How I Jumped Out of the Very First Plane I Ever Got Into
By Rick Mannshardt
Part 1 of 3
TIMELINE: August 1986. Antioch, California.
I was a latecomer to the world of flying. Actually I was a latecomer to just about everything. But this story isn’t about that. It’s about jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.
OK, first a little back story. In 1986, at the embarrassingly advanced age of twenty-nine, I was scheduled to fly for the first time in my life—in this case, to Mexico for a weeklong vacation with a couple of friends. Having never flown before, I felt a bit uneasy. But like most guys, I wanted to be cool about it, like I’d been flying for years. The problem was that I wouldn’t know how I’d feel until the plane was off the ground. I needed to find out before then.
Jump back a few more years to the mid-seventies. My childhood friend Jim (not his real name) had just gone skydiving with some of his high school buddies. This jump was the latest in a long line of exploits that he and his friends had embarked upon in their insatiable search for teenage guts and glory. It turned out to be a grand adventure, and had catapulted them to near cult status within the small Catholic school they attended across town. Jim was so jazzed about the experience I thought he was going to take up skydiving as a regular hobby.
In the years that followed, I occasionally thought about doing a jump myself. But I never worked up the nerve– until this Mexico trip came up. I was at a point in life where I felt stuck, inhibited. Too many things languished on the back burner. I needed a push—something bold and symbolic. Skydiving sounded like the perfect solution; the scariest thing I could think of doing—aside from getting married. And I knew that if I could jump out of a small plane on my very first flight, then munching peanuts on a jumbo-jet to Mexico would be a cinch. I decided to go for it. But I had no way of knowing that my skydiving experience would bear no resemblance to the glorious teen adventure that Jim had raved about ten years earlier.
It wasn’t going to be easy summoning up the courage; I’d probably need some sort of help. I figured that doing the jump with a friend would make it less intimidating, but I wasn’t sure who I should take along. My buddy Jim had long since moved south in search of bigger challenges, but a woman I’d just begun dating admitted that she was interested in the idea. We talked about it, and within a few weeks we’d set a date for the jump. That’s when things started to get scary. Every time I thought about it, I got more anxious. It wasn’t so much the jump itself, as much as having to do it in front of her. I was eager to impress this young lady; I didn’t want to blow it. Yet now that I had committed to bringing her along, it was impossible to back out of it without looking like a total wimp. By now I was sorry I’d even mentioned it to her. I realized it was way too early in our relationship for this sort of adventure.
Luckily, fate intervened. A few weeks later she told me she couldn’t make it; something had come up. I pretended to be sorry. I was saved—free to make the jump on my own, which was more my style anyway. This way, there’d be no witnesses. Even if I wet my pants and cried like a little girl, at least none of my friends would be there to give me any crap about it.
So on the morning of August 16th, I woke up early, grabbed a handful of cash and drove from my home in the East Bay to a small airfield at the western edge of California’s Central Valley. There I met with a group of twenty others who had the same crazy idea as me. Not wanting to worry my friends or family, I hadn’t told anybody about this little venture. No one knew I was here. As I looked around the group of would-be jumpers, I realized I was the only one who’d come alone. Everyone else had brought someone with them for support. Perhaps I had more guts than I gave myself credit for.
At eight o’clock, an energetic young guy from the skydiving school appeared in white shorts and sunglasses. He introduced himself and then ushered us inside a plain looking one-story building. The décor was Early Pragmatic: bare sheetrock walls and unpretentious fluorescent light fixtures. I took this as a good sign; there’d be no bullshit here.
The first room we came to had several rows of chairs positioned in front of a video monitor. It was here that we watched a 10 minute tape of an attorney trying to explain the legal paperwork that lay ahead of us. To paraphrase, he basically said that the people who were about to take us up in the air and throw us out the door weren’t liable if anything went wrong. Therefore our families couldn’t sue them for damages if we were killed. The bottom line was that we were about to sign our lives away to these strangers in shorts and sunglasses. I didn’t know this alleged attorney on the screen in front of me. He may even have been an actor posing as one. But I had no choice other than to believe him if I wanted to go ahead with this. It was sort of symbolic, really: the first leap of faith in what would become a day absolutely full of them.
