by Peter Nelson
[A note from your humble correspondent. After leaving my faithful readers breathlessly waiting in southern Peru for a refreshing drip in the azure tropical waters of the Southern Pacific Ocean, I thought, with the warmer weather coming, you might be ready for a cool change. So let’s step out of the natural sequence of things and jump up to south-central Alaska, for a very different sort of adventure. This was in 1967, and in those days, skydivers jumped alone and with old-fashioned chutes. Nowadays, they strap the amateur jumper to an experienced professional, and he just rides down on the pro’s back like a bundle of firewood! Where’s the skill in that? Where’s the terror?]
When we were training to be sky divers, we started from scratch. Literally. We even folded and packed our own parachutes. At first, you might think, wait a minute, I’d rather have a professional do this job! But on second thought, no, I wanna see for myself that absolutely everything’s hunky-dory! And we practiced PLFs (parachute landing falls) for a month before our first jump. We used a modified double-L chute (the old-fashioned, hemispherical chute you see guys jumping with in World War II movies, but with two large, L-shaped openings cut out of them. These openings allow you to steer. The wind rushing through the openings propels you forward at about 12 MPH. Pull the right-hand toggle, and that partially collapes that side of your chute, which turns you to the left. Pull right and you turn left. Pull left and you turn right. (Make very certain you remember that!).
The impact from landing with that chute is the same as jumping off the roof of a two-story house. You do it wrong, you break a leg. Basically, a PLF is a shock-absorbing roll. Land with your knees bent, immediately roll over onto your hips and then finish up on your shoulder. Not very dignified, but believe me, at that point, dignity is the least of your worries!
Then there’s the plane — a “modified” Cessna 182, a little one-engine puddle-jumper, basically. And how was it modified? They took out 3 of the 4 seats (only the pilot gets one!), and they also yanked off the passenger-side door!! At the sight of that plane, the terror that’s been lurking in your stomach for the past month jumps straight up into your heart, and the burst of adrenaline instantly fuses all your zippers! In a full-length jumpsuit, that’s a helluva lot of zippers!
But, hey, there’s 3 of us in this together, all young males in our 20s, and what keeps us going in this crazy adventure is that our fear of dying is marginally less than our fear of backing out in front of each other! Me? A coward? Bill Verderese, Mike Shelton, and me. Then there’s the pilot and Hank, the jumpmaster, of course. On your first jump, you don’t go up without a coach.
It’s crowded with 5 people in a small 4-passenger plane (even with the seats out), so we have to enter in reverse order to our jump order. Tallest guy goes in first and jumps last. That’s me. (Maybe, if I hide in the back, once Bill and Mike are out, they won’t notice me, and I can take the slow road back to Earth?)
It’s quite a tangle getting in. The three of us have these bulky parachute packs on our backs—the size of a flatish backpack. And a reserve chute on our stomachs (in case that big one doesn’t open!) For our first few jumps, the ripcord on our chutes is attached to a static line (a heavy nylon strap whose other end is attached to the plane, in case we forget to pull the ripcord! That has happened, believe it or not! Ever hear of “rapture of the heights”?).
So, in we get, crouching on the floor, not too uncomfortable, as the plane begins taxiing down the small runway. All too soon, we’re airborne. Bill and I are making jokes about dying. Bill’s Italian, but Mike, unfortunately, is from sturdy stock in Michigan. So while Bill and I are clowning around, Mike is deathly silent, very pale, and, even though it’s pretty chilly at 10,000 feet in a small plane with one door off, he’s covered in sweat.
‘Aha,’ I think, ‘I’m saved!’
Because, you gotta jump in order. You can’t climb over anybody, because the static lines could become tangled. And from the look on Mike’s face, there’s no way he’s gonna leave this plane. And if he doesn’t jump, then I can’t jump! And it ain’t my fault, either! I wasn’t chicken—no way. I can’t go if Mike refuses, so I’ll just have to coast back down to the ground. Too bad, so sad.
Then we’re over the target area. Hank, the jumpmaster, tosses out the Wind Drift Indicator. That’s a small bar with a long piece of cloth trailing from it. It falls at the same rate of speed as a human body, so the jumpmaster can estimate the wind direction and speed well enough to figure out where we should jump from to get us coming down near our target.
Uh-oh! Suddenly, things are looking serious! Even Bill and I stop talking. Then I stop thinking. Then I stop breathing! Ah, but then I remember Mike. He looks dead already. No way he’s going out that door!
But Bill does. One moment, he was there. The next moment, he’s gone! He’s not in the plane any more. Well, cheerio, Bill, it was good knowing ya.
Mike’s turn now. He actually crawls over to the doorway. But I know he’s bluffing. No way he’s going out that door! But then he gets in the doorway. No way! And then suddenly, he’s … gone. He’s GONE? Mike! Where ARE you? I look all around the plane. It’s a small cabin, but, hey, he’s a pretty small guy. Maybe he’s hiding back in the cargo space or something? Please? I KNOW he didn’t go out that door!
But he did!
And now it’s MY turn!!
OK, did my mother raise any cowards? Of course she did! Cowardice is a sign of intelligence, I read that somewhere. I’ll just tell everybody I want to practice a few more PLFs. Anyway my chute pack feels kinda funny. Maybe I should repack it. I’m sure Hank would agree. Besides, I see a few clouds off to the west. What if they all built up suddenly? Isn’t that a storm approaching?
All this stuff is racing through my mind at the speed of light, while I’m crawling over this bumpy aluminum floor to Death’s doorway at the speed of dark!
Say something. Say ANYthing! Don’t get in that doorway. You’re not THAT stupid, are you?
But I’m amazed to look down and see my legs actually hanging out the open door. The Cessna is doing about 160 MPH, so this powerful wind is tugging my legs almost painfully sideways, pulling at me like this hungry beast desperate to feed. It’s so strong I have to hang onto the door frame with both hands to avoid being sucked right out. As an extra safety measure, I close my teeth around Hank’s right ear. But nothing seems to help. This wind is going to pull my boots off!
Won’t that be embarrassing, when they find this barefoot corpse on the side of the mountain?
Editor’s note: These wonderful letters and accounts from Peter were actually written as letters some 40 years ago when he was travelling the world. We set this out before commencing the series but should have repeated it with each installment.