Stepping Onto a Small World

There we were, climbing out from the grassy runway at Issaquah on a bright spring day.  What was different this time was, I was strapped down in the middle of one of the planes from the Jump Center.

Karli had pushed for this.  That was her, up closest to the door.  She  insisted on being the first one out, an honor that would normally have gone to the heaviest of us.  She had recently absorbed the play “Streamers,” by David Rabe, and today’s adventure seemed connected to an exploration of fear and courage, and a search for identity.  Me, I spent all my spare time at Issaquah Soaring anyway, practically next door, and had always meant to try jumping.

When not thrill-seeking, Karli and I both worked at the Bellevue City Attorney’s Office, a few miles down the road.  Karli had started there as an intern, a way to get some criminal trial experience while still in law school.  My work was mainly on the civil side, but for a year I also did most of the City’s criminal appellate work.

A regular feature of this side job was showing up in Seattle on Friday afternoons, when the Superior Court heard appeals from the county’s municipal and district courts. One of my favorite adversaries there was a nice young public defender named Steve; he and I would get together after work to commiserate about the practice of law and Life In General.  One of Steve’s concerns was his wife, who, he had begun to worry, was too much of a risk-taker to be a good candidate for motherhood.  The one other person in the back of our plane turned out, of course, to be Steve’s wife.

Now when you think about parachute jumping, you may picture scenes from the evening news, featuring an old or famous person leaping from a twin-engine airplane, strapped to someone else, an instructor.  Tandem jumping like this is an innovation that came about later — I think I saw the first tandem jump that was made at Issaquah.  For our story, which takes place in the mid-1980s, you need to visualize an old Army movie:  each jumper going out alone, the parachute opened not by a rip cord but by a long static line (or “dope rope,” as it is called dismissively), one end of which remains attached to the airplane.  This age-old system provided the most nearly foolproof method of deploying the parachute at just the right time; it works for cargo as well as humans.  A first jump was always like this.  If you later decided that you really wanted to become a skydiver, then for your next few jumps they would give you a harness with a dummy D-ring to pull.  If you came back without it often enough (you’re supposed to throw it away) they let you have the grown-up version of the parachute.

Also, for this story, you should imagine a smaller airplane, a single-engine Cessna.  And a bigger, orange cargo chute, providing a more user-friendly experience than the flat round white ones.

It didn’t take long to get to the drop zone, over the north end of the field.  The target, a circle filled with pea gravel, was just on the west side of the runway, and we would jump from only 2,800 feet.  Soon Karli was out the door, holding onto the bar conveniently placed along the wing strut.  (The pilot sets the parking brake, so you can stand on the tire.)  And then she was gone.

Next, a big circle to get back to the same spot, and then it’s my turn to climb out.  I’m not scared, being inclined to trust the equipment, as I would trust a climbing rope.  During the morning’s jump school, we’ve been taught how to handle any emergency.  We’ve spent time jumping off the top of the playground-size bleachers, feet together, knees bent, eyes on the horizon, finishing with an awkward roll.  We can find the Tapewells that will cut away our main chute if it fails to open properly.  We can find the ripcord of our emergency chute (which will open automatically anyway if our descent does not slow).  We have signed a release form stating that we assume the risk of a potentially deadly activity.  And not just signed it, but copied parts of it out in our own handwriting, reassuring our heirs that we knew exactly what we were getting into.  The lawyer in me was impressed.

I’m out on the strut.  I pose for a picture.  Our jump master, Mark, points at me and mouths the word “Go.”  I am still fearless, but suddenly consumed by a desire to see both ends of my static line, which is impossible now. I too mouth the word, “Go?” including the punctuation.   Mark nods and repeats his signal, and I turn loose.

Things don’t go very wrong, but they go wrong very quickly.  The first thing I notice is the bag of my reserve chute, fastened to the harness at my chest, rising up toward my face.  I’m not prepared for this, and instead of arching my back and spreading my limbs as I should, I hug my reserve.

Soon I realize that the bag is not going anywhere, and I let go and turn my attention to other matters.  The checklist for this phase is easy:  count three, check canopy, grab the steering loops. I had felt the chute open (a pretty benign event with modern-day equipment) and when I look up, the big, rectangular canopy is there.  But the lines connecting me to it are twisted, like if you sat in a playground swing and spun around, leaving me flying inefficiently and without much control.

The realization that your malfunction is a low-speed malfunction is actually quite comforting.  I kick my legs around like they told us to do, and after a bit of squirming the lines are uncrossed and I’m ready to steer.  I listen for instructions from the handy little radio receiver tucked into the pocket of my reserve chute.

Except that it’s not.  It was knocked from its place, possibly when I clutched at the pack.  I later found out that the radio cratered right next to our glider tow pilot, Dave W., providing him with yet another aviation story of his own.  Luckily, there’s a backup for the radio anyway:  crew drag big arrows around on the ground advising the jumper, moment to moment, which direction to fly.  I locate my arrows (a different color from Karli’s) and use the steering loops to turn accordingly.

With some of the details out of the way, the next part really is fun.  What a great view of the whole valley, from the hills all the way up to Lake Sammamish.  There’s the whale-shaped pool atop the Holiday Inn, and, across from it, the surplus Piasecki helicopter that lures people onto the airport road.  East of the airport there’s the Pickering farm with its barn and oval horse track.   The view is a familiar one, but seeing the airport between my feet instead of through a plastic window is somehow a very different experience.  It’s quieter than flying in an airplane, probably quieter than a glider even, and just more intimate somehow.

Gravity meanwhile is doing its work, and I’m approaching the field.    I can tell that I won’t make it to the target and will land on the runway instead, maybe because of my earlier problems.  But clearing the freeway seems good enough — I know I can walk from there.  As I get closer I notice that one of our gliders is landing and rolling toward a spot near where I’ll come down.  It slows, and stops, and a man wearing a yellow ball cap gets out and walks around to help a passenger emerge.

“Roger!” I call, for it is he, the person who taught me, among other things, how to fly.  Surprised, he looks all about, understandably puzzled.  I call again, from closer now, and this time he looks up.  “Feet together!” Roger replies helpfully, an experienced jumper himself, and then, “Flare!”  I pull down smoothly on both loops at once and walk onto the ground, like stepping off an escalator.  This adventure ended better than it started.

We grin at each other.   I collapse the chute and begin gathering it. There will be time for conversation later.  Right now, Roger has a student.  And I have somebody else’s parachute.

Notes:

  1.  Fairy tales begin, “Once upon a time. . . .”  Sea stories begin, “This is no ****.”  Flying stories begin, “There I was . . . .”  This one is copyright Scott C. McKee, all rights reserved.
  2. After a long career, Karli retired from a judgeship in 2018.
  3.  The Issaquah Skyport, earlier the Sky Ranch, dated back to the early 1940s.  It’s now a shopping center called Pickering Place, named, like many developments, after a landmark that it supplanted.