So, what would you say, trembling at the edge of an open airplane
door at 13,500 feet with a videographer waiting on a ledge
outside the plane and 10 world-class jumpers harrumphing for you
to get out of their way, and then the 225-pound brute you're
attached to hollers in your ear, "Are you ready to skydive?"
"No, I'm not ready to skydive!" you want to say. "I'm about to
suffer a premature deployment in my boxers and jettison my lunch
here! Every other flight I've ever been on, they won't let us off
if the jetway isn't within two inches of the door, and you want
me to step out into the bottomless blue sky? I'd sooner floss
But how do you tell the U.S. Army Parachute Team--the legendary
freaking Golden Knights--that?
How do you explain that everybody you've talked to and everything
you've read and everything you've feared since you agreed to do
this has knocked on the inside of your eyelids as you tried to
sleep and screeched, Don't do it, you dumpster brain!
November 24, 2003
"You'll hardly be able to breathe at that altitude," my family
said. "You could pass out. Or get knocked unconscious by a bird."
"I've heard that guys break their sternums on their chins when
the parachute opens," my golf buddy said. "If it opens."
"Do you have a death wish?" my agent said.
Even the man I was trusting my life to, the man I was attached to
by strap and hook and faith, my 42-year-old tandem master, Sgt.
1st Class Billy VanSoelen, was no help. On the way up he kept
slapping his wrist altimeter and holding it up to his ear, as if
the damn thing wasn't working.
Very funny, Billy.
And when I worried aloud about how much protection the headgear
was going to give me in a crash (seeing as it resembled Gerald
Ford's leather football helmet), Billy replied, "Oh, no help at
all. But it'll keep the skull and brains together for the
These poor guys had been answering all my paranoid questions for
two days. No, we pull the chute at 5,500 feet and nobody's ever
seen a bird higher than 5,000. Yes, you'll be able to breathe.
No, the opening of the chute won't hurt--"It'll be as soft as
huggin' a fat lady," Billy said. And yes, those are Army medics
in that truck next to the landing zone, but it's just procedure.
Besides, they said, you're with the Army's Golden Knights, one of
the greatest skydiving teams in the world, winners of 16 national
and world championships, and they've never had a fatality in
3,000 tandem jumps.
"O.K.," I panted, as we climbed higher over Fort Bragg, N.C., and
I grew whiter than Edgar Winter, "I trust you guys, but what
about the pilot? What if he gets knocked out? There's only one
pilot on this plane! We'd all be dead!"
And that's when the commander of the Golden Knights, Lieut. Col.
Paul MacNamara, leaned in and said simply, "Rick, we'd just
And so, as we duckwalked to the door in that freezing fuselage
and Billy perched us on the doorsill of death and popped the
question, "Are you ready to jump?" I said what you would have
said, which was, "No!"
And Billy jumped anyway. Taking you-know-who with him.
A friendly piece of advice for those of you planning to jump at
an altitude the Chicago-Moline commuter plane never reaches: Do
not leave your mouth open. Every drip of saliva you ever had or
will consider having will be blown dry instantly. You will be
more dry-mouthed than Dennis Rodman in confession.
But you can't help it. Because everybody's falling at the same
speed, you lose the sense of falling and gain the sense of
flying. Your mouth has to flop open to scream with numb-founded
delight. You are Clark Kent.
We free-fell 8,500 feet, about the equivalent of jumping off Half
Dome. We free-fell for 60 seconds, which is longer than it takes
to order, receive and pay for a Whopper combo meal. We laughed,
screamed and spun 720s, all at 120 mph. I fell like an octopus
from a cliff, arms and legs flailing madly. And behind me poor
Billy was trying to keep us from flipping upside down like a fat
I don't know how it is in our nation's incarceration facilities,
but it's the most fun I've ever had with a man clamped on my
And somewhere between flashing the Wu-Tang sign at the video
camera and hugging the fat lady, I realized that skydiving with
the Golden Knights is not a death wish at all. It's a life wish.
Still, I had one small thing to discuss with Billy after we came
to our sweet stand-up landing.
"Billy!" I asked, laughing and peeling the billowing chute off my
head. "Didn't you hear me say, 'No!'"
"Ohhhh!" Billy grinned. "I thought you said, 'Go!'"
Love that lug.
If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to
"Are you ready to skydive?" Billy asked at the edge of the
plane's open door.
"I'd sooner floss crocodiles," I wanted to say.