They may be the ultimate daredevils.
Late at night, when the moon is full, skydivers jump from a plane. They plunge 120 mph toward the ground, with only car headlights marking the landing spot.
It’s dangerous and definitely not for novices, but night skydiving is also an addictive, adrenaline-pumping experience.
“It’s like jumping into a Christmas tree,” Cynthia Fisher said of the bird’s-eye view of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene city lights. “It’s just wonderful.”
On a recent chilly night, a single-engine plane carrying four fearless skydivers climbed above the Mead airfield.
Before takeoff, three of them ran through a series of maneuvers they hoped to execute during free fall. Dan Carroll, Stephanie Wiles and Denise Weber are experienced night jumpers.
Brad Smith never tried it before. He planned to bail out first, about 2,000 feet below the others, to keep out of their way.
When the plane took off, nobody talked. Only the rattle and hum of the propeller could be heard.
At 8,000 feet, Carroll leaned out the plane, checking clouds and wind conditions.
Carroll looked at Smith, and like a mother bird to a baby bird, gave Smith the OK to jump from the nest.
On the ground, six other members of the Spokane Parachute Club, the largest skydiving group in the Inland Northwest, stared into the darkness in search of Smith.
“There he is; there’s his beacon!” yelled Pat Gould.
Smith’s landing target was marked by the headlights of seven vehicles parked on the grass near the airfield runway. His parachute was wide open, and from the ground, it looked like a pterodactyl out of Jurassic Park was about to land.
About 500 feet off the ground, the silence of the night was broken.
“Yaahoooo!” Smith screamed.
His friends burst into laughter.
They knew what he was feeling. For just a few minutes, they were all as much a part of the sky as the stars and moon above.
“That was great!” Smith shouted after a perfect landing. “You just lay up there and look around at all the lights. What a rush!”
Smith had just recorded jump No. 70. That was nothing compared to Carroll, Wiles and Weber. Weber and Wiles have 400 jumps between them; Carroll boasts 2,230.
After landing and shedding their gear, Carroll, Weber and Wiles talked about their jump.
The group only earned three points instead of a planned nine. A point is earned when divers join hands, break formation and join again. Carroll said part of the problem was Weber’s and Wiles’ lack of night jumping experience.
But the lack of points earned by the team didn’t spoil the night.
“It was just beautiful up there,” Weber said.
Night jumping, though, is risky. There’s a 10 percent greater chance of serious accident than during daylight.
Night skydivers wear lights on their crash helmets and other parts of their equipment. They wear brighter-colored clothing and parachutes.
Even so, “landing can be tough,” said Andrew Strong, one of the 35-member parachute club’s instructors.
“You can lose your depth perception because you’re so high and because of the dark. That’s where the training comes in.
“After a while you aren’t relying so much on sight as you are on the equipment,” Strong said. “You learn to trust your gear.”
“I remember my first night jump,” she said. “I had a hard time locating the drop zone. I knew we were across the street from the Zip-Trip over there, but I couldn’t find the lights.”
When she finally did, “the ground seemed to quickly close in on me.”
Gould, 38, has more than 1,100 jumps. She’s been skydiving for nine years.
The parachute club formed in Athol, Idaho, in the late ‘60s, then moved to Spokane County in 1983.
Members must perform 50 solo daylight jumps before graduating to night skydiving, done only on clear nights when the moon is full. They hope to jump again on June 20.
Free-falling lasts about 45 seconds. Divers tumble 1,000 feet every six seconds.
Half the members of the parachute club are women, well above the national average.
“It’s liberating,” Gould said. “You forget about everything for a few minutes.”
Another club member, Cynthia Fisher, is a 41-year-old mother of two with two grandchildren. She has 1,037 jumps and has been skydiving since 1986.
Not everyone in Fisher’s family, however, has been eager to follow her lead.
“One time, I was going to take my 5-year-old grandson for an airplane ride,” Fisher said. “When I told him, he burst into tears and told me that he’d only go if he could use a ladder to get out of the plane.
“I didn’t know what he meant,” Fisher said. “But then I finally realized that all he knew about airplanes was that grandma and her friends are usually jumping out of them when they get on them.”
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