The Q&A below is with Barbara Swovelin, once an avid skydiver who made about 2,000 jumps over the years. She now takes to the skies in a different way—as a recreational pilot who typically flies once a week.
How do I know Barbara Swovelin? She was my favorite teacher in high school. She spent 34 years as an English teacher imparting valuable lessons to students like me on critical thinking, literary analysis, communication, and perspective. I went on to be an English major, teacher and administrator, author, journalist, and editor—and have always believed she was influential in sharpening my mind and shaping my career path.
Barbara and I recently had lunch together and talked about her experiences flying and jumping. Given it’s a new year, which is always a good time to think about perspective and how to gain new vantage points, I thought I’d make this first entry of 2023 one from on high.
How did you get introduced to skydiving?
My brother was a jumper, and I used to go to the airport with him (insiders call it the drop zone, or DZ). Jerry [her now husband] saw me and had a “Wow! Is that your sister?” moment. Then I became jealous because they were always having so much fun; I wanted to share that excitement too.
What was the first jump like? What fears did you have to overcome in order to leap from the plane for the first time?
You need to understand that Jerry invented the Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) student program on the West Coast. Why? So I could make the safest first jump possible.
AFF is the standard course now to learn skydiving. During the first few jumps, two instructors hold onto the student; when the student shows competence, one instructor holds on; when the student is ready, the instructor is there, but not holding on. It’s like taking baby steps to competence.
So, I had about the longest first jump course possible, which took many months as Jerry and his partner got the school and gear organized. He’d go over everything over and over, and I had my procedures down pat. Plus, I had taken several observer rides in the airplane over the years, (wearing a rig) and enjoyed watching others jump out.
I wasn’t afraid per se, but I was filled with anticipation. You just can’t know what it’s going to feel like until you do it. Imagine what it would be like if you had never been in a swimming pool, but were taught how to swim out of water, then you get thrown into the deep end and realize what moving through the water feels like and how following your training propels you through the water. The same happens as you feel the air and use it to move.
My first jump was fantastic! Here it is [see top of post]: Jerry is on the left, his brother Patrick on the right.
Do those fears go away over time, or are they always present?
The more one does any activity, the more comfortable one gets. That’s why it’s important to stay current and jump or fly often.
What motivated you to become a pilot?
Well, we bought a plane! I figured I’d learn how to at least land it in case Jerry croaked someday, and it went from there. Why not do it properly and get the license?
How would you compare and contrast the felt experience of skydiving vs. flying? Do you prefer one over the other?
While they’re both fun, there’s no comparison to skydiving with your buddies at 120 mph, making different formations. Being a pilot allows me to be in charge and is challenging, but it sure doesn’t have the thrill factor.
With all the flying and skydiving you’ve done over the years, does literally being “above it all” give you a liberating perspective on life? How so?
Most definitely! Skydivers love making a sunset load, watching the sun go down while in freefall (or under canopy); you feel the beauty of the world.
But flying allows for more introspection while it’s happening. Being “above it all” helps give me perspective and put things in their proper place, whether it be something good or bad. It helps to rise above and separate yourself from whatever is happening in life.
Are there any pilot sayings or lingo you picked up over the years that you think would be good advice for Flourish readers?
Don’t die! Keep the wings level and make sure the tires touch the ground first.😊
“If you can walk away from a landing, it’s a good landing. If you use the airplane the next day, it’s an outstanding landing.”
Connecting to your career as an English teacher for a moment, I think of an analytical reader as being “above” the story and looking down at it in order to extract meaning. Do you see a connection between literature and your love of aviation to this view on high?
YES! A good reader has to rise above the story to think about other connections to the characters, to draw those inferences that lead to deep philosophical insights. One cannot get there if stuck in the plot.
There you go, folks. I was expecting to learn about spontaneity and free spiritedness but instead got a lesson on preparation and practice. Interesting. It just goes to show that our ideas and associations don’t always hold up to reality.
And lastly, as Barbara noted, don’t get stuck in the plot! That’s only one part of the story. What’s the meaning?