Free FallThe Free Fall Research Page
Note: This incident took place in and around Thun Field at Puyallup, Washington. From Thun Field, the student drop zone was about three miles southwest in Graham.
Wednesday (not Friday) June 13, 1978, about a dozen skydivers, myself included, boarded a Twin Beech 18, packed tightly together to make the best use of room. I was always tempted to say that was to ensure that nervous jumpers don’t change their minds at the last minute. Just get the #1 jumper near the door, and POING!!! like a toy snake out of a popped opened can. But I digress. I was #3 behind two other students for my sixth static line jump. One was on his first jump, and he was all excited about how different it would be. Since my first jump was five behind me at that time, and I screwed up my parachute landing fall (PLF) on it and my previous jump, the emotional trauma no longer had the benefit of novelty to offset any fear of what may happen. The airplane wobbled some as it taxied over ruts and chuckholes on its way to the runway. As it lined up on the asphalt, its radial engines made a throbbing crescendo up to full power. We all leaned back against the acceleration to prevent a load-shift. Wind from prop-wash and increasing airspeed cascaded into the payload bay, causing a harsh buffeting sound emanating from the back wall. The asphalt, grass, and nearby trees rushed by as we reached liftoff speed, then seemed to slow somewhat as it dropped away, becoming a less reliable speed reference. As we reached 2,000 feet we crossed over the not so abandoned cow pasture near Graham, Washington that was our intended drop-zone. Garry, the jump-master held onto a 20-foot roll of weighted crepe paper designed to fall at the same speed as an open parachute. The buffeting noise broke temporarily as he disrupted the inflow when he stuck his head out to spot the landing zone. As we passed over it, he released the roll into the free-stream, which straightened into a streamer. About two or three minutes later he saw it reach the ground, then had the pilot set us up to exit opposite where it landed by the same distance. The first jumper was the first jumper or vice versa. At 2,800 feet he said “It’s gonna’ be different!” Someone replied “It’s gonna be a rush!” Garry connected his static line, and the buffeting was again disrupted as he told the first timer to sit in the open door. The snarl of the radial engines had less to drown it out, until Garry said “GO!!” and he went (in more ways than one?). The buffeting resumed as he cleared the doorway, the static line activating his parachute after it took up slack a split second later. In about two seconds I saw him drifting behind under an open parachute.
Relieved of a jumper we no longer had to sit so close. This was both a relief and a disappointment as the girl I sat in front of was quite a looker. The next was on his final static line jump, as I was. Both of us were doing DRCPs (dummy ripcord pulls). We had ripcord handles on our harnesses that were not hooked up or designed for parachute deployment. They were intended to test our ability to do a stable ripcord pull to prepare us to do free falls. Garry said “GO!” and we all gained breathing room. I wanted to entertain myself by watching what the ones before me were going through. But it couldn’t minimize the fact that I was next. As I slid towards the open door Garry clipped my static line to the plane. I sat in the open door and the hurricane of prop-wash and airspeed made my feet point tail-wards. I looked down at the field passing by 2,800 feet below. The ten-foot long arrow of plywood, intended to point the direction I was to turn my canopy with my steering toggles, looked more like a cigarette butt from that high. As we passed over a wooded area north of the landing zone, I for some reason asked Garry about wind direction. He said it was coming from the north. A few seconds later, he said “GO!” and the less aerodynamically challenged airplane and I went our separate ways. Technically, I was supposed to count to five seconds, But I had a hunch that something wasn’t right just after I exited, and the five seconds confirmed it. My emotions were in neutral.
The fact that my dummy ripcord was taped to my harness led to concerns that I might not have time before the canopy opened to pull enough to break the tape. On that fateful jump, opening too soon would not be the problem. I was later to learn that the static line had truncated (presumably cut in the doorway of the plane), which resulted in a discontinuation of static line jumps from the Twin Beech until it was either looked into or modifications were made.
