The WAY Down
Saturday, April 10, 1999, 14,500 feet above West Point, Virginia -
I have been practicing all day for what I will do in the next seven minutes, and it is now show time, big time. Instructor Tim Dudley is behind me, Crouch is in front of me, and videographers Michael O'Neal and Deana Fantom surround us, so if I chicken out now, there will be plenty of witnesses. First, I check that everybody is ready, then I rise and fall slightly, giving both Crouch and Dudley a physical signal that I meant what I said, and then we all jump right out of that freaking airplane.
For the next 54 seconds we will freefall - the wildest ride I have ever had, and absolutely ludicrous in concept; to jump out of an airplane more than 2 miles above this Earth, and just fall. That's it, just fall for a mile and a half, as if to look the Gravity God in the face and spit right between his eyes. Just fall, at over 120 miles an hour toward a very cruel Earth that will not budge an inch when you smack into it. Just fall and fall and fall because you have the cocky arrogance to believe that you can just stop falling anytime you're darned ready.
I have spent the past nine hours preparing myself to stop falling. Crouch and Dudley have spent years practicing that stop, and have each logged a cumulative 24 hours falling and falling. I spent half the day in a USPA certified AFF I class to learn every way known to man to stop that fall, and half the day pacing the grounds in an insidious drill of worst-case anticipations, and it is time for my final (hopefully not) exam. It will take me 54 seconds of sneering into the god's face, and falling 9,500 feet before I get serious and try to do something reasonable about my situation.
During my freefall, Crouch and Dudley clutch my suit and watch my every move. I am to practice several drills, including simple tasks like looking around me and making eye contact with my instructors, and (really) important tasks, like locating my ripcord handle and checking my altimeter. During class, I screwed this up so often, I thought my instructor, Bennie Sherman was going to lock me in the hangar. During the flight up, I recited the drill perfectly, but now I am practically flailing my arms and doing everything I'm supposed to, just not in any particular order. I check my ripcord the required three times, and then I reach for it a few more times, and Crouch thinks I'm going to pull it and he keeps tugging my hand away. Watching the video afterward, it looks exactly like two guys trying to wrestle a frightened, struggling man to the ground - and they say the camera never lies.
And this is where things get crazy. Here I am, soaring miles above the Earth, in the most incredible, freaking stunt of my life - wondering just how long that life will last - and I look up, and five feet away from me is Michael O'Neal, calm as a clam, with a videocam in my face! I have a few seconds of free time, so I surrender to the surreal, wave to the camera, and give it a terrified smile. I check my altimeter a few more times until six grand, when I lock my eyes on it as it sweeps down toward the magic number.
At five floors up, I give the two-handed wave as a signal to anyone above me, and I grab my ripcord and pull! The canopy opens and I hit the brakes hard, slowing from 120 mph down to a mere 15 mph. The parachute is designed so the canopy opens in stages, and this deceleration is actually very comfortable. I look up and see that my risers are tangled, but Sherman told me that this might happen, so I don't panic - just a pull and a kick and I spin around, clearing the tangle. I stow the precious ripcord in my shirt and reach up and grab the steering toggles so I can start taking control of my life.
My canopy is clean and is working fine, and I am soaring high above eastern Virginia - I can even see Williamsburg. This is a beautiful jump spot, where the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers converge into the York River, and I can see the airport to the southeast of me. Everything is so small, and the setting is so serene... It occurs to me that anybody can fly in an airplane these days, but skydiving with accelerated freefall is a good example of what makes great accomplishments truly great; it isn't what you do that makes you extraordinary, but the way in which you do it.
All that I hear is the gentle fluttering of my slider, and then the most beautiful voice is in my right ear - Benny Sherman is on the landing field with a radio, and he begins giving me instructions. "You're looking good, Mark. Give me a turn to the left." I pull on my left toggle and slowly, the Earth spins below me. "Left, left, left..." I do exactly as he says, and he guides me along the north edge of the airport, upwind from him. "Good, Mark. Now, turn to the right. Right, right... right." I remember my classmate, Jason Black describing Sherman's voice as "the voice of God!"
I am still over the woods, and I need to start making my approach. Sherman tells me to turn left a full 90 degrees, and I am soon crabbing, or running with the wind at my side. This is a critical part of the landing, for it is here that I have to prepare for my approach. Once I am below 1,000 feet I cannot make sudden turns, or the chute will whip me around and slam me into the ground, a common cause of skydiving deaths.
I let out a whooping holler when I see my crew waiting on the ground for me. I cross the taxiway and approach the landing field, and Sherman has me turn into the wind. I am busting with excitement and I try to concentrate between yelps. "Left, left, left..." I start to focus on my landing - a critical point is approaching quickly; at 15 feet I will have to flare my canopy by hauling in both toggles to my waist. If I do this too early, I may stall the parachute, too late and I get a tall order of face-plant, so I shut the hell up, listen carefully, and grab the toggles tight.
It is odd how quickly the mind works sometimes, and how easily it wanders. During those last, hectic moments of my descent, as I watch the ground approching me at an intimidating 15 mph, I am able to squeeze in a curious emotion - a pang of disappointment. I am about to realize one of my most amazing dreams, and therefore, it will no longer be a dream. The best part of reaching some goals is the anticipation and excitment of getting there. I will no longer be able to wonder what skydiving is like, I will no longer feel that precious uncertainty, anxiety and anticipation inherent in such a dream. Like some people the morning after the first night before, a small part of me wants to turn the clock back...
"Flare! Flare! Flare!" God tells me, pulling me out of my thoughts. Before the second word, I have my hands and toggles buried in my lap. The canopy brakes hard, swinging me forward, and before it can stall, I hit the ground. I take a running step or two and land right on my own two feet.
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