How Leaping From a Plane Taught Me Courage

Wondering how to be courageous? This author's literal leap out of a plane taught him how.
When we got married, my wife and I gave each other a present. For my gift, I took her skydiving, which left some of our friends and family wondering if they bought that toaster too soon, but we survived without breaking a bone. Here’s what happened.

On an early October morning, we began six hours of training. That sounded like a lot of training to me, especially because we were making a static line jump, which meant that our parachute would be connected to the plane and pulled out as we jumped. Technically, we were parachuting, not skydiving. How hard could it be to spill out of a plane and float down in a parachute?

The six hours of training were not spent mastering Bernoulli’s principle, though. They were spent repeating actions for our bodies. We learned that stepping out of an airplane into the sky so overwhelms the senses that people turn into a deer staring at a runaway logging truck.

So we practiced. We hitched our bodies to simple commands—dangle, hang, release. Check your canopy. Pull your brake lines. Flare, flare, flare. Tuck and roll. It all seemed very simple and basic, but we were told we needed to train our bodies because we couldn’t trust our minds up there.

We spent hours repeating simple actions a toddler could have mastered in minutes. For example, it turns out that one in every 700 perfectly-packed parachutes fails, which is why every harness has two parachutes in it. (But even then if you do the math you realize that one in 490,000 skydivers has both chutes fail and so you say “Oh, well!” followed by a little prayer.) So, over and over, we practiced three steps: 1) look down at your chest to identify the reserve chute pull strap; 2) grab the pull strap with both hands; 3) pull the strap.

They also showed us how to bend our ankles and knees as we approached the ground so that we’d tumble over in a graceful heap. We hopped off a platform to repeat this maneuver over and over and over.

After six hours of training our bodies, we went up in a plane the size of a Volkswagen. A jumpmaster times the departures at the right altitude, and he sequenced our exit from the plane with the simple commands we practiced. He slid open the door of the plane, and it felt like a tornado climbed in. Then he snapped a cord to connect our parachutes to the airplane and yelled at me. Over the bellowing wind, I recognized the command to Dangle! and shoved my feet out the door. They battered about in the airstream like they were being hosed by a fireman.

Then the jumpmaster screamed Hang! at which point I was to reach out to the struts of the wing and grab two handlebars there. My mind knew this meant I’d be leaning over an abyss of many thousands of feet, but my body was committed — I had come this far already and my new wife was huddled behind me and if I chickened out now, what kind of story would that make for our new married life together? So I reached out and grabbed the handlebars.

I pulled myself out of the plane and hung from the wing struts and it felt like a nightmare where I’m stuck in the body of a 1920s barnstorming daredevil. Then the jumpmaster screamed Release! and while my mind was in hysterics, I just let go.

In that moment, when I let go, the wind embraced me and everything got still. I tumbled for a moment and then my chute opened (the first one, followed by a relieved prayer of thanks). And I was floating with nothing between my feet and the ground but fizzing particles of oxygen. Around the horizon, I could see the edge of the planet curve around me and inside that were autumn trees like a calico quilt and inside them were roads like the creases in your hand.

Then I heard a triumphant shout above me and suddenly remembered I was married. I called back and saw her wheeling above me, her canopy full and square. We floated together with the silent freedom and stringy grace of a blue heron over wetland.

Ten thousand years of human experience have taught us to survive, but we learn to live when we risk ourselves in love. When there are real stakes — when our lives are on the line — can our feet find bedrock in faith? Can our imaginations reach for hope?

Faith, hope, and love must live in our bodies or else they’ll remain ideas, not realities. Small actions, repeated over and over, anchor us to others and to God. They seem arcane and elementary and insignificant — 10 minutes of prayer, sharing canned goods with a food bank, showing up to Mass, reading a Gospel passage — but these practices translate intention to reality.

We know what we want. That’s easy — we want to fly. But we don’t know how to move ourselves to the door and let go. The commands and the practice aren’t shackles. They are just the opposite, actually. They get our butts out of the plane, where it’s safe, and out into the wind and sun and open sky.

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