On this brisk but cozy Sunday morning, as I meander among men and women mingling in jumpsuits, it hits me that I’ve wasted the three whole years since I turned eighteen fumbling around exclusively on earth. I’ve rocketed off trees and swing sets, porch roofs and seaside cliffs, but never out of a plane.
Mike has jumped out of a plane 9,109 times and has strapped on 4,398 tandem passengers. At age 62, he is one of the most experienced jumpmasters in the country, if not the world. And today, I will be his 4,399th passenger.
Mike has already lugged his parachute to the packing station and is back with his third student of the hour, a twenty-something Italian guy recently returned to earth.
“So what’d ya think?” Mike asks the young earthling. His speech is gravelly and arrives in spurts. “More exciting than two chubby chicks in a hot tub?”
Dear Lord, I’m sure hoping it will be.
* * *
October is the prettiest and clearest month, Mike says. Colorful, crisp, cool, and predictable. Standing along the edge of this wide-open field, I feel like I’m on the sidelines of a grade school soccer match. But at this field, the kids are on the sidelines and the parents are out playing. And instead of scoring, they’re skydiving.
Mike left his home in West Springfield, Massachusetts at 6:30 a.m. to reach Ellington, Connecticut, by seven. Today, the fog didn’t burn off until 10 o’clock, though sometimes the elements tease and flirt until mid-afternoon, at which point the jumpers finally give up and go home.
If it’s cloudy and Mike takes up zero passengers, he makes $0. On sunnier days, he earns $30 per jump out of the $215 price tag. The other $185 covers CPI’s equipment, maintenance, and airplane expenses. A tandem parachute alone costs $16,000.
Luckily, it’s now clear enough to rev up Skydive Spaceland, a white and blue Otter plane that seats 23 and takes as many as 36 trips up on long summer days. At 11 o’clock, Manifest—CPI’s control center, a little white building that looks like a beachside lobster stand—is announcing a five-minute call for the plane’s second load of the day. Mike is standing on the gravel pathway next to Manifest, with his first tandem jumper suited, harnessed, and ready to go. His student, my friend Omar, is dressed in a full-body black and yellow jumpsuit that gives him the adventuresome allure of a Power Ranger. Mike looks like he’s just out to buy groceries. He has on a blue long-sleeve t-shirt and a grey zip-up fleece vest, worn-out sneakers, and a pair of navy pants. The midmorning sun shines on the nude crown of his head, his warm spread of wrinkles, and the prickles of his gray mustache and white beard. Tucked between a commanding forehead and ruddy cheeks, Mike’s eyes are soft brown-blue-green puddles, the reflection of stratus clouds in a forest pond.
“Omar, who’s your best friend?” asks Mike. Omar fist pumps him in the shoulder.
“You’re my best friend!” he says. Mike smiles and nods his head, his six-foot frame slightly hunched beneath the 50-pound parachute.
“That’s right. For the next 15 minutes, I’m your best friend.” One of the staff at Manifest has rolled a set of metal stairs to the side entrance of the plane, and jumpers are talking and laughing as they climb in. Mike’s giving his new best friend Omar a pat on the back and tugging on a strap here and there.
“But I’ll always remember you,” says Omar, raising his eyebrow with a smile. “And you’ll just forget me.”
* * *
Four thousand, three hundred and ninety-eight Omars remember Mike as the man who took them diving from the sky. They sometimes send him flowers and letters, or Christmas cards with messages like: “Thanks for my jump 10 years ago!” Every once in a while, one pegs him randomly on the street and says, “I remember you!”
One time, at a wedding in upstate New York, a man Mike didn’t recognize came up to him and asked, “Do you remember my sister?”
Mike’s visceral response: Oh shit, what.
“Yeah, she jumped with you a couple of years ago; I was down there to watch her,” the man said. “You changed her life—she was an introvert, afraid of work, afraid to screw up, afraid of people—and after she jumped, you couldn’t shut her up!”
Mike never imagined he’d be spending three decades’ worth of weekends jumping out of planes with strangers. Sure, as a kid, he liked jumping off things—the natural high that comes with that feeling of fear right before the leap. But a roof was one thing. The idea of launching out of an airplane had never crossed his mind.
Mike made his first jump in 1976 at a commercial drop zone in Orange, Massachusetts. He was 26 years old and scared shitless, he says. A friend who had jumped as a Marine in Vietnam handed Mike his old round military chute and told him—here, you try it. The jump required two hours of instruction and was a solo static-line (military style, with the chute deploying itself as you leave the plane). Mike, like most people, made his first jump with no intention of making a second; he just wanted to see what it was like, say “Hey, wow,” and walk away.
