Not for the Faint of Heart

By Scott McPherson

“I was brought up as a devout Catholic. I had long since stopped believing in God. I always wondered, if things really hit the fan, whether I would, under pressure, turn around and say, you know, a few Hail Marys, and say ‘Get me out of here’. It never once occurred to me. It meant that I really don’t believe, and I really do think that when you die you die, that’s it, there’s no afterlife. There’s nothing.”

–Joe Simpson, author of Touching the Void

A few months ago my friend, Tom, and I signed up for AFF (Accelerated Free Fall) training at Skydive New England in Lebanon, Maine. The plan was to finish the training and make a “solo” jump the same day. This compared to a “tandem” jump, where you go out the door strapped to the back of an experienced skydiver.

It’s not a purely solo jump; two instructors go out with you, one holding your right side and one holding your left. Their job is to stabilize you in case you go all wobbly after the exit, and to give you hand signals to “talk” you through all the procedures you have to follow before “pulling the chord” at 6,000 feet. From that point you’re on your own; someone on the ground talks you down via the radio in your ear.

We showed up bright and early last Thursday, October 22, and after 5 hours of training and a written test, they told us the winds were too strong and that the jump was cancelled.

October 26 was a beautiful fall day in northern New England, and they gave us the green light. We were there by 11:30 and after sitting around for an hour or so they suited us up and we boarded the plane.

At this point I should tell you that I’m scared to death of flying. I honestly believed that this jump would be fun, and that it might also cure my fear. I was wrong on both counts.

The second my ass hit the bench and they closed the plane door I was gripped with fear. A voice in my head screamed, “What the f#$k are you doing here!!!???” For the entire ride up to 14,000 feet I had to take long, slow breaths and concentrate on what my instructor was saying just to keep from letting total panic overcome me. At 14,000 feet someone opened the door and a rush of air took my breath away. I was terrified. That voice was screaming in my head again.

My instructors motioned for me to step to the door. I stood in the doorway facing the front of the plane, with my right knee against the doorframe, my hands open on either side of the door, and my left leg and foot extended behind me – this was to be the first and last thing I would do correctly – with one instructor in the doorway to my rear and the other on my right, still completely inside the plane. The procedure then is as follows: take a breath, and relax. Then look at your inside instructor and say, “Inside check!” He gave me a thumbs-up. I then looked over my left shoulder and shouted, “Outside check!” The other instructor tugs on your pant leg to indicate a “thumbs-up”. Arching your back, you lean out slightly, back in slightly (as if so to say “One, two…”), and everyone steps out the door on three…

Pure terror like I’ve never known. The first thing that happened shouldn’t have happened: my left side instructor lost her grip and sailed away, and I tumbled up, and actually went belly to the sky for a second – the exact opposite of what is supposed to happen. My right side instructor, thankfully, did not lose his grip, and turned me belly down. I’ve never felt so completely out of control. The rush of adrenaline, the fear, the confusion – I had no idea what was happening, like a deer in the headlights. Except this particular deer was free-falling towards the earth at 120 miles per hour! I tried explaining it to my wife and kids later, and all I could really articulate is that it was like a moment where your mind is completely blank – but a moment that seems to last forever. I was strangely conscious of what was happening, but it was like watching a movie; I was totally detached. I felt my right-side instructor, and saw my left-side instructor free-falling right in front of me, about 10-20 feet away. I saw the horizon. But I had absolutely no control over my body. My mind could not focus, and I completely forgot everything I was supposed to do.

At 120mph you’re dropping about 1000 feet every 5 – 7 seconds. In the 40 seconds or so of free fall there are a number of things that have to happen. First is checking your horizon, then your altimeter, then your left side instructor, then your right side instructor, looking for any hand signals they might need to give you. This is called your “circle of awareness”. Then you do three practice pulls. Bringing your left hand, which has your altimeter on it, a little over your head and in front of your face – imagine the motion your arm and head would make if you looked up to block a falling tree branch – you reach your right hand back and grab the plastic ring attached to your parachute – this is your chord. After three practice runs – checking your altimeter regularly, because that needle is spinning fast towards zero – you then do a “wave off” (picture a football referee signaling “incomplete pass”), arch your back, and pull. They tell you during training that you’ll have plenty of time for all of this. I suppose that’s true, if you don’t panic.

I didn’t even start to become aware of what I was doing until 9000 feet. That means I fell 5000 feet without any conscious thought entering my head. My instructors frantically signaled for me to do my practice pulls and to check my altimeter. I did my first practice pull, but couldn’t find the handle, so the instructor guided my hand to the ring. I then did a second practice pull, glancing at my altimeter. I was already at 6000 feet and falling, so I decided to skip the third practice and started my wave off; my instructor, bless him, realized how low we were and pulled my chord for me. I’m so damn glad he did; in the confusion and panic, I’m not entirely sure I would have found the handle. (They tell you that after two failed attempts to pull your chord you should go straight for your reserve.)

An instant later I felt the tug as the canopy deployed, and I looked up to make sure it was okay (The four S’s: square, straight lines, slider down, stable/steerable). If there had been a problem with my parachute I would have had to either fix it – tugging outward on the lines if they were tangled, pulling down on my toggles if my slider hadn’t come down, etc. – or “cut away”, which means grabbing and pulling the handle on the right side of your chest that completely disconnects you from the lines. Now you’re free falling again, and have to quickly pull your reserve handle, which is on the left side of your chest. Fortunately, none of this was necessary!

My adrenaline was pumping so fast I couldn’t breathe. I desperately started looking for the drop zone, but didn’t realize I was facing away from it. I looked at the horizon, I looked at the ground. My heart was pounding. Every gust of wind I was convinced would blow me out of the sky. I grabbed my “toggles” (steering handles) and did my left turn/right turn/brake test – at this point about 4000 feet above the ground. I thought I was going to puke.

Finally the voice on the radio told me to do a 90 degree turn, and I saw the my “holding area” (the spot where you begin your landing approach, approximately 1500 feet from the ground) and slowly drifted down to it. From there gravity and a very flyable parachute did the rest of the work, with minimal effort needed from me. At ten feet from the ground they tell you to “flare” (brake) and I touched down much softer than I expected.

I’ve never been so happy to be on the ground. For years I’ve wanted to skydive, and thought it would be the most fun of my life. It was not. I was terrified out of my wits and my heart didn’t stop pounding for probably 30 minutes. I was nauseous for the rest of the day.

It was not fun for me. I don’t say that self-pityingly; I thought I wanted to learn piano once, and that didn’t work out either. Before I went up, one of the instructors told me, “I’ve talked to about 75,000 people after their first jump, and maybe two said they didn’t have a great time.” I never thought I’d be number three!

On the plus side, I realized how much I love my family. How much I love to watch movies, and play bass guitar. How much I love jazz and a good book. When I was in basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, in the summer of 1990, the Company motto was, “No one’s ever lived until he’s almost died.” I understand what that means now, more than ever.

I’ll never skydive again, I’m sure – I’ll never fly again, either – but it was certainly a learning experience. The scariest learning experience I’ve ever had.

My friend Tom? He did just about everything right, and hit the ground ready to go up do it again.

Scott McPherson is still alive in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

One Response

  1. […] you may have read earlier, Scott had an interesting experience.  His experience was uncontrolled terror, whereas my experience was […]

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