January 15, 2022
Sometimes the wrong decision is made for the wrong reason.
In the following story, reason did not reason in.
I’m driving east on I-80 just passing through Sugarloaf.
I realize that I have not skydived in Pennsylvania.
“Don Kellner runs a drop zone near here,” I say aloud to an empty car.
“Siri, where is “Above the Poconos Skydivers?”
She starts my turn by turn directions.
i sing “Pennsylvania” by Matthew Mole.
“One day love would ring me up
And we’d never be the same again”
The Mustang flies along the road.
Just off Susquehanna Blvd. is the Hazleton Airport (HZL).
I park outside the DZ office.
I have to push on the door a little to open it. The southerly wind presses hard against my car.
It is not a cold wind but it is steady at 20 miles per hour.
I pull open the skydiving office door and step inside.
There is Don on a couch watching television. I walk right up and shake his hand.
“Hello Don. My name is Rick.”
“Welcome to Above the Poconos. Where are you from?”
“Thanks. Perris is my home DZ. I am experienced, but I’m guessing I have fewer jumps than you do.”
“Only 42,000. I’m just getting started,” smiled Don.
“Yep. A couple more than me.”
Looking around the room there are tandem, freefly and other skydiving posters on the walls.
Over Don’s desk is the Guinness World Record certificate for the most number of skydives.
I have no doubt that this record will be broken many times before Don is done.
“Are you jumping today?” I ask.
“It’s pretty windy,” Don says with a questioning look.
“Can I make a jump? I haven’t jumped in Pennsylvania yet. I want to jump in every state.”
“You’ll have to ask the pilot. If he is willing to fly, you can jump.”
Don points to the other end of the hanger where the pilot is tying down the Cessna.
As I walk across the hanger I recall a student jump:
It is Mojave, California, middle of the summer, middle of the desert.
I am making a static line jump.
On the ground the wind is about 17 MPH.
My instructor is sitting next to me checking my gear and the static line.
He pulls on the line attachment and gives me a thumbs up.
We arrive at 4000 feet. The instructor looks down to spot my exit.
Suddenly, he motions for me to look.
There is a brown line approaching the airport. Behind the line is a cloud of dark brown dust.
The line is approaching fast.
As I watch, all the ground in sight disappears into the dust cloud.
My instructor pulls me back into the airplane by the shoulder, motions to my seat belt and unhooks the static line.
While the pilot descends the instructor says,
“Too windy. Your parachute has a 20 mile per hour forward speed. The wind down there is at least 30. Best case scenario: You have to land backwards at 10 miles per hour. Not today.”
That instructor gave me good advice and Don just gave me some more.
But I haven’t jumped in Pennsylvania.
I introduce myself to the pilot and ask if he will fly.
“I will, but this wind can blow harder at any moment. We are in the downdraft of the Poconos. It changes fast.”
“Great. I will get my gear on.”
I run back across the hanger.
I say to Don, “Billy says OK. Do you want to come with?”
This surprises me, the man with 42,000 jumps.
But … I haven’t jumped in Pennsylvania.
Don shoos me away.
Geared up I study the aerial photo of the airport.
The airport boarders the western fingers of the Pocono mountains.
To its north are the mountains, to the south an urban forest.
The plane fires up as I approach and Billy waves me in.
“This wind is coming up. Are you sure you still want to go?”
“OK… do what I say when I say it.”
Billy pulls down and latches the door, then taxis out to the runway.
The wind is still out of the north. The Cessna growls down the runway and tacks into the wind as it leaps into the air.
We fly into the wind. We get little penetration. The wind resistance gets stiffer the higher we climb.
At 4500 feet AGL Billy looks over his shoulder at me.
“This is going to be a hop and pop… 2 minutes.”
Billy makes a turn into the wind and throws open the door.
The engine roars. The wind blows into the cabin. I kneel at the door looking at Billy.
Billy yells, “Exit!”
I look down. We are at least 1 mile from the airport, upwind over mountains.
“Are you sure?”
“Get out now or you’re not getting back.”
I look down doubtfully and jump.
I count 1 … 2 … 3. I reach back, pull out my pilot chute and throw it into wind.
My parachute opens with ruffle and a pop.
Below are the ribs of the mountains, covered with forest.
My altimeter reads 3000 feet.
I look downwind and see the airport in the distance.
I turn toward the airport. The ground races below me. The airport rapidly approaches.
To test the wind speed I turn to the north, into the wind.
The parachute stops and begins to back up.
Turning back with the wind I am almost over the airport office buildings already.
I am too high. I’m going to overshoot the airport.
I turn to head into the wind and back up toward the landing area.
Over my shoulder is the landing area, the runway, a narrow strip of grass, then a forest.
I put my parachute into half brakes to slow my backward speed.
Between my legs is the landing area. I am still 200 feet in the air.
Now I see the runway passing under me.
There is the grass. 40 feet.
The ground is speeding by.
The parachute settles down. I take three steps backward. My back strikes the trunk of a tree, hard.
Looking up I see the Cessna landing on the runway.
It touches down on one wheel, scraping along the asphalt, almost sideways to the runway.
The skill of the pilot straightens out the trim of the airplane and taxies it to a stop.
Billy opens the window of the plane and yells “Well?”
“Never again,” I say to Billy.
“Check off Pennsylvania,” I say to myself.