The pilot turned the key and cranked the Cessna's engine. Once, twice. Finally it caught. The tiny plane taxied down the dusty path to the dirt runway carrying three of us cramped in the back.
After nearly 61/2 hours of instruction, I was about to make my first parachute jump.
I had got up early one Saturday morning to battle the traffic over the Bay Bridge and up U.S. 50 to Ridgley, to spend the day at Pelicanland, operated by Parachutes Are Fun, Inc. The trip had been planned for weeks. I spent my spare time wondering what it would feel like to float down to earth under a silk canopy, gently swaying over the lush green patchwork of Eastern Shore farmland. Thoughts of fresh, crisp air and a beautiful bird's-eye view. I was excited.
I didn't know anyone who had skydived, so I started doing some research. Going through old newspaper clippings was a terrible mistake: "Turboprop Hits, Kills Parachutist," "Drowning Heads Risks Faced by Skydivers" and "Skydiver Falls to Death When Chute Fails to Open."
The clips stuck in my mind and so did a recent dinner conversation with a pilot friend. "Wait a minute," he said, taking his fork out of his omelette. "You're gonna jump out of a perfectly good plane? Why?"
"Why?" could not be answered without some embarrassment. I wanted to put some pizazz in my weekends, be less sedentary. The goal: Do interesting and exciting new things and enjoy them. Let it all hang out!
After a couple of tries, waterskiing on the Little Magothy River near the Bay Bridge was a snap. So why not skydiving? Then maybe soaring or hang-gliding. The possibilities seemed endless.
Skydiving would be a big step for me. The second-story windows on my house have gone unpainted since the ladder slipped away from the house and the bucket, the brush, my cap and I had a falling-out.
Despite the clips, my fears and warnings from friends and family, I continued with the plan. The brochure from Pelicanland arrived in the mail, touting "The Exciting World of Three Dimensions."
"Generally, parachutists are the most interesting of people," it bragged. Pictures showed a large group of skydivers high above the earth, free-falling to the ground with the greatest of ease. They were in formation and seemed to be having a party.
For $69.50, the first-time jumper gets nearly seven hours of classroom instruction, the use of parachuting equipment and the services of a jumpmaster for the initial jump. I handed my check to Marian Riner, who, with her husband Gordon, has operated the jump center for two years.
Jim McIntire, a carpenter by trade and a jump instructor by avocation, knelt on the sandy ground several hundred yards from the runway in front of the class of six women and four men, all of us in our 20s.
"You're probably asking yourselves why you're here. It's a combination of curiosity and fear. Curiosity has gotten the best of fear by now -- it's now 51 percent curiosity and 49 percent fear."
Using a nail, McIntire drew a diagram in the sand to explain how the main canopy or chute works. Then, moving the nail back and forth across the sand, he taught the control technique known as "crabbing," similar to tacking a sailboat.
A couple of young men were boarding a plane to make their first jump. McIntire called out, "Would you mind coming by after your jump and talking to this class about it?" Both agreed. Then one added, "Yeah, if I make it."
McIntire paused for a minute while the Cessna 182 taxied past the outdoor classroom. The first jump would be made from 3,000 feet and the total time from plane to earth would be no more than three minutes -- that's falling at an average of just over 17 miles per hour. "Most people on their first jump will mentally black out because of fear," said McIntire.
Not long after, the Cessna was buzzing overhead, preparing to drop its occupants one at a time. We could just barely see a black speck emerging from the plane and within three seconds, a parachute popped open. There was a shared feeling of relief among the novices who stood with their chins pointing to the sky, studying the jumpers' every move. Another instructor used a bullhorn to give instructions and steady the parachutists' descent.
"It was great!" exclaimed the guy who had questioned his return just 15 minutes earlier. We hung on his every word.
"The winds are a lot stronger than I thought they would be, but once you plant your feet, you're all right," he assured us.
His friend was not as enthusiastic but he wasn't displeased, either, as he rubbed his backside. His jump went well but his landing had left a lot to be desired. He wasn't really injured.
"Remember to pull up on your landing," he cautioned us. "Don't look down. Look at the jumpmaster when you get out of the plane. The only fear I had was going up in the plane. When I got out of it I was okay."
McIntire continued to cover the finer points of parachuting, taking no chances. We learned how to steer the canopy and land safely, and what to do in case of emergency landings in trees and powerlines.
The main canopy is attached to the plane by an eight-foot static line. Its purpose is to open the main pack, releasing the chute. (The United States Parachute Association, the governing body of skydiving, requires that static lines be used on the first five jumps unless an approved instructor jumps with the student.)
