Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My Vertical Mile

My Vertical Mile

I work with a very talented group of athletes.  Most of them are elite runners and have a mile PR (personal record) in the four and a half minute or so range.  Regardless of the exact time, it is impressive and it is fast.  When I came back to work after my vacation I was able to tell them I beat their mile PR.  I told them that my mile PR was 120 miles per hour, but it was vertical.  They laughed and I told them about my first time skydiving.

I had no intention of skydiving, it wasn’t even on my radar.  Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, well-it just didn’t make any sense.  Then we wound up RV camping at an airstrip in Huntington, West Virginia for the weekend of the Marshall Marathon.  When we pulled into the campground I saw a giant sign at the entrance that said, “Skydiving.”  It was a beautiful Vegas style sign and I immediately asked my husband about it.  He told me the campground airstrip runs a skydiving class and also has vintage WWII biplanes you can ride in.  It all sounded interesting but nothing I had even thought of doing before.  He, on the other hand was very interested in flying in the biplane.  His family has a strong background in aviation and one day he will get his pilot license.

After setting up camp we sat outside and watched the skydivers take off in their tiny planes and later jump, parachute and then land in the field nearby our camper.  It was pretty cool.  I could have watched it all day.  But then I discovered the campground had a bar.  After putting down a few gin and tonics and sampling some fried green tomatoes, I chatted the bartender up on skydiving.  She told me she had just turned 50 and she jumped for the first time on her birthday.  She said it was by far one of the most amazing things she had ever done in her life.  I saw a bumper sticker on the wall that said “I (heart) Skydiving”.  I snapped a photo and posted it on my Facebook page with the comment, “To jump, or not to jump...that is the question?”  Several comments showed up and most were positive.  One from my financial advisor that said, “Sure, your  life insurance policy premiums are paid up.”  Many friends I would never imagine said that they had done it and loved it.  I told my husband that I was probably going to do it the following day.  He suspected the alcohol was talking and that this was not actually going to happen.  
      The next morning he went to the hanger to meet with the pilot that did tours on the 1940 Steerman, the WWII biplane.  While they were flying, I talked with one of the skydiving instructors.  I asked him what the hardest part about skydiving was and he said it was that you really have to go against everything you know.  He said a lot of people have a really hard time just stepping outside the plane while you are in the air.  It goes against human nature to step outside of a plane while in flight.  Yup, I can agree with that.  I then took a short walk to the office and signed a waiver for my first skydiving jump.
About a half hour later my husband landed in the biplane and was quite excited about his flight.  He told me that the pilot let him fly the plane quite a bit, other than the take off and landing.  I didn’t want to cut his enjoyment short, but I knew they were waiting for me at the hanger for my jump.  I met with Phil, my jump instructor.  He had me watch a short video, basically about how I can’t sue them if I die and how I can change my mind in the plane and they will be ok with it.  He then helped me get into my jump suit, had me put on a cap and goggles, then strapped an altimeter on my wrist.  He gave me some basic instructions on what to do and what not to do.  He said that we would jump at 10,000 feet and free fall at 120 miles per hour.  Then at about 5,000 feet he would indicate to me to pull the chute.  He said if I didn’t do it soon enough, he would do it on his own and not to worry.  Then after he pulled the chute, I would have to step on his feet and push myself up so he could loosen the harness.  He also explained how we would steer the parachute once it is open and the proper landing technique so we would not get injured.  
       I got on the tiny airplane.  The pilot is the only person that has an actual seat.  I sit on my butt behind him, my legs straight out.  Phil is straddled over my legs facing me.  On the passenger side there two guys, both sitting in the same positions that Phil and I are in.  It seems weird to be in a plane, facing backwards and not be in a seat.  I’m the person that gives my husband’s hand the death grip when we take off and land on a normal commercial flight.  I’m the person that gets nervous when we hit the slightest turbulence.  I usually look at my husband and ask, “Is that normal?”  He will say, “Yes it is just us going through a cloud,”  I know that when his face shows no panic, then it is ok.  He’s not here with me.  I search Phil’s eyes when the plane bounces a little and he pats my leg.  He knows I’m nervous even tough I haven’t said a word.
It takes about fifteen minutes to get to 10,000 feet.  The two guys next to me have jumped before.  They are making jokes and have no trace of nervousness.  The guy up front opens the door and my heart is in my feet.  It is very cold and windy.  He has to work a bit to open the tiny door as it opens upward.  Once he latches it up, he and his friend work their way to the door and they jump so fast that I swear it didn’t happen.  

Phil tells me to work my way to the door, so I crawl on my knees to get there. Phil then has me sit on my knees facing away from him and he approaches me on his knees and connects our harness together.  He pulls them very tight and I feel a sense of calm because he is close and he is completely calm.  We are facing the open door of the plane and he tells me it’s time to step outside to the platform.  Platform is a generous word for what I need to step on.    It is really a piece of metal that was about 10 inches by 4 inches and mounted over the wheel of the plane.  I’d say it was about the size of a women’s size 9 shoe.  I’d say two shoes but I’m not sure both of my feet actually touched it.  As I put my right leg out of the plane to try to reach the step the wind flings my leg backwards.  I hadn’t anticipated how strong the winds were.  You are not allowed to hang on to anything on the plane when you step out.  They don’t want you to put a death grip on the plane and not let go.  Phil said to try again and plant my foot.  I managed to get it there.  He said to get my other foot out and I’m pretty sure that as soon as my foot got out of the plane we just jumped.  

The next thing I see is the world sprawled out me.  It was like the scene in the movies where you see everything coming at you a million miles an hour.  I saw the Ohio River, curving and separating Ohio and West Virginia.  Phil had instructed me earlier to push my stomach out and let my arms and feet fall behind me towards the sky.  We free fall at 120 miles per hour for about 5,000 feet.  I know Phil wants me to pull the chute but my brain and my hand aren’t connecting and he pulls the chute for me.  Then in an instant we go from being parallel to the ground to being perpendicular.  He indicates it is time for me to step on his feet to loosen the harness.  As I step on his feet and feel the straps loosen- I yell, “Don’t drop me!”  He laughs but he knows it is a strange sensation when the harness loosens it feels like you are sliding off and that you are being let go.  He guides my hands to the handles of the chute and lets me control our direction.  I turn us so I can see the area where the Marshall Stadium is and downtown Huntington.  I wanted the birdseye view of where I would be running the marathon the next day.  Then we turn back towards the airfield and see some pretty fancy houses, farm land and the windy river.  I see the airstrip and our campground and our super cute Winnebago RV.  I can see my husband standing on the side of the field watching me as I come in for my landing.  Phil tells me it is time to lift my legs up so that they are parallel with the ground.  I have to do this so our legs don’t get tangled up on the landing, so we don’t get injured.  We hit the ground on our butts and put skid to a stop pushing a nice little pile of fall leaves over us.  I breath easy, knowing I survived and didn’t break any bones and will be fine for my race the next day.  Phil and I get up and he unhooks the harness.  I give him a big hug and thank him.  My husband is all smiles and I can how proud that I did something so adventurous.  I get my first jump certificate from the office and they say I get a free drink at the bar, kind of funny as that is where it all started.