I was never addicted to skydiving, like many jumpers are, but I definitely enjoyed it. There was something incredible about how we as humans defied our natural physical limitations and learned to fly. We created systems called airplanes that took us miles above the ground, and then we jumped out of those airplanes and somehow landed safely on the ground. It was no inherent knowledge that led us to this feat, it was science, trial and error, and a sense of innovation and adventure.
My I made my first skydive when I was barely 19 years old. I had been selected to attend the US Air Force Academy’s Freefall school, a program that taught mostly Air Force Academy cadets how to jump out of planes. Being in ROTC, I was one of a select few who also got to attend the course.
It wasn’t intended to make us operational paratroopers, but more so to teach us about accomplishing missions in high-stress situations. And it did exactly that, as we found that this training program was the only one in the country that allowed jumpers to perform freefall skydives and pull their own ripcords without a trained instructor jumping along side of them.
When I returned to Columbus, Ohio for my sophomore year of college, I proudly wore my basic parachutist badge and looked up the Ohio State Skydiving Club. About a month later, I made my first private skydive and the rest was history. I jumped more and more, only paying for the jumps and necessary training when I had the funds to do it.
Eventually, I had made 10 skydives, and then it was 20, and I found that I was making jumps at different drop zones across Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. I even bought my own harness and parachute system.
On my 25th jump, I exited the plane with my instructor, whose name was Kelton Jago (sounds like it is out of a movie). We did a few in-air maneuvers and I landed on my target. With that, he signed my skydiving license, and I joined the thousands of others who were approved by the US Parachute Association to jump out of perfect good airplanes with other non-instructors who also wanted to jump out of perfectly good airplanes.
A few weeks later, I was 21 years old and decided to spend the weekend at Skydive Delmarva in Laurel, Maryland. It was almost like driving to Ocean City, so I decided to bring a tent and camp there under the stars. I could jump all day Saturday and then wake up in the crisp summer and bright sunlight so I could jump again on Sunday.
On that particular Saturday, I made a few jumps with other skydivers, including an eight-person formation, the largest I had done before. As the day became late and we only had a few more runs of the aircraft, I wanted to jump one more time but was already tired of packing my own parachute, so I had the registration desk charge seven dollars to my account to have one of their staff pack my chute for me. Lots of people used the feature, especially if they had the money to pay for it.
So I handed my parachute to a blonde-haired teenage girl. While I don’t remember her name, she was well-liked by the staff and jumpers, and had been packing parachutes for some time. When my turn in the plane came, I grabbed my rig, checked it over to ensure everything looked good, and boarded the plane.
As is standard procedure, the person sitting behind you in the plane gives your pilot chute, the small parachute that helps deploy your main parachute, is reset and ready to go. If there is anything wrong, you don’t jump out and instead take the plane ride back down. Everything looked good on mine, and I checked the person in front of me. She was good, too.
My group of four jumpers took our position in the door at the back of the fuselage and exited the plane. We did a few maneuvers in the air, rotating our bodies while staying close, and grabbing on to each others’ arms and legs in various positions. As we approached about 6,000 feet, all of us did a 180-degree turn, and I brought my arms to my sides and extended my legs which gave me forward movement to separate myself from the rest of the group, all of whom where doing the same maneuver. I quickly checked above me and saw no other jumpers and then waved my arms above my head, the standard signal for a person about to deploy a parachute.
I brought my left hand above my head and my right arm back to the bottom of my rig, grabbing the pilot chute by the small hackeysack that protruded out. I yanked out the pilot chute and threw it out to my right side and waited for it to catch air and pull the pin that held my main parachute in place. About one or two seconds later, I felt my body go from belly-to-earth to feet-to-earth as my parachute began to fill with air and I began to slow down.
The first check when deploying a parachute is to check your shape, spin, and speed, checking the shape of the canopy to ensure it is rectangular, ensure you’re not spinning, and ensure that you’re now moving at a good speed under canopy.
When I looked up, I immediately knew something was wrong. My 230-square foot orange and blue Sabre II canopy looked like it had been cut in two uneven pieces, like a lopsided infinity symbol. On the left side was a larger portion with a smaller one on the right, and they were split in the middle with one of my parachute lines that was supposed to be under the canopy, not over top of it. Worst of all, I was in a violent, uncontrollable spin.
My Air Force training kicked in. I had a line-over, one of four major malfunctions that required an immediate cutaway of my main parachute and deployment of my reserve canopy. A major malfunction was classified as something that, if it stayed in place, would cause death or serious bodily harm. To safely deploy my reserve, I had to ensure I was at a high enough altitude because if I was too close to the ground, my reserve parachute wouldn’t be able to open in time and I’d hit the ground before I had a canopy safely over my head.
