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Sunday, June 30, 2013


The Cessna 170 rattled and vibrated its way into the sky. So did my nerves. The plane was perhaps fifteen or twenty years old and had been stripped clean of its once plush interior to make possible the hauling of one extra person. It now strained for altitude with its experienced pilot and four passengers. When it landed, three of those passengers would be missing. I was one of those three.

I hadn't expected an old dream to become a reality this suddenly, but was prompted into the situation in 1973 by a need for an English essay subject. Now as the dream was taking on shades of a nightmare, some of my less interesting ideas for the essay seemed to have infinite possibilities.

I had awakened that morning (heck, I had been waking up all night) and had run to the window and opened the shade. I had been hoping for bad weather--a thunder storm perhaps--but the sky was blue, the sun was shining. It was a perfect day for parachuting. My brother Paul picked me up and drove to the airport. He had made arrangements for both of us to make our first jumps that day, and had paid our deposits of five dollars each. It was too late to change my mind.

When we walked into the Snohomish Parachute Center, we each paid our thirty dollar balance and met our instructor and jumpmaster, Ron Dixon. I had met Ron before, interviewing him for an article on parachuting that I was writing for the Everett Community College newspaper. I remembered how his eyes had sparkled while he talked about his free-falling for sixty seconds before opening the chute. "That's what it's all about," he said, grinning through his beard. His droll smile reminded me of my grandfather's, although he was much younger than my grandfather; I'd guess maybe thirty.

Our class was a total of nine quiet and obviously nervous people--six guys and three girls, ranging from 18 to 36 years of age. Strained attempts at humor were shared as we filled out the forms which relieved the school of all responsibility in case of injury or death.

It was reassuring to know of the Center's reputation for excellent and thorough training. This five-hour course began with an explanation of the parachute and the functions of its components. From the actual equipment, we moved to the classroom and a blackboard explanation of the physics of the parachute, how maneuvers are accomplished and navigation to a target area on the ground. For the first few jumps, we carry a radio with us on our reserve pack, and a man on the ground tells us which direction to turn to land us eventually in the right spot. Then came the inevitable subject of emergency procedures in case of partial or total malfunction. I kept telling myself how remote the chances were of something going wrong, but the subject was covered so thoroughly that I was soon convinced that my jump would be a total failure.

Then Ron took us out and showed us the plane that we would be using, and how its seating was arranged for three student jumpers at a time. We practiced the three steps to exit the plane: "Sit in the door," where you dangle your legs in the sky and hang onto the sides of the door with your hands; "Get on the strut," where you climb outside the plane, stepping on a metal peg with your left foot, grasping the wing strut with your right hand, while sticking your right leg up behind you; and "Go," where you push off, arch your body and fall through the sky, waiting for the static line to pull your parachute open.

Then we spread out and practiced going through the motions we would take if either the chute didn't open or if it was tangled or torn. For instance, if after counting, "One thousand, two thousand, three thousand..." up to six seconds, we look up and don't see a parachute, we're to remember these steps: "Look," where we put our legs together and find the ripcord on our reserve chute; "Pull," where we pull the ripcord; "Hit," where we hit the side of the reserve pack with our left hand to make sure it empties itself; and "Tuck," where we tuck our arms in against our chest so they won't tangle with the lines. The main chute should open in between three and four seconds after leaving the plane.

The last part of our training was learning the proper way to land. We jumped off a three-foot platform several times in different directions--frontwards, sideways and backwards. The only thing the training didn't cover was how to have enough courage to fall from an airplane 2800 feet in the air. This I would have to teach myself.

So here we were. Paul and I were the first two jumpers in the class. Paul was in the number one position in the plane. I was sitting in the rear of the cockpit with number three, who appeared to be even more frightened than I. The higher we climbed, the more nervous I became, knowing that the plane wasn't going to take us back down.

At 2800 feet altitude, Ron opened the door and tapped me, telling me to move back to give my brother more room to exit. I looked at Paul; he smiled, but the corners of his mouth were quivering. Suddenly Ron said, "Sit in the door!" Paul slid into the proper position. "Get on the strut!" Paul climbed outside the plane into the 70 m.p.h. wind. "Go!" Paul hesitated, and I thought he might chicken out, but then he pushed off. As I watched him fall towards the fields far below, I nervously wondered if his chute would open. But after only three seconds, a 28-foot diameter canopy of nylon shot out from his back, and he drifted off like a dandelion seed.

