Written for a literary journalism class
Skydiving is an extreme sport, the waiver reads, the center is not responsible for injuries or even death. Extreme and death capitalized and bold, serving as the final resort to rely some sense into the situation. They can’t sue, even if negligence is present. The warning glanced over without a second thought as initials provide endorsement, ignoring a seemingly unlikely outcome. People queue behind the desk, waiting to irrevocably sign away the ability for anyone to prosecute the aforementioned skydiving center if something goes wrong.
The forms don’t tell them anything. The plane is assumed to be well maintained. They tell themselves what they’re about to do is safer than driving down the road. Like most people would, they assume they’re paying for safety. The company must fear the repercussions associated with a bad reputation; so the patrons believe the risk of going out of business is enough to ensure adequate behind the scenes measures have been implemented on all of the equipment. They sign away their lives, and you grimace at how easy it is to be incognizant of the risk. From days spent flying load after load of four people up, you’re aware the plane suffers from neglect and a lack of routine care. Which is why you’re on the verge of quitting.
The first-timers walk into the hangar with shaky palms and excitable gestures as they become suffused with fear; they have yet to figure out what this day will hold . Three hours later they will be walking out the doors. Another checkmark on their bucket-list earned. Most of them will leave with a smile on their face and adrenaline pulsating through their veins. You rarely get to hear from them after they complete the jump; you’re too busy racing the next group up 11,000 feet.
In the hangar that has been adapted to serve the skydiving company, they are quickly taught the proper jumping form, the instructors graze enough of the surface to keep everyone alive. Staff members roll parachutes 15 feet from where the novices watch a video, are told what not to do and then prove to their instructor they know how to put their arms above their heads in the correct position. Their tandem partner explains the signals they will give in the air to let them know of any adjustments they need to make while speeding toward the ground.
Do they even think about the condition of the plane? Doubtful. They are too preoccupied trying to retain the substantial directions they are being given. Why would they care about the state of their route up if they are about to jump out of it? Their naivety forces you to wonder if you possess the same ignorant disposition, considering as soon as you started revving up the plane’s engine this morning you were greeted by the smell of burning matter. At the source you found a bird’s nest had been nestled into the engine and caught on fire before the plane left the tarmac. You gave little more than an annoyed reaction. It was another reminder of the lack of care provided to the planes you fly, yet here you are flying them notwithstanding.
The tiny white 1959 Cessna is attired in bird excrement and remnants of paint clinging to its exterior. The inside has been stripped of its insulation and only the pilot’s seat remains. Intermittent plastic pieces provide evidence of a covering for the control panel in front of you, proof the eye sore looked presentable in the 1960s, but now every instrument, except for airspeed, fails to function properly. You can see the foam that holds each useless instrument in place. The door was rigged to open upwards to enable the divers with an easy exit. A step outside the door has been covered with tar to provide a grippy surface for skydivers to become situated before their fall. The skydivers are the only ones who know your altitude, your altimeter quit working long before you arrived.
Still it’s as trustworthy as it is old, and always gets the job done. Every now and then when a customer is quizzical of the condition of the plane, most likely after seeing the overt signs of deterioration and rust, they will inquire whether the plane is in condition to fly.
It’s only partially a joke when you brush off the question as trivial and answer “I sure think it is,” with a dismissive guffaw.
Your job isn’t to maintain the plane’s condition, you have no idea how to seemingly fix any big thing that is malfunctioning, but you can inspect. So before every shift you show up early, only to find maintenance wasn’t carried throughout the weekday cessation. You ask questions, but it can always wait; at the end of the day it will be taken care of.
The short, rotund mechanic doesn’t enjoy confrontation and only takes his own advice. Every day he arrives in overalls and a Carhartt T-shirt with a mustache hiding his lips, his denim hat pulled low over his eyes. He’s never in a hurry and that shows in his inability to assert himself enough to complete routine tasks.
Your boss is always in a rush, at times putting turnover above safety. A few months ago, after two trips, you began to refuel the chrome aircraft nicknamed the “silver bullet.”
“Hey! We’ve got people waiting! We need to go!”
Reluctantly, you obeyed his commands and decided to add fuel after you take the next group up. You didn’t believe you faced a huge risk, you were just filling the tank as a precaution.
While descending, your engine started to stutter. You radioed down to let the crew know your engine was causing you trouble. Then the engine stopped. An eerie scene unfolded itself as the propeller came to a complete stop in midair.
Luckily, you were in an O.K. position to land and did so without issue.
The first group files into the plane. They’re giddy as they ask if you’re even old enough to be a pilot. You laugh, joke that it’s your first day. This has become a routine question.
The first day you flew skydivers, your boss handed you a parachute. It’s mandatory for pilots to be equipped with one as well.
“Um, thanks, but how do I use it?”
“It’s an army chute so you don’t have to worry about controlling it. You just pull that silver handle and land wherever the wind takes you.”
If they noticed how high you raised your eyebrows at that simple explanation, they didn’t care to give you a few more minutes of their time to elaborate further. An explanation seemed to be abandoned in the midst of the anticipated turnover and a need to take up your first load so you could get down to pick up the next.
As you take off, you head south on the half mile runway, once you get into the air you will fly over the highway. You steadily gain altitude while holding your breath with the slow ascent. As long as you get past 1,000 feet everything will be okay. If something goes wrong before then, everyone on board is in for an ominous landing.
