(no) fear of flying

“Are you crazy?”

That was my response when son John said he was going skydiving, my greatest fear being one of my children dying before me. What if the plane crashed on take-off? A lot of good a parachute will be then! “Relax, Helen,” I told myself.

Would I do it? Not in a million years! My knees turn to jelly when I reach a height of 10 feet. But John was having a mid-life forty-something crisis and was intent on “experiencing summer”—fishing, caving, hiking, biking, skydiving, canoeing, First Fridays, Hartwood Sundays, festival concerts, baseball games—anything that can be done outdoors, rain or shine.

At $265 for a tandem jump, nonrefundable once paid, there was no backing out as the time drew near. But then again, John’s weakness is claustrophobia, not open spaces—no back seats of two-door cars, no exploring in Laurel Caverns (his caving experience was a disaster—it lasted all the way up to the descent toward the first narrow passage) and absolutely no body conforming t-shirts.

His first scheduled Sunday jump date was cancelled because of rain, but the following week, the weather was perfect—warm and sunny with a few cumulus clouds in the sky in an idyllic setting near the Grove City airport.

We drove up I-79 and turned right just past the Grove City outlets at the sign for Skydive Pittsburgh. At least 30 cars were parked, as we pulled up to the metal Quonset hut buildings situated just above the landing strip and open field where the skydivers land.

As John and his friend Jason checked in, I watched as parachutes were repacked (what if they weren’t assembled correctly and didn’t open?) for the continuing stream of new jumpers ranging in age from teenagers to sixty-somethings. They were to be on the third flight after donning jumping gear and undergoing a brief orientation. “Four hooks tether you to your instructor, two at the shoulders and two at the hips, each capable of holding 500 pounds. Cross your arms over your chest; do not grab the sides of the plane as you exit; legs out in a sitting position as you land , and above all, breathe!” the cute little instructor emphasized.

“I’ve wanted to do this for 20 years. Now I can cross it off my bucket list.”
“I’ve wanted to do this for 20 years. Now I can cross it off my bucket list.”

John’s partner for the tandem jump was Ted, a medivac helicopter pilot who supplements his income at Skydive Pittsburgh, managing about 60 jumps a week through the spring and summer until October. Each flight carries four tandem jumpers and four individual recreational jumpers. To be certified as an individual parachutist, seven classes are required. Once certified, the fee for jumping drops to $57, and the addiction begins. These people are zealots. They hang out together;  they analyze landings; they talk and breathe skydiving.

Jason’s mom and I watched as they walked across the meadow to the prop plane, looking like astronauts heading to board the space shuttle. As John later reported, the apprehensive novice jumpers sat silently staring out the windows while the experienced jumpers chatted  about their weekends. Fifteen minutes later, little canopies of color began to fill the sky as they drifted to the ground.

At left: John gets some final instructions from from Ted before takeoff. At right: The final moments of landing.
At left: John gets some final instructions from from Ted before takeoff. At right: The final moments of landing.

John was grinning as he walked up from the field.

“How was it?” I asked.

He answered in a great big burst. “Great! We rolled out of the plane and accelerated to 120 mph. It was amazing—there was no sense of falling. I wasn’t afraid except for a moment, when I couldn’t hear the wind in the canopy any more—only absolute silence. The intense vibration of the chute had stopped and I didn’t know what was happening. Ted was manipulating the control lines at 5,000 feet, spinning us left and right, adding a few aerial acrobatics to the jump.” He laughed. “Guess what? I’m still alive!”

Would he do it again? “Absolutely and if I never did it again, that would be fine, too.”

And how did he rate the experience?