November 27, 2021
I realize that some of my recent skydiving stories have not been the best advertisement for making a parachute jump.
But these stories have a lesson.
This one is about making the right decision.
The twin turbine Otter roars down the runway.
Wheels up and we are flying.
Lake Elsinore fades away into a blue green pool as the Ortega mountains rush down.
The airplane stabs through cumulous clouds and breaks out into a pure blue sky.
My wife Paula opens the door. Fresh air washes over us.
I look forward to the pilot as he reaches up and adjusts the throttle. The airplane begins its steady climb to altitude.
The airplane door is closed against the cold wind.
My group of four is quiet, thinking of the skydive.
I close my eyes and review our planned manuevers.
Exit, star, open accordion, spin pieces, re-dock, zig zag, star… open accordion, spin pieces, re-dock, zig zag, star…
Just behind the cockpit the tandem students chat in short sentences with their instructors. Their camera fliers film their nervousness.
The students sense the danger while the skydivers mitigate their risks.
I smile, anticipating free fall, as I do a final gear check.
… three buckles, three handles, three accessories.
The pilot yells “THREE MINUTES.”
The three minute warning is passed back through the plane.
The airplane turns on jump run.
The red light comes on at the door.
“DOOR!” yells Paula. The door is flung open. Cold air rushes in.
Her seven teammates stand.
The benches are lifted and Paula’s team pushes toward the door.
Paula spots, looking down for air traffic and to assure that we are over the Drop Zone.
The green light comes on.
Paula continues to spot. Waits for the right moment.
Someone yells “EXIT, EXIT, EXIT.”
Paula takes one more careful look and climbs out clutching the hang bar on the outside of the airplane.
Two others from her group climb out, hang next to Paula in the floating position.
The other five of her group, still inside the airplane, press themselves into the floaters.
With a shake and a bob Paula yells, “READY. SET. GO!”
All eight are gone in a moment.
I look out the door just in time to see Paula’s group falling away.
Billy and I climb out, floating.
The other two of our team take grips on us from the inside.
Billy chants, “READY. SET. GO!” and we are gone.
The roar of the wind in free fall accents our skydiving dance.
…star, open accordion, spin pieces, re-dock, zig zag, star… repeat, repeat.
My grin is large.
At 4,000 feet my audio altimeter beeps, we four turn in free fall and track away from each other.
At 3,000 feet I pull out my pilot chute and throw it into the wind.
My parachute opens.
The sudden quiet is punctuated with my laughter.
I look around for my fellow parachutists.
There they all are.
I look down and see Paula’s group already under canopies.
I spot her bright pink parachute.
That is unmistakably Paula.
Paula makes her turn to final approach of landing.
Brian, a teammate, makes a parallel approach.
A parachute appears out of nowhere on a collision course with Paula.
At the last second the parachutist cuts in front of her.
Out of the corner of Paula’s eye is a flash of parachute fabric.
Someone flies in front of her cutting her off.
She pulls down hard on her steering toggle swerving to avoid a collision.
In that moment Paula sees Brian, but it is too late.
She flies through his parachute lines.
His lines wrap around her neck.
She cannot breathe.
Instinctively she slips the fingers of both hands between the lines and her neck.
Paula considers removing one hand and cutting away her main.
I can’t breathe, she thinks, I can’t breathe.
I just have to breathe.
The spiral continues.
Brian looks up at Paula.
He sees the entanglement.
His parachute is partially collapsed.
Paula’s parachute is also partially collapsed.
He considers cutting away his main canopy and deploying his reserve.
We are too low. No time to cut away. Nothing to do. Nothing to do. Nothing to do.
They continue their violent spiral.
As I watch Paula fly through Brian’s canopy lines the entanglement causes both parachutes to collapse.
They spiral down toward the ground.
There is a cloud of dust when they hit.
I cannot look, but I must.
They are not moving.
I want to land quickly, but what will I find?
I see the DZ truck racing out to them.
Dozens of people are also running out to the scene.
I bury a steering toggle to initiate a hard spiraling descent.
Moments later I land near my wife.
A skydiver friend who is a nurse is attending to her.
Her neck is bleeding.
“Are you OK?” I ask her.
She is alive.
“Don’t move,” says the nurse.
Someone puts a hand on my shoulder, holding me back.
Brian is laying nearby, coherent but in pain.
Someone is speaking quietly to him.
I hear the sound of an ambulance siren approaching.
The ambulance arrives and puts both Paula and Brian on stretchers, loads them in the back and drives them away.
I am left standing alone, watching the ambulance disappear.
I drive to the hospital.
At the hospital I am ushered into the emergency room.
There are Paula and Brian in side by side beds.
Paula is awake and Brian is sleeping.
“Are you OK?”
Paula looks up at me and says, “Yes.”
I hug her.
“How are you?”
“My ankle hurts, but my neck is OK. I have a broken ankle.”
I look over at Brian.
“He has a compressed vertebra, but he will be OK,” says Paula.
Paula continues, “When I hit the ground I heard a loud BOOM. It was the loudest sound I have ever heard. It was sound of my body hitting the ground.”
“You’re OK? You are really OK. I love you so much.”
“I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t take my hands from my neck. Brian couldn’t cut away or I would have strangled and we were too low.”
“You made the right decisions. You did nothing and you are both alive.”
I hold my wife in my arms and sob.