Leaps of Faith

I can’t say that I was particularly scared at my first parachute jump – excited for sure, but not scared. There’s a theory that both those emotions are physiologically the same thing and it just depends on how you interpret them. That makes sense to me.

Before the plane takes off you have no way of predicting what it must be like to step outside, half a mile above the ground, and then trust that the nylon line joining your aircraft to the pins keeping your parachute pack closed will tug them out when your falling body reaches the end of it. There’s a strange moment on takeoff when you realize that you will not be landing in the same aircraft, and once it starts climbing with the door open the unreality really kicks in. By the time your instructor tells you to get out on the step, the adrenaline rush, engine roar, howling wind and realization that you are standing outside an airplane in flight come close to sensory overload. Things get surreal as you hear “Have a good jump — GO!”, feel a firm but somehow encouraging thump on you shoulder, and hop backward into empty space. All those good intentions to follow instructions and count out the seconds before the parachute should be opening evaporate, and all that comes out is YEEEEHAW!

After a safe landing and a combination of relief, exhilaration and achievement, you feel like a skydiver at last and anticipate advancing to freefall jumps in no time. But it turns out to be not that easy. In my case at least, the second time was more nerve-wracking; vividly remembering that stomach-knotting feeling of falling toward a tiny airfield far below. A little less exhilaration and a little more scary this time, although still a good experience. But before the third jump I came face to face with fear like I’d never felt before, stopping the car several times on the way to the drop zone. I would have simply turned around if I hadn’t felt too shamed to quit. Fortunately a good instructor and some understanding veteran jumpers got me suited up, into the plane and out the door. And what a rush when the parachute opened! I’ve done it! I beat the fear! And that night, for the first time, the old-timers invited me to join them at the pub. They’d been watching to see if the new guy would break the fear barrier or quit.

By Jump 128 I’d become an avid, if still inexperienced, skydiver, wearing a custom-tailored jumpsuit and equipped with a made-to-order parachute and a very good reserve, which I hoped never to use. On that day, feeling great after finally perfecting back-flips in freefall I pulled the ripcord, looked up to check the canopy, and saw – garbage! A line tangled over the top made it look more like a lop-sided bra than the usual comforting dome of nylon. No option but a “cutaway” to fall clear of the tangle before it started the inevitable disastrous spin, and then deploy the reserve. A moment’s hesitation – maybe it might be okay; maybe the canopy won’t spin any faster than it’s starting to do now; the frightening thought of falling free again, so close to the ground; realizing that panic is about to bubble up. Think like a metronome – tick, tick, tick. Follow the emergency drill practised so many times on the ground. Get into the right position; look at the quick releases attaching the canopy to the harness; open the dust-covers; tug the loops firmly; fall free; pull the reserve ripcord; see the beautiful sight of an open canopy; a rush of gratitude at having invested in a good reserve. After recovering the discarded parachute from a nearby field we found it undamaged. The tangle had been my own fault from sloppy packing after the previous jump.

A parachute malfunction is like a fall from a horse – you’ve got to get back up and go again. An hour later I’m in the air with supportive friends and feeling surprisingly confident. The gear is good and it was only my own sloppiness that caused the malfunction. Even if I’m stupid again I know that the backup system works and I know that I can keep my head. After three more jumps that day I was more in love with freefall parachuting than ever, and never felt nervous in the air again.

It’s been forty years since I gave up the sport, but three lessons still stick with me. First, fear and exhilaration are the same thing – it just depends on how you interpret them. Second, emergencies can be empowering. Finally, and for me the biggest lesson of them all, is that once you’ve committed to going out the door there’s no point having second thoughts, looking back over your shoulder or wishing you could scramble back into the airplane. Having committed to a course of action, focus on enjoying the ride.

Like, for example, if you decide to shift life’s direction, set up a website and commit to spending your time writing stuff. YEEEHAW!

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