Bowman 1 Christian Bowman Professor Carr English 1301 / Essay #3 18 June 2012
Blue Skies, Black Death: Life in the Danger Zone Thanksgiving morning, 1997. My Uncle and I had been part of Skydive Palm Beach in Pahokee Florida, next to Lake Okeechobee. We were expecting full manifests of jumpers all day long and fly by’s from student pilots. Our cafe was stocked with all the traditional Thanksgiving food and it was our first day open since the previous weekend, when three Venezuelans had died during a skydive. They all three bumped heads and burned in. There was still an ongoing search for them as their lost bodies landed somewhere in a sugar cane field across the highway from the dropzone. The mood that morning was slightly upbeat, despite the search. The sky was a bright inviting blue with a few cirrus clouds that lightly whispered in the calm 3-5 knot winds out of the north. The air was crisp and ready to be ridden. I raced my Harley down hwy 715 to meet my uncle. We were trying to join 5 others to get on the first flight of the day. We went over the jump the night before and knew what everyone would be doing: I was going to be
Bowman 2 flying the camera to work on my framing, my uncle would be jumping the skysurf board, and two women would be performing various aerial dance moves around him. The engines turned over and the props started to spin. The smell of airplane exhaust filled the tarmac. Skydivers were driving into the dropzone from Miami and Palm Beach. People were waiting in line at the manifest window to sign up for the next run. Riggers inside the hangar folded parachutes and ran their fingers through the lines while Relative Work jumpers rolled around on dollies on the concrete floor. New jumpers were watching Tandem video’s and taking pictures, getting ready for their first jump. We loaded up in the King Air and taxied out to the runway. I shut the door just after the wheels left the ground, throwing a shaka to some of the people waving. Take off is one of the most dangerous parts of skydiving. You don’t reach a safe altitude to deploy your parachute for some time and if anything goes wrong with the “perfectly good airplane”, chances are, you’re not getting people out of it until you reach a height of at least two grand. As we ascended, I could sense a great calm come over my uncle. A peacefulness I hadn’t seen in him for a long time, really since before his accident. This was his third time back in the air after the physical rehab. That bounce off the ground left him in a wheelchair and head brace for the better part of the last six months. The girls that were jumping with us also seemed to radiate the sunlight beaming in from the windows.
Bowman 3 The pilot let us know he was going to take us a little higher today, to more than 14,500 ft. That would give us a few extra seconds of freefall for me to try to get the frame right and capture the jump. After about 20 minutes, the plane leveled out and approached a line over the airfield below. Everyone did a final equipment check and the first three had gathered near the exit. They were performing a three-way RW jump. One of them was still holding onto the outside of the door until they all looked at each other, nodded and went. I stuck my head out to watch them as they grabbed each others suits and fell together. I turned to my uncle and the other two, we grouped around the door as the wind howled in. A last look to the pilot with a thumbs up, a confirmation to the others and we were out the door. The first section of a skydive from an airplane is considered a hill. You are falling but moving forward at the speed of the aircraft until you settle into the direct fall. It’s a much different sensation in your gut to jump out of an airplane than a helicopter or ballon, where you really get the belly in your mouth feeling of direct falling. I start belly down above my uncle, who is stand-flying the board. The other two are sit flying with their butts down, arms out stabilizing themselves and their legs comfortably out in front of them. They look as if they’re in a lazy boy recliner of wind. My uncle does a front flip on the board and comes out to a shaky footing. I give him a questioning gesture to make sure he’s ok and he shoots back his trademark thumbs up that looks like his thumb is fighting to escape his fist.
