The commercial goes like this: "A man falls from an airplane at 3,600 feet, bounces three times, and lives to tell about it." Great. If for some reason the parachute doesn't open, I've at least got a chance to make Time/Life Books.
You develop a rather bizarre sense of humor prior to your first sky-dive, possibly because of the altitude or perhaps because deep down inside you realize there is nothing funny about stepping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet.
In fact, you realize the activity is downright dangerous. But that doesn't prevent it from being fun, it just adds to the thrill.
It's an exciting test -- staring down at the patchworked earth below, squinting to make out the landing target from the small, crowded plane, your mind racing to recall the procedures learned some two miles below the stratosphere, knowing that the goal is to get back down, without the plane.
I wonder how many times I'll bounce.
There are three ways for the first-time sky-diver to jump. The simplest is tandem jumping, where the novice is joined in a special harness by a skilled "jump master" who pulls the rip cord and guides the parachute to the landing site. The beginner experiences the adventure of free falling, yet has the security of a highly trained professional guiding the jump.
Second is static-line jumping, which is a solo jump at lower altitude with the parachute attached temporarily to the plane, thereby opening it upon exit. The free fall is eliminated, but the jumper must then guide the chute to a landing. Some training is required, but the method is proven and the danger minimal.
The most audacious method is the accelerated free fall. Here the first-timer undergoes six to eight hours of ground school, learning all the techniques necessary to successfully free fall, pull the rip cord and navigate to a safe landing. To ensure safety, two licensed instructors take the 10,000- to 12,000-foot plunge alongside the instructee, holding his/her jumpsuit until the canopy is deployed at about 4,000 feet. Then it's up to the instructee to land (though you receive coaching via one-way radio from a grounded instructor). The method is both intoxicating and unnerving. But the gratification is nonpareil.
I was warned that jumping from an airplane could lead to all sorts of injuries, including dismemberment and death. Playing the unwitting straight man, I asked an experienced sky-diver: "Have you ever been hurt jumping?" "No," I was relieved to hear him say. "Never jumping -- only landing."
Still I don't recall being scared. The instructors at Skydive Chambersburg (Pa.), where I jumped, are very professional and have a wealth of experience from which to draw. After extensive ground preparation, I felt ready for just about anything the sky had to offer.
Feeling like a cross between Elvis and Evil Knievel, I don a colorful jumpsuit and crash helmet. The harness carrying the nylon packs containing my main and reserve ram-air canopies weighs about 30 pounds and fits snugly over my shoulders and around my legs, waist and chest. Sneakers are the footwear of choice.
With goggles and gloves, I board the tiny Cessna 182. The first thing I notice is that the pilot is also wearing a parachute -- hardly an auspicious beginning.
It takes 20 to 25 minutes to reach altitude, approximately 10,000 feet. If you are going to have second thoughts about jumping, this is where they will occur. The ride is loud and I am focused. I watch the faces of the instructors, feeling like an intruder in their aerial habitat. They are calm and comfortable, even jocular. I am externally calm, but internally the synapses are going haywire. I'm in a trance.
My car is reduced to matchbox size while I review the jump procedure one last time with instructor Chris Jarvis. I've got it down. It's time to open the door.
"Are you ready to sky-dive?" asks Jarvis.
"I am ready to sky-dive," I reply.
We force our way through the cold, stiff breeze and onto the small step below the wing where we are joined by my ground-school instructor, Ches Judy. I glance at each man for the final "okay" and we jump.
Just like that, the Cessna disappears over my shoulder. It feels like a dream. I'm falling at the rate of 120 mph with nothing but wind in my path. Though I am joined by two other free-fallers, I am oblivious to them and feel totally alone. I hear nothing but wind in my ears and I try to make sense of the thoughts running through my head. I'm experiencing a sensory overload, what psychologists term "temporal distortion," brought on by a high stress situation. For a short time, my vision is tunneled and my actions are merely reflex. But it passes quickly.
I glance at my instructors, whose hand signals give me the okay to settle back and enjoy my dive. I am soon comfortable with the speed and now the wind feels more like a cushion, cradling my earthbound body. Aware now of all that is happening, I am thrilled beyond description. There is no fear of falling as I approach the onrushing ground at what seems a casual pace. Trees grow slowly larger while, at the same rate, the horizon dwindles. It is a mad, frenzied sort of peace.
All too soon comes the signal to check the altimeter strapped to my left arm, which informs me that I'm at 4,000 feet and it's time to pull the rip cord.
My heart skips a beat when I look up to see a faulty canopy. But I recognize the problem as a simple line twist, remedied by spinning my body in a circle, like a child might on a swing. I do so and the ride down becomes a pleasant sightseeing tour as I survey the countryside from the ultimate vantage point.
The parachute is shaped for maneuverability and is easily steered towards the landing site by pulling the toggles attached to the rear. It responds perfectly to the directions given me by my radio instructor, and I swoop and dive to a not-so-perfect four-point landing just a few feet from the target.
Back on earth, I recognize my jester friend and nod when asked if I had jumped yet.
"Well, what did you think?"
No longer feeling like an outsider but like a genuine sky-diver, I give him the aeronautically universal thumbs-up.
"I didn't bounce once."