Essays - Summer 2011

Plunging to Earth

Once the sport of daredevils, skydiving now offers it existential thrills to grandmothers, pudgy geeks, and even the occasional college professor

By Robert Zaretsky | June 3, 2011
Photo by Jean-François Neu
Photo by Jean-François Neu


I once fell out of an airplane. Or rather, I was felled. My feet remained planted at the threshold of the open door, but my body tilted forward, like a tree, into the slipstream, while on each side master skydivers held on to my parachute harness and tilted along with me. Instead of slamming face first on the ground, I slammed into thin air; the ground, 13,000 feet below,  had to wait. How many times had I been instructed to yell “Arch!” upon falling? Not often enough, it turned out. As I fell, I blurted out—like so many others have, I later learned—“Mommy!”

Most skydiving histories begin with Leonardo da Vinci, not with our mothers. After having sketched several kinds of flying machines in his Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo no doubt realized he needed a Plan B. What if the magnificent man in his flying machine, frantically flapping the contraption’s wings, had stopped to scratch his head? Simple: the plane would nose-dive.

While it plummeted, however, all our Icarus needed to do was reach for his trusty “tent of closely woven linen without any apertures.” Leonardo claimed that with this tent a man “can throw himself down from any great height without injury.” In the accompanying illustration, a human figure balances a small pyramid over his head. The chute’s surface area could not support a man’s weight, but it was only centuries later when man began throwing himself off high places with such a chute that he discovered this to be the case.

In the beginning for me, was Red Buttons. Not his career in vaudeville, but his role as John Steele in the 1962 movie The Longest Day. You may recall that Steele and his comrades in the 82nd Airborne were dropped over Normandy on D-Day. While German defenders slaughtered his fellow paratroopers, Steele was kept safely above the bloody melee, his chute caught on the bell tower of the village church in Sainte Mère-Église, where he was deafened by the tolling bells.

This scene fascinated me. Seven years old, I vaguely knew that Buttons was Jewish like me, but I was still unable to clearly distinguish between the actor himself and his role. Buttons was a hero unlike a Henry Fonda or a John Wayne but more like me: nervous, scared, and self-conscious. Still, he threw himself out of the plane’s hatch as duty demanded. And, to boot, the goyim saved him—or, at least, their church did, in the center of a town named Saint Mother’s Church. Perhaps mother is at the beginning, after all.

I tried to repress my inner Red Buttons at the skydiving center. After signing the papers releasing the center of all responsibility in case I became a “ground impact” statistic, I gazed at my fellow initiates gathered for our two-day intensive training session. Mostly 30-something and mostly out of shape, they would have been at home at a bungee-jumping site. Clearly they didn’t spend their teen years, as I did, playing hoops. These were guys who had challenged themselves at Pac-Man and daydreamed at Radio Shack.

The arcane art of chute packing and the physics of falling bodies seemed to mesmerize my classmates, but it was making me uneasy. While they admired and compared their altimeters, I noticed that I had strapped mine on upside down. With a sigh, I knew then that I was surrounded by the kind of geeks I avoided in high school and that the playing ground was slanted away from me. These pudgy and pale engineers and scientists would hold an advantage in the air. Skydiving was not a sport—at least not one that required physical skill or talent. It was an experiment that required gadgets and a grasp of Newtonian physics. Without a basketball net, I was lost.

Traditional jumps take place at 13,000 feet, which seems pretty high. It is almost halfway up Mount Everest and just a few feet shy of the top of Mont Blanc. And, of course, at one time Everest and Blanc also seemed pretty high. But as the Age of Hillary and Tenzing and Rugged Individualism gave way to the Age of Adventure Consultants, a time when experts herd flocks of amateur climbers up the slopes, even these summits became mundane.

Like mountain climbers, skydivers have sought to make nature even more treacherous. Jump points have gotten higher over the years, and a few individuals have tried to jump from stratospheric elevations where it was not at all clear whether they would fall to earth or orbit around it. A balloon lifts a one-person gondola to the rim of the earth’s atmosphere, where the sky deepens from blue to purple to black and the rig struggles to find lift. The jumper pries open the lid of the gondola and leaps.

