I’m going to go in a different direction here and try to tell a true story. That is somewhat uncharacteristic of this blog thus far, and I have no idea how well I will portray the event.
This should be an easy story to tell as there is only one character — me. I was alone at the time, about 3000 feet in the air and descending more rapidly than I would have liked. This is the story of a “cutaway” — the moment when one has to make the decision to pull the cord of his or her reserve parachute and hope like Hell things go as they should. The incident occurred on May 15, 1993. It’s been over twenty years, and I am relying heavily on memory. Fortunately, I still have my log book from the time, so I have a record of the date, equipment, aircraft, altitude, etc., along with notes taken following the jump.
Our drop zone was at a very small airport in rural South Carolina. The aircraft that took off and landed here were partly recreational and partly private computer planes. Our aircraft was a Cessna 182 from which all the seats had been stripped except for the pilot’s seat. Even stripped bare though, it always seemed insanely crowded since we all had our relatively bulky gear on. I think there were typically four of us jumping at any one time, including the jump master. The C-182 seemed to be a good plane for us students as it had a small foot stand over the wheel and a strut below the wing that you could easily inch your way out on. We sat in the aircraft in the order that we would be jumping. When it was your turn to jump, you would take the “hot seat” next to the pilot, which meant sitting on the floor of the plane with your legs curled up in front of you, facing backwards. The jump master would be partially leaning over you at the door, to make sure your static line was attached if you were doing a hop & pop, or to give the final “Okay” for you to proceed out of the plane as the plane circled the jump area. When he gave the nod, you swung your legs out the door to the left, placing your feet on the pedestal. You would then reach forward to grab the strut beneath the wing and would work your way out, your legs dangling beneath you. Give a final grin back to the guys in the doorway of the plane, and let go.
I think a lot of people who say they could never do that would be surprised. You have a lot of stuff going through your head on your way up, and become very focused on the procedures and executing the jump properly. As a student, it’s almost robotic.
I think training programs are very different nowadays in skydiving. I’m sure the programs vary quite a bit, but it seems common that your earliest jumps now are tandem (i.e. you are attached to someone) or you are in an accelerated free fall program where some experts jump with you and keep you stable. We didn’t do any of those things. Instead, we started out doing “hop & pops” or static line jumps. For those, all you have to do is let go of the strut and try to arch your back to fall away as cleanly as possible. After a couple of seconds, you reach the end of the static line that tethers you to the plane and it breaks away, deploying your parachute for you.
After so many hop & hops, when the jump master was satisfied you were progressing okay, you would then graduate to pulling your own cord. You start with a “clear & pull,” which basically means you fall clear of the plane and pull the cord. These involve only about five seconds of free fall. Later, you gradually progress to higher and longer jumps — 10 seconds, then 20, etc..
On this particular May day in 1993, I was scheduled to do my first clear and pull and I was pretty excited about it. It was to be my eighth jump. Prior to this day, I had only done static line jumps from 3200 feet. For the clear and pull, I would be a little bit higher, and of course I would be pulling my own cord.
Progressing as a student could be agonizingly slow, since we were never certain we would get to jump on any particular day. If it was even slightly windy, for example, we were bumped and could do little more than watch the expert jumpers have fun all day.
I don’t recall anything special about the ascent that day. I think I was the first jumper and so I rode up in the “hot seat,” next to the door and facing backwards as I described earlier. We ascended to 3600 feet for the jump and I waited for the nod from my instructor as I ran through the jump in my mind. I got the nod. Feet out into the wind, hands on strut. I worked my way out a bit away from the door. Looked back, let go. Arched my back and fell away.
(1) Arch. (2) Look (at the cord). (3) Reach. (4) Pull (the cord). Robotic.
There was that brief pause where nothing seems to be happening as the parachute unfolds and deploys. Then suddenly I was yanked violently to the left. Left and around, counterclockwise and backwards. This wasn’t right! I tried to get my head back to see what was above me, but it was difficult at first, the lines in a tangle above my left shoulder. After a moment, I was able to get my head back enough to look up and see what I had. It wasn’t good! My canopy was partially collapsed. The lines were twisted, with one steering toggle caught in the twists and the other steering toggle swinging beyond my reach. Normally, with simple line twists, all you have to do is wait and you will unwind naturally. But in this instance, with a steering toogle caught in the twists, I seemed to be turning into the twist, with both risers somehow on my left side. And flying backwards, legs swinging wide to the side. My hands clutched wildly at the risers and lines, trying to force them apart. But the twist of lines off my left shoulder was like iron. They wouldn’t budge.
