Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Learning to Fly

Learning to Fly

My whole life, all I wanted to do was jump out of an airplane. Maybe it stems from the mystique of my grandfather, who was with the 101st Airborne, or my uncle, who was in the 82nd Airborne. To me both of these people were men in the highest esteem. Both had endured the right of passage that is Airborne school. As a child, not unlike other children, I was obsessed with all things military. I loved watching war movies and on some level, I saw my uncle and grandfather as heroes; both had parachuted into foreign countries during battle. Short of joining the Army, jumping out of airplanes was one way I could come closer to emulating them. Maybe it is something genetic that made us all want to do this, but I knew that one day I would take steps to make that happen.

Somehow, when I was fifteen, I discovered that it was possible to take skydiving classes at sixteen with parental permission. My uncle wanted to try skydiving as opposed to military style parachuting. By sheer perseverance, I was able to convince my aunt and uncle that I was serious about wanting to do it. Since my uncle was interested as well, he decided that it would make a good birthday present. I was finally going to achieve my dream.

The 82nd Airborne had a program on post for people who wanted to do “civilian skydiving,” as they called it. A club provided training, trainers, equipment, and locations at which to jump. This was a time before tandem jumping was popular so a week’s worth of classes were required before going up the first time. We even had to learn how to pack our own parachutes. One of the training simulations in the class involved hanging in a harness suspended from the ceiling and pulling the rip cord. The first person is always the butt of a joke. I was this first person. I got into the harness just thinking that it was a realistic simulation of pulling the cord. So, there I was, hung about 3 feet off the ground about to experience what I would soon learn was called hanging agony. The instructor tells me to go through ripcord pull procedures and wham! I am no longer three feet in the air, I am now only a foot in the air and my face is as white as a ghost, but it got red fast. All the military people knew what was coming because they do it in jump school. It was a good laugh for everybody including myself. The rest of the class went smoothly. We passed our written and practical exams, and there was nothing left but to climb into the plane.

The next weekend we headed to Raeford Drop Zone. This is a pretty well known place; the Golden Knights actually train there. People are lined up everywhere talking to each other in flashy custom jump suits with matching jump caps about the newest gear and the daily grind of their jobs. I felt their eyes upon me and my club drawn, two sizes too big, used Army flight suit and hockey helmet. Everyone seemed to know everyone else and seemed to look down their noses at our beginner class. We looked around in awe of everything around us. The large field that served as a drop zone had a pit of gravel that formed a bull’s-eye in the center. The drop zone was bordered by about twenty lanes for repacking parachutes, the clubhouse, a house, some trees, the highway, and an airstrip with what seemed like very small planes to me.

Growing up, I watched all kinds of movies with skydiving in them, and in every one of them, the plane was huge and the people jumped out. In front of us was a C-182. The C stood for Cessna, and the 182 was definitely not the seating capacity. There was one seat and that was for the pilot, there was room for one person to sit on the floor next to the pilot, one behind the pilot, one in the tail of the aircraft, and the jumpmaster between us all. Outside the door was a twelve-inch metal bar. This bar would serve as the step as we would ease ourselves out of the plane and onto the wing strut. At this point we would hang until given the command to let go. This method allowed for plenty of chicken out opportunities. There was no taking a few deep breaths and making that bold leap.

We went over everything one more time and practiced our PLFs (parachute landing falls) before loading up on the plane. They slotted me as second for some reason. If you ever have to do anything scary, the middle is the best place to be. There is someone doing it right before you do, and someone that has to do it right after you. This lets you know that it can be done and that someone will see you, if you chicken out. As the plane started up, the adrenaline started to drip into my blood stream. It sat at that consistent drip, keeping me wide-awake and alert. As we climbed in altitude I started to question my sanity, and then it happened. The door opened! “Whooosh!,” the wind rushed in and my heart exploded with the adrenaline that was now flowing like a river through my body. The temperature was fifteen degrees lower all of a sudden and the air pressure had dropped. I could not hear anything other than the whining of the engines and the rushing of the wind. They threw out the tape to gage the wind and determine the best place to drop us. I watched as the first person shimmied out of the door, let go, and disappeared below us. It was then my turn. The river of adrenaline then turned into class five rapids. The jumpmaster told me to get in the door. He screamed in my ear to get out on the wing. Slowly my feet swing out the door and shakingly found the step. This step seemed a lot smaller now that I was trying to position myself on it from three thousand feet. Finally, I got my feet situated, reached out, and grabbed the strut. I slid my hands out past the red tape that marked us clear from the step. I let go with my feet and weightlessly hung there. I looked back to the jumpmaster who was thrusting his finger in my face. This was the sign to let go, but I did not need to know this because the gesture alone scared my grip off the plane. The first thing I did was look down, ignoring everything taught to me in class, and then before I could do anything else, “Wham!,” my parachute opened and I had a canopy over my head. The class five rapids emptied into a serene quiet lake.

The ride down in wide-open space, just floating, was amazing. Just like a bird, I was flying and there was nothing in between the sky and me. As I was approaching the landing area, the trees directly in front of the landing area, approached even faster. I made a quick decision and decided to chance landing myself over landing in the trees. It was a hard landing that I did not feel because of the adrenaline. I pulled in my chute and walked back into the staging area. The word that came to my mouth is the same word that came to everyone’s mouth: Awesome! Everyone found this word and I was no different. The experience itself cannot be described otherwise.

I have made a total of seven jumps since that October day in 1993. Every time the door opened, so did the floodgates, as adrenaline poured into my heart. I guess you never truly feel more alive than when you are closest to death. I know I have not. That day I grew. Maybe, I grew in the eyes of my grandfather and uncle. Maybe they saw me as more of a man, but I truly grew in my own eyes. I did this on my own. I fulfilled my dream. I knew then that I was capable of doing anything. I came of age that day not by having my heroes look at me differently, but by becoming a different person to look at.

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Ender said...

I always found jumping to be totally nerve wracking: something about knowing that my parachute was fabricated for the government by the lowest bidder.AIRBORNE! ;)

Budd said...

not to mention packed by someone else. I never went through airborne school. I was a scout and all of our units slots went to infantrymen.

Red Mosquito said...

Great story, excellent writing. I'm not sure I could ever do it. But I'm sure it's quite the experience. Sure sounds like it.

[atropos] said...

[ciò è buono]

grrrace said...

holy cow. just reading that made my adrenaline pump.some days i think i want to do it and other days i'm thinking, "awwww, hellll no." hehe.

Phil Davis said...

Nice writing, but I am left to wonder if your Uncle also jumped that day and if he was in the plane with you? Did you have to pull your chord that first time or was it automatic?

Budd said...

The first few jumps are static line, so it is automatic. My uncle did it that day as well, but he wasn't on the same flight as me.

Budd said...

you could do it.

Budd said...

It is an awesome experience you should go for it.
thanks for the compliments everyone.

Steve Betz said...

Budd -- great great story. Thanks so much for sharing that. I don;t think I could ever do it. Wow -- very cool.