I looked at my altimeter, which had a digital display and was attached to my left wrist. I was at about 4,000 feet above the ground…I had plenty of room to cutaway.
As crazy as it might sound, I didn’t hesitate for a moment. The time that it took for my main parachute to deploy and for me to notice I had a malfunction and check my altitude was a matter of no more than five seconds. In the next instant, I looked up at my canopy and said aloud…
“Here we go.”
I looked down at my main cutaway handle and grabbed it with both hands. I then shifted my eyes to my reserve parachute handle and focused my gaze there while I pulled the first. I then moved my hands to the reserve handle and pulled that. Before I knew it, my reserve parachute, a gleaming white canopy, was fully inflated above my head. It was rectangular, I had no spin, and I was flying forward at a good speed.
Again, my training kicked in. The most important thing I could do was orient myself to the drop zone, as my reserve canopy was smaller than my main, and I was therefore flying faster than I was used to. That meant I could hit the ground harder if I didn’t have a good landing in the middle of the drop zone. As I entered the landing pattern, I saw my orange and blue canopy floating away into the cornfield adjacent to the runway. The most important thing was getting to the ground safely. The canopy could wait.
Pulling your reserve was a huge deal. It was a rite of passage, albeit one I never wanted to experience. Many jumpers wait 1,000 or more jumps to get that experience, so as I landed, people started running up to me.
“A reserve pull!”
“What kind of malfunction was it?”
I was just happy to be on the ground, as this was a near-death experience I never wanted, especially on my 32nd jump…my seventh jump since becoming a licensed skydiver. But it was what it was. As I gathered my gear and walked back to the prep area, people kept asking me more questions.
“Did you try and clear it?”
“Did you pack your own chute?”
I actually hadn’t. It was one of the packers at the drop zone. “Actually, no,” I said, turning around to answer that question. “It was actually packed by…” I said as I pointed toward the packing area.
And there she was. It was the blonde teenager who packed my parachute. She was crying.
“I’m so sorry! I feel so bad! Please…I’m so sorry!”
I walked up to her and smiled, putting my hand on her should. “Hey…it’s okay. I’m fine.” I told her how I made it to the ground and that the reason I did is because I had a reserve parachute. “That’s what they’re for.”
A few minutes later, a girl named Lisa, whom I met at the drop zone earlier that day, walked up carrying two parachutes, hers and mine. “I tracked it and landed next to it in the field, so I wanted to bring it back for you.” I thanked her and wrapped it up in a ball.
I spent some more time that late summer afternoon looking for the two rip cords I used to cutaway my main parachute and deploy my reserve. I couldn’t find them and gave up my search after about an hour.
Later that night, the drop zone had a big bonfire where we all drank some beers and talked about our jumps for the day. One of the other experienced jumpers came up and asked me about my reserve pull.
“So what kind of malfunction did you have?”
“I had a line-over. Cut my canopy right in two.”
“Did you try and clear it?”
It was the second time I heard that question, but now with a bit more time and less flustered, I thought more about it. “What do you mean, clear it? It’s a major malfunction. That’s an immediate cutaway.”
The guy explained that at 4,000 feet I had more than enough time to try to grab the line that was over my canopy and pull it down one side. “It might not work, but you had a few thousand feet until you had to cut away.”
Well the Air Force didn’t teach me that! I thought to myself. I thanked him for his insight and said with a smile that I’d consider it next time.
I eventually went to sleep that night in my tent and made a few more jumps the next morning with a rig I borrowed from the drop zone. When I returned home that afternoon, I had dinner with my parents and grandparents.
“How was skydiving?” my mom asked me.
“It was good. I had to pull my reserve.”
“Well, at least the Air Force taught you well.”
And she was right. If I hadn’t had that training, who knows how I would have responded. I’m just glad I had the training I did and was able to make the right decision when it mattered most.
I kept jumping that summer and on various weekends during my senior year. The last jump I made, however, was in the fall of 2006 when I was living in Cleveland. My new job required work six days a week and I just didn’t have the time to skydive regularly. When I moved to the DC area, I suffered a few herniated discs in the next few years and knew that, most likely, I would never jump out of a plane again.
My skydiving career ended with 55 jumps, with more than 40 minutes of freefall time. I met great people along the way and did some pretty crazy jumps, like a zero-gravity exit and pulling my canopy at 12,000 feet. I did sunrise jumps and sunset jumps. The highest altitude I ever jumped from was more than 17,000 feet. I’ll never forget meeting Adam Abelow, the head of the skydiving club, who gave me a ride to get my first civilian jump, or Jen White, who coached me (for free) on many of my jumps. I’ll never forget driving with Chase Volz to Aerohio and always stopping to get Arby’s on the way back to Columbus. I’ll never forget getting my license and the time my grandparents came to watch me jump.
A few pictures from my skydiving days.