by Heather Orr
I was one of the few lucky souls who jumped out of a plane at the instant the total eclipse passed over Madras, Oregon. The moment forever seared into my memory is not necessarily the eclipse itself, but the darkening of our world and the speed at which the light returned in a 360-degree sunrise on fast forward. This is not to imply that the celestial image of the eclipse was anything short of hair-raising—nothing of the sort. But its ability to paint the world in shadow and then remove it as quickly as it appeared is something for which no image or description could have prepared us. The power of the eclipse resided in its ability to touch every inch of our world, altering our experience of night and day.
To do this story justice, however, I must start from the beginning. I had not heard anything about an eclipse. I didn’t even know the difference between a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse, other than what their names implied. I was utterly unaware that much of this country had been preparing for this event for years.
My friend Valerie Armstrong shared an event on Facebook—the Skydive Awesome! Solar Eclipse Boogie—and I happened to be at my computer. I quickly Googled the eclipse to find out if the event warranted a trip to Oregon. Upon learning of the rarity and alleged magnificence of a solar eclipse, I quickly responded to her post. She encouraged us to sign up, warning that the eclipse load would fill up quickly, and we immediately starting making travel plans.
My partner and I reserved the last two slots on the solar eclipse load, a mere day after the event was first announced. I believed the event would amount to an impressive story and perhaps some interesting video. It was to be mere fodder stored away into my bank of skydiving stories, one of many cool ways that I’ve jumped out of an aircraft; that is where my expectations ended.
I had not the slightest clue that this would be the jump of all jumps, the most magnificent in-air experience of my life.
We rolled into camp—appropriately named Camp Awesome—five days before the eclipse to ensure that we beat the masses of expected traffic. Our timing required that we pack provisions for nearly a week, given the anticipated food and water shortages in a town inhabited by 6,500 people that would welcome 100,000 additional souls that momentous week. We were told that cell towers might be unable to accommodate the influx of cell-phones and that we should prepare accordingly. No one knew what to expect on any front. No natural event had ever drawn more people. Everything was an unknown. But still, we eagerly awaited our chance to have the ultimate front row seat to the first solar eclipse in the continental U.S. in my lifetime.
Camp Awesome was indeed awesome, but not just because it was filled with skydivers. We had actual space. The camp was big enough to comfortably house all of the RVs, tents, manifest, porta-potties, a large packing tent and even sponsor tents. And there was room to spare. While adequate space is normally the bare minimum of standard, one needed only glance across the street to Solar City—the campsite housing all other Madras campers—to realize just how lucky we were, and how much gratitude we owed to the DZOs for their foresight and planning. Solar City housed tens of thousands of campers, crammed in as tightly as was physically possible. Each canopy ride over Solar City left me awash in appreciation for our accommodations, luxurious by comparison.
Most of the boogie attendees rolled in Friday or Saturday. I was delighted to see members of my sky family arrive from Portland, Los Angeles and everywhere in between, bringing with them skydivers from as far New York. The magnitude of the event began to creep into my consciousness.
There was much debate about whether the eclipse would be better viewed from the ground or from the sky. Intense discussion ensued. The ground advocates warned that jumpers would miss the opportunity to experience the eclipse in all of its glory, busied with necessary distractions of opening and safely flying parachutes. Those on the eclipse load—a much less ardent group—could not quell their curiosity about the potential to experience this event with the birds and the mountain peaks. For a brief moment, we considered pulling off the load, not out of fear, but because we didn’t want to make the mistake of possibly missing the eclipse in all its glory. I will be forever glad that we followed our instincts and chose the sky.
Of course, before the big day there was much fun jumping to be had! In the days leading up to the eclipse, we took advantage of the visiting Otter and its borrowed pilot (who would turn out to be one of the heroes of this event). We jumped and we jumped and we jumped. There were onesie jumps, hybrid jumps, freefly jumps, belly jumps, wingsuit jumps, sunset high pulls, hoop jumps, horny gorillas, Mr. Bills, swoop and chugs and all other manner of shenanigans to be expected at an unforgettable boogie.
Without a viewing room, or any electrical indulgences for that matter, skydivers did what skydivers do best: we improvised. Each night, the jumps of the day were projected onto the wall of the packing tent while a crowd of tired (but exhilarated) jumpers sipped (and chugged) beer provided by the DZOs. The raucous laughter from jumps gone awry permeated Camp Awesome and brought tears to the eyes of Cara, the fearless DZO who had turned this long shot of a dream into a reality. She observed in quiet gratefulness, soaking in the realization that her tireless work had brought magic into all of our lives.