After the video, we were herded over to a counter where a smiling young woman took our two hundred dollars and gave us the aforementioned papers to sign. Would you believe this was the scariest part of the day? Here I was, preparing to jump out of a tiny airplane from 3500 feet, and I was more worried about signing my name. I think it was the commitment; the no-turning-back-now moment. As I felt the doubt knotting my stomach, I considered making a dash for the door. Hell, no one even knew my name yet; I could still get away clean. But I didn’t want to bail now; I was too curious about what lay ahead. So I grabbed the pen. Once I’d given up my cash and my signature, I was fine. I was committed. My ass was theirs.
Ahead of us now were eight intensive hours of instruction and mock practice that would prepare us for the jump at the end of the day. Sure, you could sign up for a tandem jump (strapped to an instructor like a piece of baggage) and get up in the air much sooner. But if you wanted to fly solo, you had to go to school.
The type of skydiving we were being trained for today was called static-line jumping. Each of us would be going solo, with our parachutes being opened automatically by a cable attached to the plane. There’d be no free fall or yanking of the ripcord. That type of jump could only be accomplished in one of two ways: either in the aforementioned tandem jump, or solo– after much more training than we’d get here today.
During the initial lecture the head instructor hit us with a warning about drugs. Apparently, the combination of adrenaline and altitude was bad enough. But adding mind-altering substances into the mix was asking for the biggest kind of trouble. The resulting hallucination and disorientation, he said, could easily get you killed here. Sitting quietly in the back row, I made the assumption that he meant any type of drug, so I left my Dramamine in the car. (I felt self-conscious even asking about it in front of this group.) This tiny oversight would turn out to be a big mistake; those little white pills would’ve changed the whole outcome of this story. But whoever knows this kind of stuff at the time?
The instructors reassured us that no one had ever died while skydiving from this particular facility. They went on to say that the few people who’d been injured here had gotten into trouble because they failed to follow directions. In other words, it was their own damn fault. I decided right then that I would listen carefully to everything I was told.
Over the next few hours we were drilled in a variety of basic skydiving procedures. The instruction took place in several of the aforementioned white rooms as well as outside on the lawn. There was a lot to learn, and there was a lot to remember. Apparently the parachutes we were using today were far more sophisticated than the ones the instructors had learned with years ago. Those old round US Army chutes had no control. They went where the wind took them. They also descended very fast—almost fifteen feet per second. “Pound into the ground” was the way one instructor described them. Injuries such as broken ankles were common.
Modern parachutes are a whole different animal. Their advanced design allows for a more controlled descent. By pulling either of two lines, the jumper can get the chute to turn left, right, or slow down. The rectangular airfoil design of these chutes also enables them to travel forward while they descend. All of these features enable these chutes to land at a pre-determined spot. But in order to do so, it’s necessary to make a number of controlled turns in a timely manner. Being first-time jumpers, we weren’t expected to master the complexities of aerial navigation; an instructor would guide us through these maneuvers from the ground by radio. Again, we just had to follow directions.
My favorite part of the training was something I call the Slide Show. It was an exam—not oral, not written, but physical. For the past hour, we’d been learning about the various things that can go wrong during a parachute jump. There was quite a list. The idea was to know how to deal with these problems when they came up; how to react to any possible scenario. Now that the lecture was over, we were supposed to demonstrate what we’d learned.
They ushered us into a cramped room with no windows where a slide projector was waiting, aimed high on the front wall. Suspended from the ceiling were two dozen parachute harnesses. We each climbed into one; our feet just reached the floor. With the lights lowered, they then showed us a series of slides. Each one depicted an example of a particular problem we might encounter; in other words, what we might see if we were to look up at our chutes once we had left the airplane.
