Recollections of a fool.

The other day

… I was looking through the archives on my computer and came across this little essay on my one and only attempt at freeing myself from any connection with the ground we walk on. Oh foolish boy…

flashback to Wellington, New Zealand 1981.

Finally, after many delays because of bad weather, the day dawned a bright, calm and cloudless blue. Perfect conditions for my first jump. The trip out to the site would still take about two hours though, and having experienced last minute changes in weather before, I didn’t feel the high level of nerves that I had at first. In a state of outward calm, I gathered together my leather jacket, helmet and gloves, kicked over my SR500 and headed out to the airfield to meet up with my fellow first-jumpers.

Motorcycle journeys are interesting in themselves; you, the machine and the road. A road becomes fixed in the mind like a mental map after having travelled it a number of times. An automatic awareness takes over that allows you to think about other things while you ride. Its a bit like our breathing, or our heartbeat in that we don’t have to think about what we are doing in order to do it. My thoughts cast back to the first time the idea of trying out sky-diving came up.

“Why jump out of a perfectly good plane?” is what a pilot friend of mine said to me straight away in reply to me telling him of my idea. I didn’t really have a good answer to that other than it seemed like an adventurous thing to do and that it would break-up the otherwise boring daily routines that our lives often settle in to. There must be something more to life than the endlessly repeated cycle of getting up, going to work, going home, watching TV and going to bed; right? However, if I were telling the complete truth, it would be that I was out to impress a girl, and what better way to attract the opposite sex than by crafting and projecting an image of adventure and daring; but….. that’s another story.

Leading up to Jump-Day, the jump master had instructed us carefully in the safe and secure environment of the community centre gym. With our feet planted firmly on the ground, we ran through the features of the equipment first, then talked about exit procedures and finally the steps to take when, not if, a malfunction should occur.

The parachutes we were going to use were old oval chutes that were army surplus and apparently safe. I had had visions of gracefully gliding to earth under a colourful wing-like canopy and landing like a modern superman before the admiring gaze of the gathered crowd; but that hope was dashed when I saw the bulky, camouflage khaki green-grey workmanlike chutes we were going to use. There was no romance here. One comforting feature of these chutes was that they were opened by a rip-chord mechanism that pulled open the backpack containing the main chute after a three second free fall; something that I would be more than thankful for later.

Some more experienced club members demonstrated the way to get out of the plane, which would be a small single engine Cessna with an overhead wing. Placing one hand protectively over the emergency release lever to avoid an interior release of a chute (yes, it had happened to some unfortunate souls who did not live to tell the tale), we were shown how to exit a plane at 3000 feet. Move to the edge of the doorway, reach out with your hands to grab the overhead wing strut, step out with the left foot onto the wheel axle, cross over the right leg and dangle that freely in space. Then, when the jumpmaster yells “Release!” – simply let go and arch your back so that you fall gracefully away from the plane in a stable position allowing the chute to release freely. Simple as that.

We took turns to strap the harness to our bodies and being hoisted up off the ground in order to simulate the conditions we would be facing. We also had to go through the main chute release procedure that would lead to the release of the emergency chute. We were reminded time and time again that the main chute must be cleared and out of the way before reaching for the emergency release. Failure to do so would result in a tangled mass of cables and material with a rather final consequence at the end of the journey.

We all had to sign a disclaimer.

My mind switched back to the present. At the airfield things were tense and nervous. I was placed in a group of four that included the jumpmaster. We packed ourselves into heavy canvas jumpsuits with flared sleeves and legs, crammed our heads into rather flimsy looking white helmets and finished of the look with a pair of plastic goggles to cover our eyes. The chute pack was fitted last and seemed so much heavier than when we had tried it on before.

Did my chute have a twist in the cables, had it been properly packed, was it airworthy, was I stupid to place my life in the hands of an unknown other? Those questions never occurred to me. I simply moved forward in a numb, robot-like fashion to the door of the awaiting plane. It looked small. It was small. We were packed in like sardines in a can, given a pleasant wave by the team members left on the ground and trundled down the taxi way ready for take off.

Once airborne, we circled and circled the airfield to gain the required 3000 foot jump height. It doesn’t sound like a great height and in a jet this is achieved in a matter of seconds after take off. In this single engine plane though, it seemed like forever. Birds were flying faster and I thought at one time I saw a bird land and preen itself on the wing strut of our plane as we struggled to gain height.

My turn to jump came all too soon.

At 3000 feet the pilot switched off the engine, replacing the strained drone of the engine with the eerie whistling of the wind as it squeezed past the fragile frame of the plane.

“Get ready!” shouted the jump master.

I moved out to the edge of the plane. Stretched out my hands to grab hold of the overhead strut, then stood on the wheel axle with my left foot, crossed over the right and dangled it in space; all as I was supposed to do.

“Release!”

I fell.

Not the graceful back bent arch that had been expected, but in a curled up foetal position that indicated my true state. I screamed, I think. I can’t remember. My helmeted head came into contact with the rubber tyre of the plane… or so I was told. I bounced and my body somersaulted backwards – not through some attempted artistic control. Upside down and absolutely petrified with fear, the chute opened after a long three seconds of terror. It opened ok, I think. I can’t remember.

What I do remember is hanging in mid-air in the sudden quiet, looking around and thinking, “Why jump out of a perfectly good plane?”

– switching back to the present moment, I look back with a twisted fondness at that event. I could easily have been killed on that jump. The rip chord could have twisted itself around my neck and pulled my head off my torso. A million things could have gone wrong, but only about 500,000 did. I was lucky.

So much of our lives are spent in dull routine. Days pass by in which nothing really happens, and as a result we don’t really remember one moment from the next. My parachute jump has etched itself in the fabric of my mind simply because the mix of fear and adrenaline worked together to do so.

Do we all have moments like that?

I hope so.

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