The boogie was small by some standards, capped at roughly 80 jumpers to ensure that each would get to use their 10 prepaid jump tickets. The small size of the boogie allowed for a level of familiarity and intimacy that sometimes eludes larger boogies. We were able to get jumps in with nearly all of our fellow campers, whether through attempted big-way hybrids, attempted star crest jumps, zoo dives or anything else that we could dream up.
The camaraderie was the perfect backdrop for the jump that was to come: a jump that would require trust, planning and cooperation.
On Sunday evening, all eclipse jumpers were called over to manifest. It was time to make a plan. Most of the jumpers on the totality load wanted to do a high pull, for which they wanted to exit about two minutes before totality. A notable group of wingsuiters had traveled from around the world to make this jump; they wanted to exit less than a minute before totality. And then there was my group, the only free-fallers on the load, and we wanted to leave at the moment of totality. By any standards, our desired exit order was less than ideal.
The mood turned tense. Someone would have to compromise. The discussion escalated, a chorus of eager jumpers each with their own idea how this feat could be accomplished. Many people were talking at once and we didn’t appear to be heading toward a resolution.
Our pilot, Alex Luke, bore the weight of our expectations and it showed. He did not want to fail us, but mostly he needed us to be safe. With an apprehensive expression he listened, wheels turning. Upon the suggestion of our fellow campmate Nicholas Armstrong, one representative from each group stepped aside to meet with Alex and the DZO to see if a solution was available.
Once most of the chefs were removed from the kitchen, progress was made. The plan was anything but simple.
The high-pull group was to exit 90 seconds before totality, while flying an eastbound jump run. The wingsuiters would exit 45 seconds later, and of course fly parallel to the high-pull group. And finally, Alex would turn north, flying us away from the jump run, clear of all other air traffic, and then bank the plane at the moment of totality so that our photographer could capture our exit with the eclipse as a backdrop.
We had a plan. And we had no assurances that we could pull it off. Safety would be prioritized, jump preferences taking a back seat to separation requirements.
As the one freefall group on the eclipse load, we were lucky enough to secure the photography services of Scott Stewart. The other freefallers in my group were Valerie Armstrong, Nick Armstrong and my partner Steve Horn. In true skydiver fashion, it was to be an epic double date in the sky.
Busied with figuring out jump run, we had neglected to prepare our exit. Though we are all freefliers, we decided a belly jump would give us the best opportunity to soak in the eclipse. And so we found ourselves planning our belly exit in the dark, a cool breeze reminding us that it was nearly time to retire.
I was the low-jump-number and thus, the most likely to screw up our exit. We light-heartedly chastised ourselves for lacking the foresight to take our jump to the sky during our previous three days of jumping. But we all had significant belly experience and felt mildly confident that we could pull it off sans dress rehearsal. It turns out we could have used a trial run!
I woke early Monday morning to give myself plenty of time to mentally prepare for the feat at hand. I adore mornings and the quiet they offer before the rest of the world wakes. There were others milling about Camp Awesome—fellow early birds—but my campmates remained restfully sleeping. I basked in the dawn quiet.
Soon, everyone in camp woke and began rushing about. The excitement was palpable. The ground-watchers set up telescopes and made sure their Skydive Awesome eclipse glasses were at the ready.
I gathered the jump tickets for my group and meandered over to manifest, pausing to photograph them before I handed them over (not knowing that they would later be returned to us as mementos).
Before long, the energy of the camp was electric with skydivers buzzing about, donning jumpsuits and gear and nervously chattering about what we might expect up there. No one knew. Everyone speculated.
While we waited for our call, we stared up at the partial eclipse through our glasses. I was surprised that the partial eclipse had little to no effect upon the brightness of our morning. One would only know that an eclipse was occurring if they peeked at the sun through glasses. The partial-eclipse load took off and landed without fanfare. It seemed to have been a fairly ordinary jump.
And then we were up. We gathered near the plane approximately 45 minutes before totality.
Scott took pictures of the eclipse load and then of our freefall group. I barely noticed what was happening. My mind was elsewhere.
I was told that this might feel like a night jump. I have never done a night jump. I worried about being too far away to be able to locate the landing area in the low light. Nick told me to make sure the eclipse was over my left shoulder, slightly behind me, so that I could be sure I was heading in the right direction. He suggested that I try to look for lights on the ground, with the speculation that Solar City might be lit up. I nodded and felt a little better.
