WE'RE SQUISHED into a little Cessna 182, the pilot on the only seat, the four passengers sitting in each other's laps on the floor -- and thinking about the door.
The passengers each have a helmet, goggles, gloves, altimeter and radio. Last, but to no one's mind least, they wear two parachutes apiece.
Jumpmaster Cindy Chidester of the Hartwood Aviation drop center pulls gently on a bright yellow strap, and attaches it to a metal D-ring on the plane's floor. At the strap's other end, scrunched between the pilot and the door, is Andy Kind, parachute student on weekends and law student during the week.
Everyone is smiling, shouting goofy comments -- the kind that tumble out when your mouth is juiced on adrenaline and you wish the next 15 minutes were already part of your past. Then, at 3,200 feet, it happens: The door opens, heaving freezing air into the plane.
Kind puts his feet on the small step outside the plane and leans toward the wing strut, wrapping his fingers around it. Kicking his legs free, he hangs there, his jaw wired open, until Chidester nods. He lets go, arches his back to keep from flipping, and falls, his body tugging on the yellow strap. A small, white, springloaded pilot chute pops out, puffs with air, and pulls out the main chute.
The wind fills the canopy, transforming the colorful square into a solid wing. But the lines down to Kind are twisted, he discovers, looking up, and he must kick himself around till they untangle. Then, using toggles that tug at either end of the canopy, he has until about 1,500 feet to "goof around" -- turning in "doughnuts" and figure eights.
Because the chute is angled slightly downward, it moves its passenger forward three feet for every foot of descent -- a 30 mph flight. Kind can steer right or left by pulling a toggle, or stall by pulling both at once -- a technique that stops the forward motion, but does nothing to halt the downward. At 1,500 feet, he starts steering -- this time toward a disk the size of a paper plate set in the middle of a gravel circle, beside the runway at the Hartwood, Va., airport.
Today, around 30 skydivers are competing in an accuracy meet, aiming toward that tiny circle. Two will hit it, one splitting the disk with Robin Hood flair. Five to ten feet before Kind hits the ground, he pulls both toggles, arches his foot like a ballerina, and steps down on his tippy toes. If he's done it right, he can walk off into the sunset. If he miscalculates, the chute may pull him up slightly, and he'll find himself tumbling.
Meanwhile, Tim Robinson, the young owner of a telecommunications firm, is crawling over Chidester toward the now- closed door. This time, there's no yellow strap to attach and check before the door flies open. With the first chilly blast -- a cold that jumpers say they don't even feel ("You're sweating so badly, who notices the weather?" one said) -- out he goes onto the strut.
He waits with that adrenaline smile on his face while Chidester shoots his picture. At her signal, he lets go, arches, and counts -- 1,000-1, 1,000-2, 1,000-3, 1,000-4, 1,000-5, for his five seconds of accelerated-free-fall flight. Then he tugs on the pilot chute, it streams out, and he begins the rest of his 61/2- minute descent -- his seventh jump.
At 3,600 feet, the door opens again, and Chidester is ready for her 481st jump. She lunges for the struts, hangs on for about a second, lets go, arches, and starts to count. Chidester likes to count to numbers like 20 -- more, if she can get the pilot to go higher. "You don't feel like you're falling at all," she says, "because you don't see things rushing past you, so your mind has nothing to tell it that you're falling. It's more like being on a water bed."
Is this fun, or what?
"You've got to do something to get the adrenaline going," says Kind. He's met this need by doing things like hang gliding in the Alps, he says, and, with Robinson, used to spend his weekends with a paramilitary group playing mock war games. "Now we jump out of airplanes," he explains matter-of-factly.
"We get about a thousand people each year making that first jump," says Chidester, "mostly as a one-shot deal. This isn't a sport like, I think I'll take up tennis." Some 30 percent come back for a second try, she says, and about 10 percent become hard-core jumpers, spending the $2,000-plus for chute and jumpsuit and climbing to new heights.
The bulk of the first-timers, however, jump at 3,200 feet with that yellow static line, relying on it, rather than their own panicked selves, to pull the chute out.
