It was about this time of year back in 1978 when I approached my mother to tell her that I wanted to jump out of an airplane. Without batting an eye she responded, “Were you planning on wearing a parachute?”
Back in my teenage years, I had a couple of items on my life list. One was to sail on a tall ship, and the other was to try parachuting. I confess I haven’t made much progress on the tall ship goal. I learned quite early in life that I can get sea sick in the Holiday Inn hot-tub. So the notion of circumnavigating the globe in a square-rigger seemed unlikely despite a love for nautical novels. But I was still attracted to the idea of trying my hand – and the rest of my body – at skydiving. To me, getting myself out that open plane door was a significant mental hurdle to surmount. After all, skiing is an exciting sport, but it’s also logical. There is a hill and you slide down it on two wooden slats. It makes sense. On the other hand, when you get into a small plane, you’re really not supposed to get out of it again until it safely lands. So leaping out midflight, 2,800 feet about the very hard ground seems like lunacy.
Even though I was 18 years old at the time, I was fully prepared for my mother to veto the idea, you know, because of the whole lunacy thing. But she didn’t. She may well have thought the idea would never leave the limited confines of my brainpan. I did occasionally have a reputation for being all wind-up and no pitch. So, she probably thought the plan would simply fade away like so many of my other harebrained schemes. But it didn’t. I really wanted to try it, to test myself, and to see if I could live down getting seasick in that Holiday Inn hot-tub.
I signed up for the one-day course at the Toronto Parachute School based in Arthur, just north of the city. I spent nearly the entire day training for what to do in the remote chance that something went wrong – or in parachuting parlance, a minor or major malfunction. Several experienced skydivers were jumping that day while my fellow trainees and I practised our exit from the plan and our arch. We took a break for lunch and watched as six skydivers jumped from about 10,000 feet for a very long freefall before pulling their ripcords. We watched five parachutes blossom, but the sixth just flapped behind the last jumper like a big red streamer. We could hear our instructor repeating to himself in increasingly agitated tones: “Come on Bob, hit the reserve, PULL THE RESERVE!” Finally, when it looked as if Bob was just about out of airspace, his reserve chute deployed and he landed gently in the nearby field.
Over the loudspeaker, the head of the school piped up: “Well folks, congratulations to Bob, who has just successfully landed his first minor malfunction. Well done and drinks are on him.” Everybody cheered. Half my class left immediately without even seeking a refund. But I stayed.
Later that evening, when the sun had already dipped below the horizon, I took off in what I seem to remember was a Cessna 206. When we reached our jump altitude of 2,800, the sun was well above the horizon and shining brightly. I was first up. I slid to the open door and swung my legs out into the whipping slipstream as I’d been taught. At the appointed moment, the jumpmaster tapped my shoulder and I pushed out into my arch and started my count. My static line triggered the parachute about two seconds after I left the plane and I felt that happy tug and watched as my old-school canopy chute opened above me.
I remember just how silent it was when I was on my own floating down, the plane by then a small speck in the distance. I landed safely. Over the course of the next several months, I jumped six more times, but by that stage, the thrill had worn off. Years later, my mother admitted her unbridled hysteria at the thought of my exiting the door of a plane.