Bowman 4 I spin around above to capture their movements in a circle and they reverse the circle below me. I’m getting really excited because the frame on my helmet camera looks really solid. Both of the girls turn toward my uncle and sit-track toward him. One of them tracks too fast and comes in hard. When her foot meets his board, she accidentally cuts away a velcro strip that holds down a cut away line securing his front foot to the board. She quickly backs away and my uncle looks up at me, then back down at his board. The front foot strap opened up and his foot came out. His other foot was still in the binding at the rear of the board and he tried to pull the cut away line to release it, but it wouldn’t budge. Within seconds, the wind caught hold of his board and started flailing my uncle around as he desperately tried to reach down and manually pull the foot strap open. The girls saw him being thrown around helplessly and tracked away to pull so they wouldn’t get hit by him or the board. Our altitude was dropping and dropping fast. I flew over to try to grab him but his uncontrollable spin was too dangerous. I opened my arms up and quickly turned around again, I could see him getting dizzy with his blood rushing to his extremes from the centrifugal force. He attempted one more try to climb down his leg with one arm while trying to stabilize with the other. All the while, he was being tossed around around by the board randomly catching pockets of air. I had one last chance. I pulled in my arms and tracked to him, trying to grab him, but he was spinning too fast. I flew right by him.
Bowman 5 At that moment, my A.D.D., an Automatic Activation Device, warned me that I was about to fall past the safety altitude. I had programmed my altimeter a little lower the day before since I was practicing low opening swoop landings. My uncle had not. I looked up and while he was spinning at 125mph through the air, his reserve parachute was suddenly deployed by the safety device. The abrupt stop to his spin snapped his neck. I pulled my parachute and yanked down on the riser above to close off half of my wind cells and shut down the right side of the chute so I could spiral down quickly. I could see from the air that others had been watching from the ground. There were cars and an ambulance speeding down the road on their way to us. I stopped my brakes short while watching where he was landing and fell the remaining 10 feet to the ground, bruising my ribs and knocking the air out of my lungs. I got up, pulled off my rig and tried to run toward where my uncles limp body was landing under canopy in the cold water of the lake. Two fishermen nearby pulled his body into their boat and brought him toward us. The others who ran to the water line before me jumped in and pulled him to shore. I got to his body just as one of them attempted CPR, but it was evident that he was gone before he hit the ground. My uncles location of death on the certificate would read ‘between 14,000ft and ground level.’ Blue Skies. Black Death. Little did I know that day that a week later, I would be on a sunset jump with seven of his closest friends releasing his ashes into the wind.
Bowman 6 When my relatives had come to the the dropzone for the funeral, they thought of my uncle as crazy and felt like I assisted his suicide. They looked around at the other jumpers as if they were all adrenaline junkies that carelessly risked their lives every day. Jumping out of airplanes for no reason other than a thrill. However, during that night, they started to see a band of people that remembered my uncle with stories that weren’t just about the jumps or the close calls. The memories were a tribute to his inner development and maturity throughout his skydiving career. His dedication to life, rather than his flirtation with death. At Skydive Palm Beach, we had some of the best skydivers in the world training at that time. Some were training for the X-Games, others were creating challenges during those days that are now standard practice across the skies over every continent. Our regulars were world class. Skydivers like Olav Zipser who is considered the father of freeflying. He pushed the envelope in the sport and is currently working with cosmonauts in Russia to beat the Red Bull team on being the first person to skydive from space. Not just the edge of space, but actually submit his body to burning up upon entry. If he’s successful, it opens up the realm of possibilities for people to safely enter the atmosphere of earth from a nearby orbit without the need for a spaceship. As space is now open to the private sector, this is a pioneering death defying mission.
Bowman 7 I had also come from an outside perspective looking in on these people when I first got to the airport. I didn’t judge or assume anything about them, I simply observed in the beginning. However, after some time jumping with them, I became part of the family. This was a group of people that were different from any I had known before. Most of these risk takers were calculating professionals who had experienced a freedom within an activity. That freedom, even if just for a millisecond, changed their lives and bonded them together forever. Anyone who has experienced a tandem jump, where you are safely connected to a jumpmaster, goes on and on about the rush and the amazing feeling when they get to the ground. It puts them up against their deepest fears and makes them not only face them, but manage them. Most of the time with positive results. Some are instantly addicted from a single recreational jump while others are required to learn through their positions in the military or flight training. The ones that continue on become part of an increasing population, a global family of skydivers. On any particular Sunday morning, anywhere in the world, you can find them. Packing their cars and heading out to those sacred spots where they meet life head on. Be those locations cliffs or bridges, buildings or airports. For some, it pulls them closer into a tight knit group of likeminded people, for some it’s a solitary adventure. However, they all have the same set of values that separates them from the masses. That feeling of understanding themselves and what their capabilities are under the most extreme conditions.