These problems came in two different types: low speed and high speed. By definition, a low speed problem was less of a danger– you’d be dropping slowly and would have plenty of time to deal with it. An example was a low speed line twist (when your chute was open, but the lines were tangled.) In this situation, you were supposed to jerk the control lines in order to free them. It didn’t matter how long it took—you’d have plenty of time.
High-speed problems didn’t allow for such a casual response. There wasn’t time. An example was if the slider (a tiny chute that helps open the main chute) hadn’t fully ascended. Here, the rule was to try three times to fix the problem. If that failed, you were to cut loose the main chute and open your reserve. Earlier during the lecture someone in the group had asked the instructor exactly how much time a person would have to respond to these high-speed situations. He refused to tell us. He said we were better off not knowing. He said a person falling through the air with a faulty parachute is so full of adrenaline and angst that time is impossible to judge objectively. So we were allowed only three attempts to fix it. After that, it was time for “Plan B.” The instructor added that in some situations, the problem might be hard to categorize. So instead of agonizing over the decision whether to go for our reserve chutes, we were told to remember a simple mantra: “When in doubt, whip it out.”
The group sat quietly in the dark as the slides were shown. The instructors watched our reactions from the sidelines, seeing who among us had actually been paying attention in class. We were supposed to think on our own, but I noticed several people were sneaking glances at others for clues, like school kids cheating on a midterm. But this test wasn’t for something as gratuitous as civics or social studies. The information we were supposed to know was necessary to keep us alive. One guy near the back of the room was pretty obvious. He hadn’t retained anything the instructors had told him. He was just mimicking the people around him. The problem was that there wouldn’t be anyone to copy off of at 3500 feet. I remember thinking to myself: This guy’s going to die.
Part 2 of 3
The next phase of the training took place outside. A crude wooden mock-up of a single engine airplane cabin stood in the middle of the lawn. For the sake of practicality (and better visibility) it had no roof. It was here that we’d be learning the procedure for leaving a plane in midair (not a skill-set that most of us are born with.) Our instructor this time was a parachute expert who had served in the Marine Corps—and it showed. His official title was the Jumpmaster. I don’t remember his real name, but we all made sure to listen to this guy. With his beefy chest and gravelly voice, he wasn’t someone you wanted to upset.
One at a time, we climbed in and sat on the floor of the mock-up, facing aft. The Jumpmaster stood nearby. He gave three commands. “Stand up,” meant that we were to get up next to the open door and grab onto the doorway. “Put your foot out,” meant not only stepping out onto the metal rung below the door, but also putting your hand on the diagonal wing strut, at which point you’re halfway outside the plane. The third and final command was “Jump!” where you swing yourself out, let go, and fall backwards away from the plane.
The most important thing about this exercise was to learn how to achieve the proper form, or body posture, when you exit the plane. The idea was to arch your back and keep your arms spread as you fall. This keeps your head upright and prevents you from going into a spin. Otherwise, you’d be executing a technique known as “the Flying Meatball,” which was not something a first-timer would want to do. The Jumpmaster told us that nearly every parachute problem likely to arise could be avoided simply by executing the proper form. That sounded good to me. I didn’t want to have to deal with any of that emergency business anyway, high speed or low. I wanted to get it right the first time. I wanted to leave that cockpit flawlessly. So I threw myself into the practice session with everything I had. Of course this was just an exercise; it was easy to look good here. With your ass hanging halfway outside a real airplane, it would be a bit different.
Twelve o’clock. The class broke for lunch. The instructors knew we wouldn’t have much of an appetite; just the same they advised all of us to eat something. Ignoring their advice for the first time, I chose not to. Instead, I sat in my car waiting for lunch to end. I was restless; I just wanted to get back to the training. Not only should I have eaten something; I should’ve taken a couple of those little white pills while there was still time. But I thought I knew better.
