As a freshman in the Aeronautical Science department at Embry-Riddle in 1977, that first month on campus was somewhat dizzy. It’s sort of like stepping from the comfort of your home directly onto a moving sidewalk that is traveling at 75 miles per hour- it’s a bit hard to keep your balance. To add to the circumstances you have no real idea as to exactly where you are going, but yer’ goin’ fast. In that first freshman month we saw a good number of our fellow freshmen that wanted off of that train and who headed back home.
For the rest of us the school had a “clubs and organizations day” to help us bond with other students and hang in there. It was at that event that I noticed a really good looking girl at the table for the ERAU Skydiving Club. She was signing up people to take their first parachute jump. Hell, she could have been signing up people to do razor-wire climbing and I’d have put my name on the clipboard that she handed me. There were at least 60 other names that had been signed above me as I added my scribble onto that list and agreed to show up at room C-405 on the following Tuesday evening. Thus, in a heartbeat she had gathered my name as well as the name of my roommate Mike. We’d signed up for a series of evening ground schools followed by a visit to the airport at Eustis, Florida for more ground training and then a static-line parachute jump. Walking away my roommate giggled, “Do ya’ think she’ll be there?” Forever the cynic I replied, “Probably not.”
Although that pretty young lady had probably gathered more than 100 signatures at that event, when Mike and I showed up for the first night of parachuting ground school only 25 other individuals were in attendance. The previous Sunday, on the phone, I had made the mistake of telling my parents that I was going to learn parachute jumping. My Mom sounded like I was already dead and my Dad urged me not to do it because, “It’s just not worth it.” So, I can easily imagine what parental pressures were placed upon the others on that list. For me, I tried to explain to my folks that my reasoning for doing this was quite logical and professional. If I was going to make flying my future and career, you never know when I may have to strap on a parachute as required by the FARs. In such a case I’d be wearing it as a safety device and if I had to use it I would need to do so without hesitation. A moment or two of doubt could, in such cases, mean the difference between life and death. Learning to use it now, early in my career, would erase that hesitation. As an example I told my folks that I may one day get a job carrying sky divers in order to build my flight hours- most pilots who do that wear a parachute. Or I may do aerobatic training- a parachute is required. My Dad saw that reasoning- Mom still thought I would plummet to my death. I didn’t mention the part about the girl who signed me up... they’d have thought that I was making decisions with parts of me other than my brain.
While the 27 of us sat there in room C-405 there was a high degree of apprehension in the room. No one came out and said that they were nervous- some gnawed on their pencils, or tapped pens on their desk. The rest chewed on their fingernails or moved their legs rhythmically to unheard music. Personally, I’ve always been a fingernail chewer- it drives my wife nuts to this day.
Jimmy Godwin was the owner of Paragators Inc. and our ground school instructor. He was a strong blunt man who could make a total malfunction sound like an old classic joke. His first act of business was to get all of us to pay for the class. One guy blurted out, “Will you take a check?” To which Godwin replied, “We sure will- but remember, if your check bounces, so do you.”
As the class went on I slowly realized that the whole point was- if properly trained you’ll develop an instinct for your equipment and knowledge for how it works and through that you could readily do something that so many people were frightened away from doing. If I had a confidence in my training and in the equipment and procedures I could not only do this, but I may actually enjoy the ride. I found that lesson to be true through all of my aviation career. I also realized that the pretty girl who’d signed me up was nowhere in that classroom. It was just my ass there training to do something that gives other people nightmares; another basic axiom of aviation.
On Saturday, September 24th, 1977 we all gathered at Eustis Airfield for our jump day. All 27 who had attended the ground school were there. It was 95 degrees in the shade and that was at 0900 in the morning. Fortunately the temperature would only climb to 97 as the day went on. We all went through two hours of additional ground training using a mock-up wing strut and step, a small three-foot high platform with a pit of saw dust where we could practice our PLF (Parachute Landing Fall) roll and then to the actual aircraft where we practiced getting in and out. We also visited the “peas” which was a large 12 foot circle of pea gravel that was the target we’d be aiming for- hopefully with a fully deployed main parachute over our heads rather than streamering above our heels. They showed us a big florescent orange arrow. The ground crew would be holding this up as we descended and pointing it in the direction that we needed to steer our canopy. We were told that once they felt we had the knack of steering, they’d turn the arrow onto its side and we’d be responsible for the rest of the steering. The object was to “hit the peas” but they joked that probably none of us would actually hit the target. It was my hope just to hit Eustis, Florida.