Bowman 8 Lindsey Konkel quotes sports psychologist Eric Brymer at the University of Queensland in Australia: “Brymer has found that partaking in high-risk sports may result in a number of benefits including not only increased courage, but also less obvious gifts such as humility and calmness. Classified by most psychologists as sensation-seekers, portrayed in the media as daredevils and marketed with mantras like “No fear” and “Go big,” it’s hard to imagine skydivers, BASE jumpers ... or ice climbers as Zen-like.” Another article by Price and Bundesen goes on to say "More experienced skydivers have minimized anxiety and maximized the positive emotions of fun, happiness and pleasure.” Both of these findings support the attitude you find on dropzones around the world. Most of the people are highly professional, and the risk management they subject themselves to in the air translates to success in managing their business affairs. Experienced jumpers also scored low on neuroticism. "People high in neuroticism may find the concerns raised by skydiving too much to bear and hence select themselves out of continued involvement" Price and Bundesen said. Again, this is not always the case, there really are some daredevils out there that seem to be the face of the sport to most others. They are addicted to the endorphins and the adrenalin rush. They're broke, live on next to nothing and spend their every waking moment trying to get back in the air. This is a minority of the subculture. There is another minority as well, the people who perform this on a daily basis for work. They might work on a skydiving facility, jump for the
Bowman 9 military or belong to the circus of the extreme sports arena. They go to the edge and jump everyday. As groups of people gather for a variety of reasons, be they large or small, there will always be a group within the group. Individuals who seem to naturally lead the decisions. Those that are most committed to the cause. These leaders are sometimes chosen by their peers and others are thrust into the position based on experience. Still, some are simply recognized for their dedication. The social cohesion that bonds individuals and groups, skydivers in particular, together identifies the community to each other in an almost unspoken manner. While most view Skydivers as a small group of people, there are millions around the world that participate. It’s been many years since my last skydive. Having a child has changed my perspectives on risk and my personal understandings of life. However, my experiences in the world of skydiving have led me to some of the most amazing experiences of my life as well as some of the most painful. I’ve lost friends and family and I have also gained new ones. I wanted to know what I would do when faced with the most challenging positions in the most unknown element and now I know. I was offered an intimate glimpse into this world of flight with dancers and angels that rode the wind and my life was forever changed from it. I feel honored to have been accepted by the family and will always place value on the lives of others I meet because of it.
Bowman 10 The ability to assume new challenges is now a welcome asset. Understanding the world outside of your comfort zone forces you to make decisions that can lead to exponential growth despite the risk of death. This can be translated into so many different realms, from business decisions, to personal relationships, to the project management of your own life. Without leaving the goldilocks position of comfort, you will never know if something else might be just right instead. As we deal with the circle of life and death, we often ignore our own mortality. Some of us recognize it, but we all toy with it on a daily basis in our own ways. Perhaps we decide to answer the text while driving, or we cross the street outside of the crosswalk in front of traffic. Conscious or not, in one way or another, we all tempt fate. Some people, like skydivers, deliberately chase that feeling of being alive more than others by facing their deepest fears and conquering them. This is truly a unique family. Despite having witnessed the loss of my uncle and having other friends perish from other accidents around the world, the bonding culture of skydivers and the welcoming nature of the professionals within it helped formulate my ability to manage risks, find peace through extreme conditions and feel more alive by scaring myself to death.
Bowman 11 Works Cited
Lyng, Stephen. "Edgework: A Social Psychological Analysis of Voluntary Risk Taking." JSTOR. American Journal of Sociology Vol. 95, No. 4 (Jan., 1990), Pp. 851-886, 1 Jan. 1990. Web. 14 June 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2780644?uid=3739920>.
Price, Ian R., and Claire Bundesen. "BPS Research Digest: Skydiving." BPS Research Digest: Skydiving. School of Psychology, University of New England, 1 Dec. 2004. Web. 14 June 2012. <http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2005/03/skydiving.html>.
Social Groups “Citing.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.. 14 June 2012. Web 14 June 2012 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_group>