I wasn’t in free fall. I had a little time to think before I had to act. How fast was I falling? “Is this survivable?”
I took a breath and looked around. There was the runway down there, and a little off to the side of it I could see my drop zone. Various colored rectangles from all the beach towels that people had laid out on the grass. And of course the bright, multicolored canopies that jumpers had laid out to fold. I could see the little dots of people moving about, and the lawn chairs. And the pea pit. This was by far the loneliest, most helpless moment I have ever experienced. All of those people down there, and I couldn’t ask them for help or advice. I couldn’t even say “goodbye.” To die in full view of so many people and yet not being able to say anything to anyone. “Is this really how I’m going to die?”
“I’m falling fast, but how fast? Is it survivable? Can I take my broken bones and trip to the hospital, but come away at least alive?”
I kept struggling with the risers and lines, but I knew it was futile. They were so tight! I hoped maybe if I kept poking at them, they might miraculously come apart on their own and I would have to take no action other than to sigh in relief.
“Do I have to cutaway at 2000? Can I postpone it? How low can I cut away and live?”
I didn’t want to be forced into action. I wanted the world to cooperate and to do the things that I wanted done so that I wouldn’t have to make the decision.
To “cutaway” in a standard rig generally meant pulling a lever that released your canopy. You would then go back into free fall and you would pull a cord to release your reserve parachute. I was wearing a student rig though, and these two functions were combined. Pulling the cord on the reserve parachute would automatically cut away my existing parachute before deploying the reserve.
I knew I wasn’t in a survivable situation. I kept asking myself if I could survive under my current malfunctioned parachute, but I knew the answer already. I was descending fast and swinging so violently that I was going to be slammed into the ground very very hard. There may have been a chance at survival, but it was realistically looking very slim. But in cutting away, I was going to be committing myself as I had never done before. That was it: My one chance. If my reserve failed to deploy, or if I ended up with a worse tangle than I had already, I would have no options left. I didn’t want to commit.
Both hands went to my reserve. I clasped if firmly in my left hand and pulled, raising my hands in front of me and arching my feet back prepared for free fall. I’ll never forget the sound of that brief moment when canvas slipped through canvas as my failed canopy cut away and disappeared somewhere above me.
And then silence and peace. The loud turbulent thrashing sounds of my malfunctioned parachute were gone and the violent spinning and jerking ceased as I slipped back into free fall. I was just weightless and free. And then, I felt the reassuring yank on BOTH shoulders as I was hoisted back to a vertical position. I looked up and almost cried for joy when I saw a good canopy above me this time. The reserve canopy was round, this being a student rig I was wearing. But round, rectangular … I didn’t give a damn, as long as it was functional. I reached for the steering toggles.
I had never been under a round canopy before. They have very little forward movement and as such are at the mercy of the wind. But of course, if it was windy I wouldn’t have been allowed to jump. I was near the drop zone anyway, so all I had to do was steer the canopy in giant sloshy circles as I descended.
Needless to say, whole of the drop zone was on their feet by this point and looking up at me. As I got within a few hundred feet of the ground, I could make out what they were yelling at me … “Don’t flare! Don’t flare!”
Flaring is something you do on landing with a normal rectangular parachute. You pull both steering toggles in hard as you are about to land, halting your forward movement temporarily. There is no need to do that with a round parachute, since you have so little forward motion anyway. I knew not to flare. Nearing the ground, I took a breath and held it, bracing for a harder than usual impact. My feet hit the ground and I let myself tumble forward and to the side as I let the air in my lungs go. “Hut!” I landed within 15 meters of the pea pit (target) … not bad, under the circumstances. 🙂
That wasn’t my last jump. I kept going and did 20-second and 30-second freefall jumps, which were pretty intense. But I stopped soon after. I figured I wasn’t very good at it and had too many close calls and that perhaps I had best quit while I’m alive. 🙂
As I was writing this recap of the exciting experience I had twenty years ago, a story appeared that makes my anecdote seem pretty tame in comparison … Norwegian Skydiver Almost Gets Hit by Falling Meteor — and Captures it on Film.
It’s not in any way related to this post, but the story is so amazing I wanted to include the link.