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taking the flying leap
By Dennis Batchelder 18 December 2000

hi guys:

i always thought it would be cool to go parachuting. james bond does it. arnold did it. even george bush did it, and he's pretty old. i pictured myself floating through the air, doing somersaults, dives, and spins, then landing lightly on my feet, always one step ahead of the bad guys.

but when irina asked me if i wanted to go the next time i was in australia, i wasn't quite so sure. it's easy to imagine doing something dangerous, as long as the imagining isn't threatened by reality. you know - stuff like picking a specific date and putting down a deposit. that stuff has a tendency of turning cool fantasies into stomach aches.

we decided to go tandem, which is jumping while strapped to a jump master. the main reason for doing a tandem jump is that you don't have to learn anything about parachuting - you just have to be able to fall out of a plane. even i can master this.

we arrived at the parachuting place, and spent 30 minutes filling out paperwork. this was not part of my cool fantasy. we were asked for lots of personal details, such as weight, height, and medical history. oh, and next of kin. then we signed four waivers of responsibility, promising not to hold the parachute school responsible should we have a problem. the last waiver had to be notarized by an officer of the court. sobering thoughts, huh?

while waiting our turn, we watched others jump. somebody would point out the little tiny speck of the airplane flying 10,000 feet above us. then a bunch of even smaller dots would appear behind the plane. about a minute later parachutes would open, and five minutes later, the jumpers landed.

after they landed, they were unbuckled from their jump masters, and sent over to us. they stood there, wide eyed and silent, breathing pretty hard. i think they were still catching up on the processing of all the new sensations. after a bit, they started saying "wow", and a couple of minutes later, they started smiling. within five minutes, they were laughing and slapping each other on the back and saying "what a rush!".

all too quickly, it was our turn. we put on the jump suits and the rigs, and then three of us with our jump masters were crammed into this itty bitty cesna 206. there were no seats - we had to jam ourselves between our jump masters' legs. there was no door on the plane either - a piece of canvas unrolled to cover where the door should have been.

all the jump masters were wearing parachutists' altimeters, so we were able to gauge the ascent. it took about 20 minutes to reach 10,000 feet, which was nice. the view was beautiful along the great ocean road. the plane flew over the coastline, first towards the 12 apostles, then up to sorrento. we could see the bay and melbourne in the distance. but it was a bit crowded, and my legs and hips were beginning to hurt from being cramped up.

at 10,000 feet the show was over, and it was all business. first, we had to lift ourselves up with our hands on the jump masters' knees and sit in their laps. they strapped us together very tightly, and then two by two we inched over to the open doorway.

here's how you fall out of an airplane: first you put your feet outside, tucking them under the plane. then you arch your back and neck as far as you can. oh, and try not to think that you're about to exit a perfectly good airplane. then before you're really ready, the jump master leans forward just a bit, and off you both go, falling and spinning and twisting.

i didn't get the "roller coaster" feeling that i thought i would get. and i didn't get the weightless feeling either. what i felt was the air slamming into me. i guess that's what it does when you're going 220 kmh (136 mph, or 200 feet per second). the air was so heavy that it felt like i was swimming.

after 10 seconds, the jump master taps you twice on your shoulders, and you throw your arms out and start to move them around. that was pretty cool - you could control where you went and how much you spun. and you could watch the objects on the ground moving closer and closer to you.

35 seconds later, you're at 4,000 feet, and the jump master pulls the rip cord. now, that's a pretty sudden stop! one minute you're hurtling towards the ground at 200 feet per second, and the next minute, you're floating. well, almost floating - you're still going 13 feet per second, or 9 miles per hour.

the jump master pointed out the landing zone (still way, way below us), and then told me to look around a bit. what an incredible view! together we pulled the parachute controls, and were spinning first one way, and then the other. and by pulling both controls, the parachute would lift, and we'd be weightless for a few seconds.

the best way to describe the next five minutes was that it was too short. with an incomparable view, a controlled descent, and acrobatics in the air, time flew by.

before i was ready, i had to prepare for the landing. the jump master lands first while you hold your feet as high up as you can. after he touches down, you put your feet down. and it's all over. you get unbucked, sent over to the spectators, and try catch up on your processing. soon you are laughing, proud that you went, and happy that you survived the experience.

what a rush!


taking the flying leap - australia