This story is by Philip Shepherd and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I was a physics student and finding the exact measurement for everything was fun for me. I had bought my own altimeter and wore it on my wrist. I had spent the day before working out the differential equations for the freefall speed, and the time it would take to travel distances. On the day of the jump, I was sat on the floor of a light plane. I was feeling tense and cramped as there was a group of five people and two of us having a tandem skydive. I was securely strapped to my instructor. The straps went around my stomach, chest, shoulders and two round my crotch.
In the training session, I learned that we would climb to twelve-thousand-feet and jump from the plane. So I had all the values of height terminal velocity during freefall and fall rate of the parachute. We should have opened the parachute before two-thousand-feet and then float to the floor.
About a quarter of an hour into the flight my instructor asked, “How high do you think we are, without looking at your altimeter?” I looked out the window. I said, “Oh, around eleven-thousand-feet high.”
He smiled and showed me his altimeter. It read a little above three-thousand-feet. Real panic started to set in, and my mind preoccupied with thinking, ‘Am I going to die?’
I needed to relax. For the next ten minutes, I did the slow breathing in and out exercises. Also, I was occupied working out that terminal velocity of freefall that I found to be thirty-two-feet per-second. We wouldn’t meet that speed. The air resistance of our baggy clothing would resist our fall and slow our descent to about twenty-five-feet-per-second. Once the parachute had opened, we’d be falling at a slower pace of thirteen-feet-per-second. Our weights didn’t matter as everything drops at the same velocity. It would take three-hundred and sixty-seconds to reach two-thousand-feet. We would then fall with the parachute for one-hundred and fifty-seconds until we landed.
Above the exit door in the plane, the red light had come on. That meant that the jump point was less than a minute away. The three solo skydivers were going to jump first. A skydiver next to myself got up and opened the door. The wind noise was overwhelming and a significant disturbance onboard a small plane. I watched three solo skydivers move to the door, and the green light came on. It was time to jump. The door was appearing to suck the skydivers out of the plane. My stomach was upside-down, and I had a dizzy feeling as fear was controlling my body.
My tandem instructor moved us closer to the door. The instructions from the class left my head. They were replaced with imaginations of hitting the ground at terminal velocity. At this point, there was nothing I could do. So, go with the flow as my instructor had done this about two-hundred times. The second I’d finished that thought we were out the door. The first three to five seconds after leaving the plane my stomach dropped. Weightlessness has an uncanny habit of giving you that sensation.
When you assume the correct falling position the wind is pushing your stomach and the weightlessness feeling goes away. The view is incredible. I had goggles over my eyes so I could see, but the rest of my face was experiencing a strange reorganisation by the wind. It was a cloudless day, and the horizon was a couple of miles away. The ground was green with crosshatched fence lines. A stunning view. The stress leaves your mind as there was a sensory overload. The sense of time passes much slower and a minute only lasted a few seconds because my brain was processing a lot of information.
The time actually past very fast and the wind rushing beyond my head making my hearing irrelevant. I had realised why a lot of people love to do this type of leisure activity. I started to wish I had a camera to capture the view from this height. Although it would not be able to translate the three-hundred and sixty-degree sight. My instructor was in control of my body as he moved my arms into the correct location. In a way, this was quite reassuring, and I was under the expert’s authority and going along for the ride.
I saw the altimeter on the instructor’s wrist, and it said eight-thousand-feet or one-hundred, and sixty-seconds had passed. Only two-hundred and forty-seconds remained. Still a long way and time from the two-thousand-foot red danger zone. Even though I was plummeting to the floor, I was becoming more comfortable with the situation. My instructor placed his hands on both sides of my head and moved my sight to the right-hand side. In that direction, we could see the small landing field with a large red cross indicating the place we should land.
The instructor’s left arm came into view and the altimeter on his wrist. Changing my focus to read the altimeter I could see it showed we were at two-thousand-feet and going into the red part of the meter. We had been falling for three-hundred and sixty-seconds. That meant we only had eighty-seconds until we’d hit the floor. I grabbed hold of his wrist and moved it upwards so he could see. He pulled his arm back and initiated the deployment of the parachute.
The parachute decelerated our descent. The straps around my chest, shoulders and crotch became tight. Although it hurt for a few seconds, at least we were slowing the fall. Even though we were below two-thousand-feet, it did look a long way up in the air.
Hang on, we were spinning round and round clockwise. Looking upwards I could see the chute lines were twisting. The instructor said, “The lines are twisting, so use your legs to untwist the lines like in your training.”
I remembered the training course and moved my legs with my instructor to untwist the lines. He also was holding the cords and pulling them apart below the twist, in an attempt to undo the strings. The spinning became overwhelming, and it was making me dizzy. I was sure the instructor was growing dizzy too. Looking at the altimeter on my wrist, it showed we were passing eight-hundred-feet. We were still descending faster than a typical chute would slow us. I estimated a speed of twenty-feet per-second, which meant only forty-seconds until impact.
The instructor spoke with a loud voice to me and said, “I can’t untwist the lines, so we are going to the emergency situation.” He placed his hand on my head and pulled it back and announced we were going to deploy the reserve.
The feeling of weightlessness returned as we discarded our main chute. The sickly stomach turning event only lasted a few seconds, and the white reserve parachute was deployed, plus our pace had slowed. I saw my altimeter, and it showed a height of four-hundred-feet. The ground was very close and a parachute descent of about thirty seconds before a landing.
My instructor was preoccupied with the chute’s closed end cells on both sides of the chute. We were falling faster than a typical parachute, at eighteen-feet per-second, leaving only twenty seconds left. Time began to travel more quickly as there were more things to be done than time in which to do them. The ground approached. I saw fifty-feet left, so about three seconds remained. My instructor shouted, “Hold on!”
The impact was hard. The ground crew approached and told us not to move and asked if we had any pain. I was without pain, but my instructor being taller than myself had taken a lot of the impact and appeared to have broken one of his legs. Not such an exceptional first skydive, but at least I had survived, with great thanks to my instructor.