Skydiving and goose grinning
So, Saturday was my day to celebrate 68 years on the planet by checking off a very much delayed personal experience on my list: a tandem free-fall skydive! It began with checking www.skydivenm.net to view a number of their tandem jump videos. They looked like what I expected so I picked up the phone and scheduled a date some three weeks in the future. This Saturday, "jump morning" began with a short drive from Albuquerque to Sky Dive New Mexico's hangar at Belen's Alexander Airport up on the East mesa. Shortly after I arrive, I am in a 45 minute, very professional and meticulous ground training by Tandem Master, Rich Greenwood. This is followed by a period of waiting until it is my turn to go up. I pass this time very pleasurably watching others go through their suit-up and check-out, their pre-jump practice, get into the plane, go up, float down, and then watching over their shoulder as they review the videos of their jumps and receive their "First Jump" certificates. All the while, there is a group of six to eight individuals in the hangar meticulously repacking parachutes for next jumps. I'm beginning to get that meticulous is a good thing in skydiving.
Then…it's my turn!
Kelly Wilson, my Tandem Master jump partner, hand picks a professional jumpsuit for me to put on. Kelly has been doing tandem jumps for a bunch of years and the folks he's taken up before me today have all been giggling and beaming afterward and saying it's totally awesome and that I'll do just fine and love it. Kelly meticulously straps me into my jump harness, which is like a full parachute harness except for two important features: four really heavy-duty clips on the back…and …no parachute. Kelly wears the parachute. And just before we exit the plane, he will attach me super snuggly to his front with those four clips and tighten everything with final web strap adjustments. Kelly puts me through three complete practice cycles of exit, free-fall, rip-cord pull, and landing firmly reinforcing Rich's earlier training. Then Kelly, Ron, Jason and I all head for the awaiting Cessna. Ron Weagly is our videographer (I want a DVD record to remind myself and prove to my kids and grandkids I really did jump out of a perfectly good airplane), and Jason Korrel is our commercially rated pilot. Kelly and I do an exaggerated John Wayne walk for Ron's video. John Wayne walk - remember I'm old enough to have seen the movies.
We tuck ourselves into the cockpit and Don starts and revs the engine and we begin our rollout to the runway. After a somewhat noisy, twenty-minute, breathtakingly beautiful climb over the spectacular East mesa with the Rio Puerco River reflecting in the sunlight, we are 11,000 feet above the Belen Airport and the skydive landing zone. It's time for me to put on my goggles and jump headgear. Then in the not-any-too-big-for-four cockpit, I get on my knees facing forward so Kelly can hook me up and check everything out (meticulously). Next, Ron pops open the over-size right door letting a wave of really cool thin air to blast in. Ron steps out and hangs on to the wing strut with one hand and starts videoing Kelly and me as we begin "exiting the plane." I grasp a strap inside the open cabin door and slide my right foot from under my butt out into the wind and onto the large metal step. I follow that carefully with my left foot. A brief glance at the ground. A smile to the camera. Kelly reminds me to hook my thumbs under my harness shoulder straps and then says, "One. Two. ARCH!!!" and we "exit the plane" into a clear, cool, bright-blue New Mexico sky. I pull my head back and my feet up into as much arch as I can as Kelly deploys the drogue chute which will help stabilize and ever so slightly prolong our free-fall. Tap-tap on my shoulder and I unhook my thumbs and extend my arms and hands out in the free-fall "flying" position and check the altimeter strapped on my left wrist.
Free falling from 11,000 feet down to 6,000 feet is totally unlike anything I have ever imagined or experienced! It is almost indescribable. Afterwards I will remember it as like flying without a plane, just body-wise, like in a really great flying dream. Kelly gently rotates our position to face into the sun. Ron floats down right in front of us and gives me a thumbs up which I return with a wave and as much of a smile as I can muster into 120 MPH free-fall wind in my face. Earlier, I've seen the other videos and I want to be sure to smile and wave into Ron's camera so the kids will think that Dad's cool. Heck … so Dad will think that Dad is cool!
Too soon, it seems, the helmet beeper goes off in my right ear signaling we are falling through 6,000 feet. Kelly gives me a reminder tap on the shoulder and I reach down for the orange plastic ripcord handle on my right hip. Got it! Quick easy pull! Onethousandone, onethousandtwo, onethousandthree, and the canopy deploys with surprising gentleness --and everything goes mystically silent. I can stop looking into the camera and look around and see the entire Middle Rio Grand Valley and East mesa dangling beneath my feet. There just really aren't enough exclamation points to do this view and experience justice. The silence of hot air ballooning might come close, but we are 5,000 feet up, ever-so-gently falling, there is no burner noise, and we can steer! Ron, the videographer, has continued his free-fall so he can beat us down and set up to video our landing.
Kelly asks how I'm doing. I say I'm doing great, but I don't tell him I'm darned near crying because of the sheer beauty, the silence, the majesty of it all. He pulls down on the left riser and we pirouette counterclockwise - then the right riser into a clockwise pirouette - pure magic and beauty. I see Ron's canopy way below us now, lining up his landing. The e. e. Cummings poetry quote, "The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful," comes to mind. I look at my wrist altimeter and we are at 2,000 feet. At 1,500 feet Kelly says the folks on the ground in the landing zone can hear me if I holler loud - so I begin hollering and waving for the next couple of minutes just because it feels so good. Then we are at 800 feet and Kelly is heading us up into the wind, I pull my feet up for a butt-slide landing and the next thing I know -- I find myself comfortably seated on the ground in the landing zone -- Kelly has released the clips -- Ron is holding out his a hand to help me stand up, all the while videoing my very wide grin and asking me, "So, how was that for you?" It was great, stupendous, indescribable. Again, not enough exclamation points! He records some more banter and a high five exchange with Kelly, and we get into the Skydive New Mexico van for the 3-minute ride back to the hanger. Ron provides a quick preview of my video, and, hey! I look pretty good! (A little secret: smiling broadly, sticking your tongue out and waving at the camera in free fall looks way more cool than you can imagine.) Kelly and Rich and a couple of other skydivers congratulate me and then Kelly is handing me my very own personalized "Tandem First Jump Certificate."
Then it seems like it's all over too soon. We walk back to our car for the short drive back to Albuquerque and dinner and home. A wonderful mirage-like memory and vision of what I've just experienced keeps playing over and over in my head: Ron pops the door open, I look down on the mesa and the Rio Grande Valley, Kelly leans me out into our free-fall, we stabilize, Ron floats in front of us with his camera, I pull the rip-cord, we float ever-so-serenely down to a gentle butt-plop landing and I feel myself grinning like a goose (geese do grin, don't they?). For days later I notice I can still easily replay these wonderful scenes in my mind and, I am still grinning like a goose.
And that's how I did my first free-fall skydive. Life is good! Some day if you want to discover what your goose grin feels like, you can begin by going to www.skydivenm.net, checking out the neat tandem videos, and hooking up with Rich and Kelly at the Belen Airport … and you'll do just fine and love it!
Post script: The mailman just delivered Ron Weagly's DVD of my jump and I slapped it into my PC for viewing as quickly as I could. All I can say is (1) he made me look sooooo very good, and (2) I'm thinking about going again.Copyright Tom Miles, 2007
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