As I was sighing in relief that Paul survived the fall, Ron told me to move to the jumper's seat. I clumsily bumped my way through the cockpit and sat facing the open door. Suddenly the plane banked sharply to the right and for a couple seconds I thought I was going to fall out accidentally. When the pilot leveled off and throttled back the engine, I glanced at Ron. He could see I was terrified and he smiled; his whimsical grin reassured me. He told me that Paul's exit had been good and that he had had a good arch, but that he didn't count. "Do exactly like your brother," said Ron, "only count so I can hear you."

All too soon he gave the command, "Sit in the door!" I numbly slid into position. The wind raced by me and pushed against my legs. I felt drunk as I gazed at the miniature landscape below. "Get on the strut!" I remembered how scared and dizzy I was when I climbed a twenty-foot aluminum ladder. Now I was 140 times higher than that. We had just flown though a little cloud, which made the metal, foot peg slippery, but it held my foot as I grasped onto the now wet wing strut. I made up my mind that I wasn't going to hesitate like Paul did, but would push off immediately when Ron gave the command.

"Go!" I pushed off, and began plummeting towards the fields below, the wind noise getting louder and louder in my helmet. I tried to count so Ron could hear me, but all I could say was, "Wha...wha...wha...wha."  I couldn't even get a "one" out, but instead hyperventilated and apparently passed out. I don't remember the chute opening. I didn't feel the tug of it slowing me down. When I came to, I was dangling peacefully from an intact parachute. It didn't even seem like I was descending. All was quiet. I reached up and grasped the steering toggles, then relaxed in the harness. The airplane, then out of sight, was erased from my mind. My tension and anxiety were replaced by a sense of freedom from earth and machine. The harness of webbing suspended me above a panoramic, patchwork, fantasy world, and I drifted through a sea of isolation.

The utter aloneness was interrupted by a friendly, reassuring voice from the radio on my reserve pack: "Jumper number two, give me a right right right right right right right right stop." I pulled the right steering toggle down to my waist, following his instructions. That friendly voice was suddenly mom, home and apple pie--a welcome connection with the real world. The instructions eliminated any fear of not making it to the target area, and the carefree glide allowed me to enjoy and absorb the incredible, unobstructed scenery.

All too soon came the instructions: "Jumper number two, prepare to land." As I neared the ground, my speed gradually became more obvious. I put my legs together, let go of the steering toggles, grasped the rear risers (suspension straps) and pulled myself into a vertical position, ready to hit the ground. Then, "Jumper number two, right right right stop." I had to grab once again the steering toggles and turn right, so as not to land sideways. I made the turn and once again grasped the risers just in time to hit the dirt, roll onto my back and bump my head. I had done it! I was alive!

My wife Micki
Back in the Parachute Center, Ron critiqued my jump. He wrote down that I hadn't arched and hadn't counted. Instead of arching my body, I had been flat, and so had begun rolling to the right. Nevertheless he gave me a Snohomish Parachute Center First Jump Certificate which reads: "This certifies that Dale Lund has successfully completed ground and aerial training and performed a sport static line parachute jump in accordance with the Basic Safety Regulations of the United States Parachute Association. Recognition of this achievement is hereby given on this 12th day of May in the year 1973. Location: Snohomish, Wash. Instructor/Jumpmaster: Ronald Dixon."

I made a second jump a year later, but the only other jump since then was the one into marriage. On our first wedding anniversary, I had my wife Micki fly in a small plane for the first time in her life. For our second wedding anniversary, she jumped out of one, and now has her First Jump Certificate.

When told to do it I sat in the airplane's door;
They told me I was jumper number two;
I felt I'd bit off more than I could chew
And began to wonder what would be in store
For me. Would I keep my head if the chute tore?
With all the training I'd received I knew
Just what to do, but I was nervous, too.
I left the plane and spread my limbs to soar,
And found that all my fears had been in vain;
The parachute had opened overhead
And all the noise had vanished with the plane.
I thought I would regret it, but instead,
I felt as though my soul itself was freed,
As I drifted like a dandelion seed.

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