A couple of men have lived to describe the experience. In 1960, the balloon Excelsior III lifted Joseph Kittinger, an Air Force officer, to an altitude of 102,800 feet, where a malfunctioning pressure suit caused one of his hands to swell to twice its normal size. He managed to open the door and jump, and during his descent he approached the speed of sound. But the fall was not entirely free: Kittinger trailed a drogue chute to stabilize his descent. Two years later, a Russian named Eugene Andreev established an equally staggering record, tumbling from a balloon floating at an altitude of 83,524 feet. Though he had not gone as high as Kittinger, Andreev traveled lighter, leaping without a stabilization device and falling 80,360 feet before opening his chute.

In that era of Sputnik and U-2s, missile gaps and missile crises, other jumpers inevitably took up the challenge on behalf of national pride. Nick Piantanida, a truck driver from Union City, New Jersey, tried in 1966 to break Kittinger’s and Andreev’s records. Author Craig Ryan re-created the epic quest in Magnificent Failure, a title that gives away the book’s ending. Piantanida’s stubborn efforts led him to break the highest altitude ever reached by a manned balloon, 123,500 feet. But due to a simple mechanical failure while aloft—he was unable to disconnect his oxygen tube from the tank on board—Piantanida was forced to descend in his gondola. He crawled out from under the collapsed balloon and told his wife, “Well, honey, now I know I can get up there. Now it’s just a matter of getting out of the damn thing and free falling.” He soon went aloft again. The balloon had scarcely reached a height of 60,000 feet when something happened that cut off the oxygen supply. Despite the balloon’s emergency descent, triggered by Piantanida’s ground-control team, he never recovered consciousness and died four months later.

It was only after my jump that I realized that the distance between 13,000 and 130,000 feet is less significant than the distance between three and 13,000 feet. This distinction is not intended as bravado. A free fall from 130 feet will most probably kill you, not to mention from 13,000 or 130,000. After a certain height, the remaining rungs of the ladder become redundant. The bleak logic here resembles the remark made by 18th-century salonnière Madame du Deffand. After a cleric breathlessly told her of the miraculous exploit of Saint Denis, who walked for several miles while cradling his severed head in his arms, the good woman replied that it is only the first step that is difficult.

Our training sessions provided an inkling of Deffand’s insight. For two days we watched videos of what not to do during our descents. We reviewed scenes of jumpers tangled in power lines, chutes dangling from trees, helmets mangled by poor landings. As our instructor talked and my fellow students took notes, I felt the same sort of frisson I knew in high school while watching driver-safety films showing crash dummies flying through windshields, rebounding against dashboards, and spiraling out windows as their cars ploughed into walls. Torn between horror and disdain, I wondered if such misfortune really applied to me, a question I answered then, as I would today, in the negative.

Conviction in my own immortality—another way of saying that if something happened, it would only affect the pudgy computer programmer next to me—remained unshaken as we learned to fold parachutes, employ wind currents and other means to direct our descent, make sense of our walkie-talkie system (our helmets were wired to receive guidance from below), and avoid flaring the chute too soon as we approach the ground. We also learned how to hit and roll, though such landings are as dated as the clunky mushroom chutes that once necessitated the maneuver. Successive generations of paragliders, with winglike membranes that allow fliers to surf the winds, have long since rendered the older chutes obsolete. Skydivers now land the way birds do: feet down, moving at a graceful trot. Though I dutifully went through the motions—jumping from a high wall into a sandbox and then rolling out—deep down I thought all of this was about as helpful as the duck-and-cover exercises we did in elementary school during the Cold War. I planned to make an efficient two-point landing.

While the sense of my own immortality held fast, my understanding of that belief on the part of others began to shift. It was not that long ago that parachuting was clearly hazardous to one’s health. During the 1920s, 50 percent of emergency jumps from airplanes were successful. When you learn that crash landings had the same percentage of survivals, the choice between the empty void and the smoking cockpit is not exactly clear. The slow perfecting of the science of parachuting was less a process of hit or miss than of hit or hit even harder. Bud Sellick, a historian of parachuting, notes that “if the chute opened and held together, the design was considered a success; if it didn’t, they simply buried the victim and tried some other design.”

