A perfectly good aircraft

I’ve known a number of people who choose to jump out of perfectly good aircraft. It must be fun, I’ve never heard anyone complain about a bad jump. In fact, in the sport jumping community, it is almost as if the bad jumps are what makes it worthwhile. Well, the kind of bad jumps, the really bad jumps bring everybody down.

My stepfather was a sport parachutist, we would typically visit Perris Valley or Lake Elsinore once a month. It was an interesting crowd, wild and crazy and careful all at the same time. I saw more than one “streamer”, a malfunction where the parachute does not deploy correctly. I knew the (relative) ease of releasing the main chute and opening the reserve. I never really thought “easy” was the proper term for cutting away from the only thing slowing you down as you plummet to Earth and pulling on another rip cord. Reserve chutes are packed by certified personnel, at the time the tradition was to give the person who packed your reserve a case of beer when it saved your life.

I never jumped, I went up as an observer a couple of times, and found the most amazing part the perspective. Without “landmarks”, our only measure of distance is relative size. I would sit by the door and watch the bodies get smaller as they fell away from the aircraft. The experience of falling would be intense, the air rushing by during freefall, but as an observer, it was serene, silent, they just shrank until the parachute opened. A typical jump was from twelve thousand five hundred feet, freefall lasted sixty seconds, the time it took to fall ten thousand feet, almost two miles.

There have been a few stories about skydiving in the news lately. a bad one and a not so bad one.

Mackenzie Wethington is from Johsua, TX, a small town south of Fort Worth. Mackenzie is sixteen, and the law in Texas requires skydivers be eighteen, so Mackenzie’s dad, Joe, decided to drive three hundred miles to a field in Oklahoma that allows first time jumps at sixteen with a parent’s consent. First time jumpers have a choice. If they want to experience freefall, they can jump “tandem”, strapped to an experienced skydiver. If they want to jump solo, they are attached to a static line, which pulls the rip cord automatically when they reach the end of the line, a safe distance from the aircraft.

As a parent, Joe was responsible for Mackenzie. He decided he knew better than the State of Texas, and drove almost five hours to a field in a state where sixteen year olds can jump. He felt he knew his daughter well enough to give his permission for her to take the training course and authorized her jump on a static line. Yet when her parachute didn’t fully open, and in her panic she failed to cut away and open her reserve, riding her streamer into the ground, Joe was not to be blamed. He’s blamed the skydiving company, saying they shouldn’t have let a sixteen year old jump. Maybe they wouldn’t have, if they didn’t have his permission, or if they hadn’t been in Oklahoma.

“I don’t think she should have been allowed at sixteen to go up there and perform that type of jump, no matter what I say or she says, she shouldn’t have been allowed,” Joe said at the news conference. “I find it very hard to believe that the rules and regulations in Oklahoma are that lax. I think there is a flaw there somewhere, and I don’t think it’s through the state of Oklahoma. I think it’s the company. I’m not sure.” Yes, he found himself there by accident.

He’s also blamed the other student in the aircraft. When the jump master saw Mackenzie was in trouble, he was unable to jump after her because there was another student in the craft who was now afraid to jump. Protocol is to not leave a frightened student alone in a plane with no door. So Joe has called the other student a “coward” because after seeing one parachute not open, he wasn’t excited about testing his own.

In an incident such as this, a static jump at three thousand feet, not only is Mackenzie falling towards the Earth, the aircraft is also continuing its flight perpendicular to her path. There is no way the jump master could have covered the horizontal distance in the time required to cut away her chute, open her reserve, and open his chute. It may have seemed like a lifetime watching from the ground, but a basic understanding of the laws of physics indicates a rescue wasn’t possible.

Mackenzie has survived, she’s still hospitalized and her future ability to walk is in question.

The other story is not so bad.

James Lee is twenty five. He’s been skydiving for five years, and has made over a thousand jumps. He jumps with friends, and has a camera on his helmet to record the formations, or “stars” they create. Last week, he recorded this:

You’ll notice the jolt at 0:36, when another jumper hits him in the back of the head, knocking him unconscious. Fortunately, this video does not end with the ground looming into the frame. His friends noticed he wasn’t controlling his fall, and by 0:58 approach and determine he’s unconscious. By 1:10 they have him stabilized, and then fall away from him while one remains to open his chute. He regains consciousness later and lands properly. Had he stayed unconscious he might have been hurt, but most injuries come from tensing up on landing.

He’s fine, and intends to keep jumping.

Jim is the kind of guy I used to run into with my stepfather. Above everything else, he is responsible for his own actions. That’s part of the thrill, being responsible, not jumping in fear but because you want to. Leaving a perfectly good aircraft behind and trusting your own ability to pack your own chute. Jim hasn’t blamed the guy who knocked him out, but he has thanked the people who saved him. Which brings to mind another point.

Maybe it’s something the reporters didn’t choose to record, but I didn’t see anything from Joe thanking the doctors who put his daughter back together.








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