The Jumpmaster reassembled the group and led us over to where the final exercise was to be held. By this point we knew how to jump. We were now going to learn how to land. Two small wooden platforms stood on the lawn. One was about two feet high, the other nearly four. The idea was to jump off and land in such a way as to distribute the force of the impact across a wide area of your body to avoid injury. Stepping up on the lower platform, the Jumpmaster demonstrated the proper technique, first landing briefly on his feet and then with a rolling motion he fell on his side, moving the stress from his ankles to his calves, then thighs, hips, and finally his shoulders. He made it look pretty easy. Then each of us took turns doing numerous practice jumps of our own. It wasn’t hard—like hopping off the tailgate of a pickup truck.
Then, after mastering the low platform, we graduated to the high one, which we were told approximated the impact of an actual parachute jump. It wouldn’t occur to me until much later how important it was for us to hear that analogy; he took the biggest, scariest unknown of the entire jump– the impact– and made it tangible, and therefore a lot less scary. If we could survive this four foot jump without injury, it followed that we could survive the actual jump out of the plane. When we had learned how to fall correctly from that height, rolling both on our left sides as well as our right, we were ready to move on to the final briefing and to be outfitted with our gear.
The inventory of equipment we needed to carry for the jump was foreboding. Every item on the list was something that answered the ominous question: “Well, what if…?” Clearly, they wanted to have everyone’s butt covered—including their own. In addition to the main parachute, we also carried a reserve chute, in the event of a main chute failure. Both chutes were worn on the back, with the reserve located above the main chute (as opposed to on the front, like the earlier models.) Even though we were all glad we had them, the mere mention of the phrase “reserve chute” made you want to rub your lucky rabbit’s foot a few extra times. Thankfully, our parachutes had been rolled and packed by experienced members of the training staff; we’d been spared from that responsibility. The two chutes were attached with a series of nylon lines to a webbed body harness held in place with steel buckles. Every strap needed to be fastened properly and securely so the harness wouldn’t slip off. Since we were jumping within a mile of a body of water, we were required by law to wear a self-inflating flotation device. It was strapped to our waist below our parachutes. Around our necks, hung not one, but two brick-sized one-way radios, through which we’d receive our maneuvering instructions while in the air. And finally, on our head was a motorcycle-style crash helmet. The only things missing were a sub-machine gun, night-vision goggles and a supply of C-rations and we’d be ready for a secret commando mission.
At this point they told us about the Jump Manifest, which dictated the order in which the members of the group were to jump. This list was essential since it enabled the observer on the ground to keep track of each jumper. It also enabled him to address each one by name over the radio, making it easier to communicate with an anxious jumper who was in trouble.
I thought back to what my buddy Jim had said about the training he went through for his own jump. He hated it. He said he got more and more nervous as the afternoon went on. It wasn’t until he jumped and his chute opened that he was able to relax and enjoy himself.
I couldn’t have disagreed more. I was enjoying the whole process. The staff here really knew their shit. After nearly seven hours of instruction I felt safe in their hands; totally prepared and confident about the adventure ahead. At least I thought I was prepared…
With our training complete, it was almost time to start the jumps. But this wasn’t the army. We weren’t all going up at once in a big C-47, with the whole platoon trailing out the door– everyone nose to ass with the guy ahead of him like you see in all those WWII movies. Instead, a small single engine plane would take us up four at a time. After each person jumped separately, the plane would return to the airfield for four more. So this business was going to take a while.
We stood on the grass as the names on the Manifest were read aloud. Those who’d come as couples (most of the crowd) were scheduled to jump first. Next in line were the larger groups (frat house buddies, etc.) I’d come as a party of one, so when my name was finally read, I found myself stuck on the very last planeload. This meant I’d have to wait longer than anyone. But supposedly this allowed me the opportunity to learn from everyone else’s mistakes. So maybe it was a good thing.
With all the official preparation out of the way, the instructors told us about the optional souvenir photography service which was available for an extra charge. There was a remotely controlled camera on the wing of the plane, aimed at the door. The idea was to capture the exact moment you left the plane. It sounded like a good idea. This jump was highly symbolic for me and I doubted that I’d ever do it again, so a photo to commemorate the event was a no-brainer. I walked over and gave more money to the girl at the counter.
