Some years back in this A Story A Week collection, I wrote a little bit about the time I took up skydiving. I didn't have a very long 'career' at it, because only a couple of years after I began the sport, I found myself in the position of becoming a father, and continuing to jump didn't seem such a great idea any more!
But during the time I was an active jumper, I was enthusiastic, if not actually very good at it. I was of course 'good' enough to participate safely, but wasn't particularly skilled at such things as aerial acrobatic manoeuvres. And in order to jump together with other people - to make formations in the sky for example - such skills are essential. So I remained pretty much a solo jumper, simply enjoying the experience of the free fall followed by the parachute flight.
One summer though, I did indeed get quite involved with the sport, and spent a couple of months living in a small tent pitched on a drop zone near Toronto in Canada. I jumped every day that the weather permitted, and also did a lot of odd-jobs around the zone, like packing parachutes for beginners, and other jobs.
It was not a large place, small enough that one pilot could handle all the flying chores. There were two planes on hand, a small Cessna which would take four jumpers up at a time, and a larger Beechcraft which would handle around a dozen. I made many flights in both. When I say 'flight' though, I of course mean a take-off only; I never had a chance to land with the planes. Except for one day. I had a flight in that little Cessna that I will never forget!
It was a bad day for jumping. Low clouds and scattered rain had persisted around the area all day, and there was quite a backlog of people waiting in the barn for their chance to jump. The weather forecast mentioned that there should be breaks in the overcast now and then, but all we could see was featureless grey sky. Before 'scrubbing' the remainder of the day's activities, the drop zone owner told the pilot to take the Cessna up for a short flight, to get above the clouds and see if it looked like there might be any chance of a break.
As the pilot walked towards the plane, he gestured to me, "Want to come? Grab your chute!" I needed no further coaxing, although I didn't see why I needed my chute, as there wouldn't be any chance to jump. We hopped into the plane, and up we went.
The plane was usually quite full, and with a pilot, four jumpers with gear, and a load of gas on board, it always had to work very hard to climb to altitude. But today with only this light load, it reached the area above the clouds in a very short time. Once up there we saw nothing but an endless blanket of cloud. There would be no further jumping today. Mission accomplished.
The pilot grinned at me, "Well, that's it for today obviously, but let's have some fun on the way home. Hang on!" He did something with his stick, the plane flipped upside down, and we plunged towards the earth in an insane spiral. Just what happened over the next few minutes, I cannot possible remember clearly, nor relate with any accuracy. We screamed down towards the earth. A moment later, we were climbing again. We slipped sideways. We flipped, we spun, and we looped.
And nearly all the time we were in this acrobatic routine, we were buried inside the blanket of thick cloud. I assume that he had instruments that told him how far up we were and other such 'details', but of such things I knew nothing. I was tossed from side to side - alternately exhilarated and terrified - one moment pressed against my seat, the next moment my head smacked against the ceiling. (And of course a little jump plane like this has no doors, just a gaping hole at one side to allow easy egress while jumping, which is presumably why he asked me to wear my chute, in case I fell out.)
It is an experience I never want to repeat, but am glad to have had. I didn't panic, wasn't sick, and didn't require a change of trousers when we got down. In that sense, I suppose I 'passed' his little test, if that was what it was. More likely though, he was just taking the opportunity to have some fun, as his normal up and down, up and down work was pretty routine, to say the least.
Hang on! Sometimes they mean it!
Story #271, March 6 2011
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