Biloxi looks a lot different when it’s hurtling toward you at 120 mph.
Or rather, I’m hurtling toward it, with another person and his parachute strapped to my back.
I’m writing this from 35,869 feet in the air on a commercial flight, which is about 22,000 feet higher than I was Thursday when I leapt out the side of a plane with the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights.
They’re a highly trained team that does demonstrations and skydiving competitions and promotes the Army brand around the world, started originally in 1959 to compete with the Soviet Union.
I’m not normally a thrill-seeker, but I do follow a strict YOLO (you only live once) policy, and if you’re going to put your life in anyone’s hands, the best of the best is a good option.
Plus, flying is in my blood. My father served in the Air Force, and his father flew 51 missions in World War II as a radio man and gunner on the B-17 Flying Fortress.
But I’m not the only one with a loose grip on sanity and a will to live. Eleven high school teachers from across the Mississippi Coast also jumped at the opportunity — pun intended. The brave souls were Gina Shavers and head football coach Neil Lollar from Hancock High; Nekemia Rich, Theresa Davis, Kelly Weems, Marissa Hall, Christina Dry and Kimberly Davis from Harrison Central High; David Harrison and Richard Humphreys from West Harrison, and Lavee Sims from Moss Point High.
And let me tell you, nothing phases the good people tasked with shepherding our nation’s teenagers. I asked all day if anyone was nervous, or jittery, or re-thinking their decision to freefall.
Answer: No. Nothing but ice water in their veins.
Either that, or they’re just experts at hiding anxiety in high-stress situations — which should probably be a job requirement.
As a news editor, that quality also comes in quite handy. It’s likely one of the reasons everyone got along swimmingly all day.
Military. Teachers. Journalists. Along with first responders, these are the jobs crucial to the basic functions of society. And unfortunately they’re also the jobs that often come with an incredible amount of mental anguish for not enough pay.
More than one teacher said Thursday this trip across the sky was one of the few perks of their job.
The day started off with a blanket of gray clouds and drizzling rain, and everyone thought the chances of getting to jump were pretty slim.
The Knights need to drop from at least 8,000 feet with two miles of cloudless skies and a clear sight to the drop zone.
All 12 of us arrived at Keesler Air Force base before 8:30 a.m. to learn how not to die and to sign away our right to sue in case we did.
We would go up three at a time, along with our tandem partner as well as a videographer equipped with a GoPro on their helmet.
I was in the first group, along with two teachers from Harrison Central. Weems coaches baseball and teaches U.S. history and was amped to be skydiving for the second time in his life. Rich teaches driver’s education and coaches basketball, football and track.
We donned the banana-colored jumpsuits and were securely strapped into harnesses before being taxied to the runway.
I was first into the golden-colored plane, and the hot wind from the propellers nearly pushed me backward as I neared the wide ladder leaned against the opening at the back.
As the Twin Otter is exclusively used for parachuting, the opening remains so, only closed with a clear hard plastic pull down when necessary. The man in charge of giving the go-ahead stayed crouched near it, scanning the scattered clouds for an opening. There were lots of numbers and hand signals exchanged between him and the front of the plane as we neared the drop zone.
To help with nerves, the Golden Knights kept the mood light with a routine of flight-related Dad jokes and puns. I had forgotten how active-duty military have a unique habit of rhythmic back-and-forth banter to pass the long hours on duty. That skill is rarer and rarer in the age of smartphones.
Unfortunately, once we got in the air the sky blanketed over with clouds again and we had to land. I was sure it would be canceled as a storm front was moving in, but as beach weather tends to do, the skies cleared anyway and we went up again.
It’s hard to mentally prepare yourself for looking down from the edge of a small plane, with nothing but the good Lord and man’s ingenuity between you and certain death.
So I didn’t really try. Luckily once you’re there, there’s someone behind you who, over the loud engine and wind noise, hears “no” as “go” and “I don’t want to go” as “Geronimo!”
What you’re supposed to do is, a. not actually jump just fall, and b. arch your back like a scorpion, hold on to your harness, tilt your head back, and smile at the camera to keep your cheeks from flapping.
But what I did was all that except I threw my arms up like a kid trying to make the biggest splash in the neighborhood pool. What can I say, I was excited and rational thought was not really happening.
From there, it’s hard to explain. It happened so fast. It just felt like a strong wind, which one teacher also said, and an incredible amount of eardrum pressure. The free fall lasts long enough for a photo op, then the parachute opens and rips you backward through what feels like space and time.
But after that it’s delightful. It was cool and sunny and we were floating above Beach Boulevard. I spotted the Coliseum and go-kart track with its twisty roadways.
As someone who enjoys rollercoasters, Sgt. 1st Class Marcus Denniston let me hold on to the steering straps and demonstrated how a tight turn creates G-force and a quick tug up creates a zero-gravity effect.
That was just about all the fun I could handle, though. After that, I focused on deep, steady breathing and maintaining consciousness.
Despite my launch error, I will say I nailed the landing. It requires some core strength to hold your legs straight out in an L shape so both of you can coast to a sitting position on the grass.
As expected, everyone made it safely down by the end of the day.
Weems was ready to go again, and many, including Rich, said they’d do it again but not today.
Theresa Davis, who went in one of the later groups, said it was well worth the wait.
Dry, who teaches Algebra and coaches the swim team, said, “the scariest part was standing around here waiting.”
Harrison, an art teacher, said, no lie, “It was the scariest moment of my life.”
At the end of the day, there was one thing that brought a laugh of consensus from all the teachers, who have to take classes to keep their certification:
“Do we get continuing education units for this?”