Oct 8th, 2002
Saint Paul Pioneer Press
David Chaikin needed some lift in his life. Multiple sclerosis is robbing him of more motor skills each day, and some mornings he can't even get himself out of bed. Sometimes he needs help just to get into his trousers.
So, one afternoon recently, David stepped out of an airplane and plunged 13,500 feet to the ground.
"I did it! I did it! I did it," David chanted as he lay sprawled on his back in a grassy field at the Hutchinson Airport in western Minnesota. "Are we on the ground yet?"
David, 53, is one of almost 1,400 adventurers who will make one of these unconventional exits from an aircraft this year at Skydive Hutchinson. David's a bit different from most free-fallers and sky divers, though, because his ground transportation is primarily via motorized wheelchair.
It wasn't always this way. David is a Marine Corps veteran and, in better days, he completed two marathons.
But in 1992, he was diagnosed with MS, and his is a particularly aggressive brand of the disease that has progressed rapidly.
"I am getting more limited all the time," David said. "I tend to fall a lot, and I need help to do the very simple things in life, such as getting dressed."
He knows where it's all going. David, who is divorced, lives independently in Eden Prairie now and is sales and marketing manager at the electronics firm Arrow Advantage in Chanhassen.
Some day, though, David will be forced to make the move to assisted living and then, eventually, to a nursing home.
"I am basically very healthy, except for the MS, which puts enormous limits on what I can do. I needed now to do something to show myself that I don't have limits."
Last New Year's, he was sharing resolutions with a friend, Carole Stone. She had previously donated a kidney to her husband, Ken, and knew something about how fragile and transitory life can be.
"I want to go sky diving," she told David.
"As soon as she said that, I said I would go along," said David. "It was an instant reaction, but I knew immediately it was what I'd been looking for. And I've been anticipating it ever since."'
So one recent Saturday, David and Carole and Ken -- and several of their family members and some of David's friends from work -- gathered at the Hutchinson Airport, where dozens of novice sky divers were getting rigged up for their first free-fall dive "in tandem."
In tandem is a technique in which the student is harnessed back-to-belly with an instructor. They leave the aircraft together at about 13,000 feet, free-fall for about a minute and then float to earth under a parachute built for two. Almost without exception, they land a few feet from a big white X on the ground near Skydive's hangar.
The tandem jump costs $189, and for an extra $85, a free-fall photographer will capture the adventure on videotape and in 35 mm still photos.
As the divers waited to be loaded aboard the twin-engine Beechcraft King Air, Skydive owner Tim Eakin cautioned that just because someone shows up ready to parachute doesn't necessarily mean he will go.
"We've had them come in drunk and others come in eight months pregnant. They don't go."
David was evaluated by his instructor, Shawn Woods, who specializes in tandem jumping with handicapped persons. Shawn has more than 2,000 jumps to his credit, and he wanted to know that David has enough mobility in his legs to safely absorb the impact of landing.
"Let's go," Shawn said, and David was lifted unceremoniously from his wheelchair into the belly of the aircraft, which was filled with other tandem divers.
About 15 minutes later, the King Air reached diving altitude upwind of the airport, and several specks could be seen dropping through the late afternoon skies. Several other divers went into free-fall, then opened their chutes and drifted to the ground. Shawn gave David a long, leisurely descent, and the landing, with David cushioned over Shawn, was perfect.
"What a rush, what a rush!" David kept saying. "Going out the door of that plane is the greatest feeling in the world. You just can't imagine what it's like going out that door!"
David will watch the video and play it for friends. Then he will put it away, for his 18-month-old granddaughter, Emma.
"She may look at it someday and see me, when I might by then be in a nursing home."
But the day was all for David, and Carole and the members of her family who free-fell with her. "I can do anything," David shouted. "I can do anything!" FYI
For more information on skydiving, contact Skydive Hutchinson, 760 Airport
Road S.W., Hutchinson, Minn 55350; (877) 587-5875; www.skydivehutch.com.
Copyright © 2002, Saint Paul Pioneer Press