After all we had gone through as the "World Team", I wasnt willing to accept the concept that wed be weathered out, on our last day, without even a shot at the record jump. It seemed inconceivable to me that we had come all this distance, to end up at an air force base in central Thailand, a million miles from home, without even the opportunity to succeed. Here I was, about to celebrate my 30th year of jumping and the Queen of Thailands 72nd birthday, and we were 400 skydivers, stuck and grounded in the hotel lobby at 7am on this Friday, February 6, 2004.
The clouds were thick and low on this 11th jump day together. The afterburners from the F-16s practicing touch and gos, reflected off the low cloud base, accentuating the conditions that grounded us. We killed time by napping, stretching, and tossing the softball around on the tarmac. At 10am, we were told that a turbine DC-3 would venture out towards an eastbound airbase, in search of clearer skies and open landing areas. It was a distant and drowsy memory when 60 minutes later, the call came to gear up"! The ground shook, as we hastily prepared our rigs, snackfood, water, and accompanying personnel for the flight to Toc Li. We had no idea where that was, but if there was clear skies above it, we wouldn't care if it was Thailand, Laos or Cambodia. We were skydivers after all, and as long as they would let us out of an airplane, we would gladly jump out of it.
For the 20th time, here we were once again, trying to relax and wake up at the same time, all the while sweltering on the hard steel floor of the C-130 Hercules, waiting for engine startup and the eventual and prayed for starting of the air conditioner. Like the good skydiving soldiers we were, off we went toward the unknown, hoping for better weather, and at least a final shot at glory. If we were destined to fail, we certainly didnt want to do it sitting on our asses in Korat.
One more sweltering dirt dive in the oppressive tropical sun, practicing our walkout and slot assignments, and off we went, back to our respective Hercs. We gazed up at the skies one last time to assure ourselves that the building strato-cumulous clouds weren't going to become an issue once again during our climb to altitude.
We were quite used to the length of time a climb to 24,000 feet would take, about 1 hour from boarding to exit. We experienced Herculean luxury in Lucky Green #7, a stretched and well maintained C-130, which never once complained. And stretch we would. We could take a full body length of floor space, and lounge about in a deep dreamfilled sleep , all the way up to fourteen grand, until the hissing of, and reaching for the O2 hoses, would wake us up. Unlike the unlucky bastards who were crunched into the two other regular and shorter Hercs, our life, confined as we were, was a comparative country club next to theirs. We had our pillows, water bottles, and reading materials conveniently at hand.
Finally, as we levelled off at 24 grand, down went the ramp, followed by the two minute call. Up we stood, nervously tightening straps, and touching handles, and doing various skydiver hand greetings and slappings to communicate good will and good luck. I made sure to touch a French, Belgian and Swiss jumper too, for good luck. Inasmuch as we all may have had our differences in style, this time we all felt a unity. We shuffled towards the ramp. As the Herc swayed and twitched with last minute course corrections, I stood firmly, one arm across the rig of Eric, a foot taller in front of me, and one hand on my oxygen connector on the back of my helmet. Hypoxia at this moment would have been a very undesirable thing.
I sucked long and hard on my O2, knowing it was going to be a long ride down to something breathable ten thousand feet below.
Two days earlier, we had stood here, on the ramp, ready for the bell, signaling for us to drop our hoses and prepare to exit. That jump was aborted, and this time, it felt like an eternity until our bell rang. It was a sweet sound that rang out the affirmation that we would indeed get a final chance to prove ourselves.
Over the edge I went, instantly engulfed in a wonderful realization that I was untangled and in clean air, flying smoothly away from the "evil" guys in white, who had spun up so many of my previous exits.
Instantly, I spotted Eric, my whacker line partner that I had to follow. He dove, and I dove. He cut right, and I cut right. I waved back quickly, as we swerved over in front of Chris and Bill, who docked behind us, but due to the peculiarity of the exit, always ended up in front of and below us. We lined up on our base person, and as Eric adjusted, I put my hand out on his knee to absorb his motion, rather than back off and away. When the base settled, he took his grip on John Peschio, the anchor, I took his wrist, Jim Bob took mine, and once again, we were a complete and happy wacker line #1, Red, Sector 2.
Now, I would presume that 356 others have this same chapter in their story. There was no tension in our grips, the base wasnt moving, there was nobody below the formation, just a slow motion procession of whites to my 11 oclock, and blues to my 2 oclock.. Everybody in view was flying smoothly and progressively into their slot, until the skies were still. It was like flying a three way line, just Eric, Jim Bob and I, as spectators in a skydiving stadium. I pulsated my grip on Eric, trying to communicate my optimism to someone, that I was pretty sure this was "the one". It had that unmistakable calmness that cant be confused with anything else in skydiving. After only 6 previous tries, this 7th, perhaps our last, was going to be the record.
As we progressively gathered on the trucks, busses, and in the packing areas, we finally shared that elusive joy that only a successful record in difficult circumstances can offer. The hugs and handshakes were easily found.
Ultimately the word came that we had a complete 357, held for 6 seconds. We brazenly chose to accept the word to go up with 366 and try it again, but that well intended and hopeful idea failed before exit, when hypoxia claimed several jumpers who never left their Herc. Once that was done, with everyone still alive and unbroken, we packed up and headed for home, exhausted but fullfilled. We arrived to a darkening air base in Korat, and were hustled off to a Thai "country and western celebration", where we were fed and treated like returning heroes. The amazing part of the story was that we were actually heroes after all, and not merely the noisy and messy barbarians who were always quick to trash any nice and neat airbase that got in our way. It made for the perfect celebration, and the storybook finale.
In the end, this invading noisy iconoclastic horde from the west, actually did what they said they would do. They threw themselves and 356 of their friends, 366 including the cameramen into the thin cold air, 5 miles over Thailand. For 6 seconds, 357 members of 36 nations, did what they were supposed to do all along hold hands in silence while falling together at 120mph. Not that hard really, if everyone wants it badly enough!
January 24, 2004
earlier, to begin our celebration of
Her Majesty, Queen Sirikit's 72nd Birthday
year, we dropped a record 672 skydivers
into Sanam Luang, a large parade ground
in front of the Royal Grand Palace.
300 were Thai Air Force and Police,
and the rest were our World Team. Strong
winds created nasty rotors in the landing
area, and a few people thumped in pretty
hard, and several headed for the hospital.
No drama for Duffy.
Happy Birthday Your Majesty.
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