Facing his greatest fear to get a real jump on the story
What are you afraid of? Spiders? The IRS? Speaking in public?
I’m afraid of heights. Terrified, actually. Which is why it seemed pretty strange on Wednesday to find myself on the back ramp of a CH-47 helicopter, gazing down 9,000 feet to the South Korean countryside sprawled below me.
Actually, I was doing my best not to look. I was more worried about whether the straps of my tandem skydiving rig were connected properly to South Korean Special Forces Sgt. Maj. Sung Chang-woo. A veteran of more than 5,000 jumps, Sung was going to assist with my first foray into the wonderful world of high-altitude, low-opening sky diving.
How did I get there? It was easy, actually. My fear of heights pales in comparison to my fear of “punking out.” It was my own fault. I told members of the 39th Special Forces Detachment that I wanted to write about some of their high-speed training. So when someone asked if I felt like jumping, and three or four soldiers turned to see what I would say, I blurted out the first thing that would come to the mind of anyone scared of heights: “Sure, sounds great.”
Fast-forward a few weeks: I’m close to hyperventilating, my breath visible in the freezing air, as Sung and I await the final green light from the Chinook’s jumpmaster. Before I’m ready, we get the signal. As rehearsed, we rock forward, backward, and forward once more before falling out of the helicopter with a half twist to the right.
It was like leaping into the loudest wind tunnel on Earth. The ground was a blur as we tumbled through the air, me trying in vain to relax my body and not fight the wind. It took us about 25 seconds to stabilize — with the sergeant major steering my arms and legs — and another few seconds to give a thumbs-up to the cameraman videotaping us. By that time, we had already fallen about 4,000 feet and I was given the signal to open the chute.
I guess someone should have stressed that I hold on to the ripcord after a light pull to deploy the parachute. But with adrenaline rushing through my body, I pulled it completely off and threw it aside. That, caught on film, made for a lot of laughter as my tape was reviewed.
The few minutes it took to parachute toward the drop zone were rewarding; the view was beautiful and I actually got to steer the parachute. We practiced the landing sequence a few times as we neared the zone and I was reminded to keep my legs up high when we hit the ground.
At 6 feet 4 inches, I was so much taller than Sung that we would jackknife into the dirt if I were to touch ground first. Once we landed and unhooked it was tough to even stand on my trembling legs.
The critique was pretty straightforward: Apparently I was as graceful as a sheet of plywood tumbling through the air.
And to answer the one question everyone has asked since learning I made the leap: “Sure, I’d do it again.”
Especially if there’s no real chance of it happening.