»  National Review Online

July 1, 2000

  Airing It Out

This is how it happens when you do your first parachute jump. I am speaking here of solo jumping; I am not even going to discuss the limp, wussy practice of so-called "tandem" jumping. Tourists!

Skydive Certificate

You go up in a small plane — in my case, a Cessna 182. In the stripped-down interior space of this plane there is just room for five people: the pilot of course, a "jump master" who will direct operations, and three jumpers. This is a raised-wing plane with a single propellor on the nose. The wing is supported by two long, slanting struts. The main wheels are on two legs sticking out from the underside of the plane, a couple of feet behind the struts. (That should probably be "abaft of," not "behind." And struts are probably called "stretchers" or some such. I am not going for terminological precision here. Check your favorite aeronautics manual.)

At one thousand feet the jump master opens the door. It opens upwards, like a Lamborghini's, to rest against the underside of the wing. He makes the jumpers look down as he screams into their ears (this is a noisy plane — with the door open at 100 m.p.h., very noisy): "There's the drop zone, see? Get the image of it clear in your mind. That's your target." He then closes the door.

At two thousand feet he opens the door again and throws out a rolled-up colored paper streamer. This will tell him which way the wind is blowing.

At three thousand feet he opens the door again. One of the jumpers is sitting in the exit spot: sideways on against the door, facing the rear of the plane, knees up against his chest. This party is given the first of three command signals from the jump master, who is crouched at right of the door facing him. If not paralyzed with fear, which sometimes happens, the jumper reaches out with his (or her — plenty of women do this) left hand, pushing against the force of the airstream, to grab the wing strut. At the same time he swings his legs out so that he is sitting on the door sill, right hand holding the door frame.

Below his feet is the wheel leg. A tiny platform, just big enough for his two feet, has been welded to the bottom of the leg — the ankle, so to speak — above the wheel. At the second of the three command signals the jumper settles his feet on this platform and reaches over to grab the wing strut with his right hand, fighting into the airstream. He is now holding the wing strut with both hands, his grip assisted by the force of the airstream. Stepping off the tiny platform — into nothing! into space! — he slides his hands out along the strut to two red-painted marks. He is now holding on to the strut out along the wing, five or six feet from the door, from which the jump master is watching him. The jumper's body is hanging free, swept back about 45 degrees by the airstream. The plane's engine, which has no muffler, is roaring away just to his left front. He looks over to the jump master and waits for the third and final signal of command.

When satisfied that the plane's position is right, the jump master jabs a finger upwards. Look up! The jumper throws his head right back, arches his body as dramatically as he can — trying to force his rear end through his belt buckle, legs spread wide apart — and lets go the strut.

Oddly, there is no sensation of falling. The overwhelming impression is of rearward horizontal motion at tremendous speed. If the jumper made a good arch and kept his eyes on the plane, he sees it receding from him extremely fast. Then there is a gentle tug on his body harness and all movement, all noise ceases.

The jumper is suspended in space, with no apparent motion in any direction. Spread out for inspection below him is the east end of Long Island, the sun blazing up off the Atlantic, the villas of the rich drowsing in seclusion, the barrier islands dark against bright water, the jump zone absurdly obvious over to the left. The jumper has just experienced the most astonishing transition: from abject, gut-loosening terror to deep serenity, from a deafening mechanical and aerodynamic roar to perfect silence, from a sensation of uncontrollable speed to utter stillness. He hangs there, all at one with the crystalline sky around him, in wonder and gratitude and peace.

Strapped to the right shoulder of his jump suit is a small radio receiver. He becomes aware that it is squealing tinnily at him. Trim up! Trim your lines! Slowly, vaguely, reluctantly, the jumper looks up. One end of his canopy has not deployed properly, is flapping. Reaching above his head he unVelcros two handles and jiggles them. The canopy falls into order. The radio is chittering again, a miniature voice the jumper has to incline his head to hear properly, aggressive and profane (he learns later) only because the controller knows he must penetrate the dream-state of ineffable tranquillity in which the jumper floats. Left, for Christ's sake! Go left! The jumper brings his left arm down straight, elbow locked, till his hand is against his thigh. The world tilts and wheels. Now, somewhat inaptly, he is thinking of Rupert Brooke: "To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping …"Stop! Now right! Come on, RIGHT, goddam it! … The Atlantic blazes, the villa pools twinkle (swimmers into cleanness leaping), cars inch silently along the Sunrise Highway, the thin gnat-voice squeals from his shoulder, great poets slumber in their glory. The sky embraces all: perfect stillness, perfect peace.

Fifteen feet from the ground the voice on the radio — which is now being lip-synced by a man wearing a back-to-front baseball cap, standing in the jump zone holding a mike — issues its last command: "Flare!" The jumper brings both arms straight down together, curving the canopy, arresting his downward motion. He touches the soft sand lightly and runs a couple of paces — there is still some forward speed. The man with the mike sheds his talk-down personality and bounds over, grinning, to shake the jumper's hand. "Good jump! Great landing!"

The jumper looks up at Mother Sky, of which he was briefly an undifferentiated part, and says what everyone says right after his first jump — the busyness of the world, the joyless press of distractions, of investments and phone calls and obligations, not yet back in charge of his poor mortgaged soul, that soul not yet dwindled back into insignificance, a speck lost in the infinite bright sky arching over all of us always.

"Oh, wow. I gotta do that again!"