Wednesday, December 2, 1998
Houston, Texas
Volume 64, Issue 70

About the Cougar

Shawn Woods/Skydive USA

UH alumnus and writer Adam Burns soars through the freefall with Jumpmaster Rick Myers strapped to his back. Tandem jumping takes about 15 minutes of training.

By Adam Burns
Contributing Writer 

WHARTON -- Because it was there.

There are many reasons why someone would want to jump out of airplane -- the adrenaline rush, the chance to tell people "I went skydiving" or to fulfill a death wish.

My reason was simple. The offer to go skydiving was made to me and I said, "Sure, why not?"

Sunday, I was able to find out just what it's like to jump out of an airplane thousands of feet above the ground.

Fair weather sport

The winds were too high for several hours for safe jumps at Skydive USA, which operates from a hangar at the Wharton Regional Airport.

An activity can't get much more weather dependent than skydiving -- the winds can't be too high and the cloud cover can't be too thick. The day when I actually made my jump was my second trip to Wharton. The first was canceled when the weather went from bad to worse during the trip out.

The wind has to be 14 mph or less for an inexperienced jumper, Skydive USA Drop Zone Operator Chuck Akers says, though that does not apply as much to tandem jumpers. If there are clouds, there must be separation in the cloud cover.

Therefore, prospective jumpers should watch the weather reports for a few days in advance of jumping. Obviously a storm and a good day for jumping aren't going to happen at the same time.

Jumps on film

How many jumps in a day at the site? That also depends on the weather too, ranging from about 125 on a busy weekend day with perfect weather to none on a stormy day, Akers said. My first trip to the drop zone only lasted about an hour -- a downpour kept the planes on the ground that day. On the second trip out to Wharton Sunday, I had a three-hour wait as the winds picked up too high early in the day.

During the wait they show a few videos. The first has the inventor of the tandem jump, a man with a ZZ Top-style beard named Bill Booth, going over some basic safety tips and the lengthy waiver forms that have to be filled out and release the drop zone from any liability.

A few other videos are personalized videos made by the drop zone. For $59, an extra skydiver goes on the trip and shoots still photos and videos of the freefall. One is a video of Heather, Aker's stepdaughter, making her first jump after her 16th birthday within the past month.

The last is of the Lake Tahoe drop zone, which is privately owned by someone who wanted to set up his own skydiving site for him and his friends. This group takes freefalls head-first and jumps off cliffs, high buildings and bridges.

On one jump, they drive a Jeep out of a plane and then jump from it during freefall. Afterward, the divers are laughing and standing around what is left of the Jeep after it slammed into the ground at better than 200 mph. Whether the chute didn't work for the vehicle or they guys just thought it would be cool to smash it was unclear.

Now I'm free ... free fallin'

The harness is a simple-looking device: the pair of straps that wrap around the inside of my legs and up and around my shoulders, marking the difference between a safe landing and a messy one. The jump I plan to take will be a tandem jump, which means I can jump a lot sooner without a five- to seven-hour training course.

I put on a flight suit, test the goggles and flight cap, and step into a harness. The four metal latches on the harness will attach me from the legs and shoulders to the man actually wearing the parachute.

Rick Myers, the jumpmaster, has done about 2,500 jumps since his first in 1981, and about 1,200 tandem jumps in the past eight years. Tandem jumps are the simplest form of skydiving for beginners, since the diver is attached to someone more experienced.

Cameraman Shawn Wood wears a helmet with a camera attached to the top. He moves the camera around the hanger as people mill about -- some novices taking instruction from jumpmasters, others expert jumpers putting together their gear. A few sit with looks of apprehension mixed with an edge of boredom.

After a three-hour wait, we finally crowd aboard the plane. There are nine people in the Palatus Porter plane, including the pilot, two solo jumpers, two pairs of tandem jumpers and two cameramen filming personalized videos for jumpers. The plane is painted in a harsh, tacky pink and has "Crazy Flamingo" painted on the wing. It was used in the movie Drop Zone with Wesley Snipes, Myers explained earlier.

