Something about perspective

I suspect the picture attached to this story at the BBC could be the basis of one of those cheesy inspirational posters. Something about the fighyt not always going to the strong, or the slenderest bough holding in times of need.

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I used to work in a clothing factory. One of the items we made was a child’s t-shirt with a couple of eskimos rubbing their noses together on it. And by that I mean it was a picture of two eskimos, not two actual eskimos stapled to it. And they weren’t rubbing their noses on the t-shirt, but rather on each other.

Anyway, in case anyone was unclear about what the picture represented (like you probably are by now) it said “Kissing Eskimo’s” on it. Behold the power of the apostrophe – I asked management what part of the eskimo was being kissed, or perhaps what possession, but they didn’t know. I think they were too busy looking at the contract to see who was liable for the mistake.

Note: Eskimo is often considered an offensive term, but while checking whether I should be putting an ‘e’ near the end I find that it’s actually a reasonably accurate, inclusive term that the allegedly more acceptable term ‘Inuit’ doesn’t match. All Inuit are Eskimos, as are all Inupiaq, and all Yupik, but the reverse does not hold. In any case, this was all back before we did respect to foreigners. Like we do now.

300ft high and falling

When I was 16 I did a parachute jump. I’ve since grown out of such excitement, preferring to live my life vicariously through the gift of television. But at the time it seemed like a good idea. I did a static line jump, which meant the parachute release was attached to the plane rather than depending on me to pull the ripcord. This freed me up to focus all of my brain power on blind, abject terror with just a hint of what-the-hell-did-I-sign-up-to-do-this-for.

The jump was from 2,200 feet. At a steady 55mph this would take around 27 seconds; in free-fall it would take closer to 9 seconds. I did check the math on that bit, but I didn’t need to. The fact that you have 9 seconds to get some fabric above you when you jump from 2,200 feet is a fact as clear to me as my date of birth, and will always be. Needless to say, once you’re up to 8 seconds it’s probably not worth bothering with the rip cord anyway.

The traditional height to jump from is 2,000 feet, I believe, but the instructors wanted to give us a full 2,000 feet of dangling from a scrap of cloth, so they added the 200 feet on top because that’s how long it takes for the ‘chute to open. This may give you some idea of why I found the following snippet from a story about a war-time SOE operative in France:

She was parachuted into France from 300ft (91 metres) on the third attempt – regarded as an extremely low jumping point. Other attempts had been abandoned because the situation on the ground was considered too dangerous.

At the time, Mrs Cornioley said, she was “delighted to be in one piece and back on French soil” after finally making the jump.

Sqn Ldr Cowsill, who has completed nearly 1,000 jumps, said: “If I was to jump at 300ft it would be without exception the most frightening experience I would ever undertake.”

Squadron Leader Cowsill nails it. That first 200 feet would take around 2 seconds, and the remainder of the jump would be perhaps another 5 seconds. In that time you have to accelerate from scared at what’s ahead, through oh-my-god-I’m-going to die, and into legs together, spot the ground, bend at the knees and roll.

Around 300 feet is also the height that they advise you to get ready to land. Partly that’s because at that point you’re close enough that you can see pretty clearly where you’re going to hit (whether you want to or not), and you have just enough time to do any final adjustments to your heading. But mainly it’s because after the relatively calm 90-second descent you’ve enjoyed up to that point, the ground will rush up to meet you faster than you can comprehend without doing it. There was more than enough going on for me in that 300 feet already, without having to cram in the entire jump.

In case you’re wondering, the summary for my jump was “Head down and running, otherwise OK.” A common reaction upon finding oneself flying without benefit of lift is to lower the head and run like hell. Not, given the circumstance, the most constructive thing to do, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Or at least I assume it did; I have no memory of the span between jumping out and shouting “…thousand, check canopy!”

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