Friday, 10 May 2013

How to numb your senses

In 1995, I was living in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle. Seattle is an awesome city for a nature lover. There are two large fresh water lakes in the city, Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish; there are snowcapped mountain ranges, the Cascades and the Olympics, fifty miles to the east and west respectively – excellent for skiing in winter and hiking in summer; there are several rivers with rapids, like the Methow and the Wenatchee, with organized whitewater rafting; there are two dormant volcanos, Mr Rainier and Mt St Helens with 150 miles. Seattle lies on the sea - Puget sound, and the Pacific ocean lies west of the Olympic mountains. All of these are one or two hours away by car. It was vastly different from my school and college days in India or in Texas. Having no car, and a limited mind and less money, my travels were rare and not exotic.

While, work occupied the weekdays, my first few weekends were spent watching NFL football all Sunday. But I started travelling to these places on weekends with some friends/colleagues from India. Two of my fellow explorers were Bikram from Punjab and Debjyoti from Calcutta, and one day these guys asked me to come along for skydiving. So we drove an hour by car to the nearby Snohomish Parachute Center. There was an airfield and several single and double engine propeller planes, which can carry two pilots and four or five passengers. These are mostly privately owned, which is very common in the USA, unlike most other countries. 
An airport is for suiting up
A plane is for sitting in

There was a hangar - as we entered, we saw several parachutes being folded into their bags after previous jumps by other customers like us.

The photo on the right shows me suited up for a tandem skydive.

The first skydive is either a half day or full day venture. One needs no license, previous experience, training, education etc. There are two ways an amateur jumps out of a plane – static line parachuting and tandem skydiving.

In tandem skydiving, an expert instructor wears a parachute; he wears a harness, which has four steel hooks, two at the chest level, two above the hips. The amateur customer also has a harness with four steel hooks on his back, which line up with the hooks on the expert’s harness. The amateur skydiver has NO parachute. Once the plane reaches an altitude of 12000 feet – there is too little oxygen above this height – the expert and the amateur hook up their harnesses, open the plane’s door and jump out, in tandem. After a freefall of 8000 feet, which takes less than a minute, the expert unleashes the parachute, which unfurls at a height of 4000 feet. Then they both descend to the ground in about five minutes. The expert takes care of everything, the amateur just comes along for the ride. As he is strapped to the expert’s chest, he feels the full blast of the air rushing up, and if he screams or vomits, gravity ensures that the expert is protected. Fainting is optional. No extra charge.

Static line jumping, on the other hand, involves jumping by yourself. After a five hour training session, most of which is spent trying to discourage you from attempting to skydive, including a one hour video session of the sixty different ways a parachute can fail, the instructor took the three of us, Bikram, Debjyoti and me on the plane, and we ascended to 3000 feet. This was just a parachute jump, no freefall. There was a rip cord – the static line- on our parachute bag, which is about twenty feet long, which would be attached to a hook on the airplane. Incidentally our jump instructor was an ex US army major with 1800 jumps. He said that US paratroopers get three months of training before their first jump.

Hanging from the strut. You can see the red static line
We would step out of the plane, catch hold of its strut, and hang from it for a few second. The strut is a metal rod, connecting the wheel base to the tip of the wing. Then we turn towards the instructor and pose for a photo, while the pilot flies the plane at about a hundred miles per hour. Once the instructor clicks the picture, he gives a thumbs up. We let go of the strut. Once we fall twenty feet away from the plane – the length of the ripcord – it peels away the parachute bag, and the parachute unfurls. This literally takes three seconds.

Nothing in life ever prepares anyone for the first three seconds of skydiving, of freefall. The human body is not meant to fall through space at 150 miles per hour, and our senses : vision, hearing, balance, breathing, thought, and reflexes are simply unprepared and unable to cope up with it. A primal scream comes out of the mouth, gasping for air and in shock, then the parachute opens, which is another shock, and one slows down from 150mph to 15mph – in 3 seconds, the speed of descent under a parachute.

The sky is for flying!!
There’s a one way radio attached to the shoulder, where a ground instructor tells you to turn left or right. There are two guide ropes just above the shoulders leading to the left and right extremes of the parachute, and pulling either makes one turn in that direction.

There is a large one square mile field on the ground with a ten foot wide X, painted in white. 
We just need to land anywhere on the field, not the X. You can see the farm plots below, some forest scrub and water in the distance in this photo to the left.

It takes five minutes to descend to the ground under the canopy of the parachute. That may sound simple, but one has to avoid high power 11000 Volt electric lines, a sewage treatment plant, a highway with traffic, a fast flowing river and the cornfields of a farmer with a shotgun, who didn’t like trespassers. Incidentally, on my fourth jump, I landed in the cornfield since my radio had conked out and I started making turns very late. 

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The view was spectacular. No camera or film can capture it. It was a crystal blue sky with very few puffy white clouds. I could see the volcanic peaks of Rainier in the South and something else in the North, the Cascade and Olympic ranges to the east and west, the sea far away, and gorgeous farm lands and forests, rivers and lakes, highways and towns and villages in every direction.

This photo on the right, is of my second static line jump, a year later. Photo taken by instructor. You can see  houses, streams, etc. and my chute just beginning to unfurl. Mouth wide agape, all senses gone haywire :-D :-D

No essay, no narrative, no poem, no song, no epic, surely no blog, can capture the feeling of being suspended in mid air, slowly descending to earth, surrounded in every direction by indescribable beauty. It was delight and exhilaration, rapture and ecstasy, a pulse pounding feeling of fearlessness and foolhardiness, a sense of adventure and novelty.

Flying by plane is quite exciting too, but being in a seat and looking at the world through a window is nothing, compared to being surrounded by nothing but air, enveloped by the rawness of nature. A plane is for sitting in, the sky is for flying in – or falling through.

But there was also a feeling of extreme loneliness, of tremendous incomparable isolation : a sense of insignificance hits one’s soul harder than the shock of the parachute jerking open in 3 seconds. When I was floating in the air, even the mountains seemed quite tiny and sea looked like a lake. I realized the enormity of the Earth like never before or after. Along with that comes a sense of appreciation for everything material. Nothing makes me treasure the earth, more than floating far above it.
If our rishis and hermits had skydived, perhaps they would not have renounced life, but embraced it in all its material pleasures and delights, experiencing every moment and sharing the joy of living. And not worrying about the after-life and what happens to the soul, and so on.

By the way, I may not be very recognizable in the photos, because I was growing a moustache, wearing a helmet and the photos are mediocre.


  1. Never understood the rationale behind wearing a helmet during skydive. Like Jerry Seinfeld says, when we fall, we are actually protecting the helmet from ground impact.

    1. Imagine falling 9000 feet through the sky at 120 miles per hour of freefall, then, under parachute canopy, descending at 15 mph - all delight and no injury. Then you land somewhere you didn't intend, hit an inconvenient pillar with your skull - it's not the first 12000 of descent for which you wear the helmet, it is the last five feet.