'You have to be the one to jump'

One day in October just over twenty years ago, I hopped in a car with a few friends of mine and drove about an hour outside Atlanta, to a (then) small town called Cartersville.

Where we were going and what we were going to do was something we’d been talking about for weeks, though it wasn’t something I was 100 percent sure I was ready to do.

When we arrived at the small airport, we went inside to check in at the front desk. We paid our fees (somewhere north of $100, I think) and signed more than a few forms, all of which said we were fully aware of the risks of what we were about to do, and released the company that asked us to sign the forms of all responsibility for our safety.


Then we ended up waiting. And waiting… and waiting… and waiting.

We hung around the outside of the airport, watching planes take off, go up in the sky to release their payloads — by which I mean people — and come back down to earth again.

With each group, you’d hear a set of names called out over the loudspeaker, followed by several people running from wherever they were to the main office. Then they’d emerge with skydiving suits on, board the plane, and up they would go.

I remember seeing everyone from kids in their mid-teens to a grandmother in her 70s go up in the sky and jump out of an airplane that day. I especially remember the grandmother, whom I watched float in to the landing area gently and gracefully, land on the bullseye on her bottom, and start laughing uncontrollably.

That made me feel a little better that I was scheduled to do the same thing.

I use the word scheduled because, as the day wore on and the sun started setting, it crept on me that maybe I wouldn’t have to do this after all. It was starting to get a little dark, I thought; there’s no way they would take us skydiving with this little light in the sky.

But that scenario was not to be.

Around six o’clock in the afternoon — or is that early evening? — I heard the announcer call out over the loudspeaker the names of everyone in my group. “Last group of the day!” he said.

As you might imagine, the reality that I was about to actually jump out of a plane started to dawn on me, and what went through my mind at that moment was… “uh-oh… what have I done?

Nevertheless, I ran with my friends into the building, where we met the skydiving instructors each of us would be paired with. (We chose a tandem skydive, which means you’re attached to an experienced skydiver, and basically ride along with them.)

My instructor handed me a jumpsuit and a helmet and told me to put them on. When I was suited up, he said, come around to the plane behind the building and get on board.

“What about some training?” I asked him. “Aren’t we supposed to get some training before we go skydive?”

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” he said, placing one of his hands inside the other, and sticking out his fingers to mimic what our arms and legs would look like in the air. “Here’s where I’m going to be, and here’s where you’re going to be. Just hold your arms out straight and I’ll do the rest.”

That’s… it? I thought to myself. That’s all the instruction I’m going to get?

(Big sigh.)

Why this didn’t give me pause, I’ll never know. But I was with some friends, I didn’t want to back out, and so I just let out a big breath and said, “okay, let’s do this.”

We ran outside to the plane, which the pilot told us had been used for scenes in the 1991 Keanu Reeves movie Point Break. Inside, instead of the seats you normally see in an airplane, were two long benches that ran the length of the plane.

Each of us got inside and paired up with our instructors. I sat in front of mine, and as the plane taxied on the runway, he began fastening and buckling me in, so our harnesses would be connected.

Even at that moment — even as I was dressed in a flight jumpsuit with a helmet on, and had boarded the plane, and was attached to my tandem instructor — I still had this feeling in my gut, this voice that whispered in my ear, “I don’t care what these people do. I’m not jumping out of this plane.”

I felt this way sitting there, I felt this way when the plane took off the runway, and I felt this way when I heard the pilot say this over the intercom: “I know some of you are probably thinking about bailing out right now. But trust me when I tell you, the angle of descent we have to take in order to land, you’ll wish you had jumped instead of going for that ride.”

(Another gulp.)

So, we get up in the air to a cruising altitude of about 14,000 feet. One of the people in my group, a co-worker of one of my best friends, is first in line to jump.

He scoots forward on the bench toward the door in the plane, which we’ll use as our exit for the jump. His instructor rolls up the plexiglass window, the two of them perch on the edge of the opening, and then they do it — they actually jump out of the plane!

In all honesty, I couldn’t believe it. My friend jumped! Out of a plane! I was still processing the stunning nature of this when I heard my name.

“Okay… Johnson,” I heard a voice say. “You’re up next.”

Still not believing I’m actually doing this, I start scooching on the bench toward the door of the pane. We make it to the end, and my instructor and I maneuver so that we’re off the bench and perched on the ledge of the door. I look out past the wing of the pane, where I see the lights of the city below and a vast blue and orange horizon above it, where the sun is setting.

We sit there for a moment on the ledge and I feel a tap on my shoulder. I start to think it’s my own voice, but then I recognize it as my instructor’s. He says something I’ll never forget: “Okay, this is up to you. I’m not going to push you out of the plane — you have to be the one to decide to jump.”

I feel a lump in my throat. Do I really want to do this?! Everyone is behind me, waiting to see what I’m going to do. I look back at them, and then I look out again at the horizon. And I say to myself, oh, what the hell. Let’s do this.

Extending my arms outside the door, I let myself fall out and look back up. The plane — quickly! — gets further and further away from us in the air. I spin back around and I’m looking all around; at the sky, at where the ground meets the air on the horizon. It’s all more spectacular and exhilarating than anything I’d ever seen or felt.

Even though I know we’re falling, it feels like we’re flying. Which we do, for about one minute — and that feels like only four or five seconds, it goes by so fast. Because when my instructor pulls the rip cord on our parachute, I feel like I’m being jerked upward violently, yanked back toward the plane.

Only I haven’t been. Thankfully, our chute opens as planned, and we start floating gently downward, swaying back and forth as my instructor pulls on the cords that guide us toward the landing zone area. (It’s about then that I looked up at the parachute and thought to myself, “it’s a really good thing that it opened!”)

I don’t have any clear-cut lessons I draw from this experience, really. As I mentioned above, I was quite ready to chicken out, up until the very last moment. But something inside me said, why not? What’s the worst that can happen? (Don’t answer that question 😃)

Have you ever had an experience like that? I would love to hear about it, either in the comments or in a reply back. As always, have a great run out there today wherever you are in the world, and keep in touch.

Your friend,

— Terrell

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