Most loads cause the plane to become overweight. There have been times when the weight exceeded 500 pounds above your authorized limit. The limit was established for safety; loading planes this size above what they are designed for can be detrimental. In hindsight you’ll wonder why you weren’t terrified of adding too much stress to the wings. You’ll question how much longer it would have been before the wings fell off.
As someone who believes in only taking calculated risks, you find yourself succumbing to an almost reckless mindset. If you had more experience, you doubt you would have accepted this job. One of your predecessors had warned you, but you adamantly declared you would do the job differently. You swore you would look over the documents and make sure nothing risky was taking place. As a new pilot, you were craving hours and experience. At times, you realize you possess a mindset that states, “bring it on.”
You have seen a plane crash to the ground, but negligence was not the cause. It was a fluke. There’s an obvious risk associated with flying; small malfunctions cannot be easily fixed when you’re in the air.
Pilot forced to jump after skydiver damages plane’s tail
After a long day of flying, “fun-jumpers” made their way into the eccentrically painted pink and blue striped plane. As the first jumper stood on the step outside the plane, their pilot chute deployed and struck the elevator.
The plane hadn’t dropped the jumpers yet, although they should have been headed for the ground by now. Then, the other pilot’s voice came through the walkie talkie in clear distress.
“Hey, we’ve got a problem … My elevator doesn’t work.”
In came the knowledge that the pilot no longer had control of a crucial aviation aspect — the elevator pitches the plane’s nose up and down.
The skydivers cut away the pilot chute and made their way out of the plane, leaving the pilot alone in the impaired airplane.
Your boss hurries into your plane and you fly up to check out the damage to find the parachute has tangled itself around the elevator and was being dragged by the plane. The stabilizer is mangled.
After a mock landing test proves landing the aircraft is implausible, they decide to evacuate the plane.
“Prepare to bailout,” you hear your boss tell your colleague. “Get clear of the airplane, count to five and then pull the silver handle.”
2,000 feet above cornfields he jumped, hopeful the plane would stray away from anyone near the area.
You watch as his parachute deploys and he floats into the farmer’s field below. The plane mows down 400 feet of corn, crumpling into an aluminum ball. Suddenly the magnitude of your chosen occupation becomes clear; what if it had been you?
You thought about quitting after that, but you wrote the catastrophe off as being the skydiver’s fault. Because it was. Plus, everyone made it out just fine.
The propeller screams and the aluminum doors rattle as the shell shakes its way through the sky. The intensity of the noise causes you to wear ear plugs beneath your headset.
After 30 minutes of climbing, the first load empties out of the door at 11,000 feet. You begin your descent alone, trying to beat the skydivers down. Each day consists of taking loads of skydivers up, opening the door for them to jump and then rushing down to pick up the next group of adrenaline seekers. The fear is a constant, but miniscule, qualm that can be justified as normal for anyone flying a plane.
Last week, you flew up a man and his granddaughter. She was laughing and he was trembling. Was it too morbid of you to think this may be his final thrill before old age takes its toll. The rest of his life will be spent looking out of the window, remembering the times he had. Thankful he took this risk so he had a story to tell the old folks at five o’clock dinner.
You’ve been watching skydivers of all skill levels jump for a few years now, but you have never left the comfort of your worn out seat. One day, you’ll jump.
You admire the experienced jumpers, while also wondering how a life spent jumping from planes can be reasoned with a family back home. These aspirations seem strange, but then you remember you live in the air as well, and maybe their insanity isn’t so different from yours; one of you jumps out of the flight-risk, while the other stays in it.
Your last load of skydivers file into the plane. Each one possessing an Accelerated Free Fall license. They joke and beg you to do something to amplify the already thrilling experience. The cobalt sky holds no danger and you can’t help but smile at the simplicity of the task at hand. You know the machine by heart. It’s old, but seemingly steady.
After the last jumper leaves the step, you start to make your descent only to find you have lost control of the flap on the right wing. The airplane persists to fly in circles, your control is limited and dwindling.
You’re suddenly at the forefront of a disaster and none of it seems remotely realistic. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Later you will find out that the flap selector had rusted out which should have been found during routine 100 hour inspections, which equates to once a month during the skydiving season.
Time is a funny thing. One minute can feel like a lifetime when the trepidation of what will happen next overwhelms you. Every second in each minute seems exaggerated as you’re inundated with fear. The idea of seeking a new job if you make it out of this alive suddenly overwhelms you. The emphasis laid clearly on the if.
At 5,000 feet you make your first solo jump, hoping the spiraling plane steers clear of anyone below. Once the chute is deployed you feel a sense of survival flow into you.
A farmer finds you in his cornfield. Unsure whether to laugh or cry, you simply smile at the disaster. You can’t wait to quit.
The plane is found in a cornfield. Indistinguishable from a pile of scraps at a junkyard.
The farmer who owns the field becomes aggravated as the Federal Aviation Administration spends weeks investigating. The FAA found no documentation of mandatory inspections that should have been routinely carried out and recorded. It was not hard to discover the planes were suffering from the companies inattentiveness.
As the days pass, foreboding signs suggest what the outcome will be for the company. A month later the center aimed at providing a thrill to anyone willing to take the risk closes its door.