The young woman is on her knees on the shag-carpeted floor of the Cessna 195. Her slender hands run lightly over the rigging that harnesses her body: check rip cord, main parachute pin, reserve chute pin, leg straps, adjust the webbing. She leans out of the doorless side of the airplane to inspect a crepe paper wind drift indicator and makes a circling motion to the pilot with one finger. As he banks over the Florida airport 6,600 feet below, the woman says casually, “Bye, bye; see y’all,” and steps out into thin air. She plummets downward for 30 seconds at a speed that reaches 170 mph. Then the parachute opens, billowing yellow.
In only seven years Perry Hicks Jordan, 30, has become the best woman skydiver in the country. She likes to recall her first jump in 1971, which she was talked into by a high school girlfriend. “I was really scared,” Perry says. “But I knew if I didn’t go I’d be disappointed in myself. Afterward I said, ‘Well, I probably won’t do this anymore.’ Then I thought what it was like dangling there at 2,000 feet. You look down and it’s really beautiful.”
From that modest beginning, Jordan went on to win first place in the women’s division of the national parachuting championships at Tahlequah, Okla. last July.
Competitive jumping involves two tests. One is accuracy, where the target is a three-and-a-quarter-inch disk. The second is style: the chutist leaves the plane at 6,600 feet and falls to about 2,500, while performing six gymnastic maneuvers including two 360-degree turns.
To practice, Jordan rigged a harness in a tree in the backyard of her parents’ home in Greensboro, N.C. “She’d ball up in a knot and jump off the limb and force herself to keep her body together,” says her father, Richard, a fuel oil distributor. “She would train by the hour; jump and jump and jump. She kept saying, ‘I’m going to win No. 1. I know how good I am, and I know how good I’ve got to get.’ ”
Competitive zeal has marked Perry since childhood. She excelled in golf, swimming and hunt seat equitation, a difficult form of horseback riding. She later won the presidency of her freshman class at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C, transferred to Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. and spent her junior year in France. After earning a secondary school certificate at the University of North Carolina, Jordan taught French and physical education for three years at a private school in Charlotte. When she became serious about her sport, she quit teaching and moved to Colorado to try paraskiing, which measures accuracy in parachuting and speed in the slalom. “I put everything in my car and went,” Perry says. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” She wound up second in paraski standings at Sun Valley last winter.
Another by-product of the trip was a husband. She first met Mike Jordan at an Experiment in International Living language workshop in St. Louis. They discovered each other again in Colorado, plus a mutual interest in outdoor sports, and married last September. Captain Jordan is an F-4 weapons officer at Moody AFB in Valdosta, Ga., while Perry is training to defend her championship later this month. (There is no prize money yet in skydiving, though Perry has made a modest living the last two years from exhibitions and air shows.)
Skydiving has been a competitive sport in the U.S. since 1932, and there are now 16,000 members of the U.S. Parachuting Association, 2,600 of them women. With rigorous training required, “The only thing that can hurt you is the ground,” an insider’s joke goes. Perry’s family is still apprehensive, she admits. “My father and my uncle say: ‘Perry, when are you going to stop this foolish stuff?’ ” The accident statistics for the sport are not all that alarming, however. “Out of about 70,000 jumps,” her father reports, “only one jumper plows up a field.”
“I know every time I go out of an airplane there is a potential that the parachute will not open,” says Perry, who has used her reserve chute four times in more than 1,700 descents. Her husband, who has jumped two or three times himself, realizes that potential too. “I think she’s crazy,” Mike says. “But who am I to complain?”