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Free Fall

The Free Fall Research Page

The Shayna Richardson Story
Shayna Richardson, 21, of Joplin, Missouri, survived a fall under an uncooperative reserve chute that sent her spiraling into a parking lot at an estimated 50 miles per hour. Her fall was recorded on video, and rather than saying anything else about it now, you should just check out the video. Here are some places to see it:

Channel 5, KFSM in Fort Smith/Fayetteville, Arkansas

NBC affiliate KY3 in Springfield, Missouri

What gives the story a particularly nice human angle is that she was pregnant (although she didn't discover this until later), and despite her accident and subsequent surgeries, she is okay and due to give birth in June.* What takes this story over the top is that she was photographed topless on a previous skydive. (See Picture of the Week 14 on Skydive Radio. Thank you to the December 13th entry in the WizBang blog for that tip.)

*Shayna Richardson had a healthy baby boy. His name is Tanner. Click here for the CBS News story and video.

What Shayna's aunt said
Shayna's aunt wrote to the Free Fall Research Page with a couple of clarifications. First, she says that Shayna's instructor (and boyfriend), Rick West, is saying "Shayna, pump the brake!" She also says that Shayna's topless dive was done as part of a breast cancer fund-raiser, for which Shayna and fourteen other women raised money through sponsors. This point is disputed by others who have contacted the site...they say she just jumped topless for the fun of it.

Excerpt from Shayna Richardson's CNN interview
This is an excerpt from Shayna Richardson's CNN interview. Take this link if you want to see the the full transcript. The excerpt below gives Shayna's perspective on what happened during her fall.

BLITZER: Shayna Richardson, thanks very much for joining us. You are a very lucky woman. We'll get to that in a moment. But when did you first realize you were in deep trouble?

SHAYNA RICHARDSON: I knew I was having trouble when I looked up at my reserve chute, and it was spinning out of control. I knew I was going to have big problems.

BLITZER: What did you -- what...

RICHARDSON: I really didn't expect to live through it.

BLITZER: What went through your mind?

RICHARDSON: Certain death was all that went through my mind. I was just sure that this was going to be a fatal accident, and there was nothing I could do to fix it. I did everything I was taught to do to correct the problem, but I just -- it was out of control.

I had no abilities whatsoever in fixing it. And I just had to ride it down. I rode it -- I was under the reserve canopy for probably 3,500 feet, and every bit of it was spinning very fast, about 50 miles an hour I was spinning towards the ground.

BLITZER: So you jumped out of the plane. And do you have any recollection of how many seconds it was before you realized that main parachute was not opening up?

RICHARDSON: Well, the main canopy did open. It's just, during my time of trying to control the canopy, something in my steering toggle snapped loose, which is what sent me into the uncontrollable spin that I couldn't stop on the main. So it did come out and it did open. It just went into a dangerous spin that could have collapsed the canopy and could have caused me troubles there. So I had to cut it away.

And I was under it probably, you know, five or six seconds before it snapped loose and caused me to spin. And immediately, I cut away. I didn't stay under it for long at all once I realized I had a problem.

BLITZER: All right, so as you were getting closer and closer and closer to the ground, what were you doing?

RICHARDSON: I was doing what a sky diver would call pumping the brakes. Pumping the brakes is supposed to adjust the air flow underneath the canopy and allow the slider to come on down the lines, which is what had happened to my reserve canopy. My slider got stuck and it wouldn't come down. So by pumping the brakes, I was trying to get that slider to come on down so I would stop spinning.

And I don't really know what altitude I was at when I realized it just wasn't going to work. But there was a certain point when I just let go of the steering toggles and just kept spinning, because I knew I couldn't stop. And once I let go...

BLITZER: Did you crunch up into some sort of position that you thought might better help you, or did you just sort of say to yourself, "it's over?"

RICHARDSON: I said it's over. I went back into what we call the belly-to-earth position. My entire body was parallel to the ground. My arms were in -- they were just kind of put up above my head, kind of in "L" shapes. And I just went back into the same position that I would have gone in had I been in free fall.

And that's how I hit the ground. And I don't really know why I went into that position. I think I just subconsciously, you know, once I let go of the toggles, that's just the position my body went into. And I hit the ground. And they actually say that it may have helped a lot, because it distributed the impact throughout my body, instead of trying to land on my feet or, you know, landing completely on my neck. It distributed all that impact.

Jim Phillips' perspective
Jim Phillips, who was Shayna’s instructor on her first two tandems (several months before her incident), wrote with the following information that helps clarify what happened in this incident:

“Shayna was making a type of jump called an Accelerated Freefall (AFF). An AFF student jumps from 10,000 feet and is supposed to deploy at 5,000 after approximately 35 seconds of freefall. Her main parachute opened perfectly at first, but some background will help people to understand what happened next. The steering toggles or brakelines, are packed at what is called ‘half brakes.’ This causes the parachute to open better. After opening, you reach up and release the brakes to put the parachute in full flight. It is possible to steer the parachute before the brakes are released. As part of the student progression, we practice this in case it is necessary to avoid a collision with another jumper immediately after deployment. Shayna was doing this. While she was doing this, one of the brakes accidentally released. This causes the parachute to turn or spin. The way to correct this is simple and is covered in the first jump instruction. You simply release the other brake. This was Shayna’s first mistake. Instead of recognizing and correcting this mistake, she cut away her main parachute, which was a perfectly operational parachute.

“Shayna’s reserve parachute had a ‘hung slider’ which can be fixed by pulling both brake lines. This is why you hear Rick yelling ‘pump the brakes.’ Her reserve parachute was almost inflated fully. She definitely had enough fabric to save her life. It’s spiraling because the slider is hung unevenly. If she had added some input in the opposite direction, most likely the spin could have been stopped or she could have cleared the hesitation completely.

“Shayna’s accident was a result of human error. Both the main parachute and the reserve were experiencing common ‘hesitations’ that occur often and can be fixed easily. The cause of her incident was purely panic. It was very unfortunate, but nonetheless completely avoidable. This kind of incident is fairly rare. There are several million skydives made in the US yearly and only a handful of fatalities. I believe last year it was around 30. And almost every one is due to pilot error and not gear failure.”

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