Jeff Ackerman: So it was my turn to take a flying leap… |

Jeff Ackerman: So it was my turn to take a flying leap…

There’s an excellent chance Perry Colburn saved my life Sunday. I realized that as I was headed to Earth at approximated 180 mph while staring at the large altimeter on my left wrist, not really understanding what the numbers were telling me because I forgot my glasses and my eardrum was bursting.

After an eight-hour mini “Jump School,” where Colburn repeated over and over and over again how important it is to be aware, or, “in the moment,” while your body hurdles through the sky, I spaced. The good news is that I was attached to a fellow from New Zealand who didn’t space. He’s been jumping for 11 years and probably realized that his passenger was having what is commonly known as a “senior moment.” So he stuck a large finger in front of my nose (the most important signal in skydiving) and I reached down and pulled the cord a second after he did.

It wasn’t supposed to end like that. The plan was for me to jump alone from 13,000 feet above the Yolo County Airport. If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it by myself, not attached to a stranger, who may not have been drug tested. It’s the same reason I like to drive if I’m in a car and why I make a rotten passenger on a plane. That’s why I showed up at 8 in the morning with my buddy John, ready to commit to eight hours of classroom study. Turns out John bailed on me before the class even started and waited all day by the beer cooler for me to get done. John’s 85-year-old mom actually did a tandem jump, which made John feel … well … how would you feel if your 85-year-old mom jumped while you watched from the picnic tables? (I told you there would be payback, John).

There were four of us in Colburn’s jump class, courtesy of Sky Dance Sky Diving down at the Yolo County Airport (I’ll provide details on that business in a story for Thursday’s Outdoors Section). The other three guys were from San Francisco and looked to be in their mid-20s. Worse yet, they were pretty smart and able to retain information for longer than five minutes.

Colburn looked to be in his mid-50s (my age) and has done somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,700 jumps. He’s a great guy and if you’ve always wanted to freefall, he’s the guy to see.

The first half hour is spent filling out forms, most of them absolving the company of any liability in the event any of the 1,000 things that can go wrong actually does. As the class wore on, the list of things that could go wrong grew and so did my angst.

Take your pelvis, for example. In skydiving it serves as kind of the cone of a badminton ball. As you’re falling from the sky you want your pelvis pointed toward Earth, otherwise you flip over, which is not good while traveling faster than Jeff Gordon on a straightaway. I am about as flexible as a handrail, so Colburn had to keep pounding my hips forward.

It’s VERY important … and I can’t stress this enough … to know where your ripcord is located. There is nothing worse than reaching back and grabbing a handful of your boxer shorts as the ground approaches. We practiced that over and over and over again, which did me absolutely no good when the moment finally came.

And once the chute finally opens, the checklist is only beginning. As we learned, there are lots that can happen to a parachute while it’s tucked away in a pouch. It’s a LOT more complicated than the Batman kite I have in my closet. You need to look up and check, just in case it … you know … isn’t there. Or that it’s there, but has holes in it, or that the lines are all tangled, or torn. Remember … all of this is happening while you are falling 1,000 feet every five seconds or so. You need to react like a cat, something I have not been able to do since 1969 or so. My reactions today mostly resemble a Koala bear on medication.

Once your chute looks like it’s good to go, you need to kind of figure out where you are and where you are going to land. There are power lines around the airport and right next door is a gun range. I knew I did not want to land in the gun range, where I could hear the semi-automatic weapon fire most of the day. There are also plenty of hawks that kind of like to mess with parachutes when bored. Hawks have a sick sense of humor.

Your altimeter is your best friend, since it tells you how much space is between you and death, or a possible broken neck. If you wear glasses, it’s best to wear them.

By the end of the class it was clear to Colburn that I probably should not do a solo jump until I’ve gotten a better feel for things. So he paired me up with Brad Jones, the New Zealander who looks like Brad Pitt (whatever self esteem I had was gone by 5 p.m. anyway). “Look, Jeff,” Colburn told me. “You have a family and responsibilities to consider. I wouldn’t want you to get hurt and I just don’t feel you are ready yet.” He was right, of course. I was still trying to figure out if I was supposed to count to four or five between checks of my altimeter.

So we climbed aboard the special skydiving plane with maybe 11 other people and … somewhere high above the fields of Yolo County, Brad and I exited the plane like Siamese twins.

At that moment my ear drum pretty much burst and I forgot everything I’d learned that day.

And it’s all on video. There’s me giving the “thumbs up,” trying my best to smile while my face is being spread like Play-Doh. There’s Brad giving me the signal to check my altimeter. There’s me ignoring Brad, wondering instead what’s going on inside my ear. There’s Brad giving me the index finger pointed straight out, indicating that I should pull the chute. There’s me ignoring Brad, wondering instead where the gun range might me.

All in all it wasn’t a bad Sunday. Colburn said I could go back next weekend and make my own freefall, since I officially graduated from Jump School. He even gave me some homework to help perfect my arch and the pulling of the cord thing. I’ll have to check with my doctor to see about an ear transplant. I’ll also need to check with my wife, to see if I can go play again. I think I’m grounded.

Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299,, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.

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