A SKYDIVING ADVENTURE STORY
Skydiving has been one of my favorite hobbies, and has been an incredibly successful medium for the adrenalin junky side of my personality. I have 657 jumps out of everything from a hot air balloon to a Boeing 727 jet – I earned my DB Cooper number on the latter jump. I am certified as a master skydiver and I have about 12 hours and 40 minutes of freefall time. Although skydiving is basically a relatively “safe” sport, I have personally witnessed three fatalities. The incident I am about to describe came very close to adding my name to the list.
A skydiving rig is very similar to a back pack. The rig contains the main canopy which is the one that saves your life every time you jump, and then there is a much smaller reserve parachute that is deployed if the main canopy fails for any of number of reasons. The rig has shoulder straps to basically hold it on your back, leg straps which tighten around your upper thighs and a chest strap. There are various systems to deploy the main chute, but the typical one is a small, round, leather handle under the rig. The handle is attached to a line, which in itself is attached to a pilot chute. To deploy the main canopy, the jumper reaches around his back under the rig, grabs the handle, pulls it sideways, and throws it out to his side into the air stream. This causes the pilot chute to deploy which then pulls the main parachute out of the rig hopefully deploying and inflating properly.
To keep the body stable in freefall requires that the jumper maintains a so-called box man position. The body is extended with the arms bent such that forearms are pointed straight ahead and perpendicular to the upper arms. The legs are extended, and bent at the knees with the lower legs straight up. It is vital that the jumper remains stable especially at canopy deployment time. If a jumper deploys in a non-stable position, various main canopy malfunctions can occur.
Jumpers typically leave the airplane in groups and perform various pre-planned maneuvers together which can be rather intricate. In that the groups are often large, there must be a method to separate the jumpers prior to canopy deployment to alleviate the danger of collision between jumpers and/or canopies. The method to do that is the so-called tracking maneuver.
In that maneuver, each jumper turns his body 180 degrees to the center of the formation, places his arms alongside of his body with the palms facing down. The jumper then pushes against the air with his body and hands. The result is that the jumper’s body starts flying rather fast in a horizontal position away from the other jumpers. After a few seconds of that maneuver, the jumper assumes the box man position and deploys the main canopy.
The altitude at which a jumper must legally deploy his main canopy is dependant on the level of license held by the jumper. As a master skydiver, the highest rated license, I was legal to deploy my main canopy no lower than 1800 feet. At the typical “terminal velocity” (the speed at which the body falls in a stable position) of 120 mph, at deployment time, the skydiver is just 10 seconds from impact should no canopy be deployed. Part of that time is obviously spent simply reaching around and deploying the pilot chute.
I had just received my master’s skydiver license and I decided to purchase a very small rig with considerably smaller main and reserve canopies than I had been using. With my smaller canopy, I would be able to reach speeds (with zero wind) of up to 30 mph over the ground which literally would allow me to land on one toe when I flared the canopy as a pilot flairs an airplane for landing.
My new rig arrived and it was time to take it on its first jump. I noticed one surprising difference between the new and old rig. On the old rig, there was a “keeper” on the end of the chest strap that made it difficult to remove – a nice safety feature. This new rig had none.
The planned dive had 10 participants and we practiced the maneuvers on the ground that we planned to execute in the air – that practice is called “dirt diving.” We boarded the aircraft and climbed to 13,500 feet – our planned dive altitude. There is a bar on the top of the aircraft and many formation dives require that some of the jumpers stand outside the aircraft holding on to the bar with one hand, and another jumper’s jumpsuit with the other. The dive leader gives the count, and the divers hanging on the outside leave the aircraft with the remaining divers in the group chasing in a head down attitude ultimately forming up to complete the planned maneuvers.
We completed the maneuvers successfully, and each of us turned 180 degrees to track away from the formation at the planned altitude of 2300 feet. As I turned away from the formation and started to put my arms to my side to assume the tracking attitude, my rig suddenly came flying off my shoulders. My body was suddenly pumped with a much needed overdose of adrenaline, and I was somehow able to catch the shoulder straps in the crooks of my arms.
You need to picture this situation. I am falling towards the ground at 120 mph. At this point, I am at around 2000 feet, about 11+ seconds from impact, and my rig is off my back being held with every bit of strength I could muster to keep it from totally flying off my body leaving me with no parachutes. I then exerted every bit of effort I could coax out of my body and forced the shoulder straps back on to my shoulders. I was now in a totally unstable position, holding my arms together to keep the rig on my body, but I still was falling at 120 mph with no canopy out and the ground coming up rather quickly.
My next problem was to find a way to somehow reach around my back and under the rig to get to the pilot chute handle yet still keep my rig from flying off my body. I grabbed both shoulder straps with one hand, and with one unstable effort, I was able to get to the handle and throw it. I had no idea why the rig had come off my shoulders, and I had no idea if the rig would stay together or on my body with the force of a canopy opening in an unstable position.
There was a loud “crack,” and I looked up to witness the site of my brand new canopy that I had never seen. As I drifted down, very happy to be alive, I discovered what had happened. My chest strap had opened completely, and was flapping in the breeze. Apparently, the buckle was depressed against one of the other diver’s body or rig while we were hanging outside of the aircraft and allowed the strap to loosen.
I am only aware of this happening to someone on one other occasion. It was a female skydiver and in her situation, when the strap came loose and the rig flew off her shoulders, she either did not react fast enough or probably didn’t have the strength to hold it. It went flying right off her shoulders and legs and she was free falling without parachutes. Needless to say, she died.
This incident, coupled with one other skydiving near death experience, and many of my other adventures, has probably used up about 8 ½ of my 9 allotted lives!