Thursday, April 8, 2010

Soviet Skydiving

"So one option is to do it tandem. You get strapped to an instructor and jump from really high, so there's a lot of free fall. But it's $200."
"The other option?"

"A four hour class, and you jump out of the plane by yourself."

"The class will be in Russian?"

"Yeah. Well, it might be in Ukrainian."

"How much?"

"Thirty dollars."

"Let's do it."

Catch a bus from the capitol of Kyiv. Ride it an hour to the concrete village of Borodyanka. From there, catch a taxi to the largest airfield in Ukraine.

Military tourism was supposed to be a moneymaker. In 2002, to bolster its budget, the Ukrainian army invited the world to come and play with its toys. Few foreigners arrived to pay $400 to drive a tank or $50 to to lob a grenade, but the Soviet Union's assembly line system of throwing soldiers out of airplanes turned out to be easy and cheap enough to tempt thrill-seeking Ukrainian youth.

And the occasional American one.

Diana and I were late.

Eighty-two people (I counted) were encircling a short, middle-aged woman with dyed red hair whose hands emphatically underlined her crisp, loud Russian. Her name was Olga Alexandrovna, our jump instructor for the day and the inverse image of the gruff and surly soldier who I imagined would teach us.

She was standing in front of a rusted airplane door that was missing its airplane, holding up the worn canvas sack of a Soviet surplus parachute, and showing us a frighteningly frayed strap with a metal clip at its end.

"This will be hooked into a wire on the plane," she said, "and it will deploy your parachute after you jump."

Someone asked how old the parachute was.

"Thirty two years-old," she said.

The group, nearly all of them younger than the parachute, glanced at one another.

It's not the fall that kills you, it's the geriatric silk.
She then held up a smaller canvas pack, once blue but now faded to gray. "This is your backup parachute," she said. "You only paid for the main parachute. If this deploys, you have to pay a 50 hrivna fine."

People chuckled.

"I'm serious," she said.

People frowned. Fifty hrivna was only $6 to an American, but it wasn't cheap to a Ukrainian.

The backup parachute was not the only possible fine. Although Olga had grown up under communism, she well understood the capitalist mantra of economic incentives. If you landed in a wheat field instead of the designated landing zone, it was 70 hrivna. If you landed in the woods and tore your parachute, you had to pay for the repair. If you landed on someone's house, you paid for the damage.

Olga told us what to do when we were 2,400 feet up and falling: count three seconds. Feel the parachute engage. Make sure the parachute is okay. Disarm the altimeter that wants to release the backup at 900 feet.

If you don't, pay the fine.

Disarming an altimeter sounded complicated, but I soon learned that it only required tugging out a piece of string that connected two loops of wire together.

That was it.

Pull out the string.

Life hanging by a thread now had a way-too-literal meaning.

As we took turns jumping through the door, arms crossed, feet together, it all seemed easy and simple and I felt very, very confident. That waned when Olga began telling us how to avoid running into each other.

It's not the fall that kills you, it's the other skydivers.

Worry started to worm.

Ten of us were going to jump one right after the other, and the possibility of a midair collision was frighteningly real.

Olga started going through the possible scenarios: if someone is coming in on your right, pull down on the left control cable to spin out of their way. If they're coming from your left, do the opposite.
If you're going directly at one another, spread your arms and legs to try to catch onto them or their parachute cords, push them back, and then turn out of the way. Only don't turn out of the way if you're less than 600 feet off the ground because landing while spinning might break your legs.

Push another person? In mid-air?

Jesus good lord gravy.

Olga kept going.

Now, she said, when can you self-deploy the back up parachute? Even with the altimeter disengaged, we learned that there was a red metal handle that we could yank out to release the backup parachute. And if we dropped that red metal handle, which apparently was an expensive red metal handle, there would be a fine.

This was probably the most important part, but two hours of heavy concentration and a rising panic was throttling my Russian.

Something about failing something.

Something about something a hole something.

Something about three something somethings.

I am going to die.

Diana listed it for me later: If your parachute fails to completely open, pull the back up. If there is a hole in your parachute larger than three feet wide, pull the back up. If more than three of the strings attaching you to the parachute are broken, pull the back up.

Olga kept going:

If you land in the woods, protect your face with your arms as you hit the trees. If you see that you are about to land in a lake, unhook your harness while in midair and jump out of it right as you are about to hit the water. If you are about to land on the roof of a building and one step or jump will clear you, good. If not, attach one of your cords to something on the roof as quickly as possible.

"What if we can't?" asked a girl.

"Make sure you do," said Olga.

