With my feet inches from the threshold separating the open hatch of the United States Army Twin Otter airplane from the open sky, I glanced down at the sprawling North Carolina landscape 13,500 feet below me and wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into.
Over the course of my lifetime, from cliff diving into the Mediterranean to consuming two consecutive chicken enchilada plates at The Dillo, I had done things that may lead others to believe that I am a risk-seeking person. But nothing I had ever done had approached the potential danger and level of personal disregard required to voluntarily launch one's self out of a perfectly good airplane.
Standing in front of the hatch, connected shoulder to waist by four points of attachment to a man I had gotten to know through 45 minutes of sparse conversation, I didn't have much time to rethink my decision.
My thoughts were broken when another Army Paratrooper grabbed my face to focus my eyes on his and screamed, "Are you ready?" Yelling, "Lets do this!" I was thrust out the door and into the clear blue Southern sky.
Based on your personal perspective, the situation I found myself in was either insanely cool or purely insane. Again, how the hell did I get myself into this? It's simple, really. On October 11, I received an e-mail from Lt. Col. Mark Tribus, head of the Duke-NCCU ROTC program, titled "Get Ready to Jump!!" And you just don't tell Mark Tribus "no."
The Colonel, an energetic and engaging figure whom I had gotten to know while reporting a previous Towerview article, had invited me to participate in an event he had set up to promote greater student-faculty interaction on campus. In addition, the event doubled as a charity fundraiser to support the Duke Children's Hospital. As part of "Blue Devils Dive on the Drop Zone," five students and five faculty members would each skydive with a member of the U.S. Army Parachute Team, known as the Golden Knights.
After all, how better to get to know your peers and the folks who run your school than through nervous exchanges as you all prepare to fall to the earth at 120 miles per hour?
Plus, I had wanted to go skydiving ever since one of my friends had shown me the video of his jump over the Swiss Alps. But the uneasiness of going with civilian professionals and a reluctance to part with hundreds of dollars for a few exhilarating minutes had kept me grounded.
Now, a year later, with the opportunity to jump with the best in the world for free, I was out of excuses. It was the chance of a lifetime.
Despite continued assurances that jumping with the Knights was safer than driving a car, I couldn't shake the feeling that the inevitable disaster would, of course, happen to me. Neither could my mother, who, I subsequently found out, circulated a prayer e-mail among members of my family that God would not choose this moment to punish me for the many transgressions I had committed during my lifetime.
With a nervous anticipation, I spent the night prior to the event Googling information on skydiving fatalities and familiarizing myself with the myriad of horrific scenarios that could make a jump go wrong. Through the Wikipedia entry on "parachuting," I learned that about 30 skydivers are killed each year in the United States, about one death per every 100,000 jumps. Those kinds of odds coming from a source as credible as Wikipedia were good enough to satisfy me. I was ready to go.
The next morning, I was the first participant to arrive at the landing site. It was a gorgeous day with hardly a cloud in the sky as I watched several Golden Knights unload their gear and place jumpsuits and parachutes in a line on the ground. The other students and faculty members started to filter in, and we all waited-bundled up in jeans and sweats to combat the brisk morning air-for some sort of direction.
Tribus arrived and ushered us to the middle of the track where he gave a short introduction to the event before presenting each participant with a pair of Duke Blue dog tags inscribed with our name, "Duke Blue Devils" and "Drop Zone 08." The assembled members of the Golden Knights then introduced themselves.
To say these guys were experienced would be an understatement.
The tandem instructors, or the guys with the parachutes we would be strapped to during our jumps, were SSG Joe Jones and SFC Billy Van Soelen. The two had approximately 15,000 jumps between them. Van Soelen, the Golden Knights Tandem Team leader, had more than 11,000 jumps over the course of 17 years. For you non-math majors out there, that's an average of 650 jumps a year. It was clear that the Army wasn't messing around with the first-ever jump involving civilian college students.
After the introductions, we sauntered over to an auditorium to do the requisite paperwork and receive detailed instructions about what to do at every point of the jump. "Billy V," as the ultra high-energy Van Soelen referred to himself, was our teacher. The 46-year-old had bleached blonde hair and featured a look and attitude of someone 10 or 20 years younger.
We then filled out our paperwork absolving the Army, the University and the parachute manufacturer of any liability in the event of an accident. Billy V assuaged our fears by informing us that although he isn't a lawyer, as he understood it, the simple purpose of the waivers was to "know where to send your crumpled remains." This was followed by an instructional video, in which the dangers associated with our chosen activity were made explicitly real.
"There will never be a perfect parachute, a perfect parachute manufacturer, a perfect parachutist." the presenter in the video repeated ad nauseam. I guess there is risk associated with skydiving. Who knew?
