Saturday, November 20, 2010

No S#*t - There I Was - Thought I Was Gonna Die

The most fun thing about skydiving, other than the act itself, is standing around a bonfire or VFW post, drinking beer and telling war stories at the end of the day.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’re new to the sport everyone is looking out for you and it’s safe. If you’ve been around for a while you not only have bragging rights, but you’ve probably lost a few good friends.
Sometimes you feel like an idiot and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before it’s your turn. It’s very hard to resist the lure of freefall. The only reason I’m not jumping right now is no time and no money. It was also a terrible distraction from music and I’m beginning to want to leave behind a body of work.
I think it was 1990 in Sparta, Illinois. My friends Becky, Stuff and I planned to take a small Cessna 182 to 10,000 feet. Becky brought Cyrus, her 5 year old for an observation ride. Since then most drop zones require passengers be the age of legal consent. I think the plan was Stuff and I would do a 2 way and Becky would ride the plane back down with her kid.
At 7,500 feet there was a loud, metallic pounding sound. A sheet of oil covered the windows and we were blinded. Stuff and I looked at each other and said, “Guess our skydive is going to be at a slightly lower altitude!” We threw open the door and jumped.
Not long after we landed we saw our plane glide onto the runway.
I wish I could remember our pilot’s name. I think it was Vince. He was a great story teller. He told me his first impulse was to follow us out of the plane but he turned and saw Becky and her son huddled in the back of the plane. He opened the window and did everything he could to see where he was going as he glided the plane back down for a safe landing. He was in the military and got a medal for heroism.
Becky told me she was trying to figure a way to cinch Cyrus into her straps so she could jump with him. Luckily it didn’t come to that.
The airplane had a hole in its engine that must have been a foot in diameter. It had thrown a rod. It proved to us you really could glide those things back down if you had to.
We pressured Dave, the DZ owner, into getting a large plane so we could do larger formations. We were a small budget operation so Dave got a Beechcraft Queen Air. It was as large as a King Air. King Airs hold about 12 people and climb to altitude very fast because they have turbine engines. They’ve become an industry standard. The Queen Air had piston engines and was terribly under powered for our purposes.
We rigged a quilted blanket with snaps as a door for easy exits. For some reason we were always at odds with the airport’s FBO so we often flew to other small air ports to jump. The FBO is kind of the boss of the airport. When we finally moved permanently to Vandalia, Dave made sure he could be the FBO.
We spent one day in St. Clair, Mo. Once a year Dave had us jump into a local fair as a show for the local orphanage. At the end of the day, as the sun began to set, we all boarded the Queen Air to fly back to Sparta.
I’ll never forget starting at one end of the runway, beginning to roll and picking up speed for take off. Our pilot began to yell obscenities as we started to pull up. I unsnapped a few buttons at the bottom of the door and peeked out. At the end of the runway there was a tree line. I watched the trees coming up and the plane not rising. Our pilot’s language got uglier. Finally we pulled up but trees rubbed the bottom of the plane. I was looking right at them. I thought we’d had it. I think only our pilot and I knew what a close call it was.
After a great sigh of relief we headed home, but not before a little detour over Six Flags. We had to use our gear for seats. Our only light was a soft glow from the instrument panel. We drank beer and reminisced about the day. Our pilot said, “Look out the window at Six Flags.” Suddenly bombs were going off all around us. We had flown right into the airspace of Six Flags’ fireworks display. I know what it’s like to dodge shrapnel from cannon fire.
One night we were standing around a bonfire in the middle of Tennessee. Out of nowhere, my friend Colorful Tom said, “One day you’ll have a terrible skydive that just won’t end!”
The very next day 2 buddies and I exited at 14,000 feet from a King Air. We jumped right into a cloud that was full of ice pellets. The pain was so intense we covered our faces from the blast. As soon as we did we lost sight of each other. I could still see my altimeter.
I never got below the cloud and it became clear that I would have to deploy my parachute soon. There were 2 other bodies out there somewhere and we risked entanglement. The only thing I could do was go lower hoping the cloud would dissipate. Finally somewhere around 1500 feet I deployed. It’s illegal to open this low.
Somewhere around 900 feet the cloud disappeared and I was heading straight for giant power lines. I’m talking those huge suckers that span the country side to infinity. I was able to steer just in time to avoid them as I landed in a cotton field. It took about half an hour to pick my canopy out of the barbs and walk out alive.
When I got back to the airport I discovered that my sides and underarms were bloody from the pounding of the ice. This was through layers of clothing and a jump suit.
A few years later my wedding jump went into an ice cloud. My friends that were part of it remember it as the worst jump of their lives.
I used to love jumping at night under the light of the moon. One night we decided to do a 12 way out of a King Air. Just after our exit only about half of us made it into the formation. We broke apart early enough to get plenty of distance between each other. I could just make out my altimeter from a glow stick I had wrapped around it. I though I saw other bodies nearby so I tracked a little farther out and went a little low. I still had the paranoid felling there were bodies nearby. I ended up deploying at a dangerously low altitude. I wasn’t out of the woods yet. All my friends and I have small canopies that glide fast. I knew we were landing around the same place at the same time. I decided to land farther away from our well lit landing area just in case. Sure enough we all had that idea. We still had to dodge each other. I totally last any desire to ever jump at night again.
Since then I’ve had friends that didn’t deploy at all during night jumps and hit. I’ve also had several friends whose automatic activation devices saved them when they lost track of their altitude.
This has turned into my longest post and I haven’t even scratched the surface.
To be continued……………

Pics are me under my PD 170 (170 sq ft), it was quite sporty in its day. For those interested I went from a Falcon 175 to the PD 170 to a Sabre 135 to a Stiletto 120 where I remain. I’ve jumped smaller and faster but it’s not wise in my weight group.
Not sure why the rest of my pics are of my ex but the first is me putting her out of a Cessna 182 when she was still on student status. The 3rd and 4th are in the hanger at beer thirty while friends packed their canopies. Beer thirty is when we’re allowed to drink after the last load of jumpers has taken off.


John Gorski said...


Anonymous said...

I'm grateful you never told me about these scrapes as they happened!

I know how much you love skydiving, but I hope you never do it again! I had no idea!

Your loving Mom

Anonymous said...

I still think Stiletto 120 just sounds really cool.