But something clicked. He ended up jumping with that old chute 300 times. The first hundred took him three years. Now, that same number takes him a few weeks.
Since that day in Orange nearly 40 years ago, Mike has swooped over Italian snowcaps, Seattle lakes, Chicago skyscrapers, and Connecticut beaches. He’s jumped into Boston Commons lit up at night and ceremonies in the Yale Bowl; he’s landed on baseball mounds to throw the season’s opening pitch and drifted past Ferris wheels to the feet of singers Winona and Naomi Judd. He’s flown in to deliver gifts at birthday parties, graduations, and weddings—in fact, he’s probably arrived at more weddings by parachute than by car.
When Mike was in his twenties and thirties, his friends stopped inviting him to their personal functions. They knew that if there was going to be good weather, he wouldn’t be coming anyway. Mike was spending all of his weekends and holidays competitive jumping, practicing and traveling all over the country and the world. Mike not only competed in solo competitions, sometimes beating out national and world champs, but was also a member of a team that perfected group skydiving formations and accuracy landings. His four-person team, Delusions of Adequacy, later renamed the Fabulous Flying Phlegm Brothers, racked up 800 trophies over 13 years. Mike also competed in solo competitions, sometimes beating out national and world champs. He would leave his day job early, take days off, and sleep at the drop zone. His mother scolded him, “God forbid I die on a weekend, because you’re not going to be there.” Mike was quick to counter, “No, that’s okay, because it takes a few days to get everything in order, so the funeral and wake will be like, Wednesday, Thursday. So don’t worry about it.”
* * *
Though Mike has gradually curbed his obsession, he still averages 350 jumps per season against an experienced jumper’s 200 a year, placing him, by number of jumps, in the top five percent. He continues to earmark weekends and holidays for jumping, but he now makes exceptions for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and if there’s an important wedding, he’ll go. These days, though, there are more funerals than weddings. His parents, brother, and most of his cousins, uncles, and aunts have passed away. Hennessy men all die young, he says. I wonder if skydiving has kept Mike alive.
Mike’s first wife, whom he married when he was 20, made Mike promise that he wouldn’t get their only son, Neil, into skydiving. Mike agreed, as long as Neil was allowed to play schoolboy sports.
When Neil was 20, his mother developed terminal liver cancer. She told her son that life was short, and that it was about time he went and played with his father.
Whoever jumped first with Mike the following day would be his 1,000th tandem passenger. At the time, CPI knew of only five other people in the world who had taken up 1,000 tandems. It’ll be a big milestone for me, Mike told Neil. Just think about it.
The next morning, Neil showed up. I’m going with ya, he told his dad. Number 1,000. Son strapped up to father, and together, they plunged.
Mike sits at one of the picnic benches and pats the wood next to him. I plop down and we turn so that we’re straddling the seat. He taps my shoulders and hips—click-click—to indicate where we’ll be connected. Thumbs in your harness, elbows relaxed at your sides. I nod. So far, everything feels too easy.
Twenty minutes from now, when we’re in the plane, Mike will tell me to stand up. I’ll hunch over and walk to the door like a little turkey, since he’s hunched over my back, and there’s a 50-pound pack on his back. When we arrive at the door, he’ll tell me to lift my feet, and I shouldn’t hesitate. It’s a very high-energy, holding-shit moment, Mike says, not because you don’t remember, but because there’s so much going on, you can’t remember.
We’ll jump out of the plane at around 10,000 feet and our fall rate will be 120 to 135 miles per hour. (That’s 1,000 feet every five seconds). In the air, the arch body position is the single most important thing I have to remember. To practice this beforehand, I stand facing him beside a picnic bench and place my palms against his. I tilt my head back and slowly, reluctantly, let my heels lift off the ground and my belly button lean forward. The small of my back feels jammed, as if the muscles are all folding over one another. I try to tune out the discomfort and focus on Mike. “Fall into freefall, trust me, go to sleep,” he murmurs. “Feel how relaxed you are? If you can be that relaxed in freefall, it’ll be beautiful.”
The chutes are manually deployed at 3,500 feet after about 35 seconds of freefall. His altimeter—a sort of oversized plastic watch—keeps track of the altitude so he’ll know when to deploy, though it’s instinctual by now. If something goes wrong—Mike faints or has a heart attack, for instance—the reserve chute, which is re-inspected every six months, will automatically deploy when we hit 1,200 feet. Though Mike has never fainted under canopy, his passengers have. They’ve peed and pooped on him, too. Such instances were far worse in the ’80s, when passenger harnesses were restricting blood flow and causing larger people to pass out. To avoid crunching any bones when landing the insensate, Mike either lifts the legs of his passengers or bodysurfs them 30 or 40 feet, making sure to hold their heads up off the ground. It usually hurts them more than him, Mike says, but half the time, they don’t even notice.
