Leap of Faith
By Michael Betts
Published in News on April 17, 2011 1:50 AM
Golden Knights Jumper Joe Abeln and News-Argus Chief Photographer Michael Betts give a thumbs-up during their tandem sky dive Friday.
"Do you mind if I curse?"
It was my only response after United States Army Golden Knight Joe Abeln finished his final instructions for our tandem skydive Friday.
We'd already gone over what to expect and how everything was going to work. Now, at 13,500 feet above the earth, I wasn't thinking clearly -- sweat somehow forming on my body underneath my jumpsuit despite the 30-degree temperature inside the Golden Knight's specialized airplane.
My legs wobbled as I shuffled toward the open door with Abeln strapped to my back.
"Remember, 'no' sounds like 'go,'" Abeln joked.
I had spent the previous two hours acting brave. The men and women of the U.S. Army Golden Knights are considered the best at what they do and I did not want to show them the extent of my fear.
I did admit to Abeln that I was scared of heights, though. To which he replied, "I am still scared of heights."
Weird. Joe Abeln has made over 4,500 sky dives in his life. He's had some notable people place their lives in his hands, including Danny Bonaduce, Vince Vaughn and Tony Stewart, but Abeln was still scared of hieghts. He told me he got nervous one day recently when he had to work on his roof -- I don't know if he was telling me truth or just trying to make me feel better.
Abeln along with Golden Knight Aaron Figel, a former Army Ranger who would be doing the video and photos of my jump, made jokes all morning.
"I like this job, but it has it ups and down," Abeln quipped.
Sounding like he might have been running out the repetoire he uses to put people at ease, "No sounds like go" was the last thing I head before plummeting 175 miles an hour in a free fall that would last close to a minute.
As we reached the open door, Abeln leaned forward once, twice, and then on the third lean we were suddenly outside of the plane -- the air rushing against my face, all my fears replaced by the endorphins, more than I have ever felt before, racing through my body.
Out of my peripheral vision I could see Figel with his video camera attached to his helmet and still camera with shutter release triggered by his mouth, gliding toward me signaling me to give him a thumbs-up.
And that is exactly what I did. I gave two big thumbs up.
"Man, this is fun," I thought to myself.
Abeln began counting down from five on his hand, than pulled the ripcord. From 175 miles an hour to 20 miles an hour in a matter of seconds, my body jerked as the parachute deployed.
Still thousands of feet above Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, with the massive C-17 cargo plane and other aircraft sitting on the flight line for the Wings Over Wayne Air Show looking like specks, it would be five minutes until I touched ground.
I began to thank Abeln profusely for the once-in-a-lifetime experience, not sure if what I was saying made much sense. At one point I said seeing the earth like this is proof that there is a God.
"Legs up," Abeln said.
I grasped the to handles that were sewn into my yellow jumpsuit by my thighs and I lifted my legs as much I could. I could see Figel already waiting and leaned back as ground approached.
Abeln began to gather the parachute and unhooked the harness that had kept us tethered together for the past 13,500 feet.
"Mike, you just jumped put of the airplane with the United States Army Golden Knights. Now you know a little about Army Strong, right?" Abeln asked me.
I answered, "Army Strong," looking at Figel's camera with as much bravado as I could muster.
Then, all my confidence and adrenaline drained, I look at Abeln and said, "I am going to sit down now."