I have never in my entire life had any desire to jump out of an airplane. Several friends have done so; they all report it as being a glorious and life-affirming experience--one that I "have to try." Well, no: I don't. I'm perfectly comfortable here on the ground. I like not having to worry about plummeting thousands of feet to my death.
Strangely, though, I've always been fascinated by people who do jump out of airplanes. I'm especially interested in high-altitude drops--people jumping out of planes so high above the earth that they have to wear pressure suits and oxygen tanks to keep from dying. Part of my interest comes from my experience on airplanes. I sit there: I'm afraid; I look out the window and I always imagine what it would be like to fall from that height. ("Unpleasant" is my best guess). The fact that people actually jump from those heights--and much much higher--amazes me. And baffles me. (There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt in my philosophy). Why do they do it? I guess it's the same mindset that causes people to climb high mountains, or live in trees. They want to prove to themselves it's possible.
Or, they're completely mad.
Such, I think, would be a fair assessment of John Paul Stapp, an Air Force physician who is among the various pioneers of super-high-alitutude skydiving profiled in "Falling", a fantastic article appearing in this week's New Yorker. (Unfortunately, the article in question is not available online: you'll have to get the print edition. For further information, go here.) To really get a sense of the true courage--and insanity--of the kinds of people who jump out of balloons suspended nineteen miles above the surface of the earth, you need to read the whole article. (It's well worth your time). Here, though, is a brief excerpt. The passage I'm quoting describes early tests conducted by John Paul Stapp to determine, basically, how much misery the human body could endure. Among his goals were to figure out if it were possible to parachute out of a jet, flying 70,000 feet above the earth at near the speed of sound, and live.
Stapp wanted to know the true limits of human tolerance. He used cats, chimpanzees, and human subjects for his research, but reserved the most dangerous tests for himself. Beginning in 1946, he made repeated flights to forty-seven thousand feet in an unpressurized plane, racking his body with the bends. (By breathing pure oxygen before a flight, he discovered, he could rid his blood of the nitrogen that would bubble up as the pressure dropped.) Later, he had a rocket sled built on a track in southern New Mexico and fired himself across the desert at up to six hundred miles per hour. By December of 1954, Craig Ryan writes in his 1995 book "The Pre-Astronauts," Stapp had broken his ribs and wrists, suffered concussions, hernias, retinal hemorrhages, and "searing headaches that lingered for days." His final sled run subjected his body to forty-six times the force of gravity and left him temporarily blind. But he survived.