“ON A WING AND A PRAYER”
By John Robert Lafleur
As I was freefalling from 12,500 feet at 120 miles an hour, I decided that it was a tad late to have second thoughts about this latest bright idea of mine…
I’ve always enjoyed a challenge, so for my 50th birthday I wanted to do something memorable, but what?
When I came up with the idea of skydiving I ran it by several friends.
“Wow!” they responded.
“Would you like to come with me?” I asked.
Dead silence. I’ve heard more noise from an oyster. Then came throat clearing followed by revelations of previously unmentioned ailments that they felt would prevent them from jumping out of a plane: “Gee, I’d love to but I have a bad back/trick knee/plantar wart/hemorrhoids…”
Then I called my buddy Dan, a private investigator. I figured that if anyone would be up for it, he would.
“Skydiving? Absolutely! When are we going?” he answered.
After a little research I located a skydiving facility in Lake Elsinore, about 80 miles from my home in L.A. Their website explained that the only way to do a freefall jump without going through a full day’s training was to go tandem. This involves being strapped to an experienced instructor and only requires about 15 minutes of instruction. Exactly what I was looking for. Two weeks later the traffic was understandably light as we left L.A. on a clear Saturday morning at dawn. We wanted to jump as early as possible because the temperature was going to be well above 90 degrees by midday.
We arrived at Skydive Elsinore at 7am to have a chance to walk around a little before they opened. I could tell who most of the first time jumpers were by the slightly nervous, strained smiles on their faces. Just like mine. The office opened right on time at 7:30 a.m. and everyone was very efficient, but kept things light. You have to sign a few waivers and they even have you declare on video that you are doing this of your own volition.
After being weighed (you can’t jump tandem if you weigh more than 230 lbs) we were directed to a changing room where we were assigned our jump suits which looked very cool. Next, I met my instructor, Matt (the guy I would be strapped to for this controlled death plunge) and my videographer, A.K. (who would take photos as well as video, both in digital high resolution). They were seasoned pros with a good sense of humor. Matt had just turned 50 as well and has been jumping since he was 19.
A.K. interviewed me on camera, then I was guided to a mock-up of the plane’s doorway which is on the ground. Matt went through what I needed to know but I was slightly distracted watching people all around me falling out of the sky and coming in for perfect landings. It was already hot in the jumpsuit, but the waiting area was shaded and it wasn’t long until our plane taxied up and we were ushered in. Eight of us boarded: Two experienced skydivers who would jump before us on their own, then Dan and I each jumping with an instructor and a videographer. We had to hunch over to board and to walk through the plane due to the low height of the fuselage.
The seating is comprised of two long benches running the full length of each side of the plane. The door is at the back and once the jumpers are seated it is pulled down like a roll top desk, although it is opaque to let extra light in. The pilot gunned the engines, the plane picked up speed and we were airborne very quickly. While we gained altitude, A.K. videoed me a little more:
“Are you nervous?” he asked over the engine roar.
“Definitely!” I answered truthfully. (What, are you kidding me? I’m about to jump out of a perfectly safe airplane!) Matt then needed to secure the two of us together. He told me to turn my back to him and to sit in his lap. I did so, but resisted the urge to tell him what I wanted for Christmas. I thought it best for him to be completely focused on making sure all the straps were properly hooked. I heard him verbally going over a mental checklist after he secured and tightened everything up.
As we climbed to our desired altitude of 12,500 feet they opened the roll top door and my first thought was: “Are you crazy? Someone could fall out!” With that door open, now it was getting real. With my back tightly strapped to Matt’s front we stepped forward, hunched over in a synchronized, tandem duck walk.
The two experienced jumpers ahead of me stepped out of the plane as if they were going for a stroll. Watching them drop like rocks scared the hoohah out of me. Next, A.K. grabbed a hold of the bar over the doorway, stepped outside of the plane and casually hung there like an orangutan. Like we did on the ground in practice, as we got to the door Matt had me place my left foot on the edge of the open doorway — toes over the edge — and had me go down on my right knee. (An appropriate time to ask for forgiveness for all I’ve done wrong in life, I thought). You have to kneel because of the height of the doorway.
With A.K. and Matt holding onto the overhead bar, I grabbed it as well, thinking the three of us would do the old “One, Two, Three!” and shove off at the same time.
Suddenly, I felt someone behind me pry my hand off the bar, so I grabbed it with my other hand. That hand was also pried off. I thought: “Hey, the other two guys are holding on, don’t I get to hold on, too?”
