September 2, 1991, Spadaro's Airport, New York -
Three of us stood there in front of the ancient Cessna 206 - me and two fellow first jump students. This would be my third attempt to get in the air. The first two attempts were scuttled by wind and clouds, all too common during early fall on Long Island. This time, though, everything looked good. It was near sunset but the winds had finally died down, the pilot had been located and the jumpmaster was ready to go. We loaded the plane, five people with helmets and big parachute rigs cramming into a space smaller than most compact cars.
The engine started with a shuddering roar, knocking chips of paint off the wings and almost deafening us. We taxied out to the runway, turned into the wind and started our takeoff roll. The plane lurched and thumped down the patched and repatched asphalt gaining speed as the three of us tried to look out the windows, situated just above us as we sat on the floor.
For me this was the culmination of about two weeks of trying to jump. I had taken the first jump course in August, after a friend at work had told me his story of his first static line jump at Skydive Long Island. It sounded like something worth trying. I hadn't given skydiving much thought before that, assigning it mentally to the list of things I knew were done but had no desire to do myself. But his descriptions of being able to control the parachute and actually having to perform well during the jump interested me, and I thought I could afford the $120 to see for myself what it was all about.
Before our first jump course had completed it had started to rain. We finished practicing parachute landing falls outside in the rain, then they told us "sorry, maybe next weekend." The next weekend brought high winds and more delays, one due to a missing pilot during the few hours the winds were reasonable.
Now, though, we were finally in the air. The plane climbed quickly to 3000 feet and Al the jumpmaster leaned over me to talk to the pilot. We turned onto jump run, the pilot pulled the power back, and Al yelled "Door!" as he pounded on the door with his fist to get it open. It sprang open and banged up against the wing. There, 3000 feet below me in the crystal clear air was Long Island, the trees in the forests surrounding the airport just starting to change colors. In the distance the barrier beaches drew a line between the bays of the South Shore and the Atlantic Ocean, and the Sun was getting low above the city just barely visible in the distance. The cold wind from the open door swirled through the cabin, picking up dust, bits of duct tape and paint chips.
"Get your feet out!" Al yelled at me as the airport passed beneath us. I swung my feet out and performed the seemingly impossible maneuver of climbing out of the plane and onto the strut while flying at 80 MPH. Every instinct I had was telling me that this was stupid, that there was a reason that our instincts tell us not to fall. But the training held and I found myself hanging from the strut as we flew upwind of the airport.
Al gave me the exit signal, and two thoughts passed through my head in very quick succession - "why did I just let go? That was dumb" and "wow, my parachute's open." To this day I have no memory of the four seconds between letting go and finding myself under an open parachute, although a wing mounted video camera proved that I had indeed fallen away from the plane and had the static line open my parachute.
Then came about twenty seconds of uncertainty. Is the parachute OK? Can I steer it? Can I find the landing area? Can I figure out how to get there? And after that, a feeling that I could do this. Flying the parachute was almost intuitive, and I knew it wouldn't be long before I had mastered this huge boat of a canopy. And right there I knew that this wouldn't be a one time thing for me; I'd be back until I learned to fly the canopy well, until I learned how to freefall, until I learned to jump with other people. As the sun got closer to the horizon and I descended over the forests of Long Island I had the feeling that I was at the beginning of a long, completely unexpected trip, one whose path was dimly visible but whose destination was completely unknown.
September 2, 2011, Northern Nevada -
Twenty years later to the day I stood with twelve friends of mine on a playa in the middle of the Nevada desert. The airplane in front of us, a turbine PAC 750, was barely visible in the darkness even with its extravagant red, yellow and blue paint job. The second hand of the world's largest clock swung periodically over our heads, its laser making big green splashes of light on the mountains rimming the playa. Conditions were reasonable for a night jump; the moon was very low on the horizon but the winds were light, the skies were clear and the air traffic was nonexistent.
