Monday, October 20, 2008

8 Seconds from Certain Death......

I must offer a disclaimer about this post. The pictures are not from the same day as this story. In fact, the pictures are not all from the same day. They are, however, mostly of me. And I offer them here just as visual support.
Someone told me I looked like the Pillsbury Dough Boy in this picture. This was before I had my own custom-made jumpsuit and my own helmet. They didn't make me look any more attractive, but they were certainly more colorful. That gadget in the middle of my chest is an altimeter. It shows distance from the ground in feet. You don't want to get into the red zone...
I never found out the real name of this aircraft, but we called it a Caravan or Skyvan. I only got to jump out of one like it one time. It held 25 skydivers, and I was number 25 out of the tailgate. You just sort of walked to the back and stepped off into nothingness. I loved it. As other groups jumped, I kept inching my way toward the door. My jumpmaster said, "It's not our turn!" and I replied, "I want to SEE!" It was so cool, seeing all those falling bodies from above.
When I first started jumping, we used those old, round, military canopies that could not be steered. You could turn into or with the wind, but you were pretty much at the mercy of whatever direction the wind was blowing. And the accuracy of your spotter.
I laid off skydiving for a few years, getting married and having a baby. I remember my rather old-fashioned doctor patting me on the hand on my first pre-natal visit.

  • Dr. Van: Now, we aren't as careful with pregnant women as we used to be. Anything you did before, you can do while you're pregnant. Do you participate in any sports or activities?
  • Me: Well, I skydive.
  • Dr. Van: For God's sake, don't skydive! Are you crazy?
But when I found out they were letting students jump the ultra-cool, square (okay, rectangular, but we called them square) canopies, I had to go back. Back when I started, you had to have 50 jumps under your belt before you could jump a square.
These pictures were taken on one of the rare occasions that I actually landed somewhat near where I was supposed to. I have no sense of direction on the ground, and when you throw in another dimension, well, I'm pretty much lost. I was doing well if I could spot the AIRPORT from the air. You would think all the airplanes would give it away.
But not really CLOSE to the spot I was aiming for. I don't remember whose parachute that is in the foreground; perhaps a jumpmaster's. That's me way off in the distance. Probably busted my ass (I usually did), but I am already up and gathering up my gear in this picture. We could not detach from our rigs; we had to bundle them up and carry them back to the packing zone. For me it was often quite a distance to walk.

On the particular day in question, I was using a rig that I had used many times before. I had learned how to pack it, and it felt right on me. Besides, there was just something comforting
about wearing the same rig week after week.

[I have just spent the last 15 minutes looking for my old log book in an attempt to be true to the details of this post. But I can't find it, so I'm going to go on memory.]

We jumped from probably somewhere around 8000-10000 feet. My jumpmaster followed me out of the plane, and we probably attempted some maneuvers where we grasped forearms, etc. I say attempted because I SUCKED at those maneuvers. It isn't as easy as it looks to just reach out and touch someone who is falling, just like you, at 120 mph.

I waved off at the proper altitude, because regardless of what they show on television, skydivers are NOT supposed to be close to one another upon deployment of their parachutes. It's just too risky, because the canopies can become entangled, etc.

I must say that I did NOT follow the proper protocol. The correct sequence was "arch ........ look ....... reach ....... pull!" I was supposed to make eye contact with my ripcord handle BEFORE attempting to pull it. Problem was, the handle was located on the belly band of my rig. It was held in place by a piece of velcro. (You would NOT believe how much of a parachute is held together with velcro and RUBBER BANDS!!!!) And I had these ....... how do I say this delicately ....... BOOBS that got in the way of my actually being able to see the ripcord handle. So I got into a rather bad habit of just feeling for it. It was always there. Except this time it wasn't.

The little plastic handle wasn't where it was supposed to be. I grasped again. And again. And again. By this time, I was tumbling wildly, haven broken out of my stable arch position with probably the second grab. You don't really want your parachute to open when you are tumbling wildly. Except you really, really want it just to OPEN.

Because I am typing this post, you can probably tell that I did at last locate the handle, but I'm sure it was sheer luck. The rig I was jumping had an AAD (Automatic Activation Device) on it, and it was supposed to fire my rig in the event I was still traveling at terminal velocity when I reached 2000 feet in altitude. Apparently it failed. We weren't supposed to rely on them anyway; I think their primary purpose was for skydivers who lost consciousness during freefall (injury or just being scared s***less) and afford them a slight chance in hell of reaching the ground relatively uninjured. Or at least undead.

The owner of the drop zone watched in horror as I screamed toward the ground, and he estimated that I probably pulled the ripcord at around 1200 feet. I did some research once, and I believe that was 8 seconds before I would have hit the ground. As a student jumper, I was supposed to pull NO LOWER than 4000 feet.

I didn't experience any harder a landing than usual (that's the first question people always ask me about that episode), because a canopy that is allowed to inflate fully is probably going to offer the same speed regardless of WHERE it was opened. When I landed, I immediately took off my helmet (because I wasn't allowed to take off my rig, of course) and hurled it across the field. I had already had my moment of relief once I saw that beautiful expanse of nylon over my head in the air. Now I was pissed off. Angry at being stupid, angry at having witnesses, angry at being almost dead.

I dreaded facing Banks. But he didn't fuss at me. He was too busy reaming a new one for my jumpmaster, who had apparently CHASED ME and attempted to save me. Banks screamed at him, "Just what in the hell were you going to do with her when you CAUGHT HER?????"

It turns out that the velcro on the belly band of my rig had pretty much worn out, and although it held the handle in place on the ground, it was useless at terminal velocity. The handle had blown around behind my back, and if I had only had the presence of mind to find the cable and follow it around, I would have been fine. But when the handle wasn't where it was supposed to be...... well, let's just say all presence of mind went right out the window. Or into the wild blue yonder. Whatever.

But I didn't find that out that day. I jumped the SAME RIG the next weekend, figuring that I was obligated to "get back on the horse," as it were. What were the odds that the same thing would happen again?

Odds were approximately 100%.

I couldn't find the handle again.

But this time I knew where the RESERVE handle was, and I didn't hesitate to use it. When that beautiful, old-fashioned, ROUND canopy opened above my head, I was so happy to see it that I forgot to be embarrassed at the same thing happening again. I forgot to be embarrassed that everyone on the drop zone was aware that someone had used a back-up parachute. I forgot to be embarrassed that it was a "first" for me, and anyone who experienced a "first" was expected to buy beer for everyone on the drop zone after the planes had been tied down. I forgot to be embarrassed that I didn't have enough money to buy a case of beer.

I reached up for the toggles to "steer" the reserve canopy toward the drop zone, and someone had written on the little wooden toggles:

"You're okay."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Girl, you've got more balls then most men I know!