By Merikay McLeod
When my friends learned that I was going into skydiving, one asked, "Why would you pick a sport with such a narrow margin of error?" Another, more bluntly put it, "You’re insane, Merikay! Totally insane!"
Now, as I knelt on aching knees beside the pilot, in the little Cessna 150, the noise and wind from the prop battering my face and ears, I doubted my sanity. All my spectacular day-dreams of thrills and excitement had been ground to dust as I’d practiced PLFs (parachute landing falls) earlier that day.
"Keep your feet together and you’ll never get hurt when you land," Rick, my jumpmaster, had stressed. But it was easier said than done.
A proper PLF is supposed to diffuse the landing shock over five body areas – balls of the feet, calf, thigh, buttocks and push-up muscle. My PLFs spread the impact to my knees, elbows and head.
After PLFing, I learned about the equipment. Rick strapped the main chute onto my back, and the reserve chute on in front. "There," he smiled. "How do you feel?"
Like a ton, but I said, "Great."
I was then taken to a parked Cessna so I could learn how to exit the aircraft and jump. By now, it was afternoon, and my body was quivering with fatigue. But, longing to do this thing I’d dreamed about, I’d practiced the spread-eagle falling position. Exiting and jumping. Exiting and jumping, all afternoon. Until Rick said finally I was ready for the real thing.
With my gear in place, I tried to board the plane. Rick helped, grabbing my arm and pulling me in, my already sore knees banging against the edge of the door as I entered. Why, I wondered, why would anyone want to do this?
Once I was settled on my knees next to the pilot, the little plane roared down the gravel runway and climbed into the air.
A static line would open my canopy automatically after I jumped.
And now I knelt on the metal floor, watching the land fall away below. The engine’s noise banged at my eardrums. The cold air rushed over me. I grasped the hand strap as tightly as I could. There was no door on the side of the place where I knelt. It had been removed to make the skydivers’ movements easier as they got into position and then "jumped."
Today I would be the first one out, since I was new and had to jump from a lower altitude. My jump was supposed to take place at about 6,000 feet. Rick and another jumper, knelt behind the pilot and me. Once I was out, and safely on my way to the target, the plane would climb to about 10,000 feet for the two of them to jump.
Higher and higher we climbed until the airport was only a tiny geometric form in the green-brown pattern of earth.
Somehow in all my imaginings I hadn’t pictured being this high. "What am I doing here?" I asked myself.
As we continued to climb, I couldn’t look out any longer, but stared at the silver metal floor under my aching knees. My red coveralls looked good next to the silver floor. Too good to move them.
"Get ready," Rick yelled over the engine’s roar.
"Cut the engine!" Rick told the pilot. Then, to me, "Climb out!"
I reached for the strut just as I had practiced all afternoon, but the force of the propeller-driven wind pushed my hand away.
"Climb out!" Rick yelled again.
With all my strength I reached through the heavy wind to the strut, grasped it, and slid my foot down onto the step. My left hand grasping the strut, I slowly struggled to pull myself out until I was standing on the locked wheel.
The wind tore at me, sucking my breath away and forcing my long red sleeves up around my shoulders, where they swelled and flapped flamboyantly.
Below me, the world, a nauseating blur.
I turned my face to the doorway, waiting for Rick to tell me when to jump. But he was motioning for me to come back. "Get back in!" he yelled.
Get in? My mind reeled. No one had taught me how to get in. Getting out was all I’d learned. Exiting and jumping. My hands froze to the strut and my feet grew to the wheel. Then Rick, leaned out, grabbed my parachute pack and my red jumpsuit and yanked me back into the plane.
"Why?" I yelled as the roaring engine blew blizzards of cold air into the cabin.
"You took too long! We're way past the target!"
All my courage, all my brave dreams of excitement, all everything was gone. I was exhausted and sore and scared out of my wits.
"Take me down! I’m not jumping!" I shouted.
The plane circled and climbed. Rick shouted, "You’ve got to jump!"
"No I don’t!"
"I’ll take you down, but then we won’t get to jump either," Rick shouted. Rick was all decked out in his orange parachute outfit. The jumper behind him wore yellow. "The pilot didn’t cut the engine enough for you!" he yelled. "I’ll make him cut it more."
"No! I’m too scared! I’m scared to death!"
"We’re all scared!" he yelled back as the plane continued to circle and climb.
The plane made its final turn toward the jump zone. I felt dead inside. I’d go ahead and jump, but I’d never again set a parachute-booted foot inside another plane.
"Cut it!" Rick yelled. "Climb out!"
Like a robot I obeyed and quickly found myself standing on the wheel.
"Jump!" he commanded.
I let go of the strut, and shot backwards. Fear screamed through me as I spread out into the falling position. Then I saw the lakes and rivers below, silver-blue surrounded by the green land. White clouds smudged the thick, blue sky. In a moment my chute opened. And I was suddenly floating. The chute billowed comfortingly overhead.
The plane was gone. I floated in gentle silence, a warm peace surging through me.
I reached up, and pulled my steering toggles, turning myself 360-degrees and marveling at the beauty below. The world spread out in soft hazy colors – greens and browns and blues. The hills were no longer huge, merely soft round mounds fitting gently into the pattern of beauty.
The silence of the sky, the glory of the world, the sense of freedom throbbing through me, answered all my questions. Now I knew, really knew why I’d wanted to jump.