altitude was when the instructor said, "OK, buddy. Out you go!" I do remember suddenly regretting every choice I had made that led to that moment.
Proper procedure dictated that you step out onto the landing gear or wheel on the right side of the plane, and hold onto the strut under the wing. Then, you let go of the strut, and off you went.
I can tell you that letting go of that strut is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. My handprints are probably still on that strut - assuming they haven't crushed that airplane into a cube by now.
But I did it, eventually, and began to free fall.
When sky diving is depicted on television or the movies, free-falling looks like flying or floating.
No. You are plummeting like a rock.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" is what I remember saying as I experienced free fall.
Then the ripcord was pulled...
...And I truly was floating. It was wonderful! My scrotum returned to its proper place below my abdomen, and I enjoyed a beautiful night-time view of the countryside as I wafted toward a grass field next to the runway. In short order, I landed and fell to my knees.
Then I went home and had a beer. And vowed to never again jump out of a perfectly good airplane.
Postscript: My good friend Jeff Darlington took the photo of me just after I got inside the plane. You can see the terror in my eyes. It's good that you can't read my lips.

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