When I was a young man, with less fat, more hair and far less common sense, I decided to take up skydiving. Along with one of my high school classmates, we secretly signed up to take classes. Had our parents known, they wouldn't have been too thrilled. When my father finally did find out that I was getting ready to jump out of an airplane he was not pleased. Having been an Air Force pilot, he could not see the sense of leaving a perfectly good airplane to take your chances of slamming into the ground at 160mph.
For those of you that have never sky-dived, it has changed over the years. Now-a-days, you learn the ropes in one day and jump in 'tandem' with an instructor. That is to say, you jump harnessed together, so that in case something goes wrong, someone that knows what they are doing is there to help you out.
This wasn't the case back in 1974 when I jumped out of a plane. There was no such thing as tandem jumping back then. You jumped solo, all by yourself. The instruction lasted for a week, every night, for 4 hours. They put you through drill after drill. The drills included, how to enter the plane, how to exit the plane, how to arch your back in free-fall , how to pull the emergency chute, how to steer your chute, how to land, etc, etc.....they taught us every eventuality and then made us do it 20 times, over and over.
They weren't stupid though. On the first 5 jumps they wouldn't let you actually pull your own ripcord. The ripcord was tied to the plane in the form of a "static line". As soon as you jumped from the plane, your ripcord was automatically pulled and your chute opened within 5 seconds.
So after all this training and psyching ourselves up for the big day, my high school buddy and I drove for 2 hours to the drop zone and got ready for the thrill of a lifetime. There were about 20 people in our class ranging in age from 16 to 40. Each plane could hold about 3 students, so we all waited around as groups of us went aloft for our first jump.
Without going into all the details of a jump, it was quite a rush. Nothing can really describe what jumping out of a plane is like. You have to do it for yourself. It is a liberating experience. My jump went off without a hitch and I managed to steer my chute to land almost dead center on the bulls-eye in the middle of the drop zone. By the time it was all over, I was pumped with adrenaline and beaming from ear to ear. My high school buddy followed me with the same results. We congratulated ourselves on the ground for having 'balls of steel'.
As we sat in the summer sun watching our other classmates prepare for their jumps, one of the instructors came running towards us. "We got a floater!", he yelled at another instructors that was sitting next to us. The seated instructor glanced upward, jumped to his feet and they both sprinted off to a waiting jeep parked next to the runway.
We looked up and spotted a lone parachutist drifting downward. As the breeze slowly pushed him away from the drop zone, it was evident that he wasn't' steering his chute as we were trained to do in class. He had 'freaked out' when he left the plane and gone limp in his harness.
That was the lesson. No matter how much training you have, no matter how good someone looks on paper, you can never be sure of how they will react in a crisis. We had all been trained the same. We had all passed the same tests. We had all made our jumps correctly, except for this guy.
The 'Floater' drifted about 3 miles down-wind and flopped into a corn field. They had to chase him down in the jeep and haul him back to the drop zone. He was lucky enough not to have drifted into any power lines or come down in a tree.
I knew then, that if this person was ever under fire in a combat zone, or in an earthquake, or a burning building, he most likely wouldn't survive. He couldn't overcome his fear.
From that moment on, I have always looked at those around me and wondered. They all seem competent and well trained, but there are a certain percentage of people that I can't trust in a crisis. The trick is figuring out who they are before the crisis hits. Life is full of booby traps, and some of them are sitting right next to you.