Matt is a tandem instructor at Skydive Spaceland, a flight school outside of Houston where both ordinary people and extreme-sport junkies hang out to jump from airplanes.
Matt is very good at what he does — strapping newbie after newbie into harnesses, cracking jokes to keep us calm, and getting uncoordinated, clueless people safely back to earth.
I am quite sure he pegs people like me right off — a hapless soul unable to follow directions even if her life depends on it.
And when you are hopping off a plane at 14,000 feet, it does.
I really wasn’t that nervous. I’d already done the scary part — informed my parents (and my kids) that I was going. I felt some flutters when we arrived at the hangar and people were dropping out of the sky, but I quelled them and strode up the walkway like something out of Top Gun.
Then I saw the instructional video.
I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to show an ambulance leaving the landing area, lights flashing with some crushed body most certainly inside, but it definitely made the point: You Can Die. Or at best, break your leg landing badly.
But then, as we first-timers were told how to arch our back, read our altimeters, and interpret hand signals, came the kicker:
I was expected to pull my own rip cord.
I nearly fainted. I thought this was a joy ride. Strap me to some experienced jumper, smile for the camera, and sail down on their very competent skill set.
The video ended and my legs took me out the door, but my mind was adrenaline buzzed, trying to focus my errant memory on the important points. Did they say 5,500 feet to pull? Or was it 6,000? Which hand? Was the wave part important?
Matt introduced himself and handed me a suit. I smiled and acted brave but, still, I was shocked — I had to pull my own rip cord! I looked up at the friendly bearded face, and thought — please, Matt, say it ain’t so! But no, he was cheerily going over all the points on the video again. Check the altimeter, when it reads 6,000, look up, wave, reach behind him and pull the golf-ball shaped release.
As I tugged on my suit and Matt started buckling a harness on me, Ori Kuper, the video man, peppered me with questions — how high are you going? When do you open the chute? How fast will you be falling? When I kept shrugging, he just gave me all the answers and laughed, tilting the camera at crazy angles for effect.
Suddenly I’m past what I thought would be a thorough and repetitive set of instructions, hardly having understood anything more than “arch your back,” and we were loading in the plane.
I watched my altimeter creep upward, Matt and the others still cracking jokes. Ahead of us, solo jumpers disappeared from the front of the plane like synchronized swimmers diving into a pool. We slid forward on the narrow bench for our turn. The worst was to come, I knew, standing on the precipice of disaster, staring down at the ground, and maybe, maybe refusing to jump.
We moved forward again and Matt told me to stand up. Before I could even remember if it was ready set GO, or ready set go … and then GO, we turned sideways, and then — as simple as falling out of a chair — we were belly down in the air, arms outstretched, hurtling in a way that felt more like a wind storm than a freefall.
In the rush of the air, I could scarcely think. I was misinterpreting hand signals like a newborn chimp. Matt kept having to push my hand one way or the other, trying to get me to angle with him. I waved at Ori, the videographer, who plummeted alongside us. We reached out and shook hands.
Matt forced me to bring my altimeter to my face. It already read 6,000! I was supposed to reach behind him and pull the rip cord, but gosh, the instructional video was eons ago and by the time I remembered — oh yeah, I tug a golf ball and a parachute is supposed to come out — Matt, having a vested interest in the chute opening — pulled it himself.
Everything slowed down for a while. I was flying — literally flying — and it was impossible to do anything but look and look and look. The air slipped from chilly to cool as we passed through a cloud, then suddenly grew warm again. Matt showed me how to control the handles of the chute and do 360s and by God, I could DO them! Never had anything so deadly and beautiful — especially that bright flutter of fabric that kept me aloft — been so easy to control.
About that time I realized that despite my utter incompetence, I was not going to die after all. The ground came closer and Matt patiently reminded me how to land. We went through the sequence again and again so that when the grass did arrive, I easily lifted my legs, pulled the cords to slow the descent, then set my feet down.
I hugged Matt, grateful that even though I have the memory of a fruit fly and the attention span of a gnat, I could do something as fun and crazy as skydiving without disaster. I was relieved also to learn that even if in a fit of torrential clutziness I had whacked my tandem instructor on the head as we left the plane and knocked him unconscious, an altimeter-controlled device would set off the reserve parachute.
I highly recommend Skydive Spaceland. And get the video. Ori did a killer job — a really fun little edited film — and if you don’t think you can handle skydiving, just come watch mine. After witnessing poor Matt tap me, signal me, repeatedly grab my hands and arms to MAKE me do what I supposed to do, you’ll quickly see that if Deanna can do it, anybody can. Even if you forget the rip cord.
Photos by Ori Kuper