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ALLIGATOR-TAKING-THE-PLUNGE-SKYDIVE

Taking The Plunge

carl cole (jump instructor)

wednesday
may 28, 1980
vol. 73 no. 142

A long way to go to tell a story.

by Bob Block
Alligator Staff Writer

It was somewhere between 2500 and 3000 feet above the ground that I first realized what I was about to do. I was going to calmly get out on the strut of an airborne Cessna 182 airplane and let go. Of my own free will, of course.

I was insane. It all came to me in a flash, that is if depraved minds are allowed to have revelations. Yes. I was stark raving mad and should definitely be committed to a well-protected institution.

I looked over to my photographer associate for a little assurance, only to find a much-maligned look in his eyes. After all, I had talked him into this fiasco. I did it to add a little adventure to his dull life. I told him it would make for a great beer tale. Now he was looking at me as if I was about to make him walk the plank into a sea of sharks. I wasn’t asking him to do anything as drastic as that — I was only asking m to jump out of an airplane.

The whole twisted saga began as a story idea from my editor. One day she asked me if I would do a skydiving story. I’m not sure if it was a temporary mental seizure, or if I felt unusually daring and macho, but I gave the idea some deep thought. I decided that it would probably make an interesting story and a great adventure.

DOOMSDAY: MAY 10, 9 A.M.

My photographer’s sleek, tan and gold Grand Prix lurched in front of the squat, little cottage that I call home. He staggered in, apparently terribly hung over from the previous night’s partying. His eyes were so red that they glowed in his head like some sort of extra terrestrial life form.

His body was stiff and showed signs of modest terror. Needless to say, he was a mess.

On the other hand, I was slaving over the oven putting the finishing touches on a batch of electric brownies. The brownies were to be our incentive for making a safe landing. I was calm, casual and composed. In my mind, I was constantly toying with the idea of death, knowing full well that if the jump didn’t kill me, the brownies probably would.

The Palatka airfield was buzzing with activity when we arrived an hour and a half late. I had wishful thoughts that we were too late to make the jump.

What? my photographer screamed, his eyes bulging out of his head and his mouth contorting into a hideous cavern of disbelief. “Don’t you know, it’s now or never! I’ve worked myself into a religious fervor for this once-in-a-life-time experience. I am psyched for today and only today. It’s today or forget it!”

Not wanting to enrage my friend any further, as there is nothing in this entire world quite as ugly as an enraged photographer, I suggested that we park the car in the field of mud directly ahead of us and make our rendezvous with the man in charge.

We approached a moronic-looking soul in hopes that he could answer a few questions that would help us track down the man in charge. He was sitting on a wood pylon, staring into the crowd through horn-rimmed, Buddy Holly glasses with a blank look on his face. He was wearing a United States Air Force tee-shirt, Bermuda shorts and black socks with white tennis shoes. I should have assumed from the man’s tasteless apparel that he was the wrong person to ask anything, but I decided to take my chances.

“Excuse me,” I said, “Has the jump class started yet?”

What? he replied, and looked at me questioningly, as if he did not understand the English language.

I repeated myself.

“Oh,” he said. “I don’t know,” and the blank expression quickly returned to his face.

The young man’s insight into the situation proved to be more than I could bear. I thanked him for his time and told him I was sorry for interrupting a thinker of his stature.

We eventually managed to find our way to a trailer where all the head skydiving honchos hung out. Once inside the trailer we made all the necessary introductions and paid for the jump. I remember smiling, pretending not to be nervous.

My photographer was frowning pretending not to be sick.

SPLATTER CLASS

Our instructor finally arrived. He was a young guy with a pretty good disposition. His only fault was that he was constantly confusing my name with that of my photographer.

He came right up to us and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m your jump instructor, Carl. And you must be Dave,” he said, addressing me.

“No, I’m Bob,” I said.

“I’m Dave,” my photographer interjected.

“Let’s see,” Carl said, “You’re Bob, and you’re Dave. I’ll have to remember that.” He then looked elsewhere and said, “You must be Rocky, the other student in the class.

I looked around to see who he was talking to, and my eyes fell upon the poor moron we first spoke with when we arrived — the guy with the Buddy Holly glasses and the combined intelligence of a package of M&M’s.

The class was held in a small room in the back of the hangar. The seats were straight out of an old commercial passenger plane, probably a DC-10 but I am not really sure.

Carl, our instructor, took the podium in the front of the room and proceeded to lecture. My photographer and I listened carefully while Rocky imitated airplane and splattering noises.

“The parachute is overbuilt,” he said, “it weighs about 60 pounds and has been subjected to years of experience.”

He continued. “The jumpsuit is designed to keep you warm at higher altitudes, slow your fall, and protect you from whatever happens when you hit the ground.

