14 September 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 7)

(cont'd from previous post)

Besides the pilot, there were thirteen of us squatting on the bare floor of the twin-engine's fuselage—five tandems and two solo jumpers and the jackass videographer who sat on a bench at the back of the plane (like the guy with the red helmet in the picture accompanying the first post). The stupid thing, though I didn't quite realize it at the time, was my getting in last. That meant I was sitting right next to the door. The Door. He Thyra. (I was sitting on the floor right where the guy the back of whose head you can see in the same photo is.)

I was reasonably calm as the engine revved, the plane taxied, and took off. I've flown hundreds of times in all sorts of aircraft. I watched out the side door as we left the ground and climbed sharply. So far, so good. I was going to make it, despite the rattling of the plane as it took off. I was going to do this.

The thing about these smaller jump planes is they attain altitude very quickly; the jump company advertises 14,000 feet in seven minutes. Out the Plexiglas door I could see the airport receding quickly into the distance. Then we banked—to the door side. I found myself leaning against the hull of the plane as we spiraled upward. Then, then, the video guy, for whatever reason, decided to roll the door up. All of a sudden there was nothing between me and ground. I felt like I was going to be sucked right out of the plane. It was an irrational feeling but very real. I was looking straight down—about a mile at this point—at the tiny airstrip.

My body tensed up. I braced my foot against the thin door frame and pushed back. I reached for something to grab onto but could find nothing. I reached up and put my hand against the bare wall. It was small comfort.

"You okay?" Andy said.


"You're hooked in," he whispered.

I looked down at the floor but couldn't see a seat belt or where any part of my harness was connected to the floor of the plane. Nary a clip or carabiner in sight. I pushed away from the door. Given the angle of our climb and the steepness of our bank, the only thing I could think of was being sucked out of that open door. And yet I knew I wasn't going to be: that was the frustrating part.

After some apparently covert motions behind me by Andy, the videographer slid the door closed.

"Hey, why'd you do that?" someone shouted sounding suspiciously like Wisdommy. "It's hot in here."

The video guy just shook his head in what looked like disgust.

I ignored him and closed my eyes, took several deep slow breaths, tried to slow my racing heart rate, and relax. After a moment I had regained what I felt was control and I opened my eyes. I convinced myself I had conquered this thing now and was going to do this thing.

"Okay, I'm hooking my harness to you," Andy said. "One, two, three, four. Four places. This is going to be fun."

I heard the clips click into place. I could see how comforting that sound is and how important it was for the instructor to verbalize what he was doing. "Great," I said, but I did not mean it entirely.

We reached our jump altitude: 14,000 feet. The plane, obviously, was not pressurized. Fourteen thousand feet is the highest you're allowed to fly in an unpressurized cabin without oxygen. Now, I've been at 11,000 feet before, on the lip of Nyiragongo Volcano in what is now the Congo, without oxygen, and I had a touch of altitude sickness: weakness in the gut and legs, difficulty breathing, difficulty walking, lightheadedness, that sort of thing. It was possible I was feeling a bit of that in the plane I told myself. And still had every intention of exiting the plane through the door at altitude.

"It's time! Everybody ready?" the videographer said as he rolled the door up again. Laughing heartily, he swung out the opening so he could perch just outside the door and film everyone leaving the doorway.

And again, despite my best efforts, the panic struck. I was paralyzed. My body stiffened up again; every muscle seized up tight. It was almost like I had been working out and overdone it; I ached all over. Terror had taken me over and would not let me go.

"I can't do this," I said to Andy.

"Sure you can. I've done this over a thousand times and have never had an incident. It'll be great. Look, let's just get up and go to the door, and then you can make up your mind." He knew what he was doing. We would get there, I would be shamed into not backing out, the muscle memory of the mechanics we had practiced in the hangar would kick in, he would add just a few foot-pounds of energy, there would be some awkward leaning, some pain in my hamstrings, and out we would plunge.

"No," I said. "I can't."

"Are you sure? It's perfectly safe."

"Yeah, I know. But I just can't do it. Send everybody else around us."

"You can't get your money back," he said as he motioned for the others to go on. "You paid for the trip up. How you get down is your choice."

I knew that. I didn't care.

There was some grumbling because the others had to crabwalk around us hooked in tandem, and we were quickly leaving the drop zone. As soon as Andy unhitched me, I went to the back of the plane and sat on the videographer's bench to get out of everyone else's way.

I watched first as Wisdommy then Wisdaughter and lastly Wisdoc got to the door and leapt, shrieking out attached, of course, to their tandem buddies. I had no worries for their safety. I knew in my mind every reasonable precaution had been taken. Lots of people did this every single day. I firmly believed they would enjoy their two minutes of freefall and their eight or ten minutes of floating and would land softly at the airstrip. Elated. A new experience under their belts to brag about to their friends (and put up on Facebook). But I also knew I couldn't do it.

And I didn't.

(to be continued)

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