Skydiving With Doctor Death!
By Tom Kloser
My little sister April pulled me onto the Pilatus Porter and perfunctorily buckled me and the doctor into a belt hanging off the wall in the same motion. Jeanne slammed the door shut. The plane lurched and we were off. The engine rumbled too loudly for me to hear, but Scottish Craig shouted something. I could make out his accent, but not the words.
It wasn't until then, secured tightly between the legs of a man named "Doctor Death," crammed next to skydivers like clowns trying to set a record for most in a phone booth, that I started to think maybe this was a bad idea. The plane shot up like a mechanical Icarus. The ground got smaller. It occurred to me that the higher we got, the farther we'd be falling.
"Doctor Death" put one arm around my chest and brought an altimeter attached to his wrist in front of my eyes with the other. We were several thousand feet up and rising. He said we had plenty of time, and started pointing out the view. It was breathtaking. There were mountains to the east, islands to the west-on especially clear days, skydivers can make out Seattle skyscrapers to the south-and I remembered what he said before we left.
"Remember not to look down. You don't need to jump out of an airplane to see the ground."
Everyone passed around a contagious and irrepressible grin-the plane was full of frenetic anticipation-and then someone started shouting above the din. "Whoo!" Everyone took it up-"Whoohoo!"
April reached around from her seat next to the pilot and yelled at me. "Are you OK?" I nodded, gave a look of mock confidence, and she laughed.
The doctor assured me that some of the most macho guys were the ones who got the most nervous before their first jump. I tried not to look so freaked out.
The pilot took us higher than normal. The average jump is about 12,000 feet, and we were nearly 3 miles, at over 15,000. Then Denzil and Craig jumped.
They leapt out at the same time. In the air, they flipped over so their feet were down, and oriented themselves facing each other in a maneuver called a two-way sit-fly. They got small fast, but I could see them sitting on the air, arms outstretched above their heads.
Keith, Dave and Deb were the next to go. They jumped holding on to each other. After falling for a few seconds they began relative work, midair maneuvers with their bellies to the ground, and then began practicing points.
Practicing points is like ballroom dancing. Skydivers touch points on each other's jumpsuits in elaborate routines. After leaving the plane, jumpers find each other (grabbing onto someone is called docking), form a circle and begin a series of maneuvers. Deb might turn, twist her body around and touch the grips on the shoulder of Dave's jumpsuit. Dave might flip and grab Deb's leg grips. These three, expert skydivers practiced at dancing together, adroitly worked through their midair ballet. At about 5,000 feet, 45 seconds or so after jumping, they turned so their legs were in the middle of their circle and tracked away from each other. A rule of thumb for tracking is five seconds-that's about how long it takes to get far enough away from other jumpers so opening a canopy is safe.
The doctor and I were the last to go. He held me in a bear hug as we inched toward the open door on the side of the plane and shouted above the engine and rushing air. "Are you ready?"
I nodded and leaned into him. We rocked back and forth three times-the way he'd instructed me to before we left-and on the third fell out together.
The doctor calls it a "dream state." Careening toward the ground at 120 miles per hour from thousands of feet up, passing clouds, the ground rushing up at me-we were only freefalling for about a minute, but time slowed down.
I breathed in panicked gasps between heartbeats. Of all the things people weren't designed to do, human flight might be the hardest to comprehend. It just wouldn't register that I was miles high and falling fast. After deciding against passing out I considered the ground.
Terminal velocity is deafening. It's hard to hear anything over the roar of your body against the air, but I could make out the doctor shout, "Don't look down!"
Any first-time skydiver would be wise to trust his or her life with the doctor. He's been on thousands of jumps during a skydiving career spanning more than a decade. He knows what he's doing. But I think he might be wrong about the view. It's amazing, but it's not what's life changing about skydiving. What's so incredible, and hard to explain, is that until the canopy opened there were no limbic distractions, not even the basest reptilian impulse. Nothing else existed.
At around 5,000 feet, the doctor pulled the ripcord and the parachute opened. It was like being yanked into slow motion. Everything got suddenly quiet and calm. The worst thing that could have happened didn't, and with that cathartic thought, I took the steering toggles-the doctor put them in my hands under his-and we headed toward the ground.
My sister April, 24, has been skydiving for six months. She's been on 23 jumps and is working on becoming a static line and tandem instructor. In the next couple of years, she hopes to be taking people on jumps.
When she told me that a new drop zone-a place where people skydive-opened near Bellingham and asked if I wanted to go, I said no because I'm a coward. When I got tired of her pointing this out, I eventually agreed, as long as she'd be there. First-time skydivers can choose to go on a tandem jump, in which the inexperienced skydiver is attached to a qualified jumper by a harness. This option is the easiest and cheapest for first-time skydivers.
At the new drop zone, Northwest Skydivers, going on a tandem jump means jumping with Mike Murray, a static line and tandem instructor known as Doctor Death.
He has been on over 2,500 jumps, been a United States Parachute Association member for nine years, and in the course of taking many for their first skydive, has been peed on, thrown up on, had to safely maneuver unconscious people to the ground-you name it.
"An experienced tandem pilot will have many experiences," he says. "Let loose and have fun, but if the worst happens, don't worry."
That I more or less had permission to throw up on Doctor Death if I needed was a weird thing to find comfort in, but it was comforting. I was about to jump out of a plane almost three miles high with my life in his hands. That he would be unfazed no matter how much I lost it was reassuring.
Northwest Skydivers opened in Mount Vernon in mid April, when two longtime friends and skydiving junkies Joe Pritchard and Jim Perry teamed up to lease the land and start the company. Pritchard takes care of the finances, and Perry is the pilot-he's been flying for over 37 years.
The project is a labor of love. "We're not going to get rich doing this," Pritchard said-but they are going to have fun.
Both encourage anyone who wants to jump out of a perfectly good airplane to join the skydiving family.
"It's a lot of fun. It becomes a way of life for many people," Perry said. "It gets in your blood. It's an addictive sport. You have a different outlook on life afterwards-it's an experience people should indulge in."