September 2, 2005

Learning to Fly: The Ultimate Sporting Experience

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In the spirit of the highs, lows, miscalculations and utter catastrophes now becoming synonymous with summer, today’s column will be about skydiving.

There is a land in Hawaii called Hanalei. According to legend and song, Puff the Magic Dragon frolicked there. Two weeks ago, I was pushed out of a cheap Cessna 10,000 feet above Hanalei. It’s called skydiving.

Is skydiving a sport? It certainly is not the first sport deemed fit for the certifiably insane. Ancient Rome had gladiators, the czars invented Russian roulette and the Greeks, well, the Greeks wrestled in the nude. Today, we have Beirut with one-fifty-one. A fortiori, skydiving is a sport.

Since the dawn of time men have wanted to fly. The Icarian Sea, near Greece, is named for Icarus, the lad in myth who flew too close to the sun.

The great writers have mused about human flight. Socrates stated, “Man must rise above the earth – to the top of the atmosphere and beyond-” Hugo encouraged us to “be like the bird in flight.” To soar free and untouched over the clouds is a dream of all mankind – not just drug-crazed hippies or political dissidents in the Pinochet era.

No one seems to know when the “sport” of skydiving began. We know da Vinci sketched a human parachute in the 15th century and circus freak Tom Baldwin plummeted out of a hot air balloon in 1885.

But nobody claims the first actual free-fall. It’s kind of like listening to a Will Smith album – the first people who tried it died, and the rest don’t seem to want to talk about it.

So there we were on the mystical island of Kauai when I saw an ad for a local skydiving outfit – “an experience you will never forget.” No, I don’t think I would forget an experience resulting in paraplegia.

Nonetheless, I decided to buck the survival instinct and strap on a chute. At 7:30 a.m. we drove to what we thought would be the airport. It turned out to be a discarded landing strip.

We passed by an abandoned school bus as we looked for the skydiving office. We soon learned the abandoned bus was, in fact, the “office.”

We hoped to find a skilled “flightmaster” like the ad had promised. Someone I knew I could entrust my life to. Instead, we found Scotty the Stoner, barely 18, who smelled like he had been puffing the magic dragon that very morning.

When we sought reassurance about safety, they gave us a 19-page waiver form to sign: “I won’t sue you when I die” was the essence of it.

My colleague had been on the fence about whether to skydive. On seeing the “system” at work, he said he would skydive “when pigs fly.”

The skydivers claimed to have spent $15,000 on each parachute. They must have run out of money for an airplane. The antiquated Cessna was like something out of a horror film. As we went up to 10,000 feet, someone said not to worry because death from falling is instantaneous – and thereby painless. Incredibly, I was not reassured.

But there we were. Attached to Scotty the Stoner, I was pushed out of the Cessna and I hurtled into a 120-mph free-fall for 40 seconds. Scotty thought he was being funny when he told me in mid-air he “forgot” how to pull the parachute cord.

As we fell below 5,000 feet, Scotty woke up, pulled the cord and the $15,000 parachute opened. For the first time that morning, the odds tilted in favor of survival.

So I began to enjoy Hawaii from a view which Captain Cook never had. The Stoner and I floated lazily back to earth over the ocean and the mountains and the limitless trees on this garden island. There was a bit of a bump when we hit the ground, but on the whole it was exhilarating.

Why is skydiving today so important? Not only did Cook never have the view, but neither did Julius Caesar. Charlemagne founded France and Germany but never saw the other side of the clouds. Newton and Leibniz may have discovered differential calculus but they could only dream of the view from 10,000 feet – much less the poetic lunacy of a human plunge from such a height. Jesus Christ founded a great religion but he never – well, maybe never.

So skydiving is a sport – for all those who live to tell about it. And this weekend, as USC goes to Hawaii to open its national title defense, if you look closely at the clouds above Aloha Stadium, you might find Scotty the Stoner.

Kyle Sheahen is a Sun Senior Editor. The Ultimate Trip will appear every other Friday this semester.

Archived article by Kyle Sheahen