My first solo skydive did not go well. I went up there on Thursday as planned but it was too windy for students. Rather than wait around for it to die down, I left and went back early on Friday morning, after calling my boss to see if I could get another day off.
John drove me up there on Friday morning. I was assigned an instructor, and was given about two hours of more instruction. It’s amazing how much stuff there is to go through. Things like calculating the size of the parachute according to my weight, checking every part of the equipment at least three times, drills in “Malfunction Junction,” practice arches and practice pulls on a wooden board that swivels around (not sure what they call that), practice aircraft exits, fill out pop quiz, study landing area and wind direction and draw a diagram of the approach to landing. Everything was covered. When it came time to jump I felt I was ready.We then got into the plane and took off to 14,000 feet. There was another student doing his first jump as well. Everyone else jumped before us. I was last. My instructor and I leaned out of the door. I got an okay with him, he grabbed the sides of my jumpsuit and we were off. EXHILIRATING! I can’t describe that feeling of falling through the air at 120 mph. On the first couple of solo jumps the instructor always holds on to the student to keep him/her stable. If for any reason we get separated I have to pull immediately. This didn’t happen, and the instructor stayed with me until the deployment altitude. I waved off and pulled at 5,500 feet, WITHOUT him having to sign to me to look at my altimeter! Everything was so perfect until then. At pull time, of course, the instructor has to let go and the student is alone.
So, there I was, ready for the next stage. My canopy opened. I looked up. It was SQUARE and STABLE. Just how it had to be. I admired it for a second and then proceeded to begin the next stage. Make sure it’s STEERABLE. To do that, you have to release the toggles/brakes, flare, turn right, turn left. I then made a huge error. I released the right toggle only, planning on following up with the left one. Then the canopy started spinning and I started falling rapidly. I was in such shock. All I could think was that it had been SQUARE and STABLE, so what was happening? Yes, I even yelled “help”! My brain went completely. It wouldn’t tell me how to stop the spin. I then made the decision to follow the malfunction drills; i.e. cut away and deploy the reserve. I looked at my altimeter and, horror of horrors, I’d already plunged below 2,000 feet. Too late to deploy the reserve.
I’m not sure if I was thinking about dying. It was really the first time I’d been in an emergency situation like this. Usually when there’s a crisis I run to John, the love of my life. But he was on the ground ready to video my landing.
Then the radio in my jumpsuit came to life, and a very calm voice said: “Cathy. Flare.” “Cathy. Flare.” “Cathy. Flare.” (flare means to pull both toggles all the way down). I flared. The canopy became stable again. The calm voice then said, “Cathy, you are too far away to make it to the landing area. Find an open space and land there. You are on your own for the landing.”
I looked down and saw two good spots. One was a green field and one was brown. I went with the green one, thinking the brown one could be muddy. It looked freshly ploughed. Steered to it and made a horrible horrible landing. Did not flare in time and landed very hard, flat on my face. Got a mouthful of brambles and grass. Perhaps it’s good that nobody in the whole world saw that landing. I gingerly got up and nothing seemed to be broken. There were high hedges on each side of the field and I had no idea where I was or where the dropzone was. I remembered the instructions on how to pick up the equipment and carry it back to the packing room, but wasn’t sure whether to stay where I was and wait to be rescued. After about 15 minutes an aeroplane flew over and I waved at it to let them know I was okay. Then I picked a direction and started walking. The field was thick with brambles and I was worried about snakes and things. I must have only made it about a hundred yards and one of the instructors came running into the field calling me. RESCUE!
It turned out to be the instructor on the radio who’d told me to flare. Once we’d got out of the field and onto a path, he called in to get us a lift as he’d parked on the other side of the field. Yep, I’d chosen the wrong direction. We turned out to be three-quarters of a mile from the dropzone. He then made me tell him everything I’d done after the canopy had opened. I didn’t know then what had gone wrong, but as soon as I told him I released the right toggle and not the left one at the same time, that was the answer. I was so embarrassed and felt so stupid. A major part of the training manual is on emergencies. One malfunction is a toggle releasing during deployment. The way to correct this is to FLARE. I knew that. But I wasn’t prepared to have a STABLE canopy that turned into a spinning canopy.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, John had taken a video of what he thought was me landing. He knew I had a red and white parachute, but the other student did too. He got a great video of the student doing a perfect landing. (I must find out his email address and send him the video). Then he heard someone say that the other student was still up there. He asked which one. “The woman.” “Cathy,” he asked? “Well there was only one female on the plane.” He then saw me up there under a spinning canopy, and I don’t think it was a good moment for him.
As an aside here. I have no idea how things work behind the scenes, but I get the feeling that all staff are instructed to downplay things and act as if everything is normal. Before I did my third tandem I was watching the students landing. The student landing area is further away and it’s difficult to see who is who. Anyway, that day, one of them landed and didn’t get up. I heard some of the staff saying that they needed to get out there and see if he was okay. Then someone drove out there and picked him up. I asked if he’d hurt himself and someone said, “oh no.” Then later on I heard that a medic had been called to treat him. It was kind of like that after I disappeared into the field. John felt like if they spoke to him they’d have said, “nothing to see here. Check out our new vending machines.” I get a good laugh from that, thinking about it two days later.
Once I’d returned to the hangar the instructor went through the entire jump with me. He had video of the exit and the freefall (camera attached to him) and told me what needed correcting. My arch upon leaving the plane was much too late. He said without him holding on to me I would have tumbled (not good). However, apart from what he called “happy feet,” he said he could have let go of me about halfway through the freefall and I would have been stable. Of course, after the deployment I was on my own. And I did tell him everything that had happened. He gave me a lot of advice (technical and psychological and encouraging) and settled me down. Said that he’d had first-level students get into trouble and then go on to get their licenses. He told me, however, to take at least the weekend to evaluate everything before deciding whether to continue. He filled out my logbook and apologized for recommending that I take Level 1 again. (He was much nicer than that motorcycle tester in Oxford in 1970 who growled “I think you know you’ve failed,” after I’d slid and fallen off in the hailstorm during the emergency stop and then got lost trying to find my way back to the test centre). I thanked him for not sending me back to tandem level! Have to say here that he was a wonderful instructor. So professional and patient. And so are all the others I’ve had so far.
The weekend is almost over, and all I can think about is getting up in that aeroplane and getting it right. I’ll never make the toggle mistake again, so that’s some experience under my belt already. So . . . if the boss okays it, AND if they haven’t banned me from the dropzone, I’ll be back on Thursday for another attempt.
This has been a long and rambling post, but I wanted to get the facts down on paper as soon as possible. I may straighten it up over the next few days. And I will post the video of my freefall soon.