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  • Gary Gruber

Gonzo Skydiving


At 4500 feet the glider pilot signaled to me it was time. We put our hands on the top of the cockpit canopy and pushed up hard against the wind. When it was fully open, he locked it in that position. I took a deep breath and so very slowly climbed out onto the wing. I took a moment to survey the situation. We are flying over the drop zone and I’m on my hands and knees on the right wing of a glider.


A lot of words might come to mind in a situation like this, but Gonzo might not be one of them. Unless you came of age in the late 60’s, you probably don’t know who Hunter S. Thompson was. I was introduced to him through the pages of Rolling Stone Magazine – which was my bible back in the 70’s. His style of journalism was as radical an outlandish as we all aspired to be at the time.


One of my favorite quotes of his “It just hasn’t gotten weird enough for me yet” must have flashed through my head as I hunched up on all fours just outside the cockpit of that glider. Yet in our world, the world of Perris Valley Skydiving, what I was doing was as normal as smearing butter on your toast in the morning. In fact, for the 20+ years I was active as a skydiver, the only thing that struck me as 100% abnormal was the penchant for naked skydiving some of the people had in the summer.


All of the seats were removed from the Twin Otter so we could carry a max weight load to altitude, which usually meant somewhere between 21 and 24 skydivers. We sat in two rows on the floor, each with our legs spread and knees bent, and another body stuffed between them. The thought of a naked guy (or girl) either in front of me or behind me was disturbing, if that’s the right word.


The thought of diving out and hitting around 120mph in freefall totally nude chafed more than my brain. I don’t think any of the ninnies that tried this thought about the consequences of having a malfunction, having to dump their main (jettison the defective canopy so they could deploy their reserve chute) and risk landing off the DZ. I’m sure the sight of a naked skydiver walking down the road (without shoes on – double ouch) might seem funny, but I imagine the lesson learned would be quite humiliating for the person who performed this totally insane stunt.


Anyway, back to the much more humble notion of being outside a glider rather than inside it. I crawled down to the center of the wing and inched by way up to leading edge. The pilot looked at me and I gave him jump run corrections to put me over the landing area. After about 10 seconds I gave him a thumbs up and rolled over the wing and into space like it was the most normal thing anyone could be doing on a Saturday afternoon. It actually was the most normal thing anyone was doing that day.


Once a year Perris Valley Skydiving hosted a sort of skydiving carnival. All sorts of airships were available, from balloons to a Boeing 707 jet. The jet was the most outrageous jumpship. Two reasons. The point of exit was the rear stairwell. This meant that when you jumped, you were actually in freefall inside the plane for a split second. The bigger kick was what happened outside the plane for about the first 3-5 seconds.


Almost all skydiving planes have to throttle back to around 100mph or so at exit to prevent buffeting by the wings. A 707 can’t do that, so you exit at 225 mph. That coupled by the vortex from the engines means you fly alongside the plane for a couple of seconds after exit. You are actually flying with the plane, not falling!


That is a gas. Hunter would be proud.


Balloon jumps are fun because you feel the acceleration – that pit of the stomach excitement from your roller coaster days. You normally don’t feel that during a regular skydive since you are exiting the plane extremely fast – at whatever speed the plane is flying, so the sense of acceleration is absent there.


The other absolutely crazy way to jump is from a biplane. When you reach altitude you have two choices: you can unfasten your seat belt and either hang on, or not. If you hang on, the pilot inverts the plane and you are dangling from it upside down momentarily until you let go. Or you can just sit there and get dumped out of your seat as it inverts.


Crazy.


Because the wait times are long for these rides, you rarely get to make more than two or three a day. The freefall time from the glider at 4500 feet is only around 10 seconds (you pull high to ensure you make it back to the DZ), but the memory lasts forever.


It is absolutely impossible to wipe the shit-eating grin from your face when you land. Everyone has one and everyone gives everyone else a little nod to acknowledge that if Hunter were here, he would most definitely say: “It has definitely gotten weird enough for me.”


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