I’m stubborn (supposedly, this has something to do with being a Scorpio). Jessi is an avid skydiver and after she treated me to my first tandem jump on my 25th birthday, it simply wasn’t enough to have someone throw me out of a perfectly good airplane. I had to jump out of one myself.
There are obviously regulations governing these jumps. Certification within the guidelines of safety is serious stuff. Altitude and changes in pressure affect the mind, people die, and the USPA wasn’t going to let me jump on my own just because I wanted to. The school where I jumped offered a course to get my A license that began with three tandem jumps and with one of those already completed, my plans were set in motion almost of their own volition.
There was a lot of fun involved in my other jumps, and in the classroom sessions, not to mention the totally hot JM (jump master) I was strapped to on the tandems! But this is about my first solo jump. I was a quick study. I learned to operate my canopy. I pulled my cord on time in the training videos. Hand signals, parachute landing falls, recognizing a good canopy and cutting away a bad one, all came naturally to me. After a few weeks, I was ready.
I’ll never forget my first breath of air that morning, that ozone-rich scent you smell after lightning strikes nearby. It was a 2 hour drive out to the airfield. There are several closer ones, but this one was home for me now, and the people there were family. I arrived the morning of my first assisted solo as nervous as I have ever been about anything in my life.
I was right to be nervous. Things went wrong from the moment I arrived. Wind speeds were up around 20 mph and the planes were grounded. I could drive the two hours back home dejected, or I could wait and keep my fingers crossed. Did I mention I’m stubborn? I wanted this jump. I had trained for this jump.
The JM I had trained with was sick. There was another guy there who was qualified, but I didn’t know him. He reviewed my training with me, decided I was ready, and agreed to take me up if the winds settled down. I wandered around the school, practicing exiting the planes, watching a team of formation divers rehearsing their maneuvers on little carts, and drinking crappy coffee, you know, to help me with my nerves. After two hours, the report came out that a plane would be going up after all. I suited up and shouldered my own chute pack for the first time.
I went up in a small white Cessna Caravan with my JM and the team I had been watching. They were all very excited and chattering about their jump, which was about as relaxing as the coffee was. We climbed to about 14,000 feet where the team jumped out followed by their cameraman, who made a comedic pose during his exit for my benefit. I watched them line up and go through their first rotation and then my JM signaled that it was time to get ready.
We went over my exit instructions and my jump program. He tucked a little walkie-talkie transistor radio into the pocket on my sleeve, patted me on the shoulder for encouragement, and I stepped out onto the jump rail. He followed me out. Push, pull, 1 time… 2 times… 3…. and I DID IT! I fell away from the plane, arching the way I was taught, the wind flipped me over and in moments it was whipping my face and jumpsuit with the fury of a tornado.
Your body is a propeller, at least mine is anyway. I had to demonstrate 5 simple maneuvers as part of this jump, 90 counter-clockwise, 90 clockwise, 360, track forward, and track backward. The moment my JM let go of my hands, I began spinning wildly out of control. I twisted my palms to counter. It slowed the spinning and he caught me again and signaled to arch more. Arching to the point where my back hurt helped enough to get me through the first two maneuvers, if maybe I did them in reverse order.
My head was racing. What made me spin like that? It certainly wasn’t my hands, so desperately fighting against the rotation. It had to be my legs. I calculated that my right hip must push forward more than my left. I cinched up my back on that side and immediately completed my 360 quite by accident. Okay, it was more like a 450, but the JM gave me a thumbs up. My altimeter said we had passed 9,000 feet.
Tracking is easy. Shoot forward by extending your legs, wait for you JM to catch up. Fall backward by bending your knees, wait for your JM to catch up. I was done! Nothing left but to wave off and pull at 5,000 feet. My altimeter said 6,100.
Maybe stubborn isn’t really the right word. When you have a plan, you should stick to your plan. But the instructions were plain, that I could use the time freely if I completed my requirements before 6,000 feet. I didn’t want to attempt another turn, so I tracked forward a little in the direction of the drop zone target. When I stopped, my JM crashed hard into my leg.
Panic raced through me. My head was suddenly filled with a horrifying story Jessi had shared once of a freefall accident where someone was knocked unconscious against her leg. My only thought was to find my JM and make sure he was alright. I turned carefully in the direction of the crash, but there was no one. I turned the other way, trying to decide what I would do if something really had happened to him. I still saw no one. Then I felt tapping on my right ankle and I turned back that direction. Suddenly disoriented, I finally saw him plummeting away beneath me. My heart sank. He had my rip cord in his hand.
I had failed my jump! I wanted to cry, but I never really got the chance. When I reached up for my risers, my chute hadn’t opened. It was a bunched up little square writhing around in the wind like half a worm sticking out of the soil. I studied it for a second, and decided it was just stuck. I grabbed the risers and tugged them a few times. I felt a pocket in the wind and then a few bumps like airplane turbulence and the canopy spread open above me. I quickly checked all the lines. No breaks, no twists, good canopy! Whatever else happened, I was going to live. Adrenaline took over and I could barely read my altimeter… 2,700 feet. Oops!
I finally looked back down at the ground in time to watch my JM neatly land at the target and pull his chute in from underneath. I could see him more than a quarter mile away now, pulling out his radio and tapping on it in frustration as no sounds came out of its partner in my sleeve. He had accidentally switched it off while he was tucking it into the pocket. After all this, I was going to land my chute alone. I smiled smugly to myself at the thought. I was confident I could do it. But I was drifting further away from the drop zone.
Erring on the side of caution is a good rule. The winds had picked up to 18 mph again. I should never have been jumping in the first place. I turned toward the target and opened my risers all the way, but the beginner chutes are slightly over-sized and I just kept drifting helplessly away like a wind fairy in a gentle breeze. I made a couple of turns, to make sure the chute was navigable, but each one carried me further away.
My JM dwindled to the size of an ant in the distance, and now my flight path was carrying me toward a cement culvert. I turned again, cleared it and then cleared the set of power lines that appeared on the other side of it. 800 feet, 700, and my obstacle course now presented the intersection of two barbed-wire fences! I gave up trying to fight the wind. I steered with it again and toward the very center of the closest field, overgrown with mustard, and thankfully devoid of livestock.
I could only guess how tall the mustard was. I decided on 3 feet, flared my chute, and came to a halt in mid-air about a foot above the ground, with the wind carrying me across it faster than a dead run. I dropped the last foot like a rock and did my best PLF. The mustard swallowed me up. My head hit the ground hard, but my helmet did its job and I stayed conscious. I tumbled a couple of somersaults, with my chute dragging me behind it now, until I finally could get oriented enough to find the bottom lines and reel them in.
On my knees, tangled up like a mass of spaghetti, over my head in mustard, with my ears ringing from the blow the ground dealt me, I lifted my goggles and looked up at the sky, laughing through the tears that were finally streaming down my face. My knees were shaking too hard to stand, so I just knelt there and let the wind blow across my cheeks as I stared up at the field of blue I had conquered. No one had thrown me out of that plane. I had failed my jump, but I knew that moment was mine forever!
© 2011 Anne Schilde