The next hour or two was basically a matter of waiting. The longest delay was due to weather conditions. Apparently the wind speed above the airfield was greater than the prescribed limit, so it was unsafe to jump until it calmed down. There was nothing we could do about it. The contract we signed guaranteed at least one jump– or two, if time permitted. But nothing said that it had to be today. If the wind didn’t die down we’d all have to come back to try again next weekend.
I had a problem with that. It had taken all my courage to get this far. To have to summon it all back again next weekend was too much to ask. It had to be today. But being at the very end of the line gave me the worst odds. If anybody was going to get screwed, it was going to be me.
A very long hour later, we got the OK from the meteorologist, and the first four people went up. The rest of us watched from the ground as the tiny aircraft climbed nearly out of view. Then, the plane made a pass high over the airfield. A few moments later we heard a whoop coming from above as the first jumper let loose his enthusiasm. The group was charged up, even more eager now for their turn. Ten minutes later, the plane returned to the field, picked up the next four jumpers, and quickly took off again. But by the time it landed, the wind had picked up again. Once again, the operation was on hold: more waiting; more pacing on the grass.
It was already after five o’clock. The possibility of my being able to jump today was slipping away. By six o’clock we were back on again, but there were still several groups ahead of me. It wasn’t looking good; we were running out of time. When they finally got around to calling my name, it was almost eight o’clock. There was less than an hour of daylight left. But at least I was going.
Back inside, one of the instructors helped me into my harness and checked that it was securely fastened, making sure there weren’t any twists in the leg straps, where the bulk of my weight would be resting. After getting into the rest of my gear, I gathered with the other members of my team, and then followed the Jumpmaster out onto the airfield. Being responsible for getting everybody safely out of the plane, he’d accompanied each of the other groups throughout the afternoon. But this time he was jumping too. Impressive in his military jumpsuit and full parachute gear, he looked every bit the mission commander. When we stepped onto the field, he gazed upward and gave his beefy-voiced rally cry: “Sky-diiiive!” We marched out to the plane, which was waiting for its last flight of the day. Its engine was already running. So was mine. Decked-out in all that gear, it was hard not to swagger. Thanks to the efforts of the training team, I was confident. I was ready.
I waited my turn climbing into the guacamole-colored Cessna, whose rear seats had been removed to accommodate the jumpers. As I got aboard, I saw a bumper sticker on the back of the pilot’s seat. It read: “Next Stop—The Twilight Zone.” That phrase summed it up perfectly. I was now enveloped in a wholly separate world. None of my friends or family knew I was here. I hadn’t met any of the people around me before this morning. Yet right now, they were the only ones that existed. I felt I was on the edge of my life—the raw edge. Yet there was no fear, no hesitation—just the warm buzz of a good high. I didn’t know what would happen, but I was very glad that I was here.
There weren’t any seat belts to fasten because there weren’t any seats. I sat backwards on the floor, directly behind the pilot’s seat on the port side of the cabin, shoulder to shoulder with a jumper I didn’t recognize. We didn’t talk. Nobody did. When the door slammed shut, we found ourselves packed in like bananas in a crate. The plane taxied down the runway and awaited its final clearance. A moment later, the pilot throttled the engine to full power, and we started to move.
The magnitude of my impending jump made it easy to forget that I had never been in an airplane before, but I remember being eager to make note of the very first instant that I found myself airborne. That moment, however, would slip by unnoticed. The takeoff was so smooth and so gradual, I didn’t know for sure until we were ten feet in the air. But I was finally flying. Hmmm, I thought to myself, so this is what it’s like. What’s the big deal? In fact, the notion that I was flying for the first time mattered very little at that moment. Looming much larger in my brain was the fact that very soon I’d be jumping out the door.
For the next ten minutes, as I sat facing the rear of the plane, we climbed in a slow upward spiral to an altitude of 3500 feet. I looked out the small window. Below us, the brown fields of late summer stretched off into hazy infinity. It amazed me that the only thing holding up the plane was an invisible cushion of air. Only now did I fully realize that this whole crazy business of flying is one huge act of faith.
