David Allan
7 min readJan 21, 2024
If I plummet to my death this day
I’m going to do it comically, which is my way.

“The last time I jumped out of a plane was over Korea,” the middle-aged man shouted to us as we sat on the floor in the back of a shiny Cessna-sized plane. The only seat was occupied by the pilot.

We leaned in to barely hear him over the twin roars of engine and wind howling through the cabin’s open door. We nodded to let him know we could understand what he was telling us.

“I landed in a tree and broke my leg in three places. I was stuck there for nearly a day before I was captured.”

Then he scooted himself to the open door, said something to the jumpmaster, leaned out to hang from the wing and was gone. He disappeared in a blink. It was like a magic trick. We looked out the tiny plane windows and saw no trace.

This thing we were about to do became crazy just then. This idea. Jumping out of an airplane. Crazy, my brain signaled. CRAZY!

“All right,” the jumpmaster called to me and Dan, “Who’s next?”

The night before, my friends Dan, Mike,¹ Don, Jim and I watched “Point Break.” After a bit of sleep, we got up before the sun and went to Denny’s for a greasy breakfast and possibly our last meal. Then we drove the rest of the way to Buckeye, Arizona. I somehow had a Nixon mask (like one of the bank robbers in the movie) and enjoyed putting it on and flashing the double victory sign.

¹ Not his real name, changed per his request.

The diving school was in a vast and verdant valley. It was a beautiful and temperate November day, which is lucky, because we were there for the duration of it.

It took so long because, faced with the choice of a tandem jump (in which you are strapped to the chest of a professional skydiver) and a static line (in which a rip cord attached to the plane opens the chute for you as you fall away), we chose the latter. It’s more dangerous and requires you to land by yourself, so you spend the whole day practicing how to fall, control the chute and land.

Despite the added risk, the tandem jump was unappealing for two reasons: 1) You’re basically a tourist on a guided falling-to-Earth tour. 2) Why literally put your life in someone else’s hands? If something goes wrong, I want to spend those critical seconds trying to save myself, not hoping someone else is good at their job.

After many pages of legal waivers and a scared-straight safety video with skydiving clips from the film “Fandango,” we learned how to fall, to open an emergency chute if the main one fails to open, to pilot whichever chute does open and to land on a target site. “This is one of the few sports in which you can die,” said Cathy, our jumpmaster.

The dive center was located in an airplane hangar, inside of which we jumped from a wooden platform that was a stand-in for the plane. Over and over, we practiced the pose they taught us: After you let go of the wing of the plane, you arch your back, lift your head and stretch out your arms perpendicular to your body and count to 5 Mississippi. The Full Bono.

We practiced that, as well as controlling a simulated chute while strung up in a harness (by our balls, it felt like) and executing rolling landings on padded ground (unlike the desert floor outside).

Then we sat around until the sun started inching toward the horizon. It was going to be a sunset jump and hopefully not a metaphor for our last act.

Our group was split up. Mike, Don and Jim were in one plane. In the other was Dan and me with the Korean War veteran we met briefly at the start of training but who largely kept to himself. As we split our group and said “good luck” while heading to the tiny silver planes, I thought of Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.

At 3,000 feet, Jumpmaster Cathy said it was time, and the veteran went first. After he disappeared off the wing and Cathy asked who was going next, I filled the uncomfortable hesitation by raising my hand.

Once your ass literally leaves the plane, there’s no coming back. “It’s more dangerous to try to bring you back in,” they explained during training.

That’s why, before you step out, they yell, “Ready!?!”

And if you are, you yell “Ready!” back, and out you go. One small step for mankind, one giant leap for me.

The wind tried to push my foot off the small pedestal above the wheel as I shifted my weight to the outside of the plane. Crazy! Then, out of courage or mindless determination, I held on to a metal bar supporting the wing, stepped off the pedestal and hung there.

Below me, the ground, 3,500 feet away. There was an altimeter strapped to my left hand, but I never looked at it. And I must have been cold in my t-shirt, but I didn’t feel it.