If this line fails (a rarity, according to military statistics), the ripcord for the reserve chute must be pulled. "If you don't pull the ripcord handle in 23 seconds, this becomes a contact sport!" warned McIntire.
There was a murmur of excitement as we set off in tiny groups to be outfitted with boots, chutes and helmets.
I noticed that one classmate wasn't getting ready. Angela Bardeau, 27, who was vacationing from Grand Coteau, Louisiana, had toyed with the idea of skydiving for almost 10 years, and had decided last month that she would jump.
She had flown to Pelicanland that morning with a friend from Greenbelt in his Cessna. Before the class, Bardeau flew along to watch him dive from 8,000 feet.
"It freaked me out to see these little people floating away," she said. "I spent the rest of the day talking myself out of it."
She was refunded $19.50 -- the cost of a first jump -- for dropping out before boarding the plane.
I was assigned a plane with Marisa Ianni, a 23-year-old from Newark, Delaware, who had made seven jumps in the Army, and Michelle Perna, 20, a first-timer from Tenley Circle. On the ground, we received last- minute instructions from the jumpmaster. We pretended to jump off the step of the plane and into the air with the back arched, pelvis and arms outstretched and shouting "One thousand-one, one thousand-two . . ."
With two hours of daylight left, we boarded the plane. I boarded first so I'd be the last to jump. Crammed sideways in the rear of the plane, I felt my anxieties build. As the plane climbed to 3,000 feet, the jumpmaster chattered away to Marisa, having her check her static line and pointing out the target area.
The pilot signaled to the jumpmaster to open the door. A rush of cold air filled the cabin as Marisa scooted out onto the plane's step. I frantically raced through the day's lesson trying to remember something about parachuting. Like data blipped from a computer terminal, it had vanished.
The jumpmaster wore a camera that was triggered by a mouthpiece shutter. Biting down on the shutter was the signal to jump. Marisa's eyes were fixed on his mouth. He bit down and she was gone. The door closed.
I craned my neck to watch her descent. Nothing. I couldn't find her in the sky. "Oh God," I gulped.
The plane circled the area again. Michelle got in position next to the door. She wasn't worried at all. Nothing seemed to bother her. I thought she was crazy.
She climbed out, took the signal and disappeared. I put my nose to the plane's window and saw her floating to earth. I still didn't see Marisa; I worried.
The jumpmaster closed the door and turned to me. "You're next."
"Wrong. You've got the wrong guy," I wisecracked to myself as I slowly crawled to the doorway. He attached my static line while the pilot circled. From the window I could see the evening sun hanging over the inlets of the Bay. Underneath were varying hues of green patches. I could just barely make out a farm, a silo and barns.
I looked at the pilot. He grinned back.
"I don't think I want to do this," I said.
They didn't hear me so I repeated it.
"Oh, go ahead. It's fun," said the pilot. It was obviously a well-rehearsed line. I was positive he had never jumped from a plane.
The door opened. I leaned over and looked out, ignoring instructions to put my feet on the step. The view was marvelous but I couldn't enjoy it.
I pulled my head back in the plane and said firmly, "I'm not going to jump. It doesn't look fun. I didn't stop eating salt and go on a low-cholesterol diet just to jump out of a plane!"
The door closed. The two of them looked at each other and shrugged. I returned to the back of the plane feeling a strange kind of relieved wimpiness. Suddenly I worried about what they would think back on the ground. Then I thought about what they might have thought if I had jumped, the chute hadn't opened and I had ended up lying on the ground like a pile of spilled lasagna. It all worked out.
Back at the loft where we were outfitted with equipment, I met Marisa and Michelle at a long table removing their packs.
"How'd it go?" they asked, apparently not noticing my unopened main canopy and reserve. They didn't even giggle when I told them. I knew I had made the right decision by not jumping; I had no second thoughts.
Gordon Riner, the operator of Pelicanland, felt the need to comfort me."That's all right. It's nothing to be ashamed about. Parachuting isn't for everyone." I asked him if people chicken out often.
"Once in a while," he said.
"When was the last time?" I pressed, beginning to think I was a rare bird.
"A guy did it this morning," he replied.
The two women hurried off to make one more jump before the sun set. Afterward, Michelle Perna said she was looking forward to hang-gliding for the first time next day.
I have invested in a caulk gun and a can of paint for the next time I get the urge to get off the ground.