Comments & Curiosities: Taking the plunge

Daily Pilot

Have you ever jumped out of an airplane?

I haven't. It's called skydiving. You climb into a small plane, then go higher and higher as everything below you gets smaller and smaller — buildings, people, even squirrels, which are pretty small to begin with.

When you reach just the right altitude, you just step outside, through the door, into the air, straight down, until the buildings, the people and the squirrels are getting bigger. When everything is just the right size, you pull the ripcord and the rest is easy, sort of.

If you want to know what it really feels like, you can ask the shining light of Newport-Mesa, or any other mesa, our very own Marion Bergeson.

Believe it or not, for the last few years, Marion has made diving off the 5,000-meter board a birthday tradition, and this year's jump, which happened a couple of weeks ago, was her fourth.

Marion has to be the most unlikely skydiver in the history of skydiving. If you are looking for a woman to head a major university or a huge corporation, or be the Ambassador-to-Wherever, Marion is the perfect choice.

But she is the last person you would expect to see in a jumpsuit, helmet and goggles, poised in the doorway of an airplane at 15,000 feet, giving you a smile and a thumbs-up just before stepping into the ether and disappearing in the clouds.

Not only was that the script a few weeks ago, but Marion's latest jump turned out to be more of an adventure than she planned, although this year, her birthday plunge was a group effort.

For reasons still not entirely understood, three of my fellow transportation wonks at OCTA thought jumping out of a plane, falling to earth at 150 mph and hoping your chute opens seemed like a good idea.

They agreed to be Marion's jump buddies and gathered on a Saturday morning at Perris Valley airport, which is in Perris, which makes sense.

The crew included Will Kempton, CEO of OCTA and formerly the top cop at Caltrans; Kris Murray, executive director of government relations at OCTA; and Wendy Villa, who works with Kris. I was supposed to join them but am sporting a torn rotator cuff in my left shoulder and was told by one of those wet blanket-wielding doctors that skydiving is probably not the best idea when your left arm is mostly there for show.

Here's the 411 on the whole crew: Marion — veteran jumper, no worries, this is too easy; Wendy — previous jump, cool, calm, it'll be fun, seriously; Kris and Will , first-timers, totally in the moment and the sheer exhilaration of a life-changing experience and trying not to throw up.

Will and Kris had an important edge though — they are athletic, coordinated and fearless. Will is an avid runner — marathons, triathlons, pentathlons, biathlons, cycling, rock climbing, kayaking, bungee jumping and croquet. Ridiculous. If God had meant for us to do all that, he wouldn't have given us remotes.

My wife and I drove out to Perris to see what we could see and in case we needed to drive anyone's car back to Orange County. Fortunately, we did not.

These are tandem jumps, meaning that you are latched to an instructor with you in the front, instructor in the back, but you have to crank your courage meter way up to actually step into that doorway and more importantly, out of it.

You get some ground training first, of course, which everyone said was just short of underwhelming. There was a video that tried its best to talk you out of jumping and said something like, "Actually, we have no idea why you decided to do this (we wouldn't) but the most important thing to remember is that we are responsible for nothing — you are responsible for everything, ranging from broken fingernails to near-death to complete death. Whatever happens, don't call us, don't bother leaving your number — same applies to your lawyer, we don't care, it's all on you. We think you're nuts, but if you still want to do it, knock yourself out, but if you do that, remember, it's on you. Don't forget to sign the single-spaced 4-point font release, twice, and remember — relax and have fun!"

The part of the video that got Will's full attention was that there are rattlesnakes in the landing area now and then and if one of them sinks its fangs into something that belongs to you, like your leg, that's on you, not them, totally, no exceptions.

The rest of the training consisted of a few tips from each instructor as they helped you suit up. As they walked to the plane, Kris asked Will when they would get to the training part. "I think we just did," he said.

We got there just in time to see Team Marion gliding into the landing zone. It was a raging success; everyone was amped up and loved it, although Marion would have loved it even more if she hadn't instinctively put out her hand as she landed and ripped a large patch of skin from her palm.

Fortunately, Wendy's boyfriend, Tim Strack, is a fire captain and EMT with the city of Riverside and had Marion neatly bandaged up within minutes. Marion was, as always, an island of calm in a sea of excitement, and even with her hand bandaged and her jumpsuit soaked in blood, still looked stylish.

Speaking of stylish, the jumpers all wear an altimeter on their wrist, and the one they gave Will was a huge hot pink Hello Kitty thing that I could see about 90 seconds before I saw him.

I think that's it — skydiving, ripcords and rattlesnakes. Sounds like fun, you should try it. What's the worst that could happen? I gotta go.

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