After our final ground training we all gathered under an old tin-roof shade cover and stood in front of a huge, ancient blackboard. Jimmy Godwin was in front and shouted out, “The light weights will go first. Give me 3 light guys.” A chorus of 27 names were blurted out- everyone wanted to go first! By this time, Jimmy knew who was who and he quickly picked the first three and placed their name on the board as “Team 1” then he selected three more for the second team. I couldn’t believe that anyone was lighter weight than scrawny ol’ me, and then I saw Jimmy write down “Novac,” “Karger” and “Olesz.” I was on the third team to jump. We all watched the first team suit up with the help of Team 2 and then watched as they tromped out to the Cessna 182 and took off. Next the three of us on Team 3 helped Team 2 get ready. I went with Bill Rose and Wes Goodman to the trailer where they were tossing out our jump suits and Rose and Goodman both got theirs and started dressing. Both Rose and Goodman would go on to make a lot more jumps as the year went on. Goodman even joined the ERAU skydiving club. We took a short break to watch Team 1 jump and then saw Team 2 off to their Cessna 180- then it was our turn.
Jump team #3 (LtoR) Karger, Novac and me.
Reaching into the trailer one of the guys tossed me a crappy blue jump suit with a huge rip in the crotch. Lucky for me it was way too small so I handed it back and was issued a new green suit with a cool Paragator’s patch on the right shoulder and an American flag on the left- now we’re talkin’. If I was gonna burn in, I wanted to do it lookin’ like an aviator and not a hobo. In a heartbeat they hustled us over and strapped on our parachutes. Those damned straps were so tight that I thought my ability to have children would be removed when the chute deployed. The shoulder straps cut into me and when they placed the reserve chute onto my chest I felt like I was in a nylon vise. I was soaked with sweat and it was about then that I discovered that both of my chutes had been packed by a 15-year-old kid.
They marched us out across the little wooden foot bridge that led to the aircraft and we paused just in time to see a guy jump from Team 2- it was Rose. Now, Bill Rose and Leo Wood were the most noticeable guys on campus. They were fresh out of USMC boot and both still sported their Marine crew cuts among all of us long haired 70s students. Of course when you go through Marine Corps boot you learn to use your voice in a big way. For all of our parachute training we had all practiced the vocal count, “Arch thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand, six thousand, Check Canopy!” We had shouted it over and over countless times and we lay on our bellies practicing our arch. Rose and Wood were, of course, the loudest. What no one had told us was that the parachute deploys with one hell of a jerk and does so in just over one second. So, off the wing goes Rose and down on the ground we clearly heard his now familiar voice shout, “ARCH THOUSAND, Gaaaak!” followed by, “CHECK CANOPY!” The entire field cracked up.
Rose and Wood- my two favorite Marines from ERAU
On Team 3 I would jump last, Karger first and Novac in the middle. We all squeezed into the back of 182 with Novac and I up against the bulkhead and Karger crossways. Nothing could have felt better that that prop-blast coming in through that door as the engine started- we were really over heated up until then. We’d been told to guard our reserve ripcord with one hand at all times- I took no chances and hugged mine with both arms. If that reserve deploys and goes out that open doorway- you’re gonna go too, and it won’t be pretty.
Soon we were climbing toward 3,000 feet. Novac looked at me and asked, “You gonna go through with it?” I nodded confidently. Actually my only fear by then was that I would chicken out. Upon reaching altitude, the jump master guided Karger over to the open door. “Feet out,” He commanded to Karger, “Get out,” Karger’s on the wing strut, “GO!” Karger’s gone as the jump master reels in his static line. The aircraft banks around and he motions to Novac. Again it is “Feet out, get out, go!” and Novac is gone.
