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Friday, November 04, 2005

Skydiving helps John Fleming stay down to earth

On a quiet, calm Saturday morning, fourteen thousand feet above the majestic mountains and stately pines of southern Oregon, John Fleming releases his grip on the plane that has safely carried him to this moment and begins a 120 mph free-fall back to earth. The wind howls in his ears. It grabs hungrily at the material of his jumpsuit. It is cold and, it is unforgiving. If John should carelessly move an arm or leg the wind will throw him into a sudden, disorienting tumble.

John Fleming is a skydiver. By his own count, he has made more than 1866 jumps - an average of 48 jumps per year over 38 years. That's a lot of flying leaps. Some might even call them leaps of faith: nearly half of those jumps have been made since John was declared legally blind in 1980. John, who was born sighted, has gradually lost his vision due to retinitis pigmentosa. He started wearing glasses while in grade school, and was legally blind by the age of 31. His vision further reduced to light perception only in the mid-1990s.

While his sight has been diminished by disease, his love for skydiving has not diminished in the least. For John to have made so many one-way plane trips over the years, there has to be something about skydiving that keeps him leaping again and again. It can't be the view from way up there. So just what is it? For John, skydiving is a declaration of his independence and his humanness: "It's very hard to describe how I feel when I skydive. I feel free, alive and special. It's like being weightless. It's speed and slow motion at the same time. It's a high speed dance at 500 feet."

People are introduced to skydiving in many different ways. Some people skydive to celebrate a special occasion in life, a significant birthday for example. Others may jump as a test of courage.

John became interested in skydiving when he was 14 years old. On a Boy Scout Troop visit to an Air Force base, the troop toured the parachute loft and viewed old video of skydivers. John was hooked. "I knew then it was something I would like to try." Seven years later, in 1963, John had joined the Air Force. One night while he and a buddy watched Wide World of Sports, the subject of parachuting came up. A dare was made and accepted.

John was more than willing. "I loved flying and anything to do with being in the air. It just seemed like it would be fun." Today, neophytes to the sport receive a full day's training before they are allowed to make their first solo jump. Not so in 1963. "It was a new sport. I paid $15 and took a 45-minute course. It was the bare minimum training for the time."

Many people think skydiving can't be too complicated. After all, how hard is it to fall out of a plane? It's just like falling of a log, right? Well, says John, not exactly.

"There is really no easy part to skydiving," John explains. "It is a very exacting sport that takes total concentration, very precise body control as well as absolute mental control. There are no time outs. There is no going back and starting over. Once you have left the airplane you are committed and you cannot make any mistakes. You are on your own and must perform. Panic is not an option."

John skydives both as a solo jumper and often as a member of a group dive. Group dives, in which the skydivers join together to create formations while free-falling, take a lot of planning to perform safely. According to John, the group's skydivers gather together prior to the jump to choreograph the event. "We decide who will jump first and who will follow. When we jump in a group we plan different formations to do during free-fall. After we plan the dive we practice it until all know it by heart. You really have to practice a lot if you want to get it right in the air. It happens real fast and you can't go back and do it over."

When it is time to get into the airplane, John pulls on his jump suit and puts on his parachute helmet and gloves. He and his fellow skydivers check one another's harnesses, packs and gears to make sure everything is on and snapped and strapped tightly in place.

During the flight to altitude, John tries to relax. "I go over what I am going to do in free-fall. I always go over my emergency procedures once too."

Once the plane has reached the altitude at which the skydivers will jump, John moves to the door: he is usually "base" in group formations and so he is among the first group of skydivers out of the plane. The base is the center person in the group. A second skydiver will grab one of John's legs, a third will take hold of an arm, and so on until all the skydivers are linked to one another.

"Most of the time I jump from about 14,000 feet above the ground" says John. "Most jumpers want all the free-fall they can get, so they jump from higher altitudes."

The free-fall is John's favorite part of skydiving. "I love falling for a long time. Sixty seconds of free-fall seem like forever. It's almost like being in slow motion while going real fast." During the free-fall John is falling at a speed of 120 miles per hour. The force of the wind makes it difficult to move an arm or leg or control one's body. "One wrong move with your hand or leg and you can flip, tumble or flop," says John.