Out of the nearly 4,300 people he’s taken up, Mike hasn’t sprained a single ankle.
* * *
Before it’s even my turn, I see Mike go up and come down with college kids, a mom in pink gloves and a patterned pashmina, and a husband with a menacing beer gut and his triple-chinned wife. I’m skeptical as to whether either of the two make the 220-pound weight limit, but that’s Mike’s problem, not mine. I imagine standing at a two-mile-high doorway with one of them strapped to my front side. I can’t help wincing a little.
Mike says that tandem jumps were initially developed in order to land key military personnel untrained in parachuting. Recreational tandem, however, originated with a man named Ted Strong. Strong’s newly designed two-person parachute transformed skydiving from a sport for the solo competitor to a weekend activity for the untrained civilian. His first tandem jump took place in the US in 1983 and the system was officially patented four years later.
Throughout this time, one of CPI’s club members was a safety and training worker at the United States Parachute Association. In early 1984, he approached Mike and their friend Walt about testing the newly developed tandem equipment.
Mike wasn’t so sure. Take up people attached? He’d never heard the term “tandem instructor” before. There were no standards yet, no jumpmasters to teach them. So, of course, Mike and Walt did the only thing that anyone in their shoes would have done: they tested the tandem system out on each other—two six-foot-something fellas snuggled together under an untested arrangement of ropes and nylon fabric. Ten practice jumps later, they were taking up the public.
That first decade or so, tandem was considered experimental. Instructors and manufacturers continually tweaked the system in response to poorly packed chutes and equipment failures. Every tandem passenger who came to CPI signed an experimental test jumper certificate (a.k.a. a waiver), stating that he or she understood that the drop zone was still testing the system. They came through word-of-mouth or after seeing exhibition jumps. You never wanted to push it like a Kmart Blue Light Special, Mike says. At the time, people tended to look at skydiving as a death wish, not a sport. He points out, however, that a parachute, just like a car, is only as dangerous as the person who’s using it.
Unlike in the pioneering days, nearly all modern-day skydiving deaths are caused by human error, and almost exclusively during landing. Mike has witnessed the deaths of several jumpers at CPI, but only once did the fatalities involve a tandem jump. The week after it happened, back in the ’80s, the group of jumpmasters at CPI met and talked about quitting. It wasn’t long, though, before they were back in the air.
Ever since CPI first asked him to be a tandem master, Mike has left competitive jumping on the back burner. Tandems, he soon realized, were just as fulfilling in their own way, and you still get the adrenaline. In addition, you offer something timeless, Mike says: you give people that would never be able to jump under normal circumstances the ability to fly. He’s taken up sons and daughters, moms and dads, paraplegics, amputees, and little 88-year-old ladies. “I get to live their differences, so it’s not like it’s repetition. They’re screaming, they’re yelling, they’re swearing—they’re personalities, so I get to live vicariously through them all day long.”
Many years ago, a college student came to jump. He told Mike that in the moment that they landed, his life had changed.
“Well everybody says that,” Mike replied. “Skydiving makes you more, you know, gregarious and vivacious about life.”
“No, no—that’s not what I’m talking about,” the young man said. “I came out here thinking that skydiving was a death sport, and I’ve been trying to think of a way to commit suicide for a year. I see that now, there are things worth living for. I can do anything I want.”
* * *
During the week, Mike works at New England Fire and Security, a small business tucked among dismal warehouses in West Springfield, Massachusetts. He’s been an employee since 1996, though before that, he’s always done some form of electronics or communications. Mike lies here in wait for the thrill of the weekend, but he says that if he had to jump for a living, the excitement would evaporate.
Mike takes me into his office, a modest room split into two cubicles. He points to a few freefall photos behind his desk that previous passengers have sent him. One is a cute brunette, another a dimply guy giving the cameraman the bird. He changes the photos on the wall now and then, especially if he’s been sent a new one.
With his nine-to-five workweek at New England Fire and a seven-to-seven (and sometimes longer) weekend schedule at CPI, I ask Mike if it’s hard not to have a single day to vegetate. “No. No, I’d go crazy,” he says. That’s what winter’s for—on weekends, he works on his house in Vermont and goes hunting for moose with his wooden bow and arrow, sometimes even kicks his feet up and watches John Wayne for an afternoon. Come March, he’s had enough lethargy and gets back to jumping. Certain weeks in the summer, between New England Fire and CPI, his workweek grazes 85 hours.
