Soaring Off a Hilltop

I ALWAYS thought that I might like to jump out of an airplane and sky-dive. I imagined it as a tremendous experience, the ultimate in freedom, and wondered what it would feel like to be suspended from a parachute high above the ground. I had a friend who was sky diving on weekends and he invited me along to see what it was like. I wasn't going to jump, just watch, so the pilot invited me to ride in the plane and really see what sky diving was all about. We took off and I was seated by my friend. He explained the jump and, when we reached the right altitude, he looked over at me and said, ``Here I go.''

He jumped out the open door. One second he was right beside me and the next second he was falling far below. I watched him as he grew smaller and smaller, as if I were viewing him through the wrong end of a set of binoculars.

Long seconds passed and finally I saw the small puff of cloth as his parachute opened. Right then I decided that there was no way I could ever jump from a plane.

However, the thought of hanging from a parachute and floating down to earth still fascinated me. I only wished there was a way to get under the parachute without having to jump out of the plane.

Then I met Bob, a Gillette, Wyoming, plumber and a member of the national and world champion sky diving team Tension Free. He told me about soaring, a way of parachuting from the top of a hill or mountain. He explained it was like flying a kite and emphasized that the safety is very high because the jump starts with an open parachute, so there can be no malfunction.

I was interested, so he took me to Antelope Butte south of Gillette. We went to the northeast side so that we could face into the wind when we launched. Bob spread the parachute out on the ground and strapped me into the seat harness.

We were near the bottom of the hill so we could try some short flights first. I faced the wind and Bob held the corner of the parachute up. The wind instantly filled the entire canopy and I could feel the force as the wind attempted to lift the parachute and me off the ground.

Bob showed me how to steady the canopy overhead and when I had it balanced, he told me to pull down on the front risers, take four or five running steps, and release the risers so the updraft could catch the bottom of the parachute.

My first couple of tries were very short, poorly controlled flights, but by the third time, I felt I had the ``hang'' of it, so to speak. ``It's time to try it from the top,'' said Bob.

We climbed to the top and looked down 300 feet to the pasture below us. From the highway, Antelope Butte didn't seem like much, but standing there contemplating jumping off it, I changed my judgment.

Bob went first. He pulled down on the front of the canopy, ran, and when he let the canopy rise in front, the uphill draft lifted him a full 15 feet off the ground. He floated down to the ground and made a perfect landing.

He carried the parachute back up the hill and I strapped myself in. I steadied the canopy above me, pulled the risers down and ran. The second I released the risers, I shot up. The lift seemed so powerful, but it was a good launch. I was airborne and hanging beneath the two blue canopies of nylon and sky. It was silent. Tingling with the sensation of dreamy motion, I floated and fell through the afternoon air.

The glide ratio for the canopy was better than the slope of the hill, so I not only moved downward, but out away from the hill. At one point, I was about 50 feet above the hillside, a distance which decreased with the descent until I was about five feet above the ground.

Then I pulled on the toggle controls and the parachute stalled, dropping me easily to the ground. The landing was not as soft as Bob had made it look, and I ended up sitting in the sagebrush. It didn't matter. I had experienced hanging from a parachute and had had a great time. That was enough.

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