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A big jump off the bucket list

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alpena resident Diane Sims gets geared up to cross an item off her bucket list by jumping out of an airplane at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s aircraft show at Alpena County Regional Airport Saturday.

ALPENA — When Diane Sims fell off the roof of her Alpena home while she was shoveling snow some years ago, she had to explain the subsequent surgeries and metal rods in her leg to her friends.

“You can’t say you fell off the roof, so you have to say you fell skydiving. So this is my chance.” Sims said. “It’s going to be a little bit farther down than my roof.”

Sims, 66 (“and old enough to know better,” she said,) was one of several dozen adventurers signed up to cross an item off their bucket list at the Alpena County Regional Airport Saturday. The Skipper Up Skydiving Club flew excitement into Alpena over the weekend, boosting attendance at the annual Experimental Aircraft Association’s aircraft show by offering an exhilarating opportunity for residents to dive from the sky.

A relaxed crowd sat at picnic tables and stood talking, enjoying delicate-looking airplanes and helicopter rides amid the smell of syrup from the EAA pancake breakfast. When a plane’s hum was heard from a distance, onlookers pointed at the sky, eyes shielded from the sun, straining for the first glimpse of the airplane from which wingless humans soon would be hurtling toward the earth.

A plane slow-motioned into position overhead, 9,000 feet above the earth — the height of a snow-covered mountain. As the crowd watched, a tiny black speck emerged from the plane.

“There goes Mom,” a small girl said.

The speck curved away and down, growing bigger.

After an expectant pause, a colorful rectangle of fabric unfolded from the speck and poofed into a parachute. The speck grew legs and then arms, drifting, soaring, and making a spectacular loop before becoming human and thumping in for a landing on the runway’s soft grass.

Sims bounced on her toes and watched the sky as she waited her turn to fly. She wasn’t afraid, she said, at least not yet. She described the slow, graceful descent of the skydivers before her.

“Hopefully that’ll be me, and not a splat,” she said with a not-too-nervous laugh.

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Black-strapped harness in place, you walk toward the airplane with a jaunty stride, feeling “Top Gun”-like. The closer you get to the plane, the smaller it seems.

You squeeze in after your instructor and hunker on the floor, wedged between the instructor’s knees with your feet against the thin metal of the back wall of the plane. The other passenger, a nice man named Gary, climbs in after his instructor, offering a nervous salute to the small group gathered for a sendoff.

The propellor gives a few dry runs and then buzzes alive, and the plane starts to move.

In a moment, the small can with wings is in the air, and you stop thinking about the alarming rattles of its small frame and start to watch the ground fall away beneath you.

The ground goes down and down, all of Alpena coming into view and then moving into the distance. Your eye catches on tiny boats in the river below you, on Lafarge, and Grand Lake, and Cheboygan in the dim distance. The trees and water below beguile you, and you try to notice everything because you want to remember it all, want to hang on to the way time slows down as the ground falls away.

Then your instructor says it’s time to get ready. He adjusts and tightens straps until your back is snug up against his chest, a curious intimacy with a stranger in whose hands you are about to place your life.

A hand reaches into your sightlines. It’s Gary, wishing you luck and a handshake. You exchange a quick glance, and then he takes a deep breath and looks out the window.

It’s cold, you realize. The ground is a long way away. And then the breadbox side door rolls open.

Time changes course and starts to whizz by. Gary, following instructions, dangles first one and then the other foot out the door. His instructor shifts forward, leans. And then suddenly, Gary is gone.

You don’t have time to gasp. All of a sudden you’re at the door, and you watch your feet swinging outside one at a time, below them space and space and space and then the tiny ground. Your instructor shifts forward, and you’re hanging suspended from his harness with nothing below you. You want to say stop, stop, it’s going too fast, I want to have time to take it all in.

And then you’re flying.

A train in your ears, you try to remember your instructions but the ground is rushing at you at 120 miles per hour. The trees and river and city have disappeared into a blur of dizzying adrenaline and there’s only sky and not-sky and a sudden deep understanding of the word “plummeting.”

Speed and sound and your arms flying free, belly-flopping toward the planet, the absurdity of it all flashing through your head and whisked away instantly into the sun, you are suddenly jerked backward, and the world becomes silent.

The opened chute turns your freefall into a float. Legs dangling, you catch your breath and the earth below you is once again trees and river and town. Nearer they come, more slowly now, until the ground is yards and then feet and then inches below your shoes. Your heels dig divots into the grass, and then, there you are, following Gary back to the hangar, limbs trembling, head in a tumble, wondering what just happened.

Later, as you reach for a soft drink, you realize you’re still shaking. You realize, in that same moment, that you’re a different person than you were that morning. You are a person who jumped out of a freaking airplane.

And you drive home, tears fogging your eyes, longing more than anything to do it all over again.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.