As the plane leveled off, the Jumpmaster went through the routine one last time. Since we were all required to land at the same location, the plane needed to make a separate northward pass for each of us. The door would be closed again after each jump while the plane circled around for the next person. The JM reminded us that we were all here because we wanted to be; no one was forcing us to go. So if you lost your nerve, you’d be allowed a second chance; a second pass over the airfield. But if you couldn’t get it together after that, he’d signal you away from the door and the next person in line would go. I couldn’t imagine going through all the training only to back out at the very last second. But that’s because I’d yet to be in that position, there by the open door. I’d know what that moment felt like soon enough.
The pilot looked back and gave us the signal. The plane was now in position for the jumps to begin. Everything was ready. Under the Jumpmaster’s direction, the guy sitting beside me moved over to the door. When it slid open, the cabin filled with a symphony of wind, propeller, and engine noise. Fifteen seconds later, the jumper took off and disappeared into the void. I never did learn his name. Only his dangling ripcord remained behind. The Jumpmaster stuck his head out to watch the chute open. I guess the guy made it. After he closed the door, the plane made another circle. Then he turned his attention to the next jumper—which was me.
He signaled me over. I clipped my ripcord into the steel bracket bolted to the floor, and checked it with a good yank. Then I gave him a thumbs-up. This was it. All I had to do was jump. The cord, along with gravity, would do the rest. He slid open the door. The howl of the engine was even louder now, making it difficult to hear anything other than yelling. On his command, I stood up and grabbed the doorway. The 100 mile per hour wind screamed inches from my face. When the next command came I easily found the step with my foot, but the force of the prop-wash kept me from reaching the wing strut. I just couldn’t find the strength. The JM had to physically push my arm to get it there. I was now poised and ready, the wind buffeting every part of me. With only seconds to go, my mind was amazingly clear, occupied by only one thing: the procedure for executing the proper body form. Then he gave the order. I jumped.
Part 3 of 3
At that point, everything happened fast. I must’ve instinctively closed my eyes because I don’t remember seeing a thing. I felt my body arching back and falling. A few seconds later the harness straps lunged against the undersides of my thighs. And then everything was still. I opened my eyes and looked up. I wasn’t sure, but everything seemed to be OK. A voice came over the radio. It was the jump observer—my guardian angel on the ground, confirming the good news. It was true; my parachute had opened perfectly; no problems. I’d made it. Thank God. It was time to settle in and enjoy the ride down.
I looked around, expecting to see… everything. But I didn’t. Before I left the ground I’d had this plan. As soon as my chute opened I was going to look up and give a cool salute to the pilot as he flew off into the distance. But I never even saw the plane. I also thought I’d have the ultimate view of the Bay Area; a huge 3-D map spread out beneath me. Wrong again. North, south, the hills, the bay– I couldn’t find a single landmark. Where the hell was I? My home turf was suddenly a foreign country.
Then I noticed something even stranger. I couldn’t feel myself falling. Had I stopped? That was impossible. But I seemed to be just hanging there motionless. There was absolutely nothing telling me that I was moving. There was no wind in my ears; no clothes flapping against my body. There weren’t any visual signs either; nothing in the foreground to gauge my speed. The closest thing was thousands of feet below; a flat brown sea of earth, devoid of any depth or detail. Everything else sat miles away on the hazy horizon.
It was surreal. I wasn’t simply “out in the open”—in the middle of some endless plain under a Montana sky. I’d literally become detached from the planet; removed from the one thing that I’d always taken for granted: having something solid beneath me. Even the floor of that cramped airplane had a reassuring familiarity; a sense of security. But my head just couldn’t make sense of where I was now; of being surrounded on all sides by… nothing.
They sure hadn’t covered any of this in the training.
And I seemed to be taking forever to get down. The instructors had told us that the duration of a descent depended on the person’s body weight. But they hadn’t said how long—merely that a lighter person would drop more slowly than someone who weighed more. Being on the skinny side, I knew my trip would take longer than most. But I didn’t know how long, and it was starting to bother me. Would it be ten minutes? —Twenty minutes? —Half an hour? I had no idea. Even though I’d watched several of the other jumps, it seemed that the normal rules didn’t apply to me. Everyone else had sailed right down. Yet I was virtually crawling. This wasn’t just a matter of body weight. Something weird was going on.
