March 23, 1997
The winds were calm and the sky was full of stars when the airplane climbed 6,000 feet above the ground. Me along with twelve other skydivers made final preparation for what would become one of the most awesome spectacles I had ever witnessed.
To achieve a master skydive license you need to do two night jumps–one solo and one with a small group. Night jumps have an appeal of their own and many jumpers feel their skydiving experience is not complete without doing at least one night jump. However, there are some skydivers who only come to the drop zone to do night jumps. Even I’d asked myself, are these people normal? If you think about it, what’s normal about “SKYDIVING AT NIGHT?” But lots of people don’t think it’s normal to skydive at all.
During the day prior to the night jump, you must do two or three jumps using the equipment you plan to use that night. It is suggested that during at least one of these day jumps, you deploy your pilot chute with your eyes closed to feel what it’s like not to be able to watch your canopy open.
A jumpmaster who is familiar with night jumps leads a discussion on the unique circumstances encountered when jumping at night. All the calculations necessary to do a night jump such as experience-level, exit-order; canopy size and opening altitudes are taken into account and discussed.
Night jumps require some additional equipment such as glow sticks and strobe lights. The glow sticks are taped to the altimeter, in order to read the altitude in the dark and strobe lights are attached to equipment so jumpers can see each other in the dark.
Generally, a night jump requires a full moon high enough in the sky to see familiar landmarks. Earlier that day I had read that there was to be a lunar eclipse that evening, but I didn’t want to bring it up for fear someone might decide to cancel the event. As the moon rose higher that pleasant March evening, the butterflies I hadn’t felt since my first jump returned–so did the excitement.
We geared up and went over the details again. Then, just before climbing aboard the King Air, we checked each other’s gear. On this load, I was scheduled to be the last one out of the plane, so I was the first one to get in the plane. When everyone was aboard, we counted heads, buckled up and took off. The excitement was unbelievable. I had done this routine over three hundred times in the past two years, but never under these circumstances.
At 10,000 feet above the ground, we were on jump run and the green light came on. The first skydiver at the door checked the spot to make sure we were over the airport, and the first group climbed out and disappeared out the door. With a count of eight between each group for good separation, one at a time, the remaining jumpers were swallowed by the darkness outside the plane. Then it was my turn. I looked out the door, counted to eight and lunged into the abyss.
Leaving the airplane always throws me into a dimension of unexpected calm. Any anxiety I might feel on separation evaporates and I have the sensation of floating, of being suspended in the air, rather then falling, as there is no point of reference to indicate movement or speed. This freefall experience was wonderful as usual, but when I looked around, I realized that I wanted to slow down and stay in the air as long as I could.
I saw the plane dive well below and to the right of me. Since I was the last one out of the plane, I knew there was nothing above me and I deployed my main parachute. After going through all the checks to make sure the mechanics of my canopy were functioning correctly, I turned on my strobe lights, made sure I was over the top of the landing area and started to absorb my surroundings. I was 9,500 feet above the ground.
In the eastern sky, a brilliant full moon was being slowly devoured by the eminence shadow of the earth. Off in the distance, the planet Mars glistened like a tiny ruby from the depths of space, while over the northwest horizon, on its flight toward the sun, the Comet Hale-Bopp streaked across the heavens. Moonlight reflected off the snow-covered Rocky Mountains in the west; and below, towns and cities shimmed like large piles of unclaimed treasure. The Milky Way snaked across the sky; its ribbon-like patters of shimmering stars becoming increasingly brighter as the eclipse reached its peak.
I slowed the descent of my canopy down, by going into half brakes, in order to stay in the air for as long as possible. I’d opened my canopy at 9,500 feet above the ground so that I would have around 10 minutes of flying time. Floating alone through space surrounded by so many magnificent sights was one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life and I didn’t want it to end. Every now and then I would see a black square gliding silently between me and the lights of the airport below–the other skydivers’ canopies.
By the time I was at 1,000 feet above the ground, I had to stop stargazing and prepare to land. The layout of the airport and the landing area was familiar, but the darkness created a new sense of awareness. We had cars parked on the landing area with their headlights turned on, facing in the direction we were to land. I had made so many jumps at this DZ, using the same equipment, so even though I could not see in the same way as in the daylight, everything felt right and my landing was one of my best.
Afterward, we gathered around a blazing bon-fire, drank a few beers and shared our stories. We had all been changed in someway by this amazing experience.