It takes your breath away.
Not just being at 12,000 feet in an airplane sitting just a few feet away from two open doors; not just feeling the wind from the open doors and breathing the thin air and shivering from the high-altitude cold.
But just because a couple of guys are kneeling next to the door a few feet from you, and leaning out far enough that they can look straight down. And because when they see something, they signal the pilot who swerves indelicately in the direction indicated.
This is not your average airplane experience. There are no flight attendants telling you where the restrooms and the emergency exits are located and to keep your seatbelts on when in your seat in case of unexpected turbulence.You keep your seat belt on voluntarily because it’s the only thing between you and the ground, 8,000 feet below, and because the flight is turbulent even if the air isn’t.
And you are all too aware of where the emergency exit is.
The Golden Knights were in town last month for the Warriors of the Wasatch Air Show at Hill Air Force Base. The demonstration parachute team of the U.S. Army made several jumps each day, with smoke trailing from their shoes as they grasped hands mid-air and then opened their chutes for on-target landings.
They were so kind as to invite members of the press to tag along for the airplane rides, though thankfully they didn’t invite us to get down the way they did.
First impression: They are amazingly nice and professional.
Second impression: They are remarkably brave.
We did get a safety speech before taking off. Specialist Luke Olk told us how to know if we were getting hypoxia (blue lips, glassy eyes, acting drunk). He showed us how to breathe straight out of an oxygen tank, if needed. He told us the fire extinguisher wasn’t to put out the plane, but to put out people on fire. He told us if, in an emergency, we were directed to leave from the door at the front of the plane, we should turn right immediately in order to avoid the propeller.
At least, that’s what I think he said. I was starting to feel light-headed already.
We couldn’t hear what the Knights said when they huddled for a moment before takeoff, but we heard their cheers as they broke and headed for the plane.
They buckled us in, and our cameras. Then we watched as they zipped and buckled and secured the clothing and parachutes that would keep them warm and get them safely down.
We watched them walk easily around the plane, untethered even when in a flight with no doors, by even a seatbelt.
We watched them joke with each other, deal with unanticipated issues, change plans when necessary, be compassionate with a member of the press who was struggling, and just generally do their job with competence and sensitivity. That they knew what they were doing was obvious. That they cared about each other and about people they didn’t even know was impressive.
Pilots from the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds were in town that same weekend and besides flying at top speeds upside down and sideways, they feted a local woman who had made a difference to kids and visited with children who were fighting life-threatening illnesses (see 7-3-14 Clipper).
There are different kinds of brave. These skydivers and pilots are a kind of brave I’ll never be.
But there are a few traits I can try to emulate, starting with patriotism and camaraderie and moving to compassion.
And while I’m working on those, I’ll also just spend more time being grateful that there are such men and women on America’s team, and that they don’t need me to jump out of airplanes.