The Mike Costello Story
I have personally known many military heroes such as Guy Garuthers, a co-pilot of mine at Eastern Airlines who was captured by the North Vietnamese the second time his fighter was shot down, and subsequently spent 5 1/2 years undergoing torture in the Hanoi Hilton. His story is worthy of a book. I have had the honor of flying with Bob Hooks, a World War II Navy ace whose exploits can be seen on certain segments of Victory at Sea captured by his gun cameras. I have known Eddie Rickenbacker, famous World War I ace. One of my favorite friends is Bob Hoover who after being shot down in his P-51 Mustang over Germany, not only escaped from his POW camp, but stole a German Messerschmitt and flew it to freedom! I have a personal friend of mine who returned from Viet Nam as a Marine Recon with two silver and one bronze star – a true war hero. I can even speak of my very own Grandson, a Marine veteran of the Iraq & Afghanistan war. These are the type of people I have had the honor of knowing and who make me strive to be a better human being. I want however, to remember a person who demonstrated an act of heroism that I personally witnessed.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning at the Dropzone at the Umatilla, Florida airport. A few of us advanced skydivers went up on a fun jump prior to the expected arrival of some students. One of the jumpers was a chap by the name of Mike Costello. He was the most experienced jumper/instructor at the Dropzone with some 8000 skydives to his credit. Although I was licensed as a Master Skydiver, the highest level license, Mike would often lecture me for pulling (deploying one’s main parachute) too low. A Master Skydiver was allowed to pull much lower than other licensees, but was still required to deploy his main parachute at a minimum of 1800 feet. If you don’t deploy at 1800 feet, the jumper has approximately 10 seconds to live. Being an adrenalin junky, I would often pull much lower – I just loved the feeling of that “ground rush.” I should have been mature enough to know better in that I was in my late 50s having not taken up the sport until the age of 55. I used to wear a gold skydiver figurine around my neck and Mike would often jokingly warn me that if I bounced (the term for hitting the ground on a fatal skydive), he was going to stroll over to my body and claim the necklace.
We had fun on our skydive playing about the sky as we fell at 120 mph. When we landed, some students had arrived and Mike was scheduled to do a tandem jump (a jump in which the student is strapped to the chest of the instructor) with a fellow from the United Kingdom. The student paid to have a videographer photograph his jump. That maneuver is accomplished by a jumper with a video camera attached to his helmet who exits the aircraft at the same time as the student and instructor.
We sat about the patio chatting as Mike, the student, and the videographer left for their skydive. We heard the loud speaker announce that “jumpers are away,” and we looked to the sky to watch them come down. Suddenly, we were aware that there was a problem. Instead of the extra large canopy of a tandem parachute, we saw that the canopy was not fully inflated and the jumpers were coming down at a high rate of speed. Apparently, Mike’s main parachute had not deployed completely, and when he tried to cut it away (a malfunctioning main parachute is released with a mechanism so the reserve chute can be deployed into clean air), it would not fully release. Mike’s only hope at that point was to deploy his reserve and hope that the two parachutes did not become entangled. He did so, but the two parachutes were intertwined as Mike’s descent continued at too high a rate of speed to land safely. Mike continued to struggle with the mess of nylon & cords attempting to deal with the situation.
As we watched in horror and as the video clearly revealed, when it became apparent that there was nothing that could be done and impact with the ground was just moments away, Mike wrapped his arms around his passenger, and turned them such that his back was to the ground so that his body would absorb the impact first. The impact was horrible to watch, and both bodies lay motionless. Mike died on impact. His passenger was still alive, but there were few bones left unbroken in his body. I had just witnessed the most horrific scene but an incredible act of heroism, and it is something that I will always remember.
Mike was posthumously awarded citations for heroism both from the state of Florida and the United States Government. At his funeral, with tears streaming down my face, I went over to his widow, told her the story about Mike’s intention of removing my necklace from my body should I ever bounce, and gave it to her. To this day, she wears it as an ankle bracelet.
About 8 or 9 months later, we were sitting about the patio of the dropzone relaxing between jumps. A gentleman with an English accent came up to us an identified himself as the passenger on that fatal jump. He had apparently been in a coma for some time, had eventually been returned to England and had miraculously healed from the accident. He wanted to make it a point to come to Umatilla to thank everyone.
On occasion over the years, I have ridden my motorcycle to the old dropzone which is now closed and grown over with weeds. I stand in the spot that Mike died and I thank him for being part of my life and for having the privilege and honor to have been his friend.