Skydiving: a leap, a rush, a lasting thrill

Posted July 02, 2010, at 7:33 p.m.

The dew slowly burned off the grass as the temperature inched its way up to the day’s high of 89, but nearly 10,100 feet above Central Maine Skydiving’s headquarters and trussed up like a Thanksgiving Day turkey in my half of a tandem harness, I shivered in my T-shirt.

The air inside the 45-year-old Cessna 182 had dropped into the 40s and adrenaline was coursing through my body as I reflected on the plunge I was about to take.

As the plane climbed into the bright blue sky above Pittsfield, four of us were packed like sardines into the cabin: pilot Bob Hart of Canaan, who occupied the only seat; my tandem partner, Matt Riendeau of Bucksport; my videographer, Steve Straub of Hudson and me. I was buckled to the floor with my back to the pilot’s seat. Riendeau sat in the back of the plane near my feet. Straub was stationed by the doorway.

Riendeau shouted over the drone of the engine, pointing out smokestacks toward Skowhegan, Interstate 95 snaking through the forest canopy, and Belfast and the ocean, hazy in the distance.

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Meanwhile he and Straub kept track of the plane’s climb on their altimeter wristbands, and sooner than I thought 20 minutes could pass, Riendeau was motioning for me to turn around and sit with my back to him so he could attach and tighten the straps connecting my harness to the front of his. Then came the clear plastic goggles, which fit so tightly that they dug into my forehead and cheeks.

Straub lifted the door of the plane and a deafening roar filled the cabin (imagine the sound you hear when you’re driving on the highway with your window down amplified by about 10). He disappeared out the doorway, positioning himself under the wing to capture my exit on camera. Then it was my and Riendeau’s turn.

We followed Straub, scooching forward as one unit. I gripped the straps of the harness near my shoulders as I hung over the edge of the doorway, my feet resting on a metal step that would be my last contact with something solid for the next six or so minutes. The force of the wind made it difficult to breathe. A miniature landscape stretched out below me. It was what migrating birds see, with nothing between them and Earth.

I pursed my lips in concentration. We rocked back and forward once, twice, and the third time we were falling, the plane already hundreds of feet above us. The instant my feet left the metal step I arched my torso and legs back into a “C.”

“You want to try and kick my ass,” Riendeau had said to me on the ground. Then by his cue I let go of my harness, extending my arms out so that they formed an “E” with my head.

We were stabilized, and I hadn’t once glimpsed the plane above us. That was Riendeau’s goal — we needed to be facing Earth for the parachute to deploy properly.

It was time to enjoy the ride — all 39 seconds of free fall.

For a moment I forgot about Riendeau, the parachute and the inevitable landing. My senses were on high alert as the air whooshed by me; Earth rushed closer and closer; my body tried to relearn how to breathe; I rode the adrenaline high that had peaked with my big leap; and I realized how unique this is to the human experience.

By the time we reached 114 mph, I had a grin plastered on my face that would stay with me for days.

A soft tug brought me back to reality. Riendeau had pulled the ripcord and the main parachute had deployed. Our legs swung down so we were upright and we drifted toward Earth. At one point Riendeau tugged on the parachute controls to make us spin around like the swings ride at summer fairs. We also checked out the backyards of Pittsfield residents, taking note of the many types of pools people have.

Landing was a bit of a letdown after the thrill I had just experienced. Forewarned of getting grass stains on my pants (I could have worn a jumpsuit if I cared), I lifted my legs out in front of me on Riendeau’s cue while he worked magic with the controls to make sure of a soft landing on our bums. (Professionals can land on their feet in a run or a walk, but landing butt first puts tandem students at less risk of an injury.)

As I bounced back up on my feet I was ready to go again.

Central Maine Skydiving is owned and run by Pat and Courtney Brown of Pittsfield. Though the business has gone through a handful of owners, it has been providing thrills for nearly 30 years. Tandem and static line jumps are offered seven days a week by calling 487-5638 and setting up an appointment.

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