Now it’s my turn and I slide up on my butt toward the door and the jump master has me turn around so my back is up against the instrument panel. As we bank around the jump master opens the door and I stick my head part way out and look down. “Get ready,” I hear through my helmet. Then he orders my feet out and forcing against the slipstream I put my boots on the airfoil wooden step. “Get out,” and I push myself out and grab that wing strut as tightly as I can while the relative wind shoots up my nose and is nearly as bad as having water going up your nose. “GO!”
The sensation was that of being sucked up a vacuum cleaner feet-first and the speed was unexpected as I shout “Arch thousand…” and do my best arch yet my senses were momentarily overwhelmed. I seem to be falling and falling at high speed for a long, long time. Then some huge unexpected force takes hold of me and suddenly I’m looking at the toes of my boots right in front of my nose! I spring like a puppet on a rubber band and I hear myself blurt out, “THREE THOUSAND!” Looking up I see the chute fully deployed over head and I mumble, “check canopy.” The entire process took just over two seconds.
My biggest worry through all of the training was the steering toggles that are used to slightly deform the canopy and allow air to flow through the two modifications in the chute, thus turn the rig. I worried that they may be out of reach or tangled somewhere, but they are both right there in front of me. I nab one in each hand and begin to look around of the airport. Scanning around in the distance I cannot find it. At length as I lower my gaze I see it’s directly under my left toe! And the arrow is pointing in the direction that I’m going.
It is totally silent around me and I felt as if I’m sitting on a cloud. “This is of f#$&ing cool,” I giggle to myself. In short order, however, I’m a bit impatient with the arrow guy. I want to make a turn and see how this thing handles but he has me going straight. “Come on, gim’me a turn,” I whisper to myself. Just then he turns me left and then right is a brief “S” turn and then back on heading. I figure he’ll have me on the arrow nearly all the way down like the others that I’d watched and I have a long way to go. Just then he turns the arrow on its side and I’m on my own! Nuts! Now I gotta work!
In retrospect I just did the best that I could to guesstimate my course, but I had no real idea if I was right. I just tried to keep the peas between my toes. Then, as I still felt high up in the air they shouted the command, “Feet together- look at the horizon!” I did what I was trained to do and wham! The Earth came up and smacked me! I crumbled into the pea gravel and tried to do some sort of PLF as the canopy deflated over top of me. Looking at the ground all I saw was pea gravel- I’d hit the dang target. Officially I was 4 meters from center and only one other guy hit the peas that day- but he was almost dead center and totally beat me.
Me at about 30 feet up- feet together and lookin' at the horizon
Overall we stayed there all day and watched our whole class jump. Rose jumped at least one more time that same day. We all had fun and we all learned a lot about ourselves. There was only one close call and that came when one jumper lost his glasses and could not see the arrow. We’d all been warned to get sports bands for our glasses, but he’d forgotten. So when the parachute deployed and jerked his head back he lost a pair of badly needed glasses and managed to almost get up close and personal to a barbed wire fence.
I’ve never regretted signing up on that clipboard handed to me by Barbara Shalit, that good lookin’ girl at the Skydiving Club’s table. She was then the club president and managed to get a few new club members and a handy chunk of change for Paragators. I always wanted to do it again, but really had to knuckle down on studying for the rest of the trimester. Thereafter, I never had enough money to eat, let alone go parachute jumping. In my career as a pilot I only wore a chute two more times, but was always confident in doing so thanks to Barbara, Jimmy and Paragators. Jimmy passed away on March 26, 1998 while in his hangar doing light maintenance on N5357B, the aircraft from which I had jumped two decades earlier.
None of our checks bounced- and on September 24th, 1977, neither did any of us.
Wes Oleszewski is the author of 23 books and you can find much of his work at Amazon.com
Wes Oleszewski is the author of 23 books and you can find much of his work at Amazon.com