Monday, November 22, 2010

Into the Sky

by Conroy

A few years ago, while on vacation in Australia, I decided on impulse to go skydiving. Perhaps I was under the spell of being far away, off on an adventure, ready to experience whatever wild opportunity came my way. (Or maybe it was the girl from Dallas I met on the plane over from L.A. - and on the same tour I was on - that influenced me.) Whatever it was, I'd never really considered jumping out of a plane before.

We arrived at the airstrip early in the morning, and proceeded to wait for hours while the weather cleared. Finally, I suited up, received some basic instruction (I would be falling in tandem with an instructor), and signed a waiver noting my understanding that there was the (unlikely) chance of a catastrophe. Seven of us, three groups of jumpers and our pilot, climbed into a tiny single propeller plane. I was a little concerned that the pilot was wearing a wife-beater, shorts, and sandals, but after a half hour he managed to bring us to our jump altitude of 12,000 feet over the Gold Coast of Queensland. When we climbed above the clouds I felt butterflies in my stomach for the first time...I was about to jump out of a functional plane. We got the signal that we would be going in one minute...one of the instructors opened the door. I was to be the third of the three groups to jump. The first group...a panicky Aussie girl and her short but muscular instructor edged to the open door...with a simple shift to their side they were gone. Moments later the second group was in position and after a short delay vanished through the door. It was my turn...and then a sudden feeling flashed through me...




Tandem skydiving during free-fall.
...I wanted to jump out of the plane. I practically dragged the instructor to the opening. Once at the door I leaned my head back as instructed and with a simple tip forward we were free-falling to earth. The blanket of clouds had opened sometime during the ascent and I had an unhindered view of the ground far below. It was an ultra-intense rush dropping 8,000 feet in 45 seconds. The DVD I bought to commemorate the event shows a broad grin on my face the whole way down. After the parachute successfully opened and we floated to the ground a few minutes later I was euphoric. It was a great, unique experience, and I will do it again.

I'm writing this story because I think it speaks to something very basic in man. I recently posted about my desire to climb to the top of high mountains, a personal ambition that parallels man's quest to conquer the greatest heights on earth. Well just as strong as the urge to climb high places has been the urge to leave the ground altogether. Of course for most of man's history this was an impossibility, we had neither the knowledge or technology to counter gravity. However, once we figured it out, man went high, fast, and far.

Whether flying planes, floating in balloons, free-falling from aircraft, jumping off high places, or the most audacious of all, leaving the atmosphere in spacecraft, mankind seems captivated with the idea of taking to the sky. To wit, consider these incredible and audacious events in the history of floating, flying, and falling.
Joseph Kittenger jumping from the edge of space.
  • Joseph Kittenger's mind-boggling helium balloon ascent and record free-fall in 1961 as part of Project Excelsior. A wonderful short documentary recalling the event can be viewed here
    • The 1938 flight of Mario Pezzi that took a propeller driven airplane to over 56,000 feet - a record that still stands.
    • The X-15 rocket plane flights of Joe Walker that took him into space (above 100 km in altitude) in 1963.
        Rendering of an X-15 streaking to space.
      •  The manned aircraft speed record attained by William Knight in 1967. He flew a modified X-15 at more than 4,500 mph!
      • The Apollo Space Program missions, the only spaceflights that sent men out of low-Earth orbit. The achievements of the Apollo Program seem more amazing with every passing year. Consider that we landed men on the moon only 66 years - less than a lifetime - from when the Wright Brothers first flew.

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