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Published: Saturday, 7/1/2000 - Updated: 1 year ago

COMMENTARY

Bitten by the skydiving bug

BY THOMAS WALTON
BLADE COLUMNIST
Walton Walton
THE BLADE/LORI KING Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Why in the world, my friends asked me, would you jump out of a perfectly good airplane? Well, this was not a perfectly good airplane, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

I had been itching to skydive from altitude — as opposed, I guess, to skydiving from a park bench. I had jumped once before about 15 years ago, but that was a static-line jump, meaning I was tethered to the plane.

The plane, in effect, opened my chute for me when I exited. And I was jumping from just 3,200 feet up. It was great fun, and exciting, but I’ve always wanted to jump with the big boys.

Somebody told me about Skydive Tecumseh, based at the Meyers-Diver’s Airport in Tecumseh, Mich., about 40 miles northwest of Toledo. They offer tandem jumping, which means the paying customer is strapped to an instructor who does all the work. The best part (or worst part, depending on your perspective): You say good-bye to your pilot at 14,000 feet, nearly three miles up.

I tried to recruit somebody to jump with me. My wife. Former co-workers. Baseball teammates. Strangers on the street. They all looked at me as if I was the last lobster in the tank and the waiter was rolling up his sleeve. Then they ran.

So two weeks ago, I signed up anyway and paid $225 for my weekday jump. I figured this would likely be my first and last skydive from 14,000 feet, so I also bought the full video/photo package. If something went wrong, I wanted it documented.

Not that it would have helped. Ten pages of legalese protected the rights of everybody at Skydive Tecumseh and stripped away all of mine. I decided that’s a battle my heirs can fight — I’m jumpin’.

The day got off to a shaky start when we learned that the primary plane was away for maintenance and hadn’t returned as scheduled. They had to fly in a backup plane from some other skydive outfit in Illinois, pushing the day’s activities back by a couple of hours. A backup plane? Should I rethink this?

The author experiences free fall while strapped to an experienced jumper. The author experiences free fall while strapped to an experienced jumper.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SKYDIVE TECUMSEH Enlarge

To their credit, the people at Skydive Tecumseh passed out free T-shirts to apologize for the inconvenience and even ordered pizza for everybody.

I was assigned to an instructor named Rob. I caught a break. Though half my age, he already has more than 2,200 skydives to his credit. It helped knowing Rob had my back — literally.

Finally, it was time to fly. Rob and I were the last to crawl into the plane, which meant we would be the first out when we got to altitude. It seemed to take forever to get to 14,000 feet.

The instructors groused that the substitute plane was a lot slower than their regular aircraft. The interior also appeared to make liberal use of industrial-grade duct tape.

Then the exit door slid up. Rob instructed me to scoot to the opening, dangle my legs over the side, and wait for him to push us out from behind. Easy for him to say. It was time to sit or get off the spot.

The videographer who would accompany us down began counting: “Three, two, one … go!” We tumbled forward and suddenly the plane was far above us, rising quickly into the heavens.

We went into about 60 seconds of free fall. Even though we were plummeting earthward at 120 miles an hour, there was no sensation of falling — only flying. We did some rolls, some spins, some spread-eagle glides.

I did a feeble “O-H-I-O” for the video, a decision I instantly regretted. What if Rob is a Michigan man, I wondered. When I viewed it later on video, it looked more like a prayer for deliverance, especially the “I” part.

As we sliced through the sky, I could feel my face rippling in the hurricane-force winds. Rob opened our chute at about 5,000 feet, and all the noise and flapping cheeks subsided. We drifted in gentle turns and swirls the rest of the way down.

The vistas — the geometry and geography of the Earth below — were spectacular. I asked Rob during our descent whether he ever tires of the spectacular thrill of human flight. His emphatic response: “Never!”

We glided to a soft landing in a grassy area next to the runway. All I could think of to say was: “Can we go again?” It turned out not to matter that the plane was a slow, lumbering replacement and not the sleek, swift Quest Kodiak they normally use. Even the delay was forgotten.

I can finally cross skydiving off my bucket list. But here’s the irony: Now I’m not sure I want to.

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.

Contact him at:twalton@theblade.com



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