Sunday, August 06, 2006

Flight

Just at the start of your flight, the small propeller airplane does a little bob, and you get that stomach turning feeling one gets when an elevator drops too quickly, or a roller coaster goes over a hump. It will take about twenty minutes to reach the top, and if it's to be that bumpy all the way it's going to be mighty unpleasant. But amazingly, after that initial hiccup the ride is incredibly smooth, leaving you with one thing less to think about instead of the approaching experience.

The angle of ascent is steady, and with your legs stretched out in front of you, and nothing in easy grasping distance, it's hard to hold your position. So you take the instructor's advice and lean back on to him, occasionally glancing at the plastic yellow ducky in front of you, watching it tilt as the plane banks. The ground below is receding, taking on the appearance of a map, with the neighbouring town laid out in neat squares.

"How high do we go?" you ask over the steady drone of the engine. "10,000 feet."
You nod and lapse into silence again. You're trying to find the altimeter on the dashboard. "At what height does the parachute open?" He has an altimeter on the back of his hand. "About 5000 feet: that's about this height." You glance out the window again, and ask whether it's time to put the goggles on, but he advises you against it - they'd only fog up. You finally spot the altimeter - it's on the far left, with the appearance of a clock face, right down to the two hands turning in steady circles as you climb higher.

Somewhere above 9000 feet, he tells you to start getting ready. You get on your knees, next to the door on your right and just behind the white knee line on the floor. Passing the straps backward, you can hear and feel him fastening and tightening them. Four points of attachment - two on the shoulders, two on the hips, and any one of them strong enough to hold you, they'd said. He's just behind you, and your feet are feeling squashed. "Ow," you say, but he either doesn't hear you or realizes that there's little point to making any adjustments - this won't last long. He tells you it's time for the goggles, and sometime around then the plane levels off, above 10,000 feet.

It's time. You feel amazingly calm, and wonder at that, but shy away from introspection; you can feel a frisson of fear lying beneath that calm, ready to surface and engulf you if you only consider the situation, that you are about to fall out of a perfectly functional airplane for no other reason than you want to see what it feels like.

The door slides open, upward and above. You note the wheel strut - you had thought that it would fold away under the plane after take off, but it's still there. As you wait for the man behind you to put his foot outside, you idly wonder how you are supposed to avoid hitting the wheel, and what would happen if you got entangled in it. You tuck your thumbs under the harness straps and grab the straps firmly, arms tight to your sides. "Knees out," he calls, and you swing - first the right, then the left - until your folded legs are partly out the door, the knees pointing almost perpendicular to the sill. "Head up," he says, and at the same time he's pushing upward and outward - are you going to hit your head on the wing? - and then you're out.

A tumble, and for a moment you are on your back, watching the plane recede and the blue sky fall about you - and then he rolls, and you remember where you are falling to.

He tugs at your arms - belatedly you recall that it's okay to let go of the harness now, and you spread your arms. Fall belly first they had said on the ground - bend your knees and trail your arms and legs, it gives stability. You arch into position. You cast a look above your glasses and see an infinity of blue and white - but then your eyes return to the ground. But the ground is merely a distant concern - the wind embraces you at a hundred and twenty miles per hour. The view from that height is incredible, but you almost close your eyes. You are falling down - you are going nowhere. You are moving fast - you are absolutely still. In the wind's rough embrace, you surrender yourself.

There is a tap on your shoulder and he's moving your arms - a sudden jerk and you move from the horizontal to the vertical; you're suddenly moving upward. All too soon the parachute has opened. The rush of the wind has been replaced by a low steady flutter - you are still descending, but the pace is more sedate. Your arm hurts a little from the suddenness, and you feel queasy - for the next few minutes you will regret this jump, and have no desire to come back. Should you tell him that you feel - no, keep calm, deep breaths, deep breaths. And it quietens.

It is surprisingly quiet. "How was it?" he asks. You can sense that he wants an ecstatic "Oh-My-God" response, or a "Woo-hoo!" or a cheer. But you're still recovering from that feeling in your stomach, and besides, you are not much given to wordy expressions of excitement. "Wow," you say, because you know he'd be disappointed otherwise, "Wow. That was incredible." And then, "I'm basically speechless. Wow," hoping that that will explain your silence and satisfy him. How do you explain that it was a moment of calm, almost holy, of nothingness, of silent exhilaration? That to try to describe it, to quantify it with merely an exclamation fails so miserably; is demeaning to it?

He's handed you the controls to the chute now, and is showing you how to steer, and explaining the landing procedure - "Legs up, and ... flare." And on 'flare' you pull down on both the straps and the descent slows even further, the silence magnifying into another ocean of quiet. You practise a few more times. Your stomach has settled, and you suddenly realize that the ground is closer, too close - your previous regrets have all vanished, and now you merely wish to prolong your flight, to wish the ground away. You drift downward, the landscape a pretty postcard beneath you, but the world and all its reality is drawing closer, all too soon. You're holding the straps but he's the one doing all the real steering - a few turns and you're heading to the airfield. He points out your fellow jumper - despite jumping after you, she's going to touch ground first. A tight curve; the ground comes closer; it's almost over - "Legs up, and.... flare," - you hit the ground, your heels dragging a little infront of you. Not a textbook landing, but sufficient. As he unstraps himself, you tell him about your earlier queasiness. It's not something you're proud of, and you wish it hadn't happened, but the whole experience was so... pure, that you feel compelled to confess that one failing of yours. It demands your honesty. But you thank him, repeatedly, trying in those few words to convey how grateful you are for those few moments in the sky, that utter calm.

Helene is on the ground - you walk over. She was a little hyper on the drive over - and now that the deed is done, she is again. She is the kind of person who cheers and 'woohoo's - the jumpy cheery kind. "How was it?" she asks and you tell her it was great. And it was. "Woohoo! I want to do it again! I want to go skydiving again!" You smile at her. You are not a jumpy kind of person.

Slowly you make your way back to the building and the others waiting. There is a smile fixed on your face, but inside, behind the facade, you are desperately scrambling. What were you doing? Were you sleeping up there? Were your eyes closed? What were you feeling? For the moment is receding, the memory fading - you can remember in an abstract way how incredible it felt, but it was like nothing on this earth; and now, in the stranglehold of the reality around you, you cannot tell even yourself how it felt - only abstractions and trite cliches remain. Like a black hole, that moment in space and time has enclosed itself into nonexistence - it lived only in the experience, and left nothing of itself to remembrance. You will never recall it; it will never leave you.

You were not falling.

5 Comments:

Blogger .:Infektia:. said...

beautiful and superb!

11:24 pm, August 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

inspired, comical and NEATO!!!
Hrishi

1:25 am, August 06, 2006  
Anonymous anu said...

very inspiring

2:47 am, August 21, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

speechless....
precious moments

- ammu

9:05 pm, September 04, 2006  
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