“Hang onto your shoulder straps,” Matt shouted into my ear over the drone of the engines.
I later realized that if a jumper changed their mind at the last second and didn’t let go of the bar, they and their instructor would go tumbling out of the plane, arms and legs flailing like a pair of angry chimps. Not a good exit. But, believe me, all of your instincts (not to mention common sense and abject fear) tell you to hold onto something — anything –inside the plane until you jump!
I let go of the bar as reluctantly as Paris Hilton giving up a ten carat diamond ring. Now, genuflecting in the open doorway with a choke-hold on my shoulder straps, the propeller engines howling in my ears, the wind blasting me in the face and 12,500 feet of void below me, this was most definitely a “What-the-heck-have-I-gotten-myself-into-now?” moment.
For someone like me who isn’t crazy about heights, as I looked down everything in my body either clenched or retracted, but it was time for the proverbial leap of faith. Matt and A.K. exchanged a nod then I saw A.K. let go and fall away as Matt gave me a light shove and we were airborne.
Even though we were dropping, the initial sensation was that I was flying, probably due to our previous horizontal momentum. All fear left me at that moment. It was an almost out-of-body experience. After a few seconds Matt slapped me on the shoulders with both hands in a prearranged signal for me to let go of my shoulder straps and extend my arms and legs in an “arch position” to help him stabilize our freefall.
As we plummeted earthwards we quickly reached 120 m.p.h. — terminal velocity. Hmm, “Terminal velocity”… I thought: “What’s the matter, was the term ‘Deadly, horrifying velocity’ already taken? Jeez Louise, couldn’t they come up with something a little more happy sounding than ‘terminal?’”
Anyhoo, as we fell to earth at 176 feet per second (picture a 17 story building — that’s how far we were now falling every second), A.K. was taking incredible photos and video with his helmet cam. He came in close enough that I could almost touch him, then he drifted above us and filmed downwards with us in the frame so that the viewer could see what we saw below us. These guys are real pros and did a magnificent, choreographed dance in the sky, capturing everything on camera.
There is nothing that I can write here that could do justice to the thrill of that freefall. It simply has to be experienced. Matt and I fell for over a mile — 6,000 feet to be exact — in less than a minute. Now it was time to deploy the chute. “Here we go!” I thought as Matt pulled the rip cord. (Hmm, “rip”cord… another charming, encouraging term). I suddenly felt like I was yanked up and back, then I looked up and was relieved to see that the chute had indeed deployed properly.
A.K. continued his freefall a little further so that he could get to the ground first and video our landing. As we floated down, with Matt alternately pulling on the toggles attached to the two steering lines, we banked left and right. In long swoops, we circled like a bird through the clear morning sky as he gave me an incredible guided tour of the area, pointing out places of interest with beautiful Lake Elsinore looming in the distance.
A few minutes later Matt had us perfectly lined up for our landing. Because there was no ground wind to counter the forward momentum of the chute, if we had tried to land at a jog, being strapped together we would have tripped over each other’s feet. So, the only way to land safely was for both of us to simply lift our legs and come tobogganing in on our bottoms as if going down a playground slide. As we came in for the landing I could see A.K. walking toward us, filming away. We lifted our feet on Matt’s cue and slid in on the soft grass as smooth as silk.
I “whooped” a holler as A.K. high-fived me, declaring that I was now officially a skydiver. A few moments later I watched Dan come in strapped to his instructor as they greased their landing as well.
Considering that you are jumping with two experienced skydivers and having it expertly recorded, it was less than I thought it would be before going online: $279. I reasoned that I could have gone out of town for a weekend somewhere and spent more than that. In a year or two I wouldn’t remember much about the weekend or the hotel, but my skydiving experience is vivid in my memory, not to mention having the video and photos, which are outstanding.
Later in the day, over drinks in L.A., Dan asked me what we could do on my 51st birthday that could possibly top skydiving.
Stumped, after a moment’s thought I responded: “I hear that Mt. Everest is nice this time of year…”
Editor’s note: Here’s the video of John’s skydive… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MrI1z3fNx4
Photos are courtesy of A.K. Kylmen
Skydive Elsinore: 1.877.THE.JUMP skydiveelsinore.com
John Robert Lafleur is a writer and fitness trainer who specializes in training seniors in their homes. He splits his time between Beverly Hills and Big Bear, CA. He can be reached at 310.262.3060.