Bird of Prey
Posted on March 23, 2008
photo credit: Juan
My confidence was growing.
I realized that. I was actually even beginning to find time to look around during my free-fall. I was… almost enjoying it. Gone was that absolute “I’m going to DIE ” type of unholy terror. No, now I was just scared shitless in an ordinary sort of way. All carefully camouflaged under an exterior of bravado of course.
But then we were all young men together. Scared? Us? Jumping out of an aeroplane?
Nah. No sweat…
It was the so-called ‘run-in’ that really did it. When the aircraft stopped climbing, and the jump master stuck his head out the door, and started guiding the pilot in to the exit point.
That was when it hit you. You tried to relax, breath normally, but it was easy to hyperventilate. You had to make an effort to relax. Cool it…
I know the aircraft is on the run-in.
Mick Flaherty, the jump master who put me out fifteen jumps ago on my first ever dive, (and his first ever student dispatch) is crouched in the open door, the slipstream rattling his jumpsuit.
I have a last look around. It’s nice here, in County Kerry.
The mountain range, the highest in Ireland, is jagged and spectacular. All the peaks can be seen, except, fittingly, the highest one. I try to remember the name.
Caran… Caran… Caran- something.
Its peak is just hidden in clouds. The ultimate hidden from view.
Over there is the Atlantic Ocean. Sparkling. Alive. Dazzling light is being refracted in millions of tiny beams, their sources being continually switched on and off, creating a dazzling, mesmerizing effect. I can see a long way today…
Gawd, it’s noisy!
With the door off, the tiny Cessna cockpit is awash with noise. Engine noise, slipstream noise, and Mick’s jumpsuit…
The crazy gang are down there, somewhere. Well over a mile below. Smoking, laughing, drinking, packing their parachutes, exchanging rude jokes and harmless insults…
They are gazing up now. Looking up at the tiny silver bird that carries me.
What am I doing here?
I always ask myself that question. Who in his right mind dives out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane voluntarily?
The pilot in me shakes his head. Wearily.
Mind, I don’t feel too bad. I’m kind of getting used to the way I feel. Kind of scared, but kind of calm. My parachuting self. I know exactly what I am going to do. Never refused a jump yet. Mick told me after my very first jump that he thought I was going to hesitate.
So he gave me more time. In fact I climbed straight out onto the jump step. Unwittingly caused a problem. We hadn’t quite got to the right spot yet… Afterwards, when he told me about it, I remember being kind of pleased. It made me smirk.
So you thought I was going to hesitate, did you? You thought maybe I would chicken out, did you? Yeah…
I’m excited at the prospect of the imminent jump, but strangely calm as well. Almost numb, yet wide awake and eager to go. Somebody once reckoned that was called ‘combat numbness’. Interesting phrase. I have no way of knowing. I wonder what it must have been like for the poor guys jumping out over Arnhem during the latter stages of World War Two? Trying to capture that ‘bridge too far’?
I am eager to go.
You see, the funny thing about free fall parachuting is that the very moment you have jumped, all the ‘pre-jump butterflies’ are eliminated. Once you are in free fall, well, hell, there’s only one way to go…
A long, loud yell in my ear. The engine quits. Out of the corner of my eye I notice the pilot put on the wheel brakes. Good. Hope he remembers to take them off before he lands. Not like the last time, when he forgot. Dozy bugger. Spoiled his day when he tried to land.
And his tires… But there is work to be done. I must concentrate.
I now have to heave my legs out the door, onto the small jump step. That sounds easier than it actually is, ‘cos the slipstream has other ideas. I grab the wing strut and pull myself out with an effort. It’s cold.
I can’t ever look down though. Too scary. Maybe one day, but not yet. Once in position, I prefer to look forward in the direction of travel of the aircraft, at the distant horizon.
Now, I’m waiting for the jump command. Some jump masters just yell. Others smack you on the thigh. Mick goes for both. A belt and braces man, our Michael…
And away I go. I jump off backwards, pushing forward hard against the wing strut. I spread out in the ‘stable arch’ position, with my head hard back (the big secret to success) and my arms and legs stretched out. The head back position means you get a good look up. And that means the always rather unique view of the ‘Rose of Tralee’, call sign ‘Oscar Kilo’, seemingly climbing up into the sky at a sizzling rate, less one passenger. Nothing quite compares with that, I reckon. And the other funny bit, Mick, poking his upper torso out the door, observing. Sometimes waving ‘bye-bye’…
Time takes on a different dimension up here. I like the way ‘Oscar Kilo’ goes up. I crane my head back as long as possible to watch it. It quite fascinates me. But the slipstream is now building up. Under that influence, my body starts to assume a flatter position. The aircraft disappears upwards and out of my sight. I can see blue sky… a smudgy cloud… mountain tops… mountain slopes… and then the fields come up. Fields, roads, trees. They look different from up here. Less important. More detached. Side shows of human endeavor. Trivia.
I’m building up speed now. The sensation of falling diminishes as my speed stabilizes at around a hundred and twenty miles per hour. Further acceleration of my little body according to Isaac Newton’s Second Law of Motion is now being thwarted by the friction of the upcoming air, as I fall head long through it. This is the best bit. I enjoy the view.
I watch the roads slowly spread apart as I fall lower. It’s a gentle process at first, that speeds up as the jumper falls lower, culminating in “ground rush “, a potentially dangerous phenomenon, through which a sky diver can become mesmerized, hypnotized even, by the speed at which the roads and hedges spread apart as he hurtles down towards them. People have died that way, by forgetting to pull their ripcords.
But for now, I have plenty of height. I feel good. Very good…
And suddenly, the vision comes to me, vividly, leaping into my mind…
I am a big bird of prey. A hawk, an eagle. I spread my wings out to their full extent. I savor the rush of air through them. I can see my feathers quivering in the gale from below. This is good… Almost freaky good… I am streaking down towards a little white rabbit, unaware, innocent, far below… the stupid little basket is munching on a dandelion. Last breakfast…
The noise of the wind, rushing past and through my wings, has swollen to a deafening, thundering, pounding hurricane…
My thoughts are evil, as I think “Little rabbit,you’re dead meat! “
I can feel my talons clenching in readiness, sharp, vicious, deadly…
Escape is impossible…
The ripcord is stiff.
I put both hands on it, and pull hard. Instantly it comes away, and the reassuring pulling and jerking at my shoulders tells me good things are happening. I hold my breath. Now comes momentary peak awareness. If it’s going to go wrong, NOW is when the gremlins are poised to strike…
Orange and white canopy flutters…
I throw my head back, and check my blossom. Okay, no sweat. I look down.
I mutter with feeling: “You’re damn lucky, rabbit, my mate… “
It’s nice up here. I like the canopy ride as much as the free fall. I have time to look around. It’s suddenly very quiet. I can hear sounds over a long distance. I fancy shouting some abuse down at the troops.
“You’re all a bunch of bowsies! “
I haven’t got a clue what a “bowsie ” is, but it sounds suitably insulting. Now, where’s that target cross? I find it, a fifteen foot wide white cross on the ground, our aiming point.
I discover that I’m not going to land anywhere near it.
That’s all your fault, Michael Flaherty! What a bum spot!
The ground is coming up now. I brace myself for impact. These surplus C-9 canopies come down fast. Like a ton of bricks.
Wait for it… wait for it…
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Eagle has…well… landed. “
Last edited by Francis Meyrick on December 28, 2008, 10:42 am