|My Lucky Day|
by Bryan