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Skydivers and other crazy people like me
October 10, 2011 - Stephen Browne
Q: What's the difference between a golfer and a skydiver?
A: A golfer goes, "Whack, DAMN!" A skydiver goes, "Damn, WHACK!"
I've just read about the tragic death of a skydiving instructor and student in a tandem jump in Nevada. Evidently the main chute failed to deploy, and the reserve chute tangled. It makes you wonder why people do things like that.
Interestingly the student was a 71-year-old woman, the instructor a man in his 60s with nearly 11,000 jumps.
That's the nature of skydiving, kind of like Russian Roulette. That is, you can win and win, but if you keep it up...
The comparison I sometimes make is with SCUBA diving. When I was in high school I lived on the Atlantic coast and used to SCUBA dive. Like skydiving it counts as an extreme sport, requiring rigorous training, great attention to detail, and some fairly expensive equipment.
But unlike skydiving, if your SCUBA gear fails you make what's called a free ascent. In skydiving if your parachute fails you will of course make a free descent, but the outcome is different.
Nonetheless, I have actually jumped out of a perfectly good airplane in operating condition, about 30-odd years ago.
I hurt myself. I didn't think that happened. I thought you lived or you died, nothing in between.
Back then they didn't have the tandem jumping equipment, where the instructor and student are strapped into one harness. We trained with military paratrooper-style chutes with a static line, or "idiot cord" attached to the plane that pulled open the parachute as we jumped - so technically it wasn't "skydiving" but just a parachute jump.
Since I was last in the plane, I was first out the door and couldn't chicken out without aborting the whole flight. The drill was, you climbed out and put one foot on the wheel of the plane, holding on to the wing strut with two hands. Then you push off.
Because I hesitated as I pushed off, I tumbled as I fell and felt the shrouds of the chute slap me across the face. Then when I felt I was hanging under the chute I looked up to see the shrouds a tangled mess.
"Time to pull the quick releases and go to the reserve chute," was what I thought, though to be sure not quite that coherently. I think this was probably the most terrifying two seconds of my life.
As I grabbed the quick releases I regained enough composure to look up at the shrouds.
"Hmm," I thought. "I'm going down at a reasonable rate of descent, I just can't steer."
So I reached up with both hands and parted the shrouds. I spun around as the shrouds untangled and I was fine. Just what seemed to be a slow descent, until the last ten feet or so in which the ground starts rushing at you like a freight train and you have to make yourself look at the horizon, not the ground, so you'll be prepared to collapse and roll with the shock (which I didn't.)
Even then the real skydivers had fancy chutes with something like brakes that enabled them to land nonchalantly upright without having to do that bone-shaking roll.
Instead of rolling, I sat down hard on my heels and felt my knees go POP! After that my knees weren't in good enough shape to do it again soon, and I figured, "OK, now I can say I've done that."
Since then I have gone parasailing behind a boat on a vacation in Tunisia, been a passenger in a plane doing acrobatic flying, but I haven't hit the silk since.
However lately I've been having dreams about jumping again. I've been thinking about hang gliding, or ultralights.
Why do people do things like this? Durned if I know, but maybe I'll be one of them again some day.
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