Saturday, September 13, 2014

High-Speed Malfunction

The stadium was a mile below as Wheels and I stepped into the night air and dropped away from the Cessna 182. We both had smoke canisters and streamers, and I had a football strapped to my rig.  Slyde and Kivett were already 1,000 feet below us, their parachutes deployed and towing American and Indiana flags.

The plan was for Kivett and Slyde to glide their banners toward the high school football field as the National Anthem played across the crowd.  Wheels and I would deploy 500 feet above the flags, pulling the pins on our smoke canisters and dropping them below us on a length of paracord.  Then we’d each unfurl a 50-foot Mylar streamer and commence an artful spiral around the flags as the four of us all came in to land just as (if we timed it right) the crowd sang along with “… O'er the la-and of the freeee, and the home… of the… braave.”

The final part of our demo involved the football that was tucked into a bag and lashed to my parachute harness.  My job was to land on the 50-yard line, wave to the crowd, and deliver the game ball to the referee.

Hell of a show. That was the plan.

We could see Slyde and Kivett below as we fell away from the Cessna, the engine noise being supplanted by the rush of the wind in our ears. Wheels and I got stable in the air as we picked up speed. We ensured good separation between us and each waved off as we went to deploy our parachutes.  I grabbed the handle on the small pilot chute that I would throw into the slipstream, catching air and pulling the pin that opened the parachute container, starting the ordered sequence that should end with a beautiful and fully opened parachute canopy overhead.

I gave a tug.  Something felt bound up. I gave a harder tug.  Okay, this ain’t right.  In every one of my previous 200 jumps, it had been an easy pull to get my pilot chute into the air.  I gave one more hard yank and it came free of its pouch.  I breathed in relief and started my count: “One one-thousand, two one-thousand…” waiting for the opening shock of my main canopy.  Shit, there goes Wheels.  Now I’m below him, but still above the flags being towed by Slyde and Kivett.

“Three one-thousand.” I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see my yellow, orange, and white canopy blossoming and to feel the snap of deceleration as it inflated. What I saw instead was the night sky. And Wheels; up there under canopy and getting farther away from me by the second.

But no parachute.  Just darkness. And some stars. This was not what we would call an optimal situation.

I looked behind me and saw the problem: something had my pilot chute pinned to my hip.  As I was coming up on terminal velocity, the small chute was flapping wildly.  Try this: Take off your shirt.  Get your buddy to drive your car at 120 mph. Now hold your shirt out the window.  It looked like that.

It might have been interesting to watch, but the captive pilot chute was doing nothing to get my Performance Designs ram-air canopy into an inflated and life-saving configuration.

Crap.  Now there goes Slyde and Kivett.  First below me and now above me.  In other circumstances, I might have waved as I passed.  Slyde told me later that his thought was, “Where the hell does he think HE’S going?”  I didn’t wave.  I was kind of busy.

I checked my altimeter.  Coming up on 3,200 ft.  The stadium was getting bigger. The air was getting louder.

On an altimeter’s face, Yellow starts at 3,000 ft.  At 2,500 feet, the needle enters the final Red slice of the pie. At my current velocity, I had about four seconds before I was in the danger zone.  Okay, I was already in the danger zone, regardless of what the altimeter said.

Once the needle hit red, I had 14 more seconds until, if no action on my part, I would experience what skydivers call a “frap” or a “bounce.” If they wanted to sound like they done been to college, they might say that they were about to experience “deceleration trauma.”

Even that last 14 seconds does not fully belong to you. Your reserve parachute needs enough time for its pilot chute to catch air, to pull the reserve out, for the reserve to catch its air and to fully inflate.  You’ll probably burn up 750 feet and 4.26 seconds. This time and altitude comes out of your account.

The middle of a high-speed malfunction, though, is not the place or time to do the math. We train for it. Practice it. Close your eyes and visualize the malfunctions and go through the physical motions of dealing with them. Create muscle memory:

Bag lock.  Pilot chute in tow (Hello!) Streamer. Horseshoe. Line-over. Two canopies out. Line twists.  Blown cells.

Visualize them all. Prepare for them all.

In those 10 seconds, the stream of thought went something like:

Tug. Huh?
Tug again. That ain’t right.
YANK. Okay, it’s out. There goes Wheels.  Bye, Wheels!
Nothing yet? Looking… oh damn!
What is it? Pilot chute in tow.
No main over my head, no need to cut away.
There goes Kivett and Slyde.  See you on the ground, boys. One way or the other.
Action: Deploy reserve.
Arch! Reach! Pull!

I arched, reached up, and pulled my reserve handle.  I looked over my shoulder and counted as my reserve’s spring-loaded pilot chute jumped off my back and dragged my reserve into the air. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thou…. BANG. 

Reserve overhead.  Yeah, baby. Altimeter check:  set in at 1,800 feet.  I saw faces in the crowd now, and could hear something about “rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air.”

I looked up and did a canopy check:  Cells fully inflated. No blown panels.  Slider down and seated on top of the risers. Lines straight and intact.  Steering toggles turn me left and right.  All is suddenly well in my world.  And look! I happen to be over the 50-yard line.  A quarter-mile below, a cluster of zebra-clad officials and team captains looked expectantly in my direction.  I was coming in well ahead of the American and Indiana flags, so they must have thought me an overachiever.

My eyes found the windsock our ground crew had set up.  I gauged the wind speed and direction, turned for a downwind approach and came around on final.  I did few S-turns to bleed off some speed and flared for landing.  I didn’t hit the 50, but I figured all things considered, landing on the 42-yard line seemed adequate. The crowd seemed to like it.

I pulled the game ball out of its bag.  Like that baboon holding Simba in the air in "The Lion King," I lifted the ball triumphantly first to the home crowd and then to the visitors.  I presented the ball to the ref, gathered my parachute, gave one more wave to the crowd, and trotted off to the sidelines.  

Loaf was on ground crew and met me at the edge of the field.  He eyed my main still in its container and my reserve gathered up in my arms.  “Jesus, man,” he said. “How many parachutes you think you’re gonna use tonight?”

Where a main parachute is stowed in a deployment bag that stays attached after opening, a reserve parachute is packed into a “free bag.” In the event a reserve is used – and to avoid any additional risk of entanglement by a trailing deployment bag and pilot chute – those two items (the “free bag”) completely detach after deployment, and float away.

As I headed toward the ground crew’s van, a coworker happened to be in the stands and waved me down.

“Hey! Hey, dude! I didn’t know you skydived! That was pretty awesome, landing right there on the field. Say… when your parachute came out, I saw something fly off and float away.  What was that?” 
 “That?” I said. “Oh, that was just part of the show.”

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