As soon as we had signed our lives away and the dangers had been made abundantly clear to us, Billy V took us through a spirited account of exactly what we would need to do to ensure an enjoyable and safe skydive. The three takeaway points: arch your back while exiting the plane, relax and have fun. Provided the parachute opens, the landing-where the majority of skydiving injuries occur-is the next important part. If the passenger tries to stop short and fails to continue his forward momentum, it was clear that three things may happen: you will tear your ACL, you will break your ankle, and/or, most troublingly, 200-plus pounds of Billy V will come over the top and ride you for yards and yards across the turf.
The other, less difficult option is for the passenger to slide in on their butt. Billy V informed us that if one of us is his passenger, he should have no expectations of sliding home, and that no matter what, "If you're with Billy V, you're going to look good or fail trying."
With the safety briefing behind us, first up to jump were me and Terry Sanford Jr., son of the former Duke University president. Sanford and I donned matching yellow Golden Knights jumpsuits and were fitted with gloves, helmets, goggles and safety harnesses before piling into a van with the members of the Knights team. Sanford was paired with Jones and I was with none other than Billy V.
During the 15-minute ride to Chapel Hill's Horace Williams Airport, where the Golden Knights' airplane awaited us, I listened to Billy V explain to Sanford some of the more notable clients he's tandem jumped with. The list includes several of my idols: Tiger Woods, David Hasselhoff, The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and Chuck Norris.
I proceeded to ask Billy where he would rank me in his top 5. He corrected me and said I would more realistically be somewhere in his top 10.
Meanwhile, the other members of the Knights in the van-which included our two pilots, two videographers there to record our respective dives, and the commander of the Golden Knights, LTC Anthony Dill-were doing their best to make sure I was at ease. One of the men sitting behind me called attention to the large "Danger" warning on the back of my harness, which featured an illustration of a deflated parachute and its passenger helplessly careening toward the ground.
"See this? There's a guy on his back going 'splat!' You know there's a guy on your back going splat?"
I was, of course, well aware.
We boarded the plane, which featured a Spartan interior that basically resembled an aluminum tube with two long benches on both sides and a plastic flap covering the rear hatch. As our altitude increased, I tried to make small talk with Billy V and my videographer, SGM Michael Eitniear, over the loud rumble of the twin propellers. Once we identified the location of the drop zone, we began to gain altitude in a corkscrew pattern revolving around the site.
With everything in place, we rose to our exiting altitude of 13,500, the air getting progressively colder as I strained to see the buildings and cars below. Next to me, Billy V started banging his hand on his altimeter, the device that records a jumper's altitude and indicates when to pull the 'chute.
"You really should have gotten that replaced like a year ago," Eitniear deadpanned.
Thanks guys, keep it coming.
As we approached 13,500, Billy V instructed me to stand up and position myself in front of him so he could connect our two harnesses. Basically, I had to sit directly in his lap as we became completely connected from shoulder to waist.
"We're about to get real cozy now," Billy V said.
Now that Billy and I had become more closely acquainted, I looked forward and watched Sanford position himself on the edge of the plane, the wind whipping so fast his cheeks were moving. After a brief countdown, Sanford, Jones and their videographer hurled themselves from the plane and out of sight.
Billy V and I duckwalked to the door. The adrenaline was really pumping now. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
I approached the threshold, looked down, and before I knew it, fell forward into a wall of air. I arched my back as I was told, and watched the plane-the stable, solid, perfectly good plane I had just been standing in-fly away.
The feeling of free fall is completely disorienting at first. With my eyes fixed on the horizon, I couldn't hear myself yell and scream as the rush of wind pounded my face and threatened to tear off my goggles. I tried to glance down and watch Eitniear float around me, give me a thumbs up and place his feet on my shoulders as the three of us plummeted to the ground in an acrobatic Manwich.
At about the moment I snapped out of my sensory overload and realized the ground was rapidly approaching, the parachute deployed at approximately 4,500 feet after 60 seconds of free fall. Almost instantly, we stopped in midair as if someone had slammed on the brakes.
"Awesome job baby! That was perfect!" Billy V exclaimed, as he unhooked my bottom two harnesses, allowing me greater mobility in preparation for our landing.
For the next few minutes, Billy V and I floated back toward the earth as I attempted to take it all in. The view was unbelievable, and I could see for miles as Billy allowed me to operate the parachute, guiding it left and right to get the full panorama.
As we approached the drop zone, I remembered Billy's words during the training session and decided that I was, of course, going to try to look good or fail doing it. We floated down over the tree tops lining the track and skimmed the surface of the field. As we approached the middle, Billy yelled, "OK, stand up!" and I lowered my feet and shuffled while trying to continue my forward motion and maintain my balance. But the height differential between my 6-foot-4 frame and Billy's, which is under 6-feer, made it difficult, and I stopped short. Billy stumbled and I arched backward, trying earnestly to stay on my feet as we both regained control and salvaged a less-than-perfect, but still feet-first landing.
At least I survived.
The day before the jump, I had received an e-mail from Christoph Guttentag, Duke's dean of admissions, in which he posed the question, "Did you ever think, when we admitted you back in '04, that your senior year would find you jumping out of an airplane?"
My only question is, when can I do it again?
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