Whenever I glanced back to the horizon, it looked exactly the same as it did before; nothing had changed. Despite gravity, despite physics, despite bone-headed logic, I was convinced that I wasn’t moving at all, as if God had taken hold of my parachute and was dangling me in the air like a puppet. For a few unsettling moments I thought I was never going to come back down. I could almost imagine the headlines in the next morning’s newspaper: “Skydiver Fails to Return to Earth– Remains Floating at 2,000 Feet.”
By now, I’d passed the point where I was enjoying this experience. The novelty had worn off. I was ready to come down. But there was nothing I could do about it. I was trapped; utterly powerless. As soon as I realized this a sudden pang of anxiety took hold of me, pushing one message to the front of my brain: I needed to get down—Now!
But how? This friggin’ parachute was holding me back. In desperation I could see only one way to solve my problem: leave the parachute behind. That was it! If I were to undo my harness, I could get down in no time. I just needed to loosen my leg straps and gravity would do the rest… Holy shit! What the fuck am I thinking?!! I drew in a long breath and tried to calm down. Then I resigned myself to the inevitable. This was going to be a long, slow ride. Deal with it.
From the utter silence, the radio crackled back to life. I’d forgotten all about the jump observer. It felt like yesterday when I’d last heard his voice. But I was still way the hell up in the air at this point, so it surprised me when he said it was time to make my first turn. I struggled to get my head back to the morning’s training session; to remember the game plan. OK, I’d need to make several maneuvers to get to the pre-arranged landing site. And for each of these moves, he’d give me two commands: “Start turn” and then a few seconds later, “Stop turn.” It was pretty straightforward. When I heard the first command, I pulled gently on the right control line. Then everything changed.
The horizon, no longer solid and dependable, suddenly tilted precariously out of balance. I felt my body swing sideways like a pendulum. After being isolated from any sense of movement, I now felt like I was being pulled in two directions at once; my parachute and I were going right, but my stomach wanted to go left. Having no chance to steel myself against the assault, a wave of nausea swept over me. I immediately let go of the control line. My body swung back to its vertical position. But I was still shaken.
The observer came back on the radio, concerned that I’d stopped the turn before he told me to. Somehow I was hoping he hadn’t noticed. But of course it was his job to notice. And it was my job to follow instructions. He repeated the command, “Start right turn.” Hesitant this time, I pulled on the control line again and was hit with another churning wave of nausea as the invisible forces wrenched at my guts. I couldn’t take any more. Ignoring the consequences, I let go of the control line again.
In an instant, the observer jumped back on the radio, barely concealing his anger that I’d disobeyed his orders for a second time. A bit defensive, I felt that a partial turn was better than no turn at all, and that I deserved at least a little credit. He didn’t see it that way. Swearing at me over the radio, he warned me to do exactly as he ordered. I was sure the entire group on the ground was listening in by this time. Embarrassed as well as sick, I clenched my jaw and pulled the control line, suffering through the next turn. What felt like a minute was probably only a couple seconds, but I was convinced the guy was dragging it out just to punish me. Then he told me to stop the turn.
My head was fogged; my stomach knotted. I couldn’t focus on anything. I think a minute or two went by, but it felt like twenty. Then the voice on the radio shook me back. The observer told me to prepare for landing. I looked down. Holy shit. Only now did I realize that I was getting close to the ground. I didn’t want to deal with this; I just wanted it to be over. But the thought of doing a standard rolling landing made me even queasier. Then I remembered seeing several veteran jumpers land on their feet earlier in the day. They just bent their knees and took a few steps to absorb the impact when they touched down—sort of walking through it. That sounded good to me. So even though I’d received no training for it, I convinced myself that I could do the same thing.
