Friday, November 30, 2001


I'm writing this brief summary of my last "adventure in skydiving" for posterity and the few people who have asked.

Eloy, Arizona is regarded far and wide as prime skydiving country. With predictably clear skies and impressive mountain views, it's a natural fit. This was my second jump. I had suggested the idea to Doug since he had never experienced free-fall before.

There were some uncharacteristic clouds and wind that day. When I met Marc, my instructor, he said that we might only get up to 10,000 feet, as if that wasn't high enough. In spite of this "bad news" we suited up and headed for the runway.

Even though we only rode the plane so we could jump out of it, our "well used" aircraft seemed barely up to that simple task. Doug commented that jumping out of that bucket was probably the safest way to get back to the ground. While that might have been true, I still began to wonder why I was doing this (again) as we passed 12,000 feet.

With my altimeter pegged at 13,000, Marc showed me the digital readout on his wrist that said 13,600. As we started to push 14,000, the tail of the plane opened like a sinking ship and the first group jumped out.

The plane gave a sudden bounce as it shed the weight of two presumably sane humans. Sitting at the front of the craft, I watched the other lemmings quickly disappear over the edge. Finally, with Marc securely fastened to my back, I shuffled to the door.

People ask how you could possibly bring yourself to jump out at that height. Well, as you look through the wispy clouds at the ground nearly two and a half miles away, the reality of what you are about to do does not really hit you. Your brain refuses to believe that you will actually smack the ground that is so far away. One foot steps off the metal floor and the next thing you see is the tail of the plane as you tumble away from it.

After a couple turns I arched my body and the wind quickly locked me into a belly-down position. At that point Marc released the drove shoot. The small (3 foot diameter) chute slowed us down to a mere 120 miles per hour so we could enjoy the ride.

At this point I realized that I hadn't put my goggles on before I left the plane. Considering that it's not easy to look straight on into a 120 MPH wind, I quickly pulled them down from my forehead and tried to fit them squarely on my face.

With my goggles now protecting my eyes, Marc grabbed one of my arms and lifted it slightly. The small adjustment in airflow spun us rapidly. Mountains and clouds started to blur before Marc lifted my other arm and suddenly we were turning the opposite direction.

With quick glances at my wrist I saw that we were approaching 6,000 feet. Nearly a minute had passed since we left the plane. I knew that before we got to 5,000 we'd have to open our chute. As I expected, Marc tapped my arm and shouted, "Pull the rip cord!" Surprisingly enough, I actually heard him. I looked down at my right hip, grabbed the small orange plastic handle in my right hand, and raised my hand over my head.

There was an incredible jerk as the chute deployed and snapped us back to a prone position. I noticed a couple of key differences between this deployment and the first time I opened a parachute. First, the jerk was so hard that it bruised my legs and arms against the harness. Second, I heard my instructor say, "God damn it!"

"Curious," I thought. Why would he say that? Rather than ask, I decided that he wasn't expecting the jerk to be that hard either. Then I started to notice a few other differences. For one thing, it sounded different. Usually it's pretty quiet as you float down to earth, but this time I heard a lot of ruffling like a flag in the wind. On the other hand, my instructor was very quiet. He wasn't pointing out scenery or steering our chute around, yet he seemed to be working hard at something. Finally he spoke up and asked me to arch my body again like we did during free fall.

Meanwhile, Doug and his instructor were above us looking at our chute. Doug heard him say, "something doesn't look right with that chute. I can't tell what but it doesn't look right. I wonder if they're going to cutaway."

Two seconds later I experienced the sudden and unpleasant feeling of being snipped from a dangling thread. Without warning, I was in free fall again. Before I had a chance to even realize what was happening, Marc opened our reserve chute. With a softer jerk we were once again snapped upright. "What the hell was that?!" I shouted.

"Just a little bit of excitement," Marc replied.

"Right. I take it that you're going to tell me what happened after we get back to the ground."

Realizing that I knew something was wrong, Marc turned us around and pointed to a colorful sheet drifting to the ground far away. "See that. That's our main parachute," Marc said. I gulped. He explained that the drove had gotten tangled up in our lines and was hampering our ability to maneuver. He thought he could have landed it anyway but with two of us there he didn't want to chance it.

The reserve chute set us down hard on the landing site. I was happy to walk away from the whole thing with only a few bruises and a rather sore neck muscle that I'm still rubbing as I type this.

Glad to be 3D,
William Frantz

Flying in an airplane is like swimming in a boat. - Skydive!