First Flight

Since I was a kid I have always been addicted to flying. I have built kites, then model airplanes, ran around a field with a spool to launch them and dreamt about one day soaring into the sky like a bird.

My current and previous jobs require me to fly a lot, both domestic and intercontinental destinations. I am always amazed that many of us take it for granted that we can board an airplane, sit in an armchair and without any effort realize man’s thousand year old dream.

I have a greater appreciation of flying not only because I have been intimately involved it the aerospace manufacturing industry, but also because I am a former pilot.

I still vividly remember my first flight. It was on a Saturday morning in late Summer of 1972. I was 17. The airplane was a 3 seater Scout, the pilot in front and two passengers behind him. The wing was above the fuselage held by two struts on either side. I was the passenger in the middle, anxious as hell as we accelerated down the grassy runway and took-off. It seemed that we barely cleared the tall row of trees on the end of the runway, but soon the surrounding corn-fields turned into green patches of tapestry as we slowly spiraled up to 1000 meters, where I knew this flight would end for me.

I felt the cool floating sensation as the temperature steadily dropped as I was watching the familiar landscape from a brand new vantage point. The fertile farmland below used to be the Pannonian sea before Attila the Hun roamed these lands. History has moved the borders below many times and it was fitting that the only city visible in the distance was called ‘Szabadka,’ which loosely translated is an endearing name for ‘Freedom’.

The original plan was for me to exit at 500 meters, but my instructor changed the plan at the last minute, he decided that we will loose too much altitude if we cut power at 500, so instead we will go to a 1000, I will exit first, then the pilot will fly downwind a bit more and my instructor will exit there.

I trustest his judgment because he had over 300 jumps under his belt, this was not only my first airplane ride, but also my first jump. I was throwing weighted streamers out every so often as we climbed so he can see where they landed and adjust our exit position to the drift.

We have practiced the next few steps many times on the ground. The pilot said “Get ready!” . . . I hooked my main line’s carabiner into the bar above my head as my instructor double checked it and I yelled “I’m ready”. The pilot cuts power and yells “Get into position!” I climb out to under the wing, step onto the outside step with my right foot and hold onto the strut with both hands as the wind is loudly rushing past and yell “I’m in position!” I am vaguely aware that I feel scared, excited, and above all intensely alive at this moment. I know that is the point of no return as I hear the pilot yell out “Jump!”

I let go, spread my arms and legs wide and try to hold it, but I feel that someone just pulled the chair underneath me and the sensation is not going to stop. I know  that I attached my carabiner, which is on the end of a 5 meter static line, attached with a weak-link to the parachute, those lines are another 4-5 meters long, so my free-fall is only about 10 meters (30 feet), but I’m starting to question if I really hooked-in, did I tie that weak link properly? . . . as I feel a hard jolt, close my eyes as my shoot opens. I open my eyes and panic because I cannot see a thing, it is dark in here . . . oh wait, the jolt made my helmet slip over my eyes, bring it up and look up. The chute is open! It is so beautiful!

This is so very cool! I can see the curvature of the Earth! I can turn by just pulling on either side of my controls. It feels like I’m not descending at all, I am just hanging out here in silence and peace. I never realized during that jump that I will never be able to explain the feelings I was experiencing. I still can’t.

I was so distracted that I never once looked to see where the little grassy airport was so when the Earth started moving-up I was completely unprepared. I only had a quick glance to see the general direction of the airport, but I was confident that I can land, after all I have been a Greko-Roman wrestler since the age of 6 – knowing how to fall was second nature.

I landed in a corn field. It took me about 15 minutes to untangle my parachute from the corn stalks and another 30 to hike back to the airport.

It is said that life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but the moments that take our breath away. I logged many jumps and many flights since, but the first flight is still vivid even after 40 years.

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