Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or to fly? I always pick fly (just like I always pick being a rock star over a movie star. And Patrick always picks talking with animals over anything.). So when the opportunity to fly (more specifically jump) with the US Army Golden Knights came, I was saying, ‘yes’ before the question had been fully posed.
I’ve always wanted to jump out of a plane. I’ve bungee jumped off the bridge over the Zambezi River (3 football fields high), hurtled down a luge track at 40 mph, and love zip lines and rides with a free fall. I’m not sure why I hadn’t actively pursued a skydive. I wasn’t afraid, and there were opportunities to make jumps in Florida. But I didn’t make the effort.. Then, my friend, Jamie, an honorary Golden Knight asked me a couple of months ago if I wanted to jump with the team from Fort Bragg. It sounded like a great idea. And if anyone’s not going to kill me, it’s the badasses from the Army. I was in.
I flew in from Columbus, and I must digress here. I was in Columbus for the check presentation from this year’s Pelotonia weekend. I was also scheduled to get a biopsy of a tumor in my lung lining, so Dr Roychowdhury at the James Cancer Center could study the RNA/DNA for his research trial. But there’s a possibility of lung collapse afterward, which would mean that the Golden Knight jump was not advised. This, I told him, was non-negotiable. To me, it’s not ALL about the fight to live…. you have to LIVE, too. Non-negotiable. We will reschedule. Anyway, Pelotonia weekend raised more than $23 million dollars! And every penny goes to research at the James Cancer Center. I got to tell my story to the crowd of 8,000 (my biggest audience ever, which is funny). And I got to tour the James with Sheryl Crow (my favorite) and watch her special Pelotonia performance with Doug and Amy Grace Ulman. She didn’t just sing she talked to patients at the James, who were watching on closed circuit TV, and she shared her cancer story. It was a powerful evening, full of hope and momentum.
It’s hard to believe I could top this amazing experience within about 24 hours, but I did. I flew to Fayetteville (North Carolina, not Arkansas) and pretty much went straight to the Paraclete XP Indoor Skydiving Wind Tunnel. I got to go in and really fly. It’s a vertical wind tunnel wind, and you… fly. I had the best instructor ever, Andy, and it wasn’t long before he could let me go and be confident that I wasn’t going to fly straight into the window like a sparrow. Way fun, and for me, anyway, more work than you’d expect. The Brazilian team that alternated with me in the tunnel made it look easy. My shoulders and back were pretty tired by the end. But I did do a back flip.
The next day, it was off to Laurinburg Airport. There were 6 of us that were getting to tandem jump, including Miss North Carolina and a local teacher of the year. First, there was school, with Ace.
Then, on with the flight suit, and I got to meet my team, Sgt 1st Class Rich Sloan and my videographer, Sgt 1st Class Brian Sealing. And an aside: I got to meet several Golden Knights here and through my visit through Jamie. A few were on the competitive team. I’m thinking that being on this team is like being a Formula One driver: You have to have skills, but you also have to be good-looking. Hanging around with the team didn’t suck.
Then, it was time to go. We walked out to the very cool plane and they took it up to 13,000 feet. That’s 2 and a half miles! One of the competitive guys, JZ, jumped out before we got to our jumping altitude. Having never seen it before in real life, it is bizarre to watch someone wave and walk right off a plane. I laughed my head off.
Rich hooked me up to him at four points. He double checked everything, which was cool, as I didn’t want to fall off of him. He said I was the calmest tandem partner he’d had. I really wasn’t nervous at all. It was kind of like when I bungee jumped. It’s a leap of faith. Once you decide you’re going to do it, whatever is going to happen is going to happen. You have to just surrender control and go with it. I remember before my bungee jump, I thought that if I was going to die doing this, I was going to go out pretty… so I took the biggest swan dive I could. I didn’t have the range of motion to swan dive this time since I was hooked to Rich, but I tried to make it look good. There’s no sitting around waiting. Rich yelled, “Ready, set go,” and we jumped.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of that first step, but it’s not like anything I’ve ever experienced before. It’s a step of faith and trust and exhilaration. It’s freedom and defiance and recklessness in as controlled an environment as you can have, jumping out of a plane at 13,000 feet. It was my favorite part, that 1.2 seconds of stepping out of the safe plane and starting to fall at 120 miles an hour. No fear. I thought about why that was, and I figure it must be partly because I feel I defy death every day. This was just an ACTIVE defiance.
The free fall was cool. You can’t really tell how fast you’re falling, but Rich said he’d give me a dollar if I could tell him what was written on the bottom of the plane. When I looked up to read, the speed at which the plane was getting smaller was impressive. Brian got some great video during the fall, which lasted about 40 seconds. Then, Rich pulled the parachute and my head slammed into his chin (which explains the soft “helmets” we wore). It was really windy, so it seemed like we floated down for while. He pointed out our landing zone, and some less pleasant places we didn’t want to land: The pig farm and the penitentiary. And the trees. We made a perfect landing, on our feet.
I love when I can go into a whole world that I know pretty much nothing about. That’s what I did here. Who knew there was such a thing as a competitive skydiving team? The Golden Knights have several, and some of them hold world records. Two of the teams are in Dubai right now where they’ll compete and most likely bring home medals. I was in awe of their abilities, skills, and nerves of steel when I watched them yesterday and read about their 50-year history of success. And then I remember that they are here because they are willing to fight for us at a moment’s notice anywhere in the world. I am, again, in awe of their abilities and skills and nerves of steel. And I am deeply grateful for all they do. Thank you!
And, US Army. That’s what was on the bottom of the plane. You owe me a dollar, Rich.