By Eric Wilcox
Sky diving is a very safe sport, but when things go wrong, they can go spectacularly wrong.
The young lady nearest the door, probably in her mid-20s, is getting ready to do a “pop and drop.” As the roll-up door on the side of the plane is opened, cool air flows in and the noise level goes up. According to the altimeter on my left wrist we are nearing her jump elevation of 6,500 feet. She is small and with the main and reserve chutes, she looks even smaller.
She has at least 10 successful solo jumps in her log book, so she knows what she is doing. She checks her harness and altimeter then tightens her chin strap, gives a thumbs up to the jumpmaster, and receives a thumbs up in return. She moves to the doorway, positions her feet and body to face forward into the wind. She leans out, pulls back in, then steps out. She’s gone…
The jumpmaster leans out, watches for a few seconds. The door is rolled down and we continue our climb up to my jump elevation: 13,000 feet.
Alone in my thoughts in a crowded plane, in a male macho way I think, if she can do it I can. The jumpmaster leans over, tugs on my harness, smiles and gives a thumbs up, I try to smile back, but can only manage a nod. He points to my helmet and signals to put my goggles on.
This is my second solo jump. I so badly screwed up my first that I have to do it over again. I did everything wrong. Most importantly, due to bad body position, I couldn’t find my main deployment handle (commonly known as the rip cord) and the jumpmaster had to move in and pull it for me. No matter how well you do everything else, if you can’t pull the main deployment handle, you pretty much fail the jump. So, I’m jumping again, I have to prove to myself that I can do this.
There are actually three of us on the jump: the jumpmaster, assistant jumpmaster and me. These two men will be right next to me, watching my every move, adjusting my body position as needed, and in case I have problems like my first jump, they will move in and take over.
As the plane turns into the jump run at just over 13,000 feet, the door is rolled up. The sky is clear blue and cold. Off in the distance and slightly below us is Mount Hood. Ground is two and a half miles down. This is it. A check of my goggles, harness and altimeter, a quick touch of the pull handle, it’s where it’s supposed to be. A nervous thumbs up and a smiling thumbs up in return and we are ready.
The plane isn’t big enough to stand up, so we move in a crouched position. The assistant moves to the doorway and leans out, then he climbs out the door and hangs on the outside of the plane and waits for me. I’m next. I have to move to doorway position myself in the opening with each foot aligned with the edge of the sill. One hand on a grab bar overhead, one on a grab bar on the jamb and I’m ready.
This position only lasts for a few seconds, but seems forever. I’ve got 100 mile per hour wind in my face, the noise drowning out all other sounds. Making eye contact with the assistant, I yell “check-out.” A nod in return, looking back then forward l lean out and shout “out.” Pull back in, shout “in” then yelling “oooout” I step out and let go.
The next few seconds are absolutely amazing, incredible adrenaline rush, complete freedom, no control and everything is a blur.
Then back to the task at hand, getting safely to the ground. First, body position: on my stomach, head up, legs spread, toes pointed, knees slightly bent, arms spread out, elbows bent so hands are just above your head, back arched. All good. Then check the horizon. It’s there where it’s supposed to be. Which means I have good body position. I make eye contact with the jumpmasters, one on each side, look for any signals from them. Lastly, check the altimeter on my wrist: 11,000 feet. I’ve already dropped 2,000 feet and I haven’t done anything. We are falling at a rate of a thousand feet every 6 seconds, almost terminal velocity.
Thumbs up from the jumpmaster. This is the signal to do three practice touches of my pull handle, a cloth ball about the size of a golf ball positioned in the small of my back, just above the right hip. I reach back, find it, grab it, pretend to pull it. All good, do it again and again. Thumbs up, all good.
Now I get to look around. Horizon, yup. Jumpmaster, yup. Altimeter: 9,000 feet! Time really does fly. It is beautiful, the sky is clear, horizon all around, earth below, complete and total exhilaration.
Check the altimeter: 8,000 feet. Thumbs up from the jumpmaster, I return a double exaggerated thumbs up. Look around, check my body position. Check the altimeter: 7,000 feet. Focus on the altimeter.
At 6,500 feet the process to pull the handle starts. First, wave off the jumpmasters. They move further away to avoid becoming entangled. Wait a few seconds then reach back, grab the ball, pull hard and fling the ball away.
As the pilot chute deploys, in turn pulling out the main chute, there is a gentle jerk as I am pulled into a vertical position. After a few anxious seconds, the slider drops down and the chute is fully deployed, bright yellow and beautiful. Everything is now completely quiet. Drifting along on a silent wind at about 5,000 feet. I reach up and grab the loop pulls.
Over the one way radio I hear “yellow chute turn right.” I pull down on the right loop and turn right. “Yellow chute turn left.” I pull on the left loop and turn left. I am flying the chute. Pull both loops and I suddenly get a brief period of lift. Let go and I start back down. Flying the chute is fun. I take a few turns and spins. Next, I need to find the drop zone, right next to the runway, all good. I get to play for a minute.
At about 1,000 feet “yellow chute turn right.” I turn and line up parallel with the runway on the downwind run. Holding this direction for the length of the runway and dropping to about 300 feet. “Yellow chute turn right.” I turn. “Yellow chute turn right.” I turn again. Now on the final leg, at about 200 feet.
Pulling down slightly I slow and control my descent. 200’, 100’, 50’, 30’ 20’ “flare”. With a slight jolt, like stepping off a low wall, a roll and I’m on the ground.
I did it. According to the jumpmaster all went very well, except I didn’t have to roll on the landing. For that minor error I only got a score of 3 out of 4. I am relieved, I did it. I proved to myself that I could do it. And as my jumpmaster said, “any jump you walk away from is a good jump.”
But, I still had two jumpmasters as my safety net. The young lady that did the “pop and drop” was on her own. She had less than 9 seconds to get through the full jump sequence, less the practice pulls, before things start to go wrong. That is what the jumpmaster was watching before he closed the door. Apparently she did everything right. I have a lot of respect for her, I’m not sure I could do that.
My jump was a good jump, but probably my last.
Eric Wilcox is an architect living in Northeast Portland with his recently retired wife, Sue, and Murdoch (“Not-a-bear”), their Newfoundland.
Editor’s note: Eric is a longtime friend and neighbor whom I’ve known for 30 years-plus, ever since our wives met through a play group that included each of our youngest-born children. As the years pass, I find more to admire in my friend’s artistic side (a designer and maker of stained glass) and his adventurous side (Spartan Race finisher and now skydiving).
Tomorrow: Andrea Cano | Tears