Hit the ground? I became nervous. My photographer closed his eyes and swallowed a big gulp of air. Rocky was smiling as he made more splattering noises.

DENIAL AT 3000 FEET

After lunch and the last lecture was finished, we were to select a jumpsuit and then go outside to practice some basic skills.

All the jumpsuits were piled on top of one another in a sweaty heap of tangled fabric.

The boots were randomly arranged with no two shoes of the same size anywhere near each other. It was as if some deranged shoe salesman had decided to play a cruel trick on his customers after a heavy acid experience.

Surprisingly enough, Rocky was dressed first and was telling us stories about a couple who supposedly copulated at 8000 feet.

I really didn’t believe the story, but I remember thinking that if they didn’t jump naked they probably bought their jumpsuits from Fredricks of Hollywood.

In our new attire, we left the bunker to practice jumps in a special training area.

“The most important thing is that you fall flat and stable,” Carl instructed, “with your arms and legs out, and your back and shoulders arched.”

“Why?” Rocky asked earnestly.

“Well, you don’t want to go into a head roll, because It can be dangerous,” Carl explained.

“Why?” Rocky asked again, with that omnipresent blank expression on his face.

“Just go into a head roll and you’ll know why — it’s amazing how fast you will learn,” Carl said smiling.

To make sure we arched properly we were supposed to throw out our legs and arms and scream like banshees at the top of our lungs

“ARCH THOUSAND, TWO THOUSAND, THREE THOUSAND, and by the time you get to “FIVE THOUSAND, hopefully your parachute will be popping open.”

Luckily on the first jump, there is no need to worry about having to pull a rip chord.

The parachute release is connected to an umbilical chord-like structure called a static line. The static line, in turn, is connected to a structural part of the plane. When you jump out of the plane you free fall about 12 feet before the static line pulls the parachute.

With the parachutes on our backs and the last instructions explained, we walked slowly toward the tiny, sputtering Cessna waiting on the runway.

“We’re jumping out of that?” Rocky asked, his face lighting up for the first time with an intelligent question.

“Yes, we are jumping out of that,” Carl answered sarcastically. “And you’re getting in first.”

Rocky shrugged his shoulders and got in. My photographer associate followed, and I got in last. Once inside, I was sandwiched between the instrument panel and the door.

At this time I found out I was jumping out first. I took a big swallow, as I felt my heart move into my throat.

Jumping first? I was hit with a barrage of butterflies and massive waves of doomed thoughts. Being the journalist that I am, I tried to organize all of my feelings about the day into their proper perspective. In the midst of my fear and loathing, I formulated the four stages of skydiving for the emotionally unstable.

The first stage is what I call the rationalization stage. This is the stage in which you make the decision to jump based upon all sorts of ridiculous, invalid reasons.

The second stage is the reconsideration stage. This is the stage in which you realize that you bullshitted yourself into stage one.

The third stage is what I went through when looking out the plane’s window: Denial. This, the stage in which you say to yourself ‘there is no way in the world that I am jumping out of this plane.’

The final stage is the total commitment stage. This is the point of no return. It is the one small step for mankind, one-giant-leap-for-me stage. I desperately tried to hang on to the denial stage.

I glanced over my right shoulder at the altimeter. It read 2900 feet. My jump instructor, Carl, gave me the get ready signal and opened the plane’s door. As the door swung open, I was overwhelmed by the sound of the air rushing past the plane and the noise of the engine.

“Get your feet out,” Carl instructed.

Strangely enough, my body reacted.

I strained against the 90 mph wind and worked my feet outside the plane.

“Get out,” Carl commanded.

I grabbed hold of the wing strut and slowly pulled my ass out onto the step. Total commitment was just precious moments away.

Carl pushed me more toward the end of the step until my foot was dangling off the edge.

“GO!” He yelled.

“GO?” I asked in a last desperate attempt to hang onto the denial stage.

“GO!”

I let go of the strut. “ARCH THOUSAND, TWO THOUSAND … A sea of air engulfed my body, and the air rushed by my head with a swooshing sound. My adrenaline was pumping. I was falling.

“THREE THOUSAND.” A slight jerk, and there was silence. Complete tranquility. The loudest sound was the beating of my heart.

After several peaceful moments of slowly drifting, I touched down to earth safe and sound, and ecstatic. Shortly after I landed, my photographer, Carl, and yes, even Rocky made it down safely. There were smiles, laughs and even a kiss from Carl for surviving our first jump.

“Ready to go again?” asked a skydiver who had just completed his hundredth jump.

“No way, never again,” my photographer insisted.

“Nah, not today,” I said. But maybe next week.”

I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying beer, my electric brownies, and the fifth and final stage of skydiving: Life after the jump.

— 30—

bob self

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