Higher Than I’d Ever Been Before
The mood in the plane was jovial, like teenagers out on their first date. We were about to do something that had never been done before from this airfield, and we were all for celebrating the ride.
Everything changed when we hit 12,500 feet. The chatter ceased, the jokes and frivolity stopped; It was time to get to work. We were at the oxygen limit, and it was now time to put our cannulas on. Perris Valley Skydiving sat at an altitude of 1500 feet above sea level so when we reached the oxygen limit of 14,000 feet (MSL), we had to supplement our ability to breathe, because it would be another 45 to 50 minutes to ascend the final 3,500 feet.
All skydives at Perris are conducted at 12,500 feet above ground level, but for an extra couple of bucks today, we were getting a ride up much higher. We were using the same oxygen devices that you would find strapped around your head after you woke up from the surgery in a hospital. We each took the time now to take out the small alcohol packet that was given to us at manifest for cleansing the device for personal use.
Each of the 24 jumpers on board was now breathing pure oxygen -- supplemented through two tanks just aft of the pilot’s seat. Although the temperature on the ground was a balmy 80 degrees, we had lost nearly 39 degrees ascending to this altitude. It would be close to freezing when we reached jump run.
We were in groups of three or four, with planned dives that we hoped we would have the strength to carry out under these new and foreboding conditions. Once we removed the breathing apparatus, we knew we could survive for a full minute before the lack of oxygen to our brains would begin to affect our judgment and motor skills.
We would descend that initial 5000 feet to breathable air much faster because the thinness of the air would propel us down at around 150 mph., a bit faster than the 120 miles an hour we fell at the denser altitude. if anyone was concerned, it was too late to voice any objections -- the fastest way down was out! We were the fourth group to exit the plane that day and we kept the oxygen on until it was necessary for us to move to the door and check the spot (visually affirm that the plane had moved forward sufficiently since the exit of the group behind us so that there would be enough horizontal distance between the two groups, enabling a safe skydive) to make sure that it was safe to exit the plane.
When the red light turned green, signifying the beginning of jump run, we all rose in unison and began to give each other gear checks to ensure everyone's safety. The rush of cold air as the jump door was lifted braced us, but I doubt if many noticed.
We rushed our exit a bit in order to get into the air, and our planned four way broke into 2 deuces. Nervously shifting our glance between the formations and our altimeters, we continued moving from formation to formation for what seemed like hours. A normal skydive has about 65 seconds of freefall, but at this altitude we were pushing a good 90 seconds. That may not seem like a lot to most people --but to us it was certainly close to an eternity.
We all smiled as we passed 12,500 feet. It was no longer a strain to breathe, and we took a moment to relax, spin a slow 360, and enjoy the view. Even though you were traveling at 120 miles an hour, you can feel the change in temperature and density of the air. Back into comfortable territory we settled down and continued our skydive until our break off point at 4000 feet. It was at this altitude that we turned away from one another and tracked for 1500 feet until we had clear air to deploy our main canopies.
The spot was good and we were right over the drop zone, so we settled into our landing patterns and one by one tiptoed back down to the ground. The whoops and hollers echoed throughout the valley as we all successively reeled and basked in the glow of the successful skydive. The smiles were painted on all of our faces, and it would take days for that shit-eating-grin to melt away.
As I was told by one of my instructors on my first jump many years earlier, “It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”