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Friday, November 23, 2007

My Fourth Jump

This is Steven Petrick Posting:

Hearkening back to the halcyon days of my youth when I attended the Fort Benning, Georgia, Airborne School during the Summer of '78 between my Junior and Senior years is the brief tale of the fourth of my five jumps.

During the ground portion of the training the instructors seek to teach you what it will be like to jump from a perfectly good airplane and trust your life to a parachute packed by people you do not know. They also teach you a number of things to do if something does "go wrong". Like (as mentioned in my first jump) running into someone else's parachute.

One of these is a constant admonition what, once you feel that opening "shock" (and it is not that bad, at least it was not for me) of your main deploying you are to immediately go into the "let up" position. This involves raising your arms from your reserve parachute on your chest so that your hands can grasp the risers to allow you some control of the parachute's direction, but also to enable you to throw your head back and look up at the deployed parachute to see if anything is wrong with it. Various possible malfunctions are described by the instructors and what to do in each case. I actually had cause to use one of these brief blocks of instruction during my third jump, and for me it was automatic by that time.

In this particular case (recalling that this was my fourth jump, and not the third), I observed that, yes, I had a good canopy and proceeded to the next step in the sequence of the jump, i.e., looking around for fellow jumpers to avoid running into them, or to adopt the bounce off formula (something I never needed to do).

There I was, with 27 other parachutists floating towards the ground, when suddenly I heard a megaphone from the ground repeating over and over: "The jumper, with the malfunction. Pull your reserve." This was not said with any urgency, but it was repeated several times. The command having registered, I again threw my head back and examined my parachute. It was round, with a hole in the middle (the one that was supposed to be there to let the air out and keep the chute from gyrating uncontrollably), no tears, no fouled lines. Having completed this second survey, I concluded, and actually thought the words to myself: "He can't mean me."

There were twenty eight of us up there in that stick, and twenty-four either made a conscious decision "better safe than sorry", or simply "panicked" assuming that it had to be them, and pulled their reserves, making a total of twenty-five popped reserves as the Jumper with the malfunction, who had apparently failed to recognize that his or her chute had failed in some manner but had pulled the reserve in response to the command.

Of the twenty-eight student jumpers, only three trusted their training enough to believe that they could tell the difference between a good and a bad parachute canopy. Maybe that was not entirely true (maybe there was something we three were not yet aware of), but we had checked our deployed chutes, and rechecked them in response to the command from the ground, and saw nothing wrong with our parachutes, and in keeping with the instructions from the instructors not to deploy the reserves if we did not "have to", we did not. Probably the other 25 students got a good talking to (the one with the malfunction for failing to figure out he had a problem on his own, the others for not realizing that there was nothing wrong with their own chutes and creating extra unnecessary work for the riggers), but that was a block of instruction I was perfectly happy to have avoided.