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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Dan who fell to Earth

I have always considered parachuting as one of those really stupid things that everyone should do at least once in a lifetime, so when I received an invitation to jump from the director of a Moscow Region Aeroclub, I of course said yes. All my friends told me that jumping out of a perfectly good airplane with only a Russian parachute was a crazy idea, so I knew it was the right thing to do.

So Saturday morning we found ourselves driving to the town of Chekhov, 50 kilometers outside of Moscow, listening to Tom Petty (Learning to fly, but I ain't got wings. Coming down, is the hardest thing. . . ) and gearing ourselves up for what was to come. My mother had decided we couldn't jump out of an airplane without her supervision, so she was with us, as was our photographer, who didn't have any choice.

At Chekhov we met our instructor, Sergei, who gave us a little pep talk.

"What you are about to do", he told us, "does not require that you think. You listen to me and do what I say. We will have a good time".

Within minutes he had us jumping through an airplane door frame mounted a meter above the ground. He explained how to exit the aircraft smoothly, hands crossed over the chest so they won't get caught in any cables. He told our photographer not to stick his face out the door as the slipstream would bounce his head off the doorframe. He told us to step carefully at the doorway - he didn't want us to fall out until he was ready. We would be jumping using a static line so that the parachute would open automatically two seconds after jumping. He told us the first thing to do after leaving the plane was to look up. If there is a parachute above you - good. If not, pull the ring on the safety parachute strapped to your chest.

"We will be jumping from 800 meters. It takes 12 seconds to reach the ground without a parachute. Work fast". I hoped the main parachute would work.

Sergei explained how to land on power lines, trees, buildings and roofs, but emphasized we should aim for the big meadow at the airfield.

"From about 100 meters on down it is very difficult to judge your height and speed", he told us, "so keep looking at the ground below your feet. Bend those knees, relax in the harness, and wait for the ground to come up to you. It will".

The one-hour lesson over, he took us to the parachute room for suiting up and our choice of parachutes.

"Anyone want number 13? " he asked. No one took it. Then he handed out the safety parachutes. He asked if I wanted two.

The next thing I knew we were standing out on the airfield, wearing 30 kilograms of ropes, harnesses and parachutes, paying $20 each, and signing on the dotted line. A final inspection of our gear by the jumpmaster and we were herded onto the plane.

An enormous green biplane with red stars emblazoned on the wings and tail, it rumbled over the grass field and bumped into the air. My mother, a flight instructor in America, convinced the pilot to let her fly along, so she sat in the cockpit, grinning at us and taking pictures. I didn't feel much like smiling.

Just minutes later, amid much shaking and noise, a buzzer sounded to indicate that we were over the jump site. Sergei opened the door of the plane and signalled for us to stand. My mind blank, I stepped up to the gaping hole and saw the bright expanse of trees stretching from horizon to horizon.

"Look at me", he yelled over the din of rushing air. "Look at my eyes". There was no time to think. I put my foot on the door frame. He hit me on the shoulder and I took that big step.

Everything happened fast, but I remember tumbling and counting for ages. I knew the chute was never going to open and that I'd have to save myself with the safety. Then SNAP and I was swinging gently back and forth beneath the most beautiful, graceful piece of nylon I've ever seen.

The ground lay far below and there was no sense of movement, just heavenly peace and an incredible sense of serenity. I turned to look for the plane but it was already out of sight. Then I saw another chute far away, unmoving, silhouetted against the blue.

Quite suddenly, the earth was close. I assumed the landing position and noticed my breath coming quickly. I hit the ground fast but without pain. I was on my face, the chute dragging me across the field, but I was in one piece and on solid earth. The chute collapsed and I stood. I remember thinking, "I won! I lived! "