We climbed in first and scooted to the back of the plane. I peaked around the corner and was assured by the pilot’s calm demeanor. The plane filled with skydivers who were quieter than usual. We buckled our seatbelts. Up we went. We left about 40 minutes prior to the eclipse to assure that our pilot would be in the precise planned location for each marked exit time. Jump run was planned down to the second.
Once at altitude, we circled. And we circled more. Around and around we went, each circle a dry run for the pilot who repeatedly confirmed the distance between each exit point.
Given our altitude and length of the flight, we were told to breathe deeply and refrain from expending energy unnecessarily. The load was the quietest I’ve experienced, each of us preparing in solitude. Absent from the flight was the typical boisterous fun-jumper chatter. It was almost a solemn feeling.
The clock struck 10:17. The first green light went on. The high-pull group softly flitted out of the plane, one after another.
The plane accelerated again. Shortly after 10:18, the wingsuiters sauntered to the door and prepared for their exit. Off they went, birds into the dusk.
And then there were five. We checked in with each other to make sure everyone was feeling OK. The plane accelerated and turned. And darkness descended.
The plane slowed, the green light went on, and we crawled through the dimness into our exit slots. When I climbed out to my rear float slot, my eyes widened at the darkness that was upon us. My pulse quickened.
We leapt. And we quickly tumbled, botching the exit.
To this day, I don’t know what went wrong and I don’t care. The minutes that followed swallowed any technical shortcomings of our performance. No execution on our part, however graceful and well coordinated, could have competed with the spectacle of the moon’s dance with the sun. This jump would always be about the eclipse, with or without a perfect exit shot.
We quickly rebuilt and formed a round. There was no eye contact with our cross partners and there was no studying of fall rate. We turned our eyes to the sky. The pictures of our expressions in that moment are more powerful than those of the eclipse itself. We were in awe.
We turned the formation so that each of us could get a good look at the eclipse (and ideally a shot with the eclipse behind each of us).
I wanted to think about getting the perfect shot but I was wholly incapable of doing anything but gazing up.
The only thing keeping us from total darkness was the corona stretching around the moon’s edges. The corona was brighter than any picture I’ve seen and yet failed to light the ground beneath us. It undulated around the moon’s edges, while the moon sat stoic in the center, unbothered. The corona appeared larger, proportionally, than it appears in professional photographs. The moon was larger than it appears in GoPro photographs, in which it is little more than an unassuming black dot.
I was thrilled. I was scared. I was cold. I was blissful. I was overcome by more emotions than I can name.
We tracked away early and opened at around 6,000 feet. I sat under my canopy in the quiet dark as the world below me also sat in stillness, staring up past me in hushed reverence. It was a communal experience, even if I was thousands of feet above my fellow stargazers.
I couldn’t spot the landing area. I was told we might be far away. I waited.
I spotted an area on the ground that was full of lights. I thought it was Solar City and turned toward it, knowing that Solar City was across the street from Camp Awesome. Almost as quickly as that hope had arisen, it was dashed. The shape was wrong and it was too small. It was not Solar City. I still have no idea what it was.
I spotted the canopies of my fellow jumpers, just below me and to the left. I followed them, placing the eclipse over my left shoulder as instructed.
A minute later, a feathery pink sunrise encircled us. It outlined mountain peaks, dusted the ground with light, and lit up the way home.
It became warmer and brighter by the second, a giant round sunrise that bloomed in less than 10 seconds. Just like that, we went from darkness into light.
The ground was full of cheers, laughter and tears. I personally went through all three in a five-minute span.
In this GoPro world, it’s easy to believe that our biggest moments must be documented in all their glory, that they must look as impressive as the memory they reflect. I was gifted with the reminder that there are moments in this life so magnificent that no documentation can suffice: not pictures, not words. And really isn’t that the magic of it? That life can offer you something so awe-inspiring that there exists no substitute for experiencing it firsthand?
Neither the shots from my camera nor the many professional shots I’ve seen actually look like what I saw. I don’t think a picture exists that looks like what I saw.
Maybe that’s wonderful. Maybe this memory is destined to be an intimate one, lived in the darkness and brought to light by those of us who humbly attempt to do it justice.
About the author: Heather Orr is a contract ninja, less affectionately known as an attorney. She owns the law firm HSO Law, is the author of “How to Like Being a Lawyer,” and is a former law professor. In her spare time, Heather practices yoga, jumps out of planes, tends to her farm and is attempting to write the next great American novel.
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