The jumpmaster snapped a photo of me as I dangled in the wind. Then she gave me a thumbs-up.

And with no additional thought, knowing that thought would lead only to fear, I let go of the plane.

The first few seconds were like listening to an audiobook at 1,000x the normal speed. I immediately abandoned all teaching and devolved into a wild, twisty, dizzying doggy paddle of flailing limbs. It wasn’t the Full Bono, it was a Dead Man’s Fall.

The plane was nowhere. The ground was a blur. Just as I thought “Oh, shit, I’m going to — ” the chute opened.

I was suddenly right-side up, floating instead of panic-falling. A moment later, my attention turned to the voice coming from the walkie-talkie strapped to my chest. It was from a man on the ground watching me through binoculars and telling me which way to turn.

I looked down at my feet, which was dizzying. A thousand or so other feet of distance still separated my tennis shoes from the desert floor. To my side, a sunset slashed across the edge of the valley. Beautiful. Serene. I briefly understood the appeal of this … sport (was it?) beyond the life-affirming thrill of the jump.

“You’re coming in fast, Jumper #2,” the walkie-talkie squawked. “Pull up.”

I pulled down on both straps, remembering that this slowed you down.

“OK, you’re also off target, #2. Turn right. You see the big circle?”

I didn’t. And I forgot if I was supposed to pull down on the right strap to go right or if it was the reverse. I guessed.

“Your other right, #2.”


“Still coming in too fast, Jumper 2. Pull up!” At that point, I could see the ground rushing toward me, and I stopped hearing the instruction, though by the tone and increased volume, I could tell I was in some degree of trouble. I pulled up hard, but it seemed too late now, and I was coming in sideways. I was doing it wrong!

Then, suddenly, I was skiing. My feet were on the ground, but I was still moving fast, the parachute pulling me along like it was a kite.

Knees bent, I had good form. Behind me, a plume of dust. I came to a stop, still upright, and looked around to see that I’d slid right into the middle of the circle.

“Good job, Jumper 2. Now move out of the way for the next jumper.”

I was alive! I watched my friends land. We gave each other high fives and then went out to gorge ourselves on Mexican food after not eating for 12 hours. And then, exhausted from the surge of adrenaline, I slept better than I had in months.

The takeaway
Some things are worth doing once.

Unanswered question
If my chute hadn’t opened…?

And now a word from my journal, dated November 12, 1996, Phoenix…
“The highlights of the Denny’s experience include the best hot chocolate I’ve had in a long time and Dan’s breakdown while ordering. He was trying to get French toast, but the waitress was writing down ‘eggs and toast.’ By the end of the order, Dan figured out he wasn’t going to get what he thought and made a last minute plea for his French toast, but the whole thing just made him laugh. His face was buried in his hands as I spoke to the waitress, ignorant of his intention to actually get French toast. ‘He doesn’t want to change his order. He wants the eggs and toast.’ This made him laugh more. After the woman was at a safe distance, Dan told us that he was afraid the waitress was going to slap him. I thought she was rather understanding.”

Related dream:
July 26, 2001
My apartment, San Francisco

Ground Control to Major Tom

A friend and I were on a mission that involved us getting to a rocket ship by skydiving to a secret location. It was either Jen Robb [who is currently my scuba partner] or Sinéad’s sister, Dorothy. We jumped from the plane. Jen/Dorothy had done this before, so I was following her lead. We fell for a very long time, minutes and minutes. It seemed like we were under control and in little danger, but occasionally I got nervous thinking about us free-falling through clouds, hurtling toward the ground.

Somehow, we landed on the rocket ship’s platform. We got aboard and blasted into outer space. It was a long journey, many light-years away. I could feel myself aging rapidly, becoming an old man the farther we got away from Earth.




David Allan

CNN’s Executive Editor of Enterprise and Features (Travel, Style, Wellness, Science). This account represents my personal views, not CNN’s.