The Skydiving that Almost Wasn't

7.28.2010

It was a gorgeous summer day, the clouds were billowing, white marshmallows in the sky, and I was on my way to Cushing, Oklahoma, to go skydiving.

Skydiving is something people always talk about and say, "I've always thought about doing that." But they never do. It could be the expense or the chance of death, but skydiving, much like traveling to a foreign country (except less risky), easily becomes one of those unchecked boxes on life's to-do list.

A friend and I went in celebration of our birthdays (25 and 24, respectively). We called almost three weeks ahead of time to schedule, which gave me enough time to put my affairs in order should my parachute be punctured by a bird, and I plummet to my untimely death. (I can joke about it now that I'm safely on the ground.)

We showed up for our appointment at 3:45 Sunday afternoon, July 25. A few dark clouds could be seen off in the distance, but in all other respects it was a perfect day. They were behind schedule, so we sat around for a good two hours before our names were highlighted on the screen. By then we'd watched at least eight people land safely, so my fear of peeing my pants was slowly transitioning into an excited haze.

Finally, a tall, tattooed man walked over and pointed one of his leathery arms at me. "Are you next?"
"Umm... I think so."
"Over here, then."
I ran beside him, trying to keep up with his long stride as he led me inside the "hanger" to a replica of an airplane. He hopped inside and started gesturing rapidly as he spoke.
"First thing you need to know is that you can't screw up. You can try," he continued, throwing his arm around his neck, "to choke me or kick me, but it'll be hard."
He continued to rattle off instructions, which I did my best to pay attention to, but instead I just watched the tattoo on his arm twitch as he grabbed the edge of the plane and leaned out.
"...foot here...I,2,3 and then we'll..."
Focus, I told myself, now is not the time to zone out.
Unfortunately, by the time I decided I needed to pay attention, he was fitting me for a straps and a helmet.

I was for sure going to die.

He fit us up and tightened everything and led us to the plane. It was small and blue and looked like it needed a paint job. We ran to the side, where the door was open, and my friend jumped in.

"Wait!" The pilot took his earphones off and turned toward my instructor. "It was lookin' dark up there on the last run. There's a hem-haw comin' 'round the shuflaw into a big parcug. No telling when it'll blow over."

(Okay, that's not really what he said. But he was using a lot of "official" skydiving language, which I did not understand. Plus, it was loud because the engine was running. Don't judge me.)

"We're puttin' a hold on the ride," tattooed man said. "Hop out, darlin'." He gave my friend a hand to help her out of the plane then turned to the other instructor. "If we can't guarantee landing here, I ain't goin'. I don't wanna land on the softball field."

The pilot cut the engine, and in the silence I could hear thunder in the distance.
"This sucks," I said to my friend. "We drove all the way out here and got all nervous for nothing!"
"Well, we'll wait around and see if it passes."

We spent the next twenty minutes or so staring at the sky, hoping this wasn't a sign that we really shouldn't go. Maybe God was telling us something. Now, I'm no weather expert, but I was just about to say that it looked brighter when tattooed man came running over.
"I think we've got a window!" He grabbed my harness and started tightening the straps. "We're gonna try to get at least this plane goin'."

The pilot turned the engine back on, and we folded ourselves into the plane. It was tiny inside, and I started to get nervous.

We had been told it would take 20 minutes to get to 9,000ft, where we'd make our jump, but it felt like much long than that as we watched the ground sink farther and farther below. Just when I thought we couldn't possibly go much higher, my instructor leaned back and shouted in my ear, "We're almost halfway up!"

How can this be? I suddenly panicked. We're so high already!

Yet we continued to climb.

Finally, we were told to put on our cap and goggles (like that piece of rubber was going to help if I landed on my head). I turned around and could feel my instructor strapping himself to me...every little bit of him. We were close.

He nodded at the pilot and pulled the latch on the door. Immediately I could feel cool air rushing in and see the ground beneath the thin layer of clouds. We awkwardly wobbled on our knees to the front of the plane (only half a foot or so), and I grabbed onto the frame.

"Smile for the camera!" he said. We turned to our right and saw David, the cameraman who'd flow up with us, in a purple jumpsuit and a helmet with a camera attached on top.


"Okay, now put your leg out!" We put our right legs on the small step outside the plane.
"Now lean." At least, I think that's what he said, but at that point my mind was blank.
All I remember is leaning to the side and being sucked behind the plane. I screamed as we fell, wind rushing at our faces. My legs and arms flew back, and I couldn't even feel the guy behind me. When my scream ended, I took a breath. But the wind was pushing so hard, nothing happened.

Oh my gosh, I thought, I can't breathe. I'm going to die. My immediate next thought was, Where's the camera? Smile, you idiot! Don't look like you're dying inside.
I looked up and saw purple-jumpsuit man (flying? floating? falling?) in front of us. I smiled and gave a thumbs up, trying to pretend I wasn't slowly suffocating. If nothing else, the last picture taken of me was going to look good.

We fell for about 35 seconds (at least that's what I was told) before the parachute was pulled (by the instructor, not me). I felt a slight jerk but nothing painful, and suddenly we were flying. I could see everything, the wind was a comfortable temperature, and I could breathe. Glorious air filled my lungs.

"We've got a good parachute," he said.
I wasn't quite sure how to respond. "Well, that's good."
"Do you want to steer?"
"Sure!"
He showed me how to spin by either pulling left or right, and we did at least three spins before he took total control.

I could see the field where everyone was waiting...where everyone else we'd seen land that day. But then I heard, "The wind's pushin' us. We're gonna land over here."
"That weed patch?"
"Yup. Pick your feet up."

I lifted my legs, and we glided down.
"Okay, we're gonna have to sit down. Just sit...sit...SIT!"
We touched the ground, and I didn't sit so much as fall back on him. I could hear him unbuckling straps, and then he said, "You can stand up now."

Because we didn't land in the normal spot, we were driven back on a golf cart--five people, two open parachutes, and a driver packed on one tiny cart.

By the time we got back, the plane had landed, and they were busy pulling everything into the hanger. "We're not taking any more rides today. Storm's comin' in," I heard someone say.

My instructor turned to me. "Guess you girls got in just in the nick of time. Almost didn't get to go."
It goes without saying, but I'm glad I didn't die. I'm glad my chute opened and that I didn't break my ankle or pee my pants. It was quite the experience and most likely something I won't do again, although I would if the chance presented itself.

Mostly I'm just happy I can check skydiving off my list. And if I do go again, I'll remember to breathe.

3 comments:

  1. Love it! Great writing! (Especially loved the the substituted jargon for what the pilot and instructors said. I couldn't make out any of it either with that noise.)

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  2. I love this post! Your pictures are great, and you for sure don't look like you're suffocating/not breathing in the last one. You look fantastic! I'm so glad you did this and so proud of you!

    -audra-

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  3. Hannah, yes, that's exactly what I heard the pilot say ;) You know you heard it too.

    Audra, my one goal in life is to satisfy you with my writing. Okay...that was dramatic. It's not really my one goal, but it does make me feel at least slightly accomplished. Glad you don't think I look like I'm dying in the pic. There were a few others where I sort of do.
    Love ya!

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