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Why I’d Rather Go Parachuting Than Visit the Space Needle Falling With Style
and secure your “jump wings,” the student must complete all five jumps. After the first jump, it’s fair to say you feel like you’re pretty well-trained. You know what to do, and you’ve actually done it, so that really helps a lot with the nerves on each successive jump. None of this is to say jumping out of an airplane is ever a casual experience, however. This jump week experience has been repeated probably hundreds of thousands of times throughout the years since the Army began doing it in 1942. It goes like this: After you get all suited up with your main and reverse chutes, everyone stands in line and gets marched onto the aircraft. You go up to about 1,500 feet, and when you’re over the jump zone, the jumpmasters throw open the exit doors at the rear of the airplane, with one on each side. The sound is deafening, and as you shuffle toward the door, things start happening really fast. As soon as you have one foot out the door, the wind sucks you the rest of the way out. This is disorienting, but you’re trained to exit the aircraft in a certain body position to be prepared for your parachute to open. With your hands against each side of the reserve chute on your stomach, you start counting.
With Halloween at the end of the month, October tends to focus on scary things and facing fears. There are scary movies to watch, haunted houses to visit, and other thrilling traditions. I’m not a big fan of Halloween, but if we are talking about things that scare us, I have to confess that I have what I consider an irrational fear of heights. I have absolutely no fear of flying, but if I am in a tall building with floor to ceiling windows, I get extremely uncomfortable. My heart starts to race, my palms get sweaty, and all I want is to get my feet back on solid ground again. I realize a lot of people are afraid of heights, but it’s a bit silly for me because I was a paratrooper in the Army back in the ’80s. And as you are probably aware, the main part of being a paratrooper involves being high up in the air in an airplane or a helicopter and exiting the aircraft with nothing but a parachute. Given my fear of heights, you’d think I would have been terrified, but I didn’t really find parachuting to be that big of a deal. It’s not that I suddenly overcame my fear, it’s just that we got a lot of training before we actually jumped out of a perfectly good airplane. Parachute training was a full three-week course. The first week is ground week, where you learn how to land properly. Then comes tower week, where you put on a parachute harness, get pulled 250 feet into the air by a cable attached to the apex of the canopy, and are then dropped. After that comes jump week, during which you do five jumps from a real airplane. At least, this is how training usually goes. During the time I was in Airborne School, the tower wasn’t working. We ended up doing two weeks of ground school before going straight to jump week. During jump week, we had four daytime jumps and one night jump. In order to graduate
Everything gets quiet, and you can look all around at where you are and where you are trying to go. Once you have your bearings, then you have to focus on steering your chute to make sure you don’t drift into anyone else. If you run into someone, that can be catastrophic as it can cause your chute or your buddy’s chute to collapse. During my jump week, we jumped from C-130s, the kind of plane they fly out at Jacksonville AFB, and from C-141s. Eventually I would jump from almost every kind of aircraft, including several different kinds of helicopters. We made jumps at bases all over the U.S. and in many foreign countries. Many of these jumps were at night, which you’d think would have cured my fear of heights, but I’ve had no such luck. When we toured the Space Needle in Seattle a few years back, I got really nervous at the top. I’ve jumped out of airplanes at 10,000 feet, but I was extremely uncomfortable being just 520 feet in the air. It really scared me to be standing at the railing and not be secured to anything. Come to think of it, maybe I’m not afraid of heights. Is there a word for “fear of falling without the proper equipment”? Because I think that’s probably what I’m really afraid of.
One, one thousand … Two, one thousand … Three, one thousand …
If you get to “five, one thousand” and you don’t feel the main chute open, you’ve got a problem. It’s imperative that you find out and fix what went wrong or get your reserve chute open pretty quickly. Fortunately, I never had that problem. As soon as the chute opens, the sound goes from deafening to complete silence. It’s honestly really cool.
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