Sunday, June 22, 2008

Flying among clouds

Yesterday I went skydiving. What else is there to say? I stepped out of an airplane that was working perfectly well, to descend 5,000 feet in about 35 seconds. I then drifted gracefully the next 5,000 feet to the ground where we landed gently on our feet. The instructor "Rick" was very, very competent, inducing confidence in the safety of the whole process. He gave specific instructions that were easy to follow. We practiced body position, exiting the aircraft and discussed what to expect from the experience long before we climbed into the small Cessna.

The ride to the 10,000 foot high drop zone was a little cramped and was 20 minutes long. It was during that time when the gravity of the situation (pun intended) sunk in. At about 9,000 feet Rick informed me, "In just a moment they'll open the door. You'll feel a cold blast of wind, so don't let it freak you out." With his warning, I mentally prepared. Even with that preparation though, I have no doubt that I must have had a look of surprise on my face when the door flew open. The blast of cold wind was indeed surprising, and the realization that I was about perform this act finally settled in my gut.

The other jumpers (Cameron with his attached instructor George) went first. When they exited, there was a very brief yet surreal moment in which I imagined a conversation occurring over a radio like this:

"Tower to Cessna niner zero bravo - how many passengers are you carrying?"
"Cessna niner zero bravo to tower - besides the pilot we were carrying four...we now have two."
"Tower to Cessna niner zero bravo - where are the other two passengers?"
"Cessna niner zero bravo to tower - they left."

It occurred to me that I was now having an experience in which it was perfectly natural for half of the passengers to simply exit the aircraft at 10,000 feet in the air. Following the exit of the other team, Rick instructed me to "scoot" forward into our position. Latched tightly together, Rick and I got into position in the exact manner we had practiced on the ground. Any fears that might have dissuaded me from going through with this had long since become irrelevant. With both feet on the landing gear strut, I peered out into the sky. Rocking in a 1-2-3 fashion, Rick and I stepped away from the airplane and into the deep.

There is no sensation of falling. It's simply windy. Falling is experienced when there are visual stationary reference points to give the "falling" imagery. In this case, there are no such reference points. The Earth is even too far away to served that role. One configures their body for the desired aerodynamics, and then simply enjoys the windy environment that creates the odd experience of having the clouds to the left and right instead of up. For 30 to 40 seconds, this "windy" environment allows one to "fly." Yes, I'm aware that "fly" is not an accurate description as "flying" is defined in the technical sense (also as it is demonstrated by birds, bugs and aircraft under propulsion). However, in the absence of a falling sensation, another more appropriate verb is hard to find that describes what one "feels" in skydiving. To be among the clouds, unattached from propulsion and flight machinery, gazing laterally into the sky "feels" a great deal like flying.

At about 5,000 feet, Rick deployed our parachute and told me to relax. In this I was happy to oblige. The windy noise was now gone, and only the peaceful glide remained. I felt led into what I could only describe as "spatial peace." Achieved in a mere few minutes was that relaxed elation that otherwise might require several days on a cabin porch. This also was reflective of the purposeful pursuit of Sabbath preached on a few weeks ago in our church. A quick and concentrated dose of "rest" was achieved in those few short minutes of floating back to the Earth.

Reflecting on how the mind, body and soul are such an integrated complexity, it's not hard to imagine how one would be attracted to regular jumps as a means of meditative "rest" for the soul. A prayerful component could not help but invade this thrill. Certainly an adrenaline junkie would seek this out for the thrill of it, but there lies in skydiving an altogether different attraction as well: the complete setting aside of one's self into an environment where real "rest" is achievable. "Spatial peace" is, to my mind, a good way to describe the effects of the jump; and financial means allowing, I will experience this again someday.


abeam said...

The part that I least expected to be one of my favorite parts was after the parachute had been deployed, coming to a complete halt in mid-air. There was something unnatural about 'floating' like that, and yet it was the most natural, peaceful feeling I have experienced in a long time.

April said...

I didn't realize that you didn't feel like you were falling. That makes all of you a little less crazy to me. Although I understand the reasons, I still have a hard time believing it, and I will not be skydiving. I do feel like I've experienced it enough through the video and your descriptive blog.