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Faith helps, because ground's the limit

December 02, 2006|by GEORGE MICHAEL

Well, I did it. I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane. It was a great thrill, a thrill I especially enjoyed once I was safely back on the ground.

The skydiving ticket was a gift from my kids on the occasion of my 60th birthday last year. I was so overwhelmed by their thoughtfulness that I waited 11 months to actually go to the airport and do it.

The day set for the big event dawned bright and sunny. Bummer. My last big excuse was eliminated.

My jump happened to coincide with the big "Bridge Day" where hundreds of skydivers and daredevils go to the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia to test their skills and just show off.

As it turned out, a skydiver was killed that morning at Bridge Day. I was at the Chambersburg (Pa.) Skydiving Club minding my own business and going through preparations for my own jump when my instructor, Logan, came out and casually announced just before my jump, "Hey, did you hear? A skydiver was killed this morning at Bridge Day." Logan is a neat guy and I enjoyed my jump with him but he needs some coaching on his public-relations skills.

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The other instructors there offered words of encouragement. One of them came over, nodded in Logan's direction, and whispered in my ear, "Make sure he takes his medicine before getting in the plane." Some wry, gallows humor is geared to relieve stress, I guess.

The whole preparation process can be a little unnerving. First you watch a video in which they tell you 30 people were killed in a recent year doing this. It's not like you don't already suspect there might be some danger. I had heard of a student and instructor killed in a tandem jump in New Jersey four weeks before my event.

In addition, I had to sign and initial pages of forms, to the point of writer's cramp, with all the possible waivers and disclaimers one can imagine. It was pretty thorough. I think I not only gave up all future liability claims but several of my First Amendment rights.

The ride up in the plane is the most unnerving of all. It is then that the realization hits you that there is no way out.

We jumped at 14,000 feet, which was about 4,000 feet above a few white, fluffy clouds. The air temperature at that altitude was about 15 degrees F.

Looking out the door at the ground below you realize it's time to just do it. In fact, it is a good lesson in faith. In my mind, I was thinking, "Something doesn't look right about this. This seems a little crazy. What am I doing here?" But then, I told myself that Logan knows what he is doing. The equipment is good. This will be fun.

The actual jump out the door was not as hard as I thought it would be. There was no sensation of falling. We were floating in space with the momentum provided by the plane. The air was cold, but that was probably the least of my concerns.

I kept my "arch" with legs up and arms spread as instructed. Logan said if I was doing what I should and we were stable, we would "do some things." One other rule from Logan: "Under no circumstances do you grab my hand!" Made sense to me. Someone would have to pull the rip cord and he had the chute.

I was waving to the cameraman who jumped with us. Suddenly, we were spinning. First, 360 degrees to the right. Then a fast 720 degrees to the left. I was thinking, "Is this part of the deal? I think this is OK. It seems like fun. Hey, this is cool."

We did the free fall for about 8,000 feet. Then Logan opened our chute. When you feel the tug, you know you are home free. The last three minutes are a great glide down under the canopy. What a view! We even had time to practice the landing two times before nearing the ground. "Knees up! Legs out! Flare!" Pulling down on the controls makes it feel like you are suspended in space. On down we came to a safe landing - just like sliding into third base.

This was a leap of faith. Not the existential kind but a very practical one. It was a reminder of how much all of us operate on the basis of faith. Every day, all of us make decisions, big and small, where faith is the basis of what we do. It is based on accepting the authority of someone else we trust or believe in since we cannot test or verify the truthfulness of everything we know. In my skydiving exploit, I had to have faith in my instructor.

Some put their faith in God or religion. Some put their faith in science and reason. Some put their faith in themselves and their own ability. There is no escaping the truth that we do many things without knowing how it will all turn out. Faith in our unprovable presuppositions about life itself is at the core of the human existence.

So, go ahead and take the plunge. They do a great job at the Chambersburg Skydiving Center. They have some fun while doing something that is also serious and challenging. And you can test your own perspective on life from a rather lofty view.

George Michael is a Williamsport resident who writes for the Herald-Mail.

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