Then things started happening fast. The observer told me to pull down on both control lines at the same time. As I did, the chute suddenly decelerated. I felt my body being yanked upward but my insides kept going. A vise clamped down on my stomach; I started retching. Shit. Not now, I thought. Nearly blind with illness, I struggled to stay focused on the rapidly-approaching landing as the retching continued. It felt like my stomach had turned itself inside out. Within seconds, the ground began hurtling itself upward toward me. I couldn’t react fast enough. Before I was ready for it, I felt myself hit.
My legs gave way and I immediately fell to the ground. I tried to get to my feet, but I couldn’t find my balance and fell down again. As I struggled to get back up a second time I realized I was walking all over my parachute. I knew that someone else was going to need it after me, but I was too overwhelmed to do anything about it. Still disoriented, I heard a voice beside me welcoming me back to earth. I gathered up my chute in a bundle and followed him. The sun was just going down—somehow without warning, dusk had arrived. I had no idea where I was.
A few minutes later I found myself back at the training center with the rest of the group, where a debriefing was already underway. The room was alive. Everyone was on their feet, buzzing with excitement. But I was in no mood to buzz. I felt like a failure, as if my jump didn’t really count. Everyone else in the group had performed like a veteran, but not me. I’d gotten sick, disobeyed orders, and had to be publicly scolded like a child. On top of that, I was still queasy.
Like an uninvited party guest I sat off by myself, trying not to be noticed as the stories of the afternoon were told and retold, amid a sea of backslapping and high-fives. As I sat there, I heard about one particular guy who managed to navigate his way safely back to the airfield even though both of his radios had malfunctioned. Even the Jumpmaster was impressed. Another guy took the initiative to kiss off his main chute and go for his reserve, even though there wasn’t a thing wrong with it. The group loved him– he was a friggin’ trailblazer. Any minute I was expecting to hear about some guy who’d lost his chute, and used his T-shirt to float back down. It was impossible to compete with all this. All I could think about was my buddy Jim. He would’ve fit right in with this macho group.
At one point the Jumpmaster came over to me. In the one redeeming moment of the day, he said that when I jumped out the door of that plane, I had one of the best forms he’d ever seen. His compliment surprised me and I appreciated it. But it didn’t do much to brighten up my little pity party. After he handed me my official jump certificate and shook my hand, I quietly slipped away from the festivities and drove home in the dark. I felt queasy for the rest of the night.
Two weeks later I received in the mail my hotly-awaited envelope from the skydiving school. Yet instead of the photograph of my impossible-to-repeat experience, I got a letter explaining that the photo didn’t come out. Enclosed was a refund from the girl behind the counter. Damn– one final kick in the stomach. Now, there wasn’t any proof that I’d even done the jump—no color 8 x 10 to hang above my desk and admire for the rest of my life.
That’s why I had to write this story. I needed something to remind myself that it really happened. It may not have been the glorious adventure that Jim had raved about, but I can’t deny it was unique. Few people in that room could’ve boasted a more memorable jump than mine. Besides, it’s always fun to see people’s expression when I tell them that I jumped out of the first airplane that I ever climbed into.
Looking back now after a number of years, I’ve had the chance to see this episode in a better light. Despite the puking and the lack of a commemorative photo, I realize that I did succeed in accomplishing my original goal: to get off my butt and get going with my life. None of the things I did in the years that followed—the mountain climbing, the paragliding, ballooning and zip-lining, nor the trips to East Africa, Nepal, and South America would’ve been possible without that first step. Committing to the jump was the real challenge; by the time I left the cockpit of that plane I’d already proved I could do it. The rest was gravity—and a bit of theatrics.
Recently I did a little research to find the answer to the question that had been bugging me for far too long: How long was I actually up there? I knew that the double whammy of adrenaline and angst made it seem like it took me half an hour to get down. But it turns out that the average static-line parachute jump lasts a mere three to four minutes. Wow, talk about a time warp.
Copyright © 2015 by Eric Mannshardt and I Didn’t Climb Everest.net.
Please Share on Facebook and Twitter!