Skydiving is an exhilarating sport. It's exciting, challenging, and a bit risky. Faulty parachutes, mid-air collisions, hard landings… I know because I jumped out of airplanes on the weekends during my freshman year of college. And in those days... I'm talking the late seventies... there was no such think as "tandem" jumps. Tandem jumps are for pussies. All 60 of my jumps were done solo and without a monkey on my back.
I looked death in the face every time I stepped onto the strut, the heavy chute strapped to my back pulling me out of the plane, the icy wind thousands of feet above Earth blowing my screams into silence. I wasn't screaming in terror. I screamed in triumph. Young and invincible, I dared anything bad to happen while I was having such a good time.
Mornings made the best time to jump because that's when the winds were calm. I'd lie back on the grass beside the airstrip, my head propped against my packed chute, my hands shielding my eyes as I stared upward to watch my fellow divers fall from the jump plane. They looked like specs of sand that grew into small pebbles the closer they got to the ground. Sometimes they'd join hands to form circles in the sky, then shoot away from each other, their parachutes billowing off their backs and jerking them to a brief stop before floating them gently to Earth. A sky ballet without the music.
Parachute landings may look easy, but for me they rarely were. I've suffered bruises and broken bones from landing in trees, sugar cane fields, muddy cow pastures, and the center lane of a busy highway. But nothing can beat the day I landed on the beach.
It had rained early that morning and low clouds forced our plane to sit on the runway longer than usual. Leaning back against the bare metal sides of the Cessna, I closed my eyes and listened to the engine roar and the props spin, my heart quickening when we finally began our taxi down the airstrip. The plane's wheels bumped over cracks in the tarmac, making the metal floor vibrate beneath me until we were airborne.
Our take-off was no different than any other.
A flash of red crumpled cloth interrupted the darkness behind my eyelids and I jerked my eyes open. Everything looked the same. The plane's floor was bare, the passenger seats removed to accommodate jumpers, though it was only my jumpmaster, Byron, and me on this flight. The pilot and our spotter occupied the two seats up front. I blinked and breathed out a sigh.
"You all right?" Byron shouted above the engine's roar.
I nodded, my helmet heavy on my head. "Thought I saw something," I yelled back.
I grinned. "I don't know. It was just…" He must have thought I was an idiot. "Never mind. It was nothing."
Byron, an ex-marine with the demeanor of Santa Claus, quirked an eyebrow before leaning back to enjoy the ride.
We needed to climb to an altitude of 15,000 feet to allow enough time for a thirty-second freefall. It took a while for the dense clouds above us to part and let us through. Excitement and anxiety warred inside me, but I felt comforted in knowing my jumpmaster would dive with me today.
The pilot nodded at the spotter, who opened the door. A blast of frigid air pushed me firmly into the wall at my back. The spotter hung his head outside to peer down at the miniature landscape below. He held up a thumb. The pilot cut the engine.
Time for us to go.
I climbed out onto the strut and faced forward with both hands gripping the wing. It wobbled slightly as the pilot glided the plane like a kite. I let go and arched my back, staring up at the plane that seemed to fly away from me, only it was me flying away. Falling away. Byron dived out to join me.
My body remained stable, belly toward the ground, as I plummeted at a velocity of 130 miles per hour. Byron's strong hands grabbed my ankles and turned me around to face him, his gloved fingers now gripping my forearms. The wind pulled and pushed his face out of shape, his cheeks flapping like fish gills. He pointed at the altimeter mounted on the packed reserve chute strapped to my chest, then let me go.
I stared below me, not at the ground, but at the ocean. We had strayed off course.
Arching my back again, I yanked my ripcord free and the parachute popped from my back, caught the wind, and snapped open. The jerk was like slamming on the brakes. I gazed up at the full canopy of black, red and gold, and scanned the horizon for my jumpmaster. His red parachute, now a rumpled ball of nylon, landed in the blue water far below. Byron floated down after it, the circle of a white reserve parachute carrying him gently out to sea. A boat was already speeding out to greet him.
His main chute must have malfunctioned, but he seemed to be okay. I'd pulled my cord higher than usual, meaning I still had a ways to go before reaching the ground. While watching Byron, I'd neglected to pay attention to my own location. I saw water below, a strip of beach next to that, then the rooftops of houses beside a band of highway lined by a ribbon of power lines. The drop zone was miles out of reach.
I tapped the silent radio on my chest. Nothing. As a novice jumper, I depended on the ground crew to talk me down. Not a word came through the tiny speaker and I floated closer to the ground every second. The rooftops looked flat enough to land on, but if I missed I could get tangled in a power line. If I veered too far to the right I'd get dunked in the sea.
"Head for the beach."
I heard the voice clearly and exhaled in relief. The ground crew. My saviors.
I steered my parachute toward the slim line of beach and touched down within minutes. I could have easily made the wrong choice, but the guardian angel who spoke through my radio had guided me in the right direction.
I tapped the radio again, listening for someone to say they'd come get me soon. Silence. I detached the radio from my reserve pack to give it a shake and was surprised by how light it felt. Flipping open the back, I checked the batteries. There were no batteries. The compartment was completely empty.
I stared at the nylon canopy spread across the sand. What had just happened? No batteries means no radio communication, yet I had clearly heard a voice tell me to head for the beach. Was it the wind? Or had I suddenly become schizophrenic? Whatever it was, it had possibly saved my life.
I never told anyone at the drop zone about my experience, least of all Byron. He arrived back at the airstrip with his bundle of soggy red parachute in his arms and a Santa Claus smile on his face.
"So how was it?" he asked me.
I frowned for a second as I tried to think of the best way to answer. Finally I grinned and said, "Miraculous."