Others, like housewife Melinda Winnett, are still uncomfortable with the idea of making the descent on their own, where they may need to straighten out lines, shake free any hangups that are keeping the chute from opening completely -- or make the decision to go with the backup chute. So, on her second jump she went in tandem, attached to another parachutist who piloted the chute down for her. "It's almost like taking a ride," she says, "and just gives you that extra bit of confidence. I could look around more on the tandem ride, and get used to it."
At the opposite extreme are people like graphics artist Vicki Kritter, an accelerated-free-fall jumper who likes to do "relative work," where you hook up with one, or eight, or a hundred other jumpers. "The first jumper arches his back and stretches out his arms and legs like this," she says, demonstrating in front of the stove at the airport's snack bar, "which slows him down." "Slow" is a relative term: The jumpers descend at between 100 mph (all stretched out) to a possible 180 (in a dive).
The next jumpers, by holding in their arms and legs and steering with hands and feet, maneuver themselves over and link in the sky with the first -- with their chutes firmly shut in their backpacks.
All this starts at between 7,500 and 15,000 feet, and goes rapidly to around 2,500 feet, where they break off and start opening those chutes, being careful not to tangle each other's lines. "It's like learning to pilot your own body," Kritter says, grinning casually. "It's like being on a trampoline, only you don't have to keep bouncing. You can do all the flips you want."
Are all these people crazy?
"I've never met a boring skydiver," says Annandale school administrator Bob Dorminey, who's been jumping since 1972. Not being dull may be the only thing these people have in common, actually.
You'd expect them all to be young -- most skydivers start in college, and the sport is dominated by young, upwardly mobile you-know-whats, says the U.S. Parachute Association. Yet Dorminey, at 49, was not the only silver-haired jumper out that day.
You'd expect them all to be single, yet a handful of kids, including one infant, hung around the hangar, waiting for their parents to finish their jumps and cheering as they landed. Parachuting is known, accurately, as a male-dominated sport, but people like Sharon Stout, a single mother who jumps every weekend, are not that uncommon.
And though some of them, like Robinson, are pilots themselves or offspring of aviation families, many have never been up in a small plane before they start jumping. "If you can get on that plane," Stout says, "you can make the jump."
Are these just people with a finely honed death wish?
"I like to live a little on the edge," Kind acknowledges, "but actually, this isn't as dangerous as some other things I could do -- like drive cars."
The U.S. Parachute Association backs this up with its favorite statistic: Out of the 2 million jumps made each year, it says, there are about 30 fatalities. "All those fatalities were probably preventable," Chidester says. "If you have the proper equipment, proper training and proper conditions -- you're not going up in thunderstorms, or something -- there really isn't any great danger. I've never had to use my reserve chute."
And Hartwood Aviation, she says, hasn't had a single fatality or serious injury in the 18 years it's been going. It has, however, had accidents, like broken ankles. The day we were there, one jumper tried to turn too close to the ground and landed on his back; he left the field with the rescue squad, and was sent home to recover from tailbone bruises. "He was trying for the disk," Chidester says. "You have to think, Safety first."
"There are two kinds of people in this world," Dorminey says, "participants and spectators. Unfortunately, we have become a nation of spectators, vegetating in front of the tube. You have to get your feet off the asphalt."
Yes, but do you have to do it by stepping into thin air thousands of feet above the earth? "Everybody likes speed," he says. "We just like ours vertically." LEARNING TO JUMP
Parachuting has only a small following, so there are few drop centers in this area. And those vary in their safety records. The following were recommended by the U.S. Parachute Association as being safety conscious:
HARTWOOD PARACENTER -- Route 6, Box 3698, Hartwood, Va., near Gainesville, 703/752-4784. First Jump Course, including ground instruction and practice, equipment, first jump at 3,200 feet, $125; subsequent jumps, $32.50 plus $1 per thousand-foot altitude. Group rates less per person. Accelerated free fall, $250. Tandem jumping can be arranged.
ACCELERATED FREEFALL EAST -- Chambersburg Airport, Chambersburg, Pa., 717/264-3611. Does exclusively tandem and free-fall jumps -- the latter at 10,000 feet, with two instructors holding on to the jumper. Tandem jumps, $125; accelerated free fall, $195. Lessons shut down till April, but a spokesman is happy to answer questions.