By the time I had decided to jump, I was standing on the pulverized shoulders of countless predecessors. A sport I had thought to be extreme had calcified into a middle-­aged pastime. Just as well buy a black leather vest and straddle a Harley as don a bright red jump suit and plunge from a plane. In part, this transformation was the work of technology. While improvements in chute design have not eliminated risk, they have lowered it to the same level as, say, my daily commute on Houston highways. Grandmothers now ply a sport once associated with barnstormers. But more is involved. Skydivers today are engaged in a mild argument with the world.

Arch. The wisdom of skydiving boils down to this single word. As we rehearsed our leap, our instructors shouted “Arch!” and we echoed mightily “Arch!” The command reminded us to push our bellies earthward while reaching with our arms and legs toward the sky. The first skydivers tumbled out of the plane and gyrated madly before pulling their ripcord. The French, who were the sport’s pioneers, called this phase faire de la mayonnaise, and the body’s whipping certainly made them feel like a beaten egg. But French jumpers soon discovered that by assuming a stable body attitude—for some reason it is called the “relaxed frog position”—they could achieve stability at a maximum velocity of 120 miles per hour. An arched body, we understood, was our salvation, our security, our ark.

The shouts and countershouts of “Arch” amplified the pedagogical pulse of the training: to do a few things so many times that they became reflexive and, in a sense, thoughtless. Analytic thought is not a good pursuit while plunging at more than 100 miles an hour. It is much better to shout “Arch,” to signal to our jump masters every thousand feet that we had, indeed, fallen another thousand feet, and to rehearse the pulling of our ripcord in the seconds leading to the actual pulling of our ripcord. It is less like living in the moment than keeping the moment at arm’s length. Any closer and there might not be many more moments beyond the present one.

Mountain climbers are often asked why they climb. “Because it is there,” George Mallory famously answered. A skydiver would set Mallory’s remark on its head: We jump because it isn’t there. Pedestrians like me cannot imagine the effort required to climb Everest, in part because it is so dismally, numbingly relentless. “I doubt if anyone would claim to enjoy life at high altitudes—enjoy, that is, in the ordinary sense of the word,” climber Eric Shipton once re­marked. “There is a certain grim satisfaction to be derived from struggling upwards . . . [but] my only desire was to finish the wretched job and to get down to a more reasonable clime.”

Skydiving, of course, involves reentering rather than leaving our atmosphere, and the “why” question takes on a different sense. For the mountain climber, the answer, presumably, lies at the end of a long battle with nature and gravity. Even then, the answer, much less the moment of rapture, may not be waiting at the summit. As he trudged toward the top of Everest, Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, felt “drugged, disengaged, thoroughly insulated from external stimuli. . . . I had the sensation of being underwater, of life moving at quarter speed.” Once he reached the point where there was nowhere higher to go, all he felt was an “overwhelming apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead.”

Descent is the point of skydiving. But why? As our plane lumbered into the sky and I sat wedged between my jump instructors in one of a half-dozen human sandwiches lodged on the benches running down the sides of the fuselage, I asked myself this very question. Why did I spend a long weekend yelling “Arch” in order to tumble out of a plane, fall for less than a minute before opening my chute, and, about 10 minutes later, land where I had just taken off?

Several thoughts vied in my mind as the answer. There was the comradeship, for sure, even if it was the camaraderie of one of what sociologists call “leisure subcultures.” According to specialists, these communities bond through the consumption of new objects (check!), commitment in money (double-check!), and a mindset promoting fun, hedonism, and self-actualization (check, check, and check!).

There was also the possibility of virtue, not virtue in our contemporary and Christian sense, of course, but in the way ancient Romans understood the word: the means by which you prove—or actualize, in psychospeak—yourself. Despite all the perfectly sound reasons not to jump, I had decided to do so. It seemed an act of pure will and agency: I am because I jump. Or, more precisely, I am because I will myself to jump.

