The expression “my heart skipped a beat” used to seem like a meaningless cliche. That was before I was tossed from an airplane at 10,500 feet.
This is an occupational hazard of getting within arm’s reach of Roy Wharton, co-owner of Pacific Airsports Skydiving. When asked for an interview as part of a story on skydiving, Wharton — whose stated goal is to get everyone to jump out of an airplane at least once — opined that the story would be more authentic if its author actually made the leap.
Uh, OK. It’s never been my thing, but the field of participatory journalism has a rich tradition.
My closest brush with the genre came when I was sports editor of a university newspaper in Portland, Ore. A young guy writing in the arts and entertainment pages wanted to pen a series of columns based on his participation in intramural sports clubs. He had no background — or interest — in competing in any kind of sport, and in fact quickly sought out some of the most “fringe” clubs, like table tennis and water polo, to try his hand at.
His pointed observations of the personalities and the rituals surrounding each, and an appropriately self-deprecating critique of his own “skills”, made them a great read.
U.S. author George Plimpton took part in a number of major sports, even playing part of an NHL exhibition game as goalie for the Boston Bruins in an escapade chronicled in the book Open Net. His most well-known book followed a training camp session, as backup quarterback, with the NFL’s Detroit Lions. It’s titled Paper Lion.
I guess that makes my little adventure Paper Airplane.
Tandem jump instructor Jeff Warden introduced himself and gave me a brief set of instructions. They mostly boiled down to not impeding our progress from the side door of the Cessna 182, assuming the “hard arch” position for free-fall, and making sure to mug for the video camera that would be mounted to his wrist.
After being fitted with a jump suit, harness and thin, flexible “helmet” that looked straight from a 1920s-era football program, I joined Warden, pilot Keegan Allen and skydiver Scott Gurney for the 15-minute climb to our target altitude over Campbell River Airport. When we got there, the airport runway resembled a Band-aid. One of those little pinky ones.
Gurney, with another camera mounted to his helmet, stepped out and hung from the wing strut. Warden, who had already clamped himself tightly to my harness, had me swing my shoes out to rest on the tiny step below the plane’s side door. He then rocked forward, rocked back, and, as Gurney let go of the strut, rolled us into space. There was no terror, perhaps because the confusion of the next 2-3 seconds pre-empted any other thought or feeling. My expectation was that we would fly like Superman while I took in the panoramic view or watched for that Band-aid to grow bigger.
Instead, I was presented with a rolling tumult of blue sky, green island and blue water, not necessarily in that order. This was explained only later, when Gurney’s video playback showed Warden had treated me to a full forward somersault, followed by a backflip.
After that, hurtling toward the earth at 175 feet a second while holding a plain, horizontal orientation was surprisingly reassuring. I believe that was when my heart resumed its cadence. The roar of the wind immediately went silent, and I had two or three minutes to enjoy the surroundings — and a couple of hard spins, courtesy of Warden, before we slid to earth in the field adjacent to the Pacific Airsports hangar.
Between the backslapping, thumbs-up and genuine concern for my thoughts and feelings on the experience, I got the distinct impression that Warden, Gurney and even Wharton had as much fun as I did.
And would I do it again?
In a heartbeat.