These poor guys had been answering all my paranoid questions for two days. No, we pull the chute at 5,500 feet and nobody's ever seen a bird higher than 5,000. Yes, you'll be able to breathe. No, the opening of the chute won't hurt—"It'll be as soft as huggin' a fat lady," Billy said. And yes, those are Army medics in that truck next to the landing zone, but it's just procedure.
Besides, they said, you're with the Army's Golden Knights, one of the greatest skydiving teams in the world, winners of 16 national and world championships, and they've never had a fatality in 3,000 tandem jumps.
"O.K.," I panted, as we climbed higher over Fort Bragg, N.C., and I grew whiter than Edgar Winter, "I trust you guys, but what about the pilot? What if he gets knocked out? There's only one pilot on this plane! We'd all be dead!"
And that's when the commander of the Golden Knights, Lieut. Col. Paul MacNamara, leaned in and said simply, "Rick, we'd just jump."
And so, as we duckwalked to the door in that freezing fuselage and Billy perched us on the doorsill of death and popped the question, "Are you ready to jump?" I said what you would have said, which was, "No!"
And Billy jumped anyway. Taking you-know-who with him.
A friendly piece of advice for those of you planning to jump at an altitude the Chicago-Moline commuter plane never reaches: Do not leave your mouth open. Every drip of saliva you ever had or will consider having will be blown dry instantly. You will be more dry-mouthed than Dennis Rodman in confession.
But you can't help it. Because everybody's falling at the same speed, you lose the sense of falling and gain the sense of flying. Your mouth has to flop open to scream with numb-founded delight. You are Clark Kent.