Or so I thought as I joined my fellow skydivers in shouting jokes over the rumble of the plane’s engines. As we prepared for the jump itself, a less attractive possibility entered my mind: I jump not because I will myself to do so but because events seemingly beyond my control have overridden my will. We had been told more than once during training that, once airborne and headed toward our jump zone, we could always decide to stay in the plane for the return trip to the airstrip. But none of us needed to read the fine print to this particular escape: once the plane landed, the shirker would actually need to walk off the plane, crane his head upward, and watch his classmates float down like so many flakes of confetti from the sky.

As I listened half-distractedly to the last-minute instructions from my jump masters, I suddenly understood I was going to jump not because I was a daredevil but because I was a coward. How could I possibly do the sane thing at this point, slip out of my harness and stay on the plane? But something deeper than volitional malfunction was at work. I felt as if I had become enmeshed in a nearly palpable logic as loud and overwhelming as the noise, reverberating inside that metal shell, that drove me to the plane’s hatch. One by one (skydivers who could jump on their own) or one by two (first-timers who had elected to make the ride down strapped to the front of an instructor) or one by three (those who, like me, were falling out of the plane in the company of jump masters), the passengers dwindled in number until I was alone with my two companions. I continued to walk toward the door without a pause or hiccup. Evil may well be banal, but I wondered if courage—or what was passing for courage—was no less so.

As far back in history as Lascaux we have recorded in pictures the red-letter dates of our lives. Think of those cave walls in France as a rough draft for today’s screen savers showing us scaling a mountainside, riding a wave, or hang-gliding off a mountainside. We immortalize those moments when we risk our mortality. At the skydive center, I hired André, an itinerant Afrikaner traveling the world with a camcorder bolted to his helmet, who films, for a fee, the descent of neophytes like me. His price was high, I thought, until the green light started to flash and I saw what his job involved. Preceding me, André stepped out of the plane—but not fully. He held on to the side of the hatch with both hands, his body rigid yet as kinetic as a flag caught in a powerful wind. When I peered around the edge, he smiled. I tried to smile back but, as his camera later revealed, my effort came to little more than a rictus. At that moment, I had a vision of Wile E. Coyote hanging with no visible means of support above a void, looking back, and glimpsing the Road Runner. Beep beep.

My hours of training had not been entirely for naught. As I accompanied my two bodyguards to the edge of the hatch, I did not glance down; instead, I launched into the final protocol. Looking to my right at Mike, I shouted, “Are you ready?” and he replied with a loopy grin and thumbs-up; I roared the same question to Dave on my left and got the identical reply. With one of my legs stretched in front of me and the other braced behind, I stared fixedly at the tip of the wing. I then rocked toward the door’s threshold, shouting “Rock out!” and rocked back into the cabin shouting “Rock in!” and rocked forward a second time, prepared to shout Arch. A sudden blast of air engulfed me, and it was only much later—later than blurting “Mommy,” later even than relating years afterward that day’s experience to my mother—that I grasped the genius of the operation. No one, neither my companions nor myself, told me to jump; it simply happened. Questions of first cause or ultimate responsibility were as irrelevant as they would be for a leaf falling from a tree.

At that moment all that I knew, dimly, was that I was falling through the sky—down and, due to the plane’s momentum, sideways. The noise was tremendous, as if a thousand hair dryers were aimed at me. While 13,000 feet doesn’t count for a whole lot when set against the 93 million miles between our planet and the sun, I nevertheless felt significantly closer to our local star. With the help of Dave and Mike, I pushed my arms and legs into a relaxed frog position and reached maximum velocity.

As we know, speed is relative. I really had no idea I was falling at all, much less at 120 miles an hour, until André suddenly bobbed into my line of sight. Immediately after I dropped from the plane, he stopped holding on to the hatch opening, tucked his arms against his sides, and nose-dived in our wake. Catching up to our fluttering threesome, he stretched out his arms, braking to the same speed we had achieved. The sight was sublimely ridiculous and staggeringly beautiful: as he started making funny faces, signaling I was on camera, he seemed absolutely at home. My rictus began to thaw into a real smile.

