Thanks for Noticing: Gravity still works, in case you wondered

I once jumped out of an airplane. That was memorable.

I stuck my head outside a rickety old plane nearly 14,000 feet above the ground, looked straight down, and pushed myself out. And I fell.

Sir Isaac Newton was correct about that whole gravity thing after all.

My sisters had the idea to go skydiving at a facility in West Point several years ago. I decided to tag along. Why not? It was only dangerous. We only had to sign a million or so forms promising not to sue if we died. That seemed manageable, so we signed.

Of course, just jumping out of an airplane is absolutely insane. We would never do anything so foolish. If you’re ever considering skydiving, make sure you have some thin nylon to eject above your head and to entrust with your life.

Also, we each had a professional skydiver strapped to our backs as we plummeted. It’s called a tandem jump, and it came in handy.
Nothing is more surreal than taking a 14,000-foot plunge. Falling is not instantaneous. It takes time to cover that distance, even if you’re dropping like a stone.

If you trip off a three-foot platform, the experience is over right about the time you realize it’s happening. When you’re starting more than two miles up, you’ve got time to savor it.

It’s quite windy. I found it difficult to breathe, though I also didn’t yet know I have mild asthma, so that may have contributed.

Basically, when your fall is prolonged, it stops feeling like a fall. You’re just hanging out in the wind, having temporarily misplaced the floor. It’s all rather cartoonish.

I wore an altimeter. It looks like an analogue wristwatch, but instead of telling the time, it measures height above sea level. As the hand moves past each number, that’s another 1,000 feet ascended.

Mine started its second lap. I jumped, and I got to watch its hand retreat counter-clockwise, moving with greater haste, as I realized that the second zero equaled “splat.”

But that’s what parachutes are for. The skydiving instructors taught us a simple arm motion to open them.Your right hand reaches to your opposite side, grabs the cord, and pulls. Then, parachute. I grabbed air, which was disappointing.

The next few attempts produced similar results. No ripcord, so no parachute. Meanwhile, the altimeter crept closer toward zero.
I was half-expecting to find Bugs Bunny falling alongside me, holding my parachute in a taunting fashion: “Looking for something, Doc?” Bugs wasn’t there, but an experienced skydiver was conveniently attached to me. He pulled the cord in plenty of time, and we enjoyed a pleasant descent from there.

My little sister’s parachute actually did fail, but her skydiving professional wore a spare, so all was well. She jumped again last year. That parachute functioned, so she’s one for one, and I’m officially less crazy than she is.

Because, you see, all I was really doing was testing out gravity to make sure it still works.

It does.

Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 3:27 pm