Nick Bilton

Landing in the Sky

I’ve flown in 48 perfectly good small airplanes. I’ve never landed in one of them.

You’re required to document each skydive when you land. My log book for my 46th jump reads: “Exited at 12,800 feet. Bad Parachute opening. Blacked-out at around 4,500 feet.” I used a blue pen; you can see my hand was shaking from the wobbly indents cutting into the paper. Like someone trying to write on a rollercoaster.

I didn’t plan my first jump. It was late-Summer, 1999, and a group of us had gone camping in upstate New York. The fire crackled in the background as my friend leaned over, handing me what was left of a cheap bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. “Let’s go skydiving tomorrow!” he slurred.

“Fuck yeah!” I replied as a brown liquid trickled down the back of my throat, unyoking any trepidation or fear.

My first five jumps were tandem. I was strapped to an experienced skydiver. If something went wrong, I knew he would know what to do.

Then I set out to get my own license and parachute.

Jump number six was the scariest. It was my first time skydiving alone. I wanted desperately to stay on the plane and feel the wheels kiss the tarmac; to step out of the door and touch the ground, not the sky.

I’ve flown in two helicopters. But I’ve never landed in one, either.

Someone always farts at around 6,000 feet. It’s an unspoken ritual. That’s when there’s a collective “Awww, nasty!” and the side-door of the plane slides open, sucking the outside wind inside like a backdraft.

The altimeter on your hand lets you know when you’re reaching 8,000 feet. That’s when the adrenaline takes over. “Where’s your cutaway?” someone else in the plane asks you as you check each other’s gear. The “cutaway,” a red puffy handle on your right side, will do just that: cut away your main parachute so you can deploy your reserve. If that doesn’t work, well, “nice knowing ya’.”

At around 12,000 feet people on the plane start to disappear. One by one, falling into thin air.

Before you jump out, you carefully rub your hands across the straps that are tied around your legs and chest. Then again. And again. People die from not being strapped in properly.

You flare your parachute when you’re about 10 feet from the ground, then you slow from 15 mph to 10, to 5, then your foot hits the floor and you “run it out.” Stop.

I packed my own parachute for the first time on my 21st jump. That’s when you learn about all the things that can go wrong. Of the twelve potential problems, the “line dump” is the most jarring. That’s when you pack your parachute too tightly and you go from 135 mph, the speed of a free fall, to 15 mph, your average speed under an open parachute. “It’s like a car on the freeway hitting a wall without breaking,” my instructor told me, when describing the line dump.

You peek your head out of the doorway before you jump. The air rattles your face as you survey the world below. Then you grab ahold of the top of the doorway, lean back, and just fall.

Skydive number 45 was over the desert. I was in Southern California jumping alone. “You gotta keep an eye out for dust devils below,” the drop zone manager told me. “They’re like mini tornadoes that come out of nowhere and suck you to the ground. I’ve seen a man hit the ground from 100 feet like a rubberband snapping.” His hands clapped together loudly. “Crack!”

Jump 45: “Exited at 12,300 feet. Successful opening. Saw a dust devil, but avoided it.”

After that, I walked back to the hanger and laid my parachute out on the ground like a sleeping giant. The cords connecting the chute to the harness stretch out almost three times the length of your body. As you pack your parachute, you stuff the canopy into a black bag connected to your harness and then begin wrapping the cords in s-shapes, securing them with strong rubberbands. Wrap them too loose and your parachute can become entangled; too tight, and… Line dump. Or, Jump 46.

I leaned against the rear of the plane as we lifted through the thick desert air. Then people started to disappear.

I dove out of the plane at 12,800 feet. It doesn’t take long to reach 135 mph, and then you’re flying, bobbing around the air like some sort of aerobic fish at the bottom of the ocean. At 4,500 feet, I pulled the cord to open my parachate and then, crack! A line dump. It felt like being in a car on the freeway and hitting a wall without braking.

Jump 46: “Exited at 12,800 feet. Bad Parachute opening. Blacked-out at 4,500 feet.”

I only passed-out for a moment — maybe 5 seconds — but when I came to I was completely disoriented. Stars spun in front of me. The ground, now about 3,500 feet away, was wobbling on its own axis and I felt dizzy. The doctor would later tell me I had vertigo.

I panicked for a brief second, and then realized that I had to land. I looked at my altimeter and it read 2,500 feet. I saw a dust devil, but luckily it evaporated. I hung there, suspended from my parachute like a marionette, and waited for the earth to pull me closer.

800 feet.

100 feet.

10 feet. My hands were shaking as I flared the parachute.

My feet touched the ground, then I crumpled on the desert floor for a few minutes. The earth was spinning around me, but I felt like I was spinning around the earth. Everytime I moved, the horizon wobbled. The bruises on my legs where my harness was strapped were dark black streaks the next morning, like burnt tire tracks on asphalt.

Jump 47 was uneventful. 48 and 49, too. 50 was my last jump.

I still don’t know what it feels like to land in a perfectly good small airplane. I’ve only ever landed in the sky.