As a young man in the 82nd Airborne, I jumped 30-something times from various aircraft. A “static line” anchored inside the plane ran to the parachute on my back and deployed it as I left the plane. Scary.
“Exit altitude” was 1,200 feet, so low that if my main chute malfunctioned, I feared my “reserve” would be superfluous. Plus, the sky was so crowded it wasn’t unusual for someone to “walk” on top of my chute.
Thirty years of university and work-life later, I began skydiving. Exhilarating.
Yet there was still uneasiness about jumping with others, like worrying about an erratic oncoming car. So, off-and-on through 1,600-plus jumps, I experimented with “speed-jumping” — exiting alone, then falling as fast as possible. Like many jumpers, a gadget I wore recorded my freefall speed.
Then, most skydivers fell “belly-to-earth,” where terminal free-fall speed is 120 mph. My free-fall posture was vertical, sometimes feet-down, sometimes head-down.
On March 9, 2014, I exited at 13,500 feet and set a world skydiver freefall speed record for jumpers over 40: 221 mph. Speed-jumping has since become a skydiving discipline, and my record has gone the same direction as my 30-second claim-to-fame. Poof.
Today, my exhilaration is keeping up with my neighbor on a nine-hole golf course. Yet, to some extent, I am able to relate to experiences of these four skydivers of a different dimension.
Jumper No. 1: Before France’s André-Jacques Garnerin made the scene, wannabe gravity challengers used bird-like wings with cloth stretched over a wooden frame, much like a kite, or “parachutes” of similar construction. Uniformly bad results. André upended that craziness with the world’s first non-rigid frame chute — a 23-foot-diameter canvas umbrella.
In 1797, André took his parachute system to a public park in Paris. Fully implemented, a hot air balloon attached to André’s undeployed parachute, which attached to a basket that he occupied. At 3,200 feet, he used a long vertical device to sever the chute from the balloon, and the chute opened. Then André, in the basket attached to the parachute, floated to the ground. The crowd went bonkers.
Three years later, he and wife, Geneviève, (his student and the first female parachutist) traveled to England and he did the same thing. Only this time, he did it from 8,000 feet. The English loved it so that they cooked up a ballad:
“Bold Garnerin went up
Which increased his Repute
And came safe to earth
In his Grand Parachute.”
Jumper No. 2: In 1893, Granville County, N.C. gave the future skydiving world one Georgia Ann Thompson. Nicknamed “Tiny” at birth, having weighed in at merely 3 pounds, she grew to 4-feet in height, and 80 pounds soaking wet. She compensated with lioness courage.
When she saw Charles Broadwick jump from a hot air balloon at Raleigh’s N.C. State Fair, she bid adieu to her cotton mill job. Instantly, Tiny knew jumping was her future.
After persuading Broadwick to accept her as part of his act, 15-year-old Tiny made her first jump from a balloon in 1908 at, you guessed it, the N.C. State Fair. Broadwick not only accepted Tiny, he adopted her.
People ate up Tiny’s diminutive size with the little girl clothing she donned during her 1,000-plus jumps. On one of her jumps, the static line got caught on the tail of the plane, leaving her attached and blowing in the wind. Small in stature, gargantuan in cool, Tiny Broadwick simply cut the static line and deployed the chute by throwing it into the air by hand as she free-fell away, presaging skydiving as a freefall adventure, with the jumper in control of when the chute opens.
Jumper No. 3: Cheryl Stearns moved from Arizona to Raeford in 1975. There she trained to compete in a form of skydiving where one jumps from a plane, then tries to land in the center of a defined area: accuracy jumping.
Cheryl is now a skydiving legend. Here’s why: 31 world records; only parachutist to ever hold four different world records simultaneously; 21,000 jumps as of June 2019; Guinness Book of World Records for 352 jumps in a 24-hour period; first female member of the elite U.S. Army’s Golden Knights skydiving team; former U.S. Airways captain and current Airbus pilot for American Airlines, from Charlotte; 22,000 hours of flying time in 75 types of aircraft.
Jumper No. 4: Four years ago, a 42-year-old third-generation American skydiver with 18,000 jumps and numerous movie stunt jumps performed the ultimate stunt. One Luke Aikins hopped aboard a plane that ascended to 25,000 feet above the California desert, then he jumped. Without a parachute. Luke fell belly-to-earth for two minutes then about one second before “touchdown,” flipped onto his back and landed in a 10,000 square-foot net. Not even a scratch.
Warning: Do not try that at home.
Michael Smith is well-grounded as a Southern Pines writer.