Mike will retire from tandems the day his body is no longer up for supporting a stranger 10,000 feet in the air. When that happens, Mike has a cache of maybes: try wingsuiting, go back to competition, perhaps be the oldest guy at the World Championships to take a gold medal.
“And how long will you keep jumping?” I ask him.
“’Til I can’t.”
“So that’s what, ’til like, 100 or something?”
Mike glowers at me. “Don’t be nice.” I’m relieved seconds later by a momentary grin.
* * *
The morning of my jump, I check in at the tandems window at Manifest, where Walt’s daughter recognizes me and hands me a form and a clipboard. There is a lot of text, a lot of lines, and a lot of boxes. I sloppily sign and initial them all without reading a word, though I seem to spot “death” and “liability” a number of times. I jot down my dad as my emergency contact, which is somewhat funny since neither of my parents knows I’m jumping out of an airplane today.
I’ll be the third in a rapid-fire 1-2-3 set, and already Mike’s eighth jump of the day. He gathers the three of us together and breezes over the basics for what must be his two-thousandth time: Hip-shoulder-snug. Walk like a turkey. Thumbs in harness, arch your back. When the chute opens, Mike tells us, everything will go blank. You go from an intense, wow, 130 miles per hour to “haaah… quiet”—his shoulders droop, his knees dip—his whole body sighs.
“Ready? Okay cool.” Mike takes Jumper One over to loading. They go up, come down, and Mike rushes back over, holds out a black harness, and nudges me to step in. He leaves the straps a little loose in case I need to use the bathroom before we go up. “I’ll just do that in the air,” I tell him. “Why’d you think I chose a yellow suit?”
A moment later, he’s back for Three, cinching up my harness before we start towards Spaceland. He rattles off a series of reminders, though he knows I won’t remember any of them.
As I climb into the plane, the rush of the turbine throws my ponytail into frenzied black spirals. Once we’re all inside, someone slides the door closed, top-to-bottom like in a garage, and the plane takes off. I click my seat buckle into place and take a glance around. My ears pop a few times. I’m glad I’m wearing gloves; the air temperature is rapidly dropping, down to 35 degrees at jumping altitude.
The double thumbs-up I keep getting from the competitive jumpers farther down the bench is starting to feel a wee bit condescending. I cast them casual smiles—please, I do stuff like this all the time. I don’t notice my right leg is vibrating like an angry washing machine until a kind lady points it out to me. I clamp my hand over my knee to hold it still and stare in the other direction.
Suddenly, Mike tells me to pivot and starts clipping us together. I lower my goggles. Two other pairs disappear, and then we’re waddling to the doorway. Plastic pinching my cheeks, fingers clutching my harness, I peer over the edge. A raw blast of air punches my jaw, but I’m here with Mike. His gray stubble just behind my shoulder, I feel calm.
Mike says something, but I can’t hear, the metallic howl of the wind and turbine battering my ears. He repeats it. Lift my legs? I’m confused. He nudges the back of my legs and for a moment, I’m suspended from Mike like a 20-year-old baby strapped in a Snugli. Mike steps forward. His sneaker lands on air.
* * *
Every particle in my body has erupted and for 35 incredible seconds, I lose it, screaming and hurtling, hurtling and screaming, 130-mile-per-hour autumn air laughing and slapping at my face; my thoughts have ceased twitching, my heart has quit beating; every last surge of blood is gushing like a river after heavy rain into this scream, this mortifying, all-consuming, delirious exhale of every attempt at self-restraint.
* * *
Hundreds of strings unravel, swing taut; I’m tugged up like a limp yellow marionette. Empty veins quiver from the silence and pump back into motion.
Mike hands me the parachute controls and says I can lift my goggles. Practically busted my left eardrum, he chides. I’m embarrassed by my theatrics, but he reminds me that in the middle of their first freefall, Marines scream like little girls, too. I wrap my hands around the toggles, feeling the thick, rough texture of possibility beneath my fingertips.
I give one side a little tug. We sway slightly to the right. He lets me try a crank turn, and I pull down with my right arm as hard as I can, as though I’m trying to start a lawnmower to trim the clouds. We swirl upside down, sideways, backwards—I can’t tell what’s up and what’s down, I’m just whooping and asking to do it again.
But the two of us can’t stay up here forever. I blink twice and the ground is coming at us, I’m lifting my legs, and we’re cruising across the grass on the seat of Mike’s pants. We slow to a stop. The chute flutters down around us. I lean back against Mike, grinning like a fool.