When I was in college in Rome, Ga., me and a couple of fraternity brothers got it into our heads one spring that we wanted to take up sky diving. There was a sky diving club and school out at the Richard B. Russell airport north of Rome.
We drove out and signed up for lessons. They gave us a two-hour class on the ground, which consisted of learning how to properly hit and roll by jumping off a four-foot platform onto the ground, what to do in case the parachute didn’t open, instruction in case we landed in trees or in water, getting suited up and fitted with our parachute harness, and being taught what to touch – the chute handles which turned us in the direction we wanted to go, the canopy releases in case the chute didn’t open, and the emergency chute ripcord, again in case the parachute didn’t open. Our first five jumps would all be by static line, meaning our chute cord would be pulled as we stepped out of the plane and our chute would open as we fell.
Then we boarded the jump plane and took off. This was not a relative large plane like they use out at Skydive Atlanta. This was a small Cessna with one seat for the pilot and no door on the passenger side. Three jumpers and the jumpmaster joined the pilot. One jumper (me) was on his hands and knees in a prayer position behind the pilot. Another jumper was next to me in the same position, the third jumper in front of him, and the jumpmaster seated on the floor facing backwards.
In the positions we were in, we couldn’t see out the windows, so it made sense to be a praying position because all we could do was close our eyes and pray we made it to jump altitude. The procedure for jumping was to sit in the doorway, then put our left foot on the step outside the doorway, lean over and grab the wing strut, and pull ourselves out, standing on the step until the jumpmaster told us to go. We then let go and fell backward, with the static line pulling our chute open.
As scary as it was going up the plane and stepping out, the exhilaration of coming down under the parachute more than made up for it. Just hanging there in midair, watching the ground slowly grow larger and larger until you finally touch down, is an experience unlike any other. I did it five times over several weeks before I ran out of money, and sometimes I wish I could go back and do it again, just to have that feeling again.
The point to all this is that Sunday I sat and watched Felix Baumgartner’s epic trip into the stratosphere in that capsule under the balloon, and his record-breaking jump from 24 miles high, finally landing safely back down on the ground, and felt a little bit of kinship with him. I’m sure he was probably as nervous going up in that capsule as I was going up in that small plane. I watched him open the door and move out to sit on the edge before finally leaning forward and beginning his dive. I watched him spinning down on TV, saw him put his arms and legs out to stop the spin and regain control, and cheered, because I knew he had made it. I watched him glide in to a perfect landing, then fall to his knees, and knew a little bit of what he was feeling – as much fun as it is falling out of the sky with basically just a big sheet to slow you down, those first few seconds of being safe and sound back on Mother Earth are exquisite.
Thanks, Felix, for giving this old dude a chance to feel young again.