We loaded the plane, being careful to protect our night vision, our equipment and the pyrotechnics some of us were jumping. A premature firing in the plane would be very bad indeed, so we took a while to shuffle into the airplane - small by commercial aviation standards, but huge compared to the Cessna 206 I had made my first jump from two decades ago. This would be jump number 6300 for me, plus or minus a hundred or so; it had been a long time since I had kept careful track of my jump numbers. During those jumps I had set three world records, taught 1400 people to skydive, taken a few hundred people on tandems, and worked as a stuntman for MTV sports and a Honda commercial. I had jumped into Bangkok, downtown San Franscisco, the beaches of New York, Belize, Cabo san Lucas and San Carlos. I had jumped from 27,000 feet with 400 other people over an abandoned Vietnam era military base in Thailand. I had flown sixty miles from land over the Gulf of Mexico and jumped into the center of the Blue Hole. For fun.
Would I ever have predicted any of that, hanging from the stut of that Cessna in New York? No. But as a nerdy freshman at MIT I would never have predicted I'd ever skydive, either, or would someday be jumping into the (at that point nonexistent) Burning Man festival.
The plane started its turbine engine, so much more refined, reliable and powerful than the old piston engine in that Cessna. We taxied out to the makeshift runway and started accelerating. The strobes on the plane's belly illuminated the billowing clouds of dust thrown backwards by the propblast, freezing the images like lightning in a storm cloud. Within seconds we were off the ground and accelerating upwards at 2000 feet per minute.
It would be my job to spot the first group of jumpers, to make sure they got out at the right spot. And while this was perhaps the most challenging part of night demos, in this case it would be almost easy; Black Rock City was the only light for 20 miles or so, and it was two miles across. Putting us near the landing area in the center would be relatively easy as spots went.
The air got colder as we climbed to altitude. Lasers would occasionally illuminate the inside of the plane; they were popular at Burning Man and aiming them upwards was normally no issue at night while the airport was shut down. We protected our vision as best we could.
After about ten minutes we turned onto jump run. The red light, normally barely visible in the sunlight, came on like a setting sun, and someone stuck their hand over it to keep it from blinding us. I leaned out of the airplane into the prop blast to look down and saw the city extending for miles beneath us. We were lined up on the center, and the winds were light, so I kept us on the same heading until we were half a mile from the center of the playa where the Man himself was visible. I looked back inside, gave Splash a thumbs-up, and jumped out into the wind.
I fell away from the plane quickly, waiting for five seconds to get up enough speed to get my dust-caked parachute to open. (The dust got everywhere, and had actually started to slow down the pack opening of the parachute.) I felt the slow drag of the subterminal deployment stand me up, and I spent a busy thirty seconds checking out the nearly invisible parachute above my head, getting it ready to land and turning on my strobes and marker lights.
Then I looked down. The city stretched almost to the limits of my peripheral vision, and gouts of flame from various pyrotechnic art installations punctuated the bullseye created by the roads of the city. I could not yet see where I would land, which is perhaps the most nerve-wracking part of any night jump, but I could see my reference points - the thing that looked like a flaming rollercoaster, the tree of LED candycanes, the Man himself.
We had exited about two miles above the Playa and so I had about five minutes before I had to land. I orbited in wide circles over the city, flying over the entrance at the 6 o'clock radial, then heading back over the huge temple in the other direction, slowly losing altitude. I kept my eyes out for the other jumpers on the load, but saw them only rarely as a flashing light in the distance.
At 5000 feet I identified the parked cars whose headlights were illuminating our landing area, and at 1000 feet I set up my landing pattern. Things happen a lot faster during jumps at Burning Man due to the high ground elevation (4000 feet) and before long I found myself turning final over the burning roller coaster thing. As I finished the turn I heard a roar from beneath me. The ground crew had done an exceptional job of clearing a runway for us, and the very action of clearing all the people out had made people think that something interesting would be happening - and the crowd watching had quickly swelled to hundreds. I came in low over the cars and flared, skimming over the ground for 50 feet before finally coming to a stop. I turned in time to see Splash, the second jumper in our group, touch down in a roostertail of dust. The crowd started yelling again, amazed that there were people coming down out of the night sky under nylon wings.
I spent twenty minutes talking to the people who had watched us land, answering their questions - "what was it like?" "Was it cold?" "Were you scared?" "How did you get started doing this?" To the last question I answered "I just made one jump, twenty years ago. And then all this happened."