Despite graphically describing all the ways we could die in the pursuit of a cheap, three minute thrill, Olga said we should worry less about those and more about the most dangerous part of skydiving: landing.

It's not the fall that kills you, it really is the oh-so-sudden stop.

Diana and I had opted to spend the previous night in Kyiv, staying with an American friend named Peter. We had invited him to go skydiving with us, only to have him say that he wasn't interested. After we returned, he explained: "Yeah, everyone I know has hurt something when they landed."

"And why didn't you tell me this before?"

"I didn't want to worry you."

Next to the airplane door were three plywood platforms built at different heights, the lowest about three feet off the ground and the highest at about seven. We spent the next hour jumping off of them. Falling came naturally to me, but others freaked out with mid-air yelps, landing with their feet apart or not tucking their arms as they rolled. Olga kept sending them back up onto the platform, an nfinite conveyor belt of frightened, flailing lemmings.

We were well into our fourth hour of instruction, and the landing wasn't even the end of it. We even had to learn how to pack up the parachutes after we reached the ground, correctly wrapping the cords so that they wouldn't tangle and rolling up the parachute in such a way that it could easily be repacked later.

Not doing so would earn a fine.

Finally, when I was sure we were about to learn how to start raising silkworms and
weaving parachute cloth, Olga told us to go to the airfield.


I was the second in line to jump.

Inside the sheet metal airplane, deafened by the engines, sitting packed five to a side on two narrow benches, we waited. Our parachutes were clipped into wires overhead. The jumpmaster had pulled the pin that activated each of our altimeters. Below us, the world was rectangles of brown and green.

An opened door. A blast of cold.

It became real.

The jumpmaster nodded at the man ahead of me, who we'll call Sergei. Sergei stood up, stood at the door, looked out at forever. I blinked. He was gone.

Trying not to hesitate, I stood and moved to the door, feeling off balance with the wind and vibration, put my left foot on the threshold as I'd been taught, crossed my arms--left over right--as I'd been taught, and there was the world, so very far below.

The jumpmaster put his hand on my back.

"Pashol!" he yelled.

I jumped.


Maybe he was used to people not jumping. Maybe he thought I needed a push.

His push had spun me.

I was terrified. Deafened in a frigid fury of wind and turbines, I was twisting, rotating, falling backwards. My psyche was screaming. My feet were flailing. I had no control. I waited, prayed, for my parachute to open, but it didn't.

It's not the fall that...

I whipped around and everything ended.

I looked up. My parachute was open, but the cords were twisted around one another. Not good. Do I pull the back up? Do I risk the fine? I started slowly spinning, the cords unwinding themselves.

Then the world made sense again.

There was peace, and there was more. An undefined feeling, somewhat the antithesis of fear. I was slowly drifting, bathed in beauty, seeing what birds see. I was floating backwards from the plane, watching eight other parachutes make a line of cotton drops against the sky. I looked up and saw the control handles, pulled the left one, felt myself turn in that direction.

Am I okay? Yes, I'm okay.

I reached down and tugged the string.

It was calming up there, gorgeous, quiet. There was much thoughtless awe before I remembered that I was supposed to be controlling my descent.

I wasn't sure where to land, noticed that Sergei and I were drifting in a different direction than the other eight. I tried to guess where I was supposed to touch down, but what once seemed like a massive drop zone was hard to find in the patches of color below. I just knew that I wasn't headed towards water or trees or buildings or a wheat field and that was good enough.

I pulled out my camera and took a couple pictures of the other parachutes and a few of myself. I did it quickly, wanting to have the pictures but also not wanting to waste time on them, wanting instead to openly appreciate, rawly experience, ego-lessly breathe.

I gave myself that for a few seconds, and then a few more seconds, and then a few seconds more before sighing. Using the controls, I followed Sergei towards the ground. The world approached slowly as I tucked my legs into a sitting position, feet together and flat. I was falling so gently that I imagined it would be like drifting onto pillows.

Crunch. Ow.

I rolled, landing on my side, hearing angry protest from my ankles.

I gingerly stood up and walked backwards to get out from under the falling silk.

I was supposed to pack up and wait, but everything that had built up inside of me, the fear and the joy and the worry and the awe, it wanted out. I threw back my head, spread my arms and howled.

Nearby, Sergei answered my call with the same.



In the end, Diana almost hit a tree. Others nearly landed on cows. One skydiver was so excited about the view that he forgot to disengage his back up, floating down under both parachutes. His girlfriend landed in a wheat field.

Both paid their fines.

Diana and I caught a cab and a bus and a subway.

I smiled all day.

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