‘When the plane landed, I would not be on it’
There is always a sensation that occurs right before take-off: when the vibrations of the plane barreling down the runway seem to align with your accelerated adrenaline.
The body shakes, the pace quickens and then there is a painful delay and longing for that single moment when the wheels leave the ground and the plane heads into the sky. In that instant, the pressure is gone and tense muscles relax. Your head leans back against the headrest — the thrill of the take-off now over, the calming hours of a plane ride just beginning.
I sat in a small plane at the Orange Municipal Airport on a clear Friday afternoon in September. But when the plane took off, it was the first time in my life that I did not feel that calming sensation.
Perhaps it was because I knew that when the plane landed, I would not be on it.
A group of 11 skydivers from Jumptown packed together, straddling two long benches that ran parallel to the fuselage down the body of the plane. With their backs to the cockpit, they sat in light athletic tracksuits, strapped into thick black harnesses and wearing large packs on their backs. There were smiles and laughter — just another flight in the life of a skydiver.
Then there was me: a 22-year-old in a T-shirt and shorts who had forgotten to bring along a pair of sneakers. The brown shoes I had worn to work just hours earlier now rested on the airplane floor.
My harness was strapped to the harness of my tandem instructor, Joe Goodbrake of Baldwinville, who sat directly behind me. A light helmet rested on my head; I tugged at a neck strap that pressed up against my Adam’s apple.
“It’s hot in here,” said Joe, behind me. “I can’t wait for the air conditioning.”
Minutes later, he gave someone at the rear of the plane a thumbs up. She slid open the door, exposing the plane to the chill of open air.
An altimeter on the front of my harness read 13,500 feet. We were 21∕2 miles high.
Joe’s pack contained three parachutes. During a tandem jump, a drogue parachute is pulled immediately to slow the descent speed of two people down to that of one. Then, after falling about 8,000 feet, the main parachute is deployed. In the case of a malfunction, a back-up one is automatically released.
He had gone over all this with me when we were safe on the ground, inside a room with walls and a ceiling and a floor. He demonstrated how I should step out of the plane the same way I would step out of a bus, and then how I should arch my back and extend my legs straight out behind me. He explained how he would wave his hand in front of my face when it was time for me to put my hand on the ripcord that deployed the parachute. Then he would give me a thumbs up when it was time to pull.
And now he explained it all again. I nodded but I wasn’t listening. Instead, I was watching the skydivers in front of me stand at the edge of the plane and then, a second later, disappear into the sky below.
Until that point, I hadn’t been afraid. And while I still knew that I was ready to go ahead, the gravity of the situation hit me at that moment. I was about to jump out of an airplane and fall through the sky.
“OK, let’s go,” said Joe. We rose from the bench and did a duck walk toward the door, our harnesses strapped together.
I stared outside at the small clouds to the far left below the elevation of the plane. The blue of the Quabbin Reservoir was in the distance, one of the only major anomalies in a sea of green. Roads looked like twigs scattered haphazardly on the ground. Houses and yards were small specks.
Keith Thivierge, a Springfield resident and Jumptown videographer, was hanging out of the door. Joe clutched a metal bar above and bent his knees. I crossed my arms and waited.
I flashbacked to a conversation we’d had on the ground.
“I like to do a backflip when we jump out of the plane. Is that cool with you?” asked Joe.
“Why the hell not?” I had said.
Standing on the edge of the plane, Joe shouted in my ear, “3, 2, 1.”
He lunged us forward and we backflipped out of the plane.
My eyes were flooded by light and motion as we fell to the ground at 120 miles per hour, the drogue parachute deploying behind us. For a moment, my brain could not process what was happening. The green of the forest, the blue of the Quabbin and the white of the sky all blurred together.
Joe tapped my shoulder and I stretched out my arms and legs. I let out a glorious yell into the air. I was flying.
Well, kind of. In my dreams of flight, my arms and legs have always been perfectly outstretched, my body soaring gracefully through the sky.
In reality, as I plummeted toward the earth, I found I had no control over my limbs. I had forgotten to arch my back and stretch out my legs, so they bent and flopped awkwardly, as if I had been thrown into a pool without knowing how to swim.
I tried to turn my body to find the videographer, but the blurring lights and the deafening sound of wind confused me. I had no sense of direction and I lost track of time. How long had it been since we jumped? Five seconds? 20?
Then, I saw Keith and I smiled as he pointed the camera in my direction. He grabbed my arms and spun me to the right. Seconds later, I found him again and he held out his hand for a high five. I tried to grab it but grasped helplessly at the air.
Green. Blue. White. Suddenly, I saw Joe’s hand wave in front of my face. I found the ripcord with my right hand and waited for the thumbs up signal.
Green. Blue. White. Seconds passed by. Where was Joe’s signal?
I felt his hand reach for the ripcord and so I decided to pull. Together we pulled the ripcord and were flung upward in a smooth motion. If there was a whiplash, I didn’t feel it. The world had stopped spinning.
My vision now restored, I took a deep breath and gazed with awe at a captivating 360-degree view of the North Quabbin region. New Hampshire mountains loomed in the distance. I looked again at the Quabbin Reservoir, but now I could take in the details of its every turn and bend.
We had fallen 8,000 feet in 55 seconds. The ground was closer now, allowing me to distinguish between the different shades of green — the dark trees, the light grass. Roads were clearer and I could start to see little dots moving along them.
Quiet and calm — such a stark contrast to the insanity that had occurred just a minute before. Joe told me I could grab the handles and showed me how to direct the parachute to the left and right.
We pulled down the handle, and the parachute did a sudden dive to the right. There was a whooshing sensation as we traveled quickly for a few seconds before leveling out again.
My body was still shaking from the fall and I was just beginning to calm down when Joe pointed out our landing area: a small green square below.
The square got larger and I began to see people standing around below. Joe told me to stretch out my legs in front of me. We approached the ground fast and slid into a sitting position. The large red and blue parachute floated in behind us.
I was back at Orange Municipal Airport. Less than 20 minutes had passed.
Staff reporter Chris Shores started at The Recorder in 2012. He covers education and health and human services. He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 264. His website is www.chrisshores.com
Keith Thivierge is a videographer and photographer with Jumptown of Orange.