Less than a minute was left before I had to open the chute. I launched into the routine, the “circle of awareness,” that had been drilled into all of us: watch the altimeter and mime to my guides with each descent of another thousand feet. After rehearsing the pulling of my ripcord, I began the final countdown, screaming, mostly to myself, “one thousand, two thousand” until I reached “five thousand,” whereupon I pulled the ripcord for real. A moment later, Dave, Mike, and André suddenly disappeared and my body shuddered as if I had been clotheslined. I couldn’t tell if they had dropped below or flew above me, and I was hanging in the sky.

For veteran jumpers, the thrills end when the chute opens. It is like the moment when high divers enter the water and then have to swim to the ladder. But it was different for me, someone who had never before found himself dangling under a parachute 5,000 feet above the earth. The great silence that had replaced the fury of the engines, the wind, and my vocal cords was interrupted by a static crackling in my helmet. The instructor below had established contact and was trying to guide me in. Not only was I bothered by the tinny sounds that shattered my reverie, but her directions seemed all wrong. When she said tilt right, I thought I should be tilting left; when she prodded me to circle, I held fast to a straight line. Convinced she was speaking to one of my fellow students, I ignored her increasingly strident commands.

Only when I had drifted far from the airfield and found myself over a golf course did I realize she had been right all along. I suddenly understood that I did not have the slightest idea what I was doing. From the moment I had left the plane, I had been clueless—despite the training sessions, the repeated drills, everything I had heard and seen. Had I not been listening? Even if I had listened, would the distance between the words and the experience it denoted have been too great? Who is to say? All I knew at that moment was that the ground was bounding up as if it was about to tackle me. At the top of what seemed like a rapidly expanding earth was a copse of pine trees, moving far faster than trees have any right to move. Forgetting that the toggles were a directional device, not an emergency strap, I began to pull frantically on them. I managed to brush past the uppermost branches and found myself over a patch of green that seemed determined to slap me in the face. This, I knew, was the last chance to act, however spastically. I flared the chute, hit the ground, twisted my ankle, and rolled awkwardly several times, all the while wrapping myself in the chute. Stunned, but realizing I was alive, I leapt to my feet. Behind me I heard polite applause. A couple of golfers were standing next to their cart and clapping their hands.

Red Buttons could not have done better.

Arthur Liebers’s The Complete Book of Sky Diving was published 42 years ago. One look at the accompanying photographs and illustrations and you feel certain that Red Buttons would feel very much at home. The canopies and garb are vintage WWII, not surprising since they were taken from Army technical manuals, as was the author’s worldview. Appearing the same year that Woodstock happened, the book today seems blind to the brave new world forming under the skydiver’s black-booted feet. In a chapter devoted to the hazards of skydiving, for example, Liebers includes a section on alcohol. Do not drink and dive, he warns. Fine, but what about dropping acid and dropping out of a plane? Nary a word of warning.

Yet even Liebers is touched by the ethos of the Age of Aquarius. Almost despite himself, he ventures into metaphysical territory in his second chapter: “Why Sky Divers Jump.” Uneasy, he quickly turns to a survey done by a skydiving magazine, reporting that while most of the replies reveal that skydivers are “not particularly articulate in explaining their motivation,” he did find an interesting response from a Benedictine monk: “Man becomes more truly himself through the expression of the mystic and spiritual within him. Perhaps the sport parachutist attains a similar greatness in those moments when, unshackled from the laws of terrestrial force, his body joins his spirit in flight. There is a terrible silence in the air; I remember feeling that it is the perfect place for meditation.”

It may well be that our Benedictine monk found his way to Woodstock, but the essence of my experience eluded him. A skydiver is “unshackled from the laws of terrestrial force”? Really? Funny: those same laws dragged me toward a golf course at more than 100 miles an hour, threatening to make a hole in one with my head. Moreover, the silence was not at all “terrible.” I found it soothing after the hubbub of wind, props, and banter in the echo chamber of the plane’s fuselage.