My final static line becoming my first free-fall, I was surprised at how real something so rare was. Something that could only happen to someone else. Since my reserve was on my chest, I endeavored to try something another jumper mentioned to keep it from deploying in his face. I rolled over on my back. As the wind caught my legs and I flipped, something in my head said “You’re on your sixth jump dude! You know you don’t have enough experience to improvise like this.” So I started rolling and tumbling. I remembered an incident regarding a lady on the same load as my first jump. She thought she had a total (zero deployment) malfunction of her main, but after her reserve opened, the main started making its presence known, and she landed semi Apollo style under two canopies. The shifting airstream caused by my tumbling made the same scenario unlikely however. Since goggles were unavailable that day, and the reserve handle was in a different position than I was used to, and my tumbling caused a confusing shifting airflow, my resulting fumbling for my reserve caused me to be in free-fall ten seconds after my exit. This was about 2/5ths of the way to impact, distance-wise. But it was half of the way time-wise!
I remembered my adrenaline numbed my fingers from feeling the handle. The only clue that I got it was the sight of the reserve deploying between my feet. A jumper said when he saw a sight like that, he ended up kicking himself in the back of his head. Whip-lashed from a head first to a feet first position, while slowing down over 100 mph in less than one second, my senses must have overloaded because I don’t remember that event. The significance of the tangled mass I saw overhead slowly loomed into my emotions, when the fact was driven home that the tangled mess was what remained of what was supposed to lower me from 2,800 feet! The Mae-Wested reserve went into a spin, and that was when I got my first wave of terror. I thought of the news reports of a skydiving fatality in the papers the next day. I thought of my spine snapping on impact, and my options of preventing that all being spent. There was nothing left but to wait and see what happened. I wasn’t sure how fast I was descending, but the longer I was in the air, the more at ease I felt. The forest coming up at me, I remembered hearing that trees can actually save a falling person, even at free fall terminal velocity! So I prayed the trees would grace the same results to a jumper under an out-of-control canopy. I started remembering how a jumper on a previous load got hung up on a tree, and a disgruntled farmer wouldn’t let anyone in to rescue him.
The concern that I could face the same thing actually brought a sense of relief, because I was thinking of an affair that was after the most dangerous part was over. Namely the fall from the plane, which made the risk of falling out of a tree seem like nothing. On the outskirts of the green vortex, I saw a slot where a road went through. Roads are made of concrete, so it became an increasing relief that I wouldn’t be landing there under a spinning reserve. When I saw the tree coming up that I’d be going into, I crossed my arms in front of my face and closed my legs. As the branches of the evergreen brushed past, my thinking was a mixture of “How high will I hang?” and “How hard will I hit?” A brutal ground-pound settled that issue. I was actually relieved to feel the impact and the back and leg pain, because it meant I was conscious and not paraplegic. Owners of the property I plunged into asked if I was alright, and I said that my back hurt. On the way down, I initially took leave of my composure in a somewhat less than quiet manner, and was concerned about loss of face. When they said they heard nothing I was surprised by how unaware I was of the distances involved. I was probably still over 1,500 feet up at the time in question. Like sleep can affect your awareness of the passage of time, sometimes a fall can affect your awareness of the passage of distance. The ground crew from the landing zone arrived and asked if I was alright, and why I never cut away from my line-over malfunction. Though I thought the tangled mess over my head was only one parachute, what he said suggested I had a repeat of what happened to Babette, the lady on the earlier load whose “total” malfunction turned out to merely be a delayed deployment. I started to think my main deployed as I pulled and got fowled with my reserve. At that time, I would have been the happiest man alive if I was told not to jump again because I fubared. That could be why I felt somewhat less than relieved when he examined my main, found the severed static line and said that I had done the right thing. He thought my reserve was a main chute with a Mae West malfunction, because it was colored like a main, as opposed to pale white like most reserves.
Nothing was broken, but I was way too sore to jump again that day, and resolved not to jump again until I learned how to troubleshoot the situation if history should repeat itself. The pain and soreness went away after a month, and I eventually performed about ten free-falls before putting skydiving on the shelf.
Shortly after the incident, I learned that another skydiver, about 40 miles to the North, in Issaqua, also experienced a double malfunction. I was more fortunate...he did not survive.