Thursday, November 03, 2005

Fall on Me

Black Sheep Hostel - Queenstown, New Zealand

Two days ago, the OC fell out of an airplane.

We approached the booking desk at our hostel at 10:00 about booking some skydives for the next day. The weather report was not good, but there were openings for that afternoon. We agreed to jump at 16:00. In the interim, we set about finding some breakfast and running down a few errands.

I was glad to be jumping that day. Tom Petty got it right. The waiting is most certainly the hardest part. I tried to occupy the time by reading a very boring book, but my mind kept turning to the jump. The biggest fear (even bigger than going splat on a rock) was that I would panic and back out at the last minute. Nobody likes a coward.

At 15:30 we phoned the skydive folks for a weather-check. Some part of me was hoping for a sudden storm that would postpone the jump. No dice - perfect weather. An enthusiastic gentleman named Richard picked us up in a van and we made the 40 minute drive to Glenorchy in good spirits. On arrival, we watched a DVD of somebody else's jump to get an idea of what was in store and signed some forms.

In a tandem jump, the passenger is strapped to the front of an experienced skydiver who is responsible for opening the parachute and steering you both back down to Earth. My "tandem master" was a grizzled lover of fun called Rob. He set me up with a jump suit and harness and cracked a few jokes about falling to our doom.

Fate offered one last possibility of reprieve. The wind had come up a bit and it is unsafe to jump in high winds because of the high chance of a rocky landing. Some of the crew went down to the field to check things out. The governor let us down again - no pardon forthcoming. We jumped in another van and headed down to the plane.

Before boarding, our tandem masters gave us a surprisingly short set of instructions. Our entire job was to hang out the plane, thumbs in harness, kick back heads and feet, and stick out our guts. The tandem masters would take care of the rest. I kept reviewing this in my head as the one-engine prop plane took off and climbed. The four of us sat on the floor next to the "door" - a clear plastic sheet held close with velcro. It looked easy to fall out of, but I guess that is kind of the point.

On the way up, Rob kept me busy by pointing out various local landmarks. I was grateful for the distraction. It kept my mind off the growing fear. It took about 20 minutes to get to 12,000 feet. The view was spectacular - a dark blue lake below, white-capped mountains all around, and light blue sky with a few white clouds above.

With 5 minutes to go, Rob strapped us together. With 2 minutes to go, we rolled open the door. I swung my legs out of the plane, pitched back as instructed, closed my eyes, and was flung out into the open air.

Just after leaving the plane, we rolled twice. I opened my eyes to see the plane receding fast, than the sky, than the ground, than the sky again, and finally a steady view of the ground. As disconcerting as is the rotating view, it is nothing compared to having your stomach bounce up and down from throat to feet. It takes about eight seconds to accelerate to terminal velocity. During that time, every system in my body started sending signals back to HQ that something unusual was afoot.

Once we hit cruising velocity, things settled down a bit. Rob tabbed me on the head and I spread out my arms into flying position. You only get 45 seconds of free-fall from 12,000 feet and I tried to make the most of all of them by looking up, down, and all around. Rob spun us about a few times to get the panorama. From our rapidly declining perch we could take in the Tasman Sea, Mount Cook, The Remarkables, and the lake below.

I had just stopped wetting myself when we hit 5,000 feet and Rob pulled our chute. After a terrifying good jerk upwards, we traded breakneck hurtling for gently floating. Without the wind whipping by at 120 kph, Rob and I could easily chat about what we were looking at and doing. Looking up, I saw Jason's chute open safely. Looking down, I could see more detail of the buildings and other landmarks around the lake. Our landing zone soon became clear.

Rob steered us down by pulling on either end of the chute. Turning swings you around quite a bit producing a new and scary kind of acceleration. We did a bit of a death spiral for a bit, but by then I had had enough new experiences and asked Rob to go easy on me. He grudgingly complied.

The landing is good fun. I picked up my feet so Rob could land on his and not on my legs. Just before hitting the ground, I thought we must be going way to fast, but a few pulls on some ropes and we slowed to a very gentle speed. Rob touched his bare feet onto the earth just before I put mine down and we ended the dive standing back in the field where we had taken off. We disconnected the tandem harness, traded a vigorous high-five, watched Jason land, then I collapsed in the grass to consider what had just happened.

All told, we were only in the air for a few minutes, but I figure they filled up my adventure sports quota for some time. Bungy jumping and the like seem a bit silly after you have thrown yourself out of a plane. I believe it is time to rest comfortably upon my laurels.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations, gentlemen!

I did the same thing a few years back, here in good ol' Bavaria. And I have to say that jumping out of a plane is one of the coolest things i ever did in my life. :-D


11/07/2005 10:58 AM gmt

Blogger jason said...

It weren't too bad, really. I must say, though, that it wasn't as scary as I thought it was going to be. When you're that high in the air, you can't really tell that you're falling. It just feels like you're floating, and it's very, very windy. Mike mentioned that while he was doing his first post-exit flips, he caught a glimpse of the plane shrinking away from us at 200 kph... now that would have been scary.
As it was, after the initial rush of purposefully jumping out of the plane, I calmed very quickly, and enjoyed the nice, extended view of the mountains and lakes around Queenstown from an extremely high vantage point. The pre-landing spiral dance made me a bit queasy, but more in the motion-sickness-y way as opposed to the bowel-looseningly scary way.

11/08/2005 4:01 AM gmt

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