[PHOTO DESCRIPT: Two men, tied together, are falling through space at a great rate of speed. CAPTION: Tom Hicks (below) in freefall with his jump master.]

Skydiving Over Kapowsin

by Tom Hicks


From the Editor: Tom Hicks is a fairly new member of the National Federation of the Blind, but already he has become a leader in the NFB of Washington. By the time you read this article, Tom will have moved to Arizona to take a new job. Washington Federationists are deeply saddened to see him go but feel quite confident that he will become a valuable member of the Arizona affiliate. This is what he says:


On December 6, 1998, I set out to experience my first tandem skydive. This was a present to myself for recently earning my master's degree in organizational leadership. I wanted to celebrate it with an unforgettable event. Jumping from airplanes was not new to me. I was an Army-trained basic paratrooper and have thirteen high-performance, aircraft static-line jumps under my belt. Still, I had always heard that skydiving and static line jumping are not the same. I now know why. I would like to share my high-altitude experience with you.

I am legally blind and have a progressive eye disease known as retinitis pigmentosa (RP). My sight is extremely impaired. I am photophobic and have tunnel vision. In other words, seeing is not easy for me in most conditions. I am told that one day I will most likely become totally blind. I take this reality very seriously, but I do not let it dominate my thoughts or destroy my hopes and dreams. I may be losing my sight, but I remain a man of great vision. Besides, a life without challenges is a life not worth living.

After listening to a mandatory safety and disclaimer video on the hazards and joys of sports parachuting, I signed the necessary documents--in essence, signing my life away should anything go wrong. I met my jump master, Luke, who helped me get into my jump suit and harness. He then gave me a fifteen-minute block of instruction on my actions in the aircraft and air. I listened very closely and rehearsed the tandem responsibilities in my head. A tandem jump is one in which one is connected to the harness and parachute of a certified jump master. Luke had over 5,000 jumps, of which 1,000 were tandem. I sensed he was extremely confident and capable. This made me feel comfortable. After all, I was trusting him with my life.

As we walked from the hanger to the aircraft, I could hear three of my five children, Tommy, Mark, and Ruth, yelling, "Bye Dad." They were indifferent to the potential danger of my situation and at ease because I was not showing any signs of fear. Luke and I were the first to board the small aircraft. The smell of jet fuel filled the air. The skies were cloudy, and the air was a crisp forty-two degrees at Kapowsin Airfield. The sights, sounds, and smells reminded me of my past military parachuting experiences.

During this jump I wasn't alone. Ten of us were packed like sardines in the tiny aircraft. I heard several skydivers joking and laughing as the plane rolled down the airstrip and lifted off into the skies over Kapowsin. I wasn't nervous; however, I was respectful of the situation. I wasn't sure what to expect. I was excited and at this point totally committed.

As the plane climbed higher and higher, I kept thinking "Is this really happening to me?" It seemed like an out-of-body experience, and I was somehow just along for the ride. In the aircraft Luke went over what we had rehearsed on the ground. Next, Luke hooked me up to his harness as I mentally readied myself to jump. I strapped on my helmet, pulled my goggles over my eyes, put on my gloves, and gave Luke a thumbs up. The plane leveled off at 13,600 feet, and the exit door opened. The air was cold and roared like a lion. Luke and I were hunched over as we waddled, connected to each other, toward the exit door. I gripped my shoulder harness and leaned my head on my right shoulder while simultaneously standing crouched in the exit door, awaiting Luke's command to jump. As I stared out the exit door at the passing clouds and barely visible ground, the air roared in my ears. Suddenly, we leaped out the door into the wild blue yonder, arching our backs while Luke deployed a tiny drag chute to help stabilize our rate of descent. The freezing cold air rushed past us at 120 mph (terminal velocity) as we tumbled toward earth for sixty seconds of free-fall fun. My elbows and arms floated perpendicular to my body and acted like wings as we glided through the sky. I gasped for air at first but then relaxed and was able to breathe normally. I kept thinking, "This is so cool!" Luke and I steered our bodies toward the cameraman, Andy, who snapped pictures and videotaped the entire experience. What an adrenaline rush! Next I felt Luke tap my right shoulder, a signal we had rehearsed on the ground, to let me know he was about to deploy our main parachute. I quickly grabbed my shoulder straps just before the chute opened up. Imagine going from 120 mph to about 10 mph: it was like someone unexpectedly slamming on the brakes in a fast-moving vehicle. Instantly we were jerked to a slow rate of descent. The roar of the air became quiet and peaceful. We dangled together under our full canopy at 2,500 feet, enjoying the panoramic view of Kapowsin below. Luke handed me the toggles and let me steer the chute as we spiraled toward the drop zone. What a ride! I thanked Luke over and over for the thrilling experience. But it wasn't over yet. We practiced landing actions and commands in the air prior to our landing. As we approached the drop zone, we let up completely on the toggles. This action seemed to increase our forward speed, then at just the right moment Luke yelled, "Flare!" Together we pulled the toggles down behind our hips, and I lifted my legs up toward my chest. This action forced the chute to dip down behind our backs, slowing us down. Before I knew it, we had landed safely on the ground, but not before performing an unexpected face plant. Fortunately nobody got hurt, and we stood up and shook hands. Andy asked, "How was it?"

I replied, "It was awesome!" What a day; what a ride; what a thrill!

Blindness is no excuse to stop living one's life. I won't let it do that to me. This experience has taught me to try new things and challenge myself. I am so glad I was able to experience the joys of tandem skydiving. It has somehow changed me in a fresh and positive way. No matter what you undertake in life, push yourself to the limit. Life's challenges are what living is all about. Airborne!