As for the occasion for meditation, it followed my landing rather than accompanied my fall. I rode back to the skydive center in the pickup truck sent to retrieve me and replayed in my mind the events that had just unfolded. Rather than ask myself the big question of why I made the jump, a more perplexing question rattled inside my skull: “How did I survive?” Just moments before, I had been dangling from the chute’s harness, gazing dumbly at the pale-green checkerboard of wheat and cornfields splintered by roads, irrigation canals, and high-tension wires. I ignored the cackling of my headset, severing the last remaining tie to someone who knew something about what I was doing. I certainly didn’t.

All I remembered from my training sessions was the show of charades I was meant to play with my jumpmasters. Having acquitted myself of that particular task, I now found myself quite literally up in the air, uncertain about what to do next. Through no fault of the instructors, who took their jobs in great seriousness, the repeated videos and rehearsals down below had already faded from memory. I had listened to them the way I listen, even now, to the safety instructions given by flight attendants before takeoff. Or, perhaps, the way many of my students listen to my lectures. Their earnest, but slightly unfocused gazes tell me that my words are streaming past their ears like a blast of shower water. Come the final examination, there will always be students who identify the Bourbon dynasty as a Kentucky distilling family, just as I will, on the day my jet runs into trouble, grab the dangling oxygen mask and casually strangle myself with it.

The metaphorical associations with “free fall” are not inspiring. Whenever the bottom drops out of a nation’s economy, a team’s season, or an individual’s career, they enter “free fall.” So, too, do entire swaths of our society. In the movie La Haine, which depicts the deadly desperation of life in the slums of Paris, one of the characters, Hubert, talks about a fellow who falls from the top of a skyscraper. As he passes each floor, he tells himself “Jusqu’au là, tout va bien, Jusqu’au là, tout va bien” (So far, so good). Hubert concludes that it doesn’t matter how you fall, but how you land. In my free fall, with each tick of the altimeter, I told myself “So far, so good.” The landing was another story.

Since 2004, there have been nearly 400 skydiving-related fatalities. Nearly a third of the deaths occurred during landing, and most of them were due to “hard landing while making low turn”—a polite way of saying “thrown to the ground like a falling bag of cement.” There is, as well, a healthy sprinkling of collisions with utility poles, trees, and parked cars. One death occurred when a diver landed successfully on a road that a speeding driver failed to share. Skydiving has three traits in common with real estate: location, location, location.

As with everything else in life, nothing is free, especially in free falling. Sitting on top of my chute in the bed of the pickup, I recalled the reply given by Abbé Sieyès when asked what he did during the French Revolution. “J’ai veçu.” (I survived.) The bon mot tempted me, but it did not tell the entire truth. Something else came to mind: things fell into place. Admittedly this lacked the ironic punch of Sieyès’s phrase, yet it was the closest I could get to what had just happened. And, as the event retreats into the past, the phrase becomes a better metaphor of what happened that day.

I sometimes wonder if it also gets closer to what has happened in my life. Looking back from a height of a half-century, I suspect there is a gap between my “training sessions”—the years of education and conversation, reading and reflection—and my actual descent through life. The things I was told and taught seem to have the most tenuous of ties to the choices I made. Often, of course, there seems to be a causal connection—that what I willed and worked at is more or less what had fallen into place. But are these bonds between intention and consequence simply convenient fictions? More or less what Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance?” Is it less an instance of best-laid plans going awry than best-laid plans going AWOL?

I don’t know, I tell myself. I don’t know if I knew more than I was aware of when I fell from the plane, at least enough in order to live (and to ask this very question). Conversely, I don’t know if I truly didn’t know what to do when I fell that day—or when I started my fall through life so many years before. Is it a case of “so far, so good” or a case of blurting “Mommy” rather than “Arch,” yet nevertheless arching my belly earthward and my limbs toward the heavens because I was thinking “Arch”? Perhaps the good abbé was right, after all: for now, all that matters is that I survived.

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