Thursday, January 3, 2013
I naively had no fear of flying through the sky with a parachute. Maybe it was because I already had been a passenger in an open cockpit, 1942, PT-17. The loops, barrel rolls and Cuban Eights were so frightening that I imagined that a straight sky dive down would be easy in comparison. Besides, my experience of aerobatics had immensely improved the writing of my first historical fiction, She Flew Bombers.
The research for a new book, She Was a Spy During WW II, would once again throw me toward a new odyssey and I was thrilled. No matter how much I read about women jumping out of planes behind enemy lines, I knew my craft would be more accurate, if I got to experience parachuting first hand. I was looking forward to my new adventure. After all, I wouldn’t be diving out alone but would be attached safely to a tandem instructor.
In the cramped trailer office of the sky diving company, I was required to watch the mandatory warning video while initializing a seven-page legal form. Next, I gladly paid extra money for a video, so I could watch it frequently to get the right feeling down for my story. “Crazy” and “Live like I was dying” were the comical songs I selected for the DVD that would be produced personally, just for me.
Walking to the hangar, I was amazed how many of my friends had turned out. Everyone was very excited to watch me sky dive, but for some reason no one seemed remotely interested in joining me!
In the cluttered hangar, I suited up in the red, white and blue jumpsuit. A helmet was not required, so I pictured my hair gaily floating behind me. When Jim, the owner, heard I was there to gather research for my book, he adamantly insisted on being my tandem partner. I was pleased to receive the extra attention, as I knew I could confer with him later on for any further information I might need to complete my writing. Jim helped me into a heavy harness as the cameraman interviewed me, pointing a helmet that had an elaborate camera apparatus mounted on top of it. I laughed and enjoyed the spotlight as my friends looked on.
My instructor and I walked behind the hangar to the airplane; the bulky harness felt like I had a huge diaper between my legs, filled me with laughter.
Up ahead was a tiny Cessna. A bit of anxiety began to creep upon my body. What was the matter with me? I adored flying, but leaving the safety of an airplane began to feel like an entirely different matter.
The size of the plane made me realize this would not be a jump like the women spies did. It was much too small to even stand in. I surmised this was why the company called it a dive instead of a jump. There was nothing inside the Cessna but a grimy piece of carpet. The door was a slide up affair of corrugated plastic. Worn paint and dents adorned the outside. The 1918 Jenny, (one of only ten presently airborne) that I had flown to investigate my previous novel, was pristine in comparison.
With their smiles and cameras, my friends gathered in front of the airplane. First my son came up and gave me a goodbye hug. I jovially exclaimed, “Don’t worry; you’re in my will.” Each friend after that jokingly asked me, “Can I be in your will?” The laughing party was fun as I avoided entering the crappy little plane.
The cameraman put his crazy helmet on. He squatted in the corner of the airplane followed by a teenager needing more hours for his certificate. The pilot was in the only seat. I wondered, where was there room for two more? My tandem instructor pushed in next, his legs extended as he motioned for me to crawl in and sit on his lap. Once inside he strapped and hooked me tightly to his body. There was no turning back. I nervously examined the interior of the plane; it was totally stripped out with all the metal exposed. The eye-level windows were badly scratched; my heart began pumping up. To calm down for my task ahead, I looked out at all my beaming friends chatting with anticipation.
Thank God, the plane rose smoothly restoring my confidence as I avoided looking at the battered inside. Higher and higher we ascended. I distracted myself by repeating the instructions Jim had given me before we left. He had told me, “After diving out (the free-fall) keep your arms crossed, arch your back, then curve your legs behind like a banana. After the canopy is released, put your hands out in a flying position and straighten your legs. Upon landing, bend your knees so we can both land smoothly.”
Jim pointed out the window at the renowned Sonoma County landmarks I knew so well: the snaky Russian River and the hidden coves of Lake Sonoma that I loved kayaking on. The gorgeous sight of fresh snow lacing Cobb Mountain. The multi-colored autumn patches of land would have been delightful to enjoy if not for the constant worry of falling out of the plane started to obsess me instead. How much higher would we go? How long had we been up here? It felt like hours. Beads of sweat began to form on my forehead the more we ascended. The thought of a suicidal fall out of a plane at this high of an altitude began to increase my apprehension.
My instructor placed the tight-pinching clear goggles around my eyes, making me realize the inevitable was about to occur. Up went the corrugated opening of the Cessna as air rushed in totally exposing us. First the teenager dive-bombed out, rolling up like a ball, followed by the cameraman. I never saw their parachutes appear, adding further to my fear. My heart raced. Nothing at this point could have calmed me down. Jim scooted with me bound to him out onto the ledge of the plane. Our feet dangled thousands of feet above the distant ground, as I stared at the tiny wheel of the airplane. I didn’t say a word or scream; I was paralyzed. As my teeth gritted together, Jim tipped me out upside down into the roaring blast of air. I was in the eye of a dark tornado, being sucked around and around. No, it wasn’t like being upside down in the ’42 open cockpit. It was worse, like being in a horror science fiction movie that had become real. I felt like I was in a deep unending black hole and couldn’t open my eyes.
The whirling abruptly stopped as my harness jerked my body up. The straps yanked my ribcage, lifting my breasts. My eyes opened. The instructor was now slightly above me as the beautiful canopy appeared.
I sighed explosively, slowing my heart to a normal pace. At last I was floating, drifting like the dreamy hot air balloon ride I once was in for a birthday present. It was magical. I was flying. This is why birds were always singing way up in the sky. At last, no more roaring plane or sucking in air. Peace and serenity surrounded us.
I yelled up to Jim, “Glorious!” My love of Sonoma County and mother earth filled me with exhilaration.
Jim answered, “Yes, this is the perfect time of the year to sky dive. We’ll land over there, straight ahead.
I protested,” I’m not ready to land; this is the best part! Can’t we stay up longer?”
He pulled one of the cords of the parachute, chuckling, “No, we can’t do anything about gravity!” We kept right on descending.
Darn, the ground was coming closer. I remembered to bend my legs as we landed smoothly.
I wobbled like jelly as I walked toward my crowd of friends. My legs had the same sensation after aerobatics in the PT-17. My friends were all jazzed up having absorbed a vicarious thrill, and they threw a barrage of questions at me.
I had trouble talking as my dizzy mind tried to recover from the rollercoaster adrenalin rush. My body wouldn’t move properly as I got into the car, and I wondered what the lead ball was in the pit of my stomach.
In the restaurant, I downed a beer returning my body back to normal. Everyone’s eyes were upon me as I finally answered their question: “It was terrifying and magical!”
They all wanted to know if I would do it again. I said just one word: “Nope!” But, in the back of my mind I was thinking about going to a firing range, so I could shoot a .45 Colt like the women spies did for my next historical fiction!