I’m sitting in the cramped door of the Cessna 206 jump plane, a workhorse Cessna model relied on by skydivers for decades. My legs are dangling out of the aircraft, with a wide stream of smoke billowing out from the skydiving smoke canister mounted to my left foot boot bracket. I look rearward out of the door and see the plume of smoke making a vibrant trail across the sky behind me. It’s beautiful. I turn on my Go-Pro mounted on my helmet and start recording. It occurs to me that I’m smiling and feel warm all over, despite the chilly temperatures from the cold snap San Diego has been experiencing.
I look 3,500 feet straight down at the landing area, a 125’ x 275’ grass field ringed by tall trees and spectators on the east and south sides, cars on the north, and bordered on the west end by a menacing looking set of power lines. The remaining landscape is trees, streams and industrial buildings. Not the best place to parachute in to, but not the worst, either. It’s all good. The real quandary is the winds: while normally a steady 5 – 10 knots out of the west in this part of San Diego County, today they are uncharacteristically out of the east, and at this moment, unpredictable in their intensity. The spate of Santa Ana winds pounding the county the last two days has abated, but conditions have not yet returned to normal. My approach to the landing area may have to be over the power lines…
As the plane makes progress upwind towards my exit point, I remind myself not to screw this up. It’s a ritual I go through on every jump: overtly acknowledging that demonstration skydiving (or any other skydiving discipline) is not risk-free, and that I am the only one responsible for the decision to exit the aircraft, for my safety and a positive outcome on this demonstration jump. Hundreds of people are watching this jump, including dozens of wide-eyed and easily impressionable kids.
What is never apparent to those who watch and enjoy a skydiving demonstration are the myriad, disparate elements required to sell, plan, organize, rehearse and execute this kind of dynamic, inspirational and meaningful entertainment. And, to say nothing of the relationships required in order to acquire the trust of so many stakeholders – FAA, client, property owner, insurer, sponsor, aircraft owner, pilot, teammates… If anything, skydiving performances are about relationships that require a an inordinate level of trust on the part of a lot of people.
Of course, then there’s that whole “jump out of the plane and land on target” part of the job to worry about.
Finally, once the aircraft has taken me sufficiently upwind of the landing area, I make eye contact with my pilot and give him a thumbs-up. We flash a knowing grin at each other and I give a brief wave. As I push off out of the door of the plane and rotate in to the 70 knot relative wind, I savor that incredibly fleeting, delicious moment of total, absolute commitment. It is unlike any other instant in life for me. Up until that moment I could call the jump off for any reason and go home safe but, like the spectators, somewhat unfulfilled. But, once I begin to leave the plane, once I move far enough out of the door so as to make an abort impossible, there is no one and nothing in the world to save me, but me. There now nothing available to me but the total, absolute, unrelenting requirement to execute.
I can think of no other moments in life when I can feel so powerful, responsible or committed. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, but it is also the mother of higher performance. Upon leaving the aircraft, there is nothing that can take precedence over that instant or the inescapable requirement that I do my job – that I execute specific, often complex actions while in freefall or under a parachute thousands of feet in the air. That I land on target, safely – all with the intent of entertaining and inspiring crowds of spectators and delivering meaningful messages of possibility. Making some visceral connection with people I don’t even know by making them look skyward and imagining themselves up there. Thanks to skydiving, and especially demonstration skydiving, I’ve been privileged to experience this delicious moment of commitment more than most people ever will.
And there’s another, perhaps even more esoteric payoff. Epiphanic moments not otherwise available to human beings without some deliberate and meaningful risk. Instances when our minds’ high walls melt away and we can perform far beyond our own fears and perceived limitations. And to understand things previously unavailable to us. In my 35 years of skydiving, I have been blessed with countless moments, (often in the middle of the night), when my mind has signaled to me that it has solved some problem, or come to understand some issue I have been wrestling with. And I’ve had these moments of understanding in myriad other moments and places: in the shower, walking the dogs, driving to work, in the airplane on the ride to altitude. It is the risk-enabled environment I have been in for all these years that has provided me (my mind) with the opportunity to respond to requirements and pressures wholly out of character for the contemporary, risk-averse human being. When the requirement to execute, to do something far outside the realm of our mind’s conditioned perception of “acceptable” results in realizations otherwise not available to us. All of these opportunities to expand our perceptual abilities are just not possible without putting something on the line. And, one does not have to jump out of an airplane to experience this opportunity for epiphanic realizations. Public speaking, performing in a band, competing in triathlon and countless other risk-based activities, and the pressures associated with putting oneself so far out there, can create the same kind of mind-opening outcomes.