The plane takes off and noisily begins its slow descent into the air. The space is cramped, but improves after about five minutes when an expert jumper takes the leap out from only 2,000 feet.

Most beginning jumpers take the plunge from between 13,000 and 13,500 feet, but divers move up or down in height depending on their skill and inclination. Once a group leapt from 30,700 feet at this drop zone, Akers said, wearing oxygen masks for the jump and breaking the state record for jump height.

More minutes pass and I watch the altimeter on the wrist of one of the jumpmasters measure our climb. As we near 10,000 feet, Myers instructs me to turn around and he starts latching our harnesses together as the other tandem group does the same.

The instructions Myers gives me are pretty simple: Hang my feet out of the door of the plane and wait for his instructions of when to jump. Keep my arms folded across my chest as we leave the plane, then spread them out and arch my back. "If you forget everything else I tell you, remember to arch, arch, arch," he says.

He looks to be in his mid-40s, with graying hair and red lines in his face from the effects of 120 mph winds on the capillaries. But he carries himself as if he is 15 or 20 years younger.

We hit 13,000 feet and the other tandem group gets ready to go first. The door opens, and their cameraman moves outside of the plane and hangs on to a handle to film the pair leaving the plane. "Go, go, go!" yells the other jumpmaster, and they jump.

Myers and I move to the door of the plane and I hang my feet out the door. "Go, go, go!" he yells.

We fall forward.

The first three seconds of the skydive are undoubtedly the best. I hear a voice from above yelling, "Hey guys, come on, wait up!" and realize it's my heart that leapt out of my chest and stayed in the plane. I've gone cliff diving before, but the rush of seeing water 40 feet down is nothing like seeing the ground 13,000 feet down.

I come back into reality when I feel the goggles and the glasses I shouldn't have worn inside them pull up (note: If you have contacts, wear them), and I grab them before they go up any further and hold them for the rest of the freefall. We shoot through a small cloud and the temperature drops and rises in less than a second. Actually, it's pretty cold up there the entire time, but you don't notice much.

At 5,000 feet, after about 60 seconds of freefall, Myers pulls the parachute cord, and the world stops again.

But after a few seconds it feels like I'm hanging still as I drift down. It is still windy, but compared to 10 seconds earlier, itās nothing at all. Putting my full weight on three-inch straps on my legs is uncomfortable, but after I adjust them a little, it's bearable.

I don't really see the ground noticeably coming up at us until we are a few hundred feet up. The impact is much gentler than I expected, but we almost fall down when I lean forward too far. After that, we land fine. Woods is waiting on the ground already, filming our landing. Myers unlatches us and, after a thumbs-up for the camera, we head back to the hanger a few hundred feet away.

Not just for daredevils

Akers gives us a double thumbs-up when we walk around to the front of the hanger. As he cuts the video Woods shot, he talks about growing a drop zone.

The accelerated freefall jumpers, who take a longer training course and are accompanied on the jump but have their own parachute, are more likely to stick with the sport than tandem jumpers, Akers said. And expert jumpers, not beginners -- those are what a drop zone thrives on.

Akers is the exception to the rule. He had an office job with Chrysler when a co-worker convinced him to do a tandem jump with him.

"It wasn't ever a daredevil thing," he said. "Other than riding a motorcycle, I hadn't done anything like that, but I was captivated."

He got into the business working at a drop zone as a cameraman, then a jumpmaster. He got out after a partnership at another drop zone fell through. But in April 1997, he started Skydive USA with his wife Delia, who is also an avid jumper.

"I was tired of working for a living," he said. 

Lisa Chmiola/The Daily Cougar

(Above) Burns straps on his helmet before taking his first skydive. Equipment consists of a jump suit, harness and parachute. (Right) Skydive USA Jumpmaster Myers fastens the harness which will be used to attach him to Burns during the tandem jump. Tandem jumps cost $165.

Burns is a '97 UH alumnus and former Daily Cougar
staff member. Reach him at

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