How does John know when it is time to release his chute? He uses a device called an audible altimeter. "It beeps when it is time to open my parachute," he says. "I also use the clock in my head. It's amazing how good that clock is after a few jumps." Beyond these measures, John will ask a fellow skydiver to give him a shake on the arm when it's time to get ready to open. Finally, as a last resort, John has a reserve chute that is set to open automatically if his main chute has not opened by 750 feet.

These measures have saved John from serious injury. "I have had a few scary jumps. Once I had to use my reserve parachute and because of some tangled line, I did not get open until I was about 200 feet above the ground. That is only less than a second from hitting the ground." On a different jump, both of John's chutes opened at the same, spinning him like a top all the way down to the tree he landed in. That jump bought John a ticket to the hospital and four broken ribs and bruises.

While that particular landing was uniquely hard, landings in general can be hard on one's body, John says. In fact, the entire experience can take a toll. "Believe it or not, falling is hard on one's body. Playing in a 120 mile per hour wind is hard on your neck as well as your arms, leg, and back. Opening shock can also take a toll." Because of the physical demands, John recommends that people interested in taking up skydiving need to be physically fit.

Beyond knowing when it's time to open his parachute, John also has to decide where to land. For this important task he relies on the airplane's pilot and on a spotter on the ground who communicates with John via two-way radio. "The person on the ground decides where I am going to land," he explains. "He or she talks me down and tries to get me as close to the target landing areas as safely possible."

First-time skydivers typically perform a tandem jump with a trained professional. The seasoned skydiver wears a parachute built for two, and he or she guides and steers the duo safely to the ground. According to John, tandem jumping "is a great way to experience a skydive without the danger of jumping by yourself. It does not take the day long training to tandem skydive. Twenty minutes and you are in the air."

For their first solo jump, most skydivers make what is called a static line jump. The static line is a safety device -- a physical rope attached to the airplane that automatically pulls open the skydiver's parachute as he or she leaves the airplane. A full day of training is usually required before someone may make a solo jump.

With each jump a skydiver completes, and by demonstrating control of their chute, the skydiver becomes qualified to attempt more difficult jumps and jumps from higher altitudes.

As the skydiver becomes more proficient, he or she may choose to learn to pack their own parachute. It is the responsibility of each skydiver to pack their own parachute, though many large jump centers employ people who make a living at this trade. These packers have an obvious incentive to do their jobs well: they want repeat business.

John frequently packs his own chute. "It takes me about thirty to forty-five minutes. It can be done in ten minutes if someone hustles." There is a lengthy procedure to packing a chute: to do it correctly the chute must be spread out on the ground. John then checks to see that the four primary lines are straight: if they are, John knows the chute is laid out in position for him to begin the process of rolling, folding and packing the material.

When he isn't knifing through the blue skies of Oregon, John can usually be found working on the cabin he's built by hand on his six-acre spread in southern Oregon. He also enjoys fishing, playing golf and hiking with his guide dog Kiowa. While John is skydiving, Kiowa waits on the ground with friends. "Sometimes when I land someone walks her out to where I am and we walk in togetther. I guess it's quite a sight seeing a guy with an opened parachute walking back after a jump with a guide dog," he laughs. "We love it."

Are you interested in skydiving? According to John, for people who are blind or visually impaired, the real challenge to overcome has little to do with being able to pack a chute or pull a rip cord. It is overcoming stereotypes. "One of the hardest parts is convincing our families and friends and those in charge (of jump centers) that it can be done and done safely. Of course, there are some real concerns. Skydiving is a dangerous sport. Things happened real fast and there is no room for error. Mistakes can be fatal."

If you've decided you would like to give skydiving a try, consider starting with a tandem jump, says John. "There's really not much required of you except having the money. If you want to jump on your own, you will need to know that it may take longer for your training. The jump center may need to come up with some two way radios." Contact a jump center in your area and inquire about cost and qualifications of those in charge. John stresses the importance of speaking with center personnel in advance. If they've never had a blind parachutist before, "the center personnel may want to talk with someone who has trained a blind person before," John explains.

These are really minor obstacles to overcome if you're heart is set on skydiving. For John, the rewards are well worth the effort. "I like the challenge. It's something that I have to do on my own. Once I let go of the airplane, I have to do everything right and on time. No one else can save me, I have to do it on my own. Of course, I depend on others for help with the parachute ride but the skydive is on my own. The main thing is that it's fun."

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