Free falling - 12,350 feet above Wichita

On a count of three, Sgt. Aaron Figel with the U.S Army’s Golden Knights parachute team, and I jumped out an open airplane door in a tandem jump.

McConnell Air Force Base lay stretched two miles below.

Well, Figel jumped. I, with our harnesses securely tethered together, went along for the ride.

And what a ride it was.

The Golden Knights performed at this weekend’s open house at McConnell. I was honored to be selected to do a tandem jump with them.

As the day approached, however, I grew nervous.

I had never sky dived. Plus, I’m afraid of heights.

Figel prepared me for the jump beforehand by explaining the procedures and what to expect.

It was also comforting to know that Figel, a former Army Ranger, has made more than 3,200 jumps, more than 700 have been tandem. That included sky diving two weeks ago with Minnesota Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Salon, and safely landing on the Minnesota State Capitol lawn.

Vince Vaughn, Tiger Woods, Bill Murray and Chuck Norris have also tandem jumped with the Golden Knights. So has former president George H.W. Bush, who jumped in an 85th birthday celebration.

During the flight, Figel joked with Golden Knight team member Sgt. Jon Ewald.

“Did you take your sleep apnea medicine?” Ewald asked Figel, who responded by leaning his head to one side and faking a snore.

On the ascent, the beautiful September weather turned to teeth-chattering cold.

We moved forward in the airplane, where it was warmer.

Now, standing near the door of the Golden Knights’ Fokker C-31 airplane at a height of 12,350 feet strapped to Figel, it was too late to back out now.

Apprehension had turned to excitement.

Figel rocked us to and fro on a count of 1, 2, 3, we were out the door and into the air.

Figel carried the parachutes that would take us to safety in a 65-pound pack strapped to his back.

Two Knights had jumped before us. Six others came after us.

I closed my eyes briefly as we left the airplane, then opened them to the vast view of Wichita and McConnell below.

The first 39 seconds were spent in a free fall, with the wind whooshing by and capturing my breath — similar to sticking your head out a car window when you’re going fast.

(Not that I’ve ever done that.)

I put a gloved hand to my face to break the wind. A small, drogue chute had slowed our fall to 120 mph.

My stomach, which had been turning flip flops in the plane, was now calm.

Figel then deployed a black-and-gold steerable chute, and rushing wind gave way to a slow, peaceful descent.

On the way down, he gave me the toggles so I could take a turn steering.

When the spot marked for landing grew larger, Figel took over.

Before landing, he told me to stretch out my legs.

We landed smoothly on our bottoms on the damp grass.

Figel, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, made his first parachute jump right after high school on a dare and after seeing the movie, “Point Break.”

After college, where he played baseball at Salina’s Kansas Wesleyan University, he went to work for a cable company.

He joined the Army after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, because of those attacks and because the GI bill would pay off his college.

As an Army Ranger, he went sky diving on weekends to relieve stress.

Figel has served with the Army’s parachute demonstration team for the past four years.

The team performs at air shows, major league sporting events and other special events.

But the military application of skydiving first began before World War II.

Today, Army skydivers deliver interpreters, dog handlers, doctors and others into places airplanes can’t go.

“This is real-life stuff,” Figel said.

The hardest part of the job?

“Putting the parachute back in the bag,” he said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle