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Conjoined Parachuting

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Preparing for one's first skydive was a daunting proposition once upon a time. Fledgling paratroops of yesteryear, for example, began training by jumping off five-foot towers so they could practice how to land, flex their knees, then roll. Only after acquiring bruises and sprained ankles did they get to jump out of real airplanes.

Today's neophyte can start that way, too -- then try a tame, static-line leap from 3,000 feet, with no free fall. Better yet, skip all that and go straight to the open door two and a half miles up, as I did on my own first jump.

I had asked retired Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger how to get started, and he recommended a tandem jump. In 1960, as research for the space program, he jumped from 102,800 feet, setting the world record. (Currently Felix Baumgartner, with Red Bull as sponsor, is attempting to break Kittinger's record.)

In a tandem jump, the choice of when to pop your chute, your landing and all other subtleties are left to a professional who jumps with you. Or rather, attached to you, since he (or she) is bound in a configuration that joins your back to your instructor's front. The connecting ligaments don't get attached until you're ready to jump; before then, you can walk and function independently.

Tandem jumping was popularized in the late 1980s by William Booth, an instructor with Skydive DeLand in Orlando. Kittinger referred me to DeLand's owner, Bob Hallett, a man with thousands of jumps to his credit. He would be my instructor and jump partner.

I was fitted into a tight green jumpsuit that gave me new respect for women who wear spandex. Hallett, pointing to my penny loafer shoes, asked if I planned to wear them aloft. "Sure," I replied. "No way," said he. "The wind will blow them off your feet." Kittinger, who'd come along to lend moral support, asked my shoe size. When it turned out to be his own, he lent me his sneakers. Hey, it might bring me luck to wear the shoes of a world-record holder.

So up in a small Twin Otter aircraft Hallett and I went, along with five other conjoined pairs. At about 5,000 feet the jump door opened, a tandem team exited, and then the door closed. There was no fanfare. It was like a bus stopping to let passengers off.

Circling the airport, we took another 15 minutes to reach 13,500 feet, our maximum altitude. Nervous laughter from other jumpers filled the cabin. Again the jump door opened and, one by one, tandem teams hopped out. There was no sound but the wind roaring past the door.

Hallett and I engaged our siamese harness, then made our way to the door. We were last to jump. I looked back at Kittinger, who was seated in the co-pilot's seat. He gave me a jaunty thumbs-up. I teetered briefly, then tumbled into space.

I had badly underestimated the impact of the wind. First, it buffets you at 100 mph from the direction opposite to the plane's movement, then changes direction as you hurtle downward. Your face begins to distort and your cheeks to flap once you hit terminal velocity, about 125 mph. At that speed you're dropping the length of the Empire State Building every six seconds.

My goggles, tightly fastened to my head, felt like they'd blow off. To take my mind off how fast the ground was approaching, I tried to concentrate on the photographer, who was falling next to us. (You can arrange for commemorative snaps to be made of your descent.)

After what I later learned was 45 seconds of free fall, I felt an abrupt jerk. Hallett had pulled the cord. Then? Utter and unearthly peace for six minutes as we wafted another 3,000 feet down, the countryside below swaying side to side. We landed in a sitting position, sliding comfortably along polished stones on the airport's target area.

The next night Kittinger and I celebrated. I hadn't broken any height records -- but then I hadn't broken any bones, either. Plus, I was now a member of the jump club. I asked Joe what he'd been thinking when he made his own historic jump. "I said a silent prayer: 'Lord, take care of me now.'"

Kittinger then asked me, "What did you say?" I struggled for a polite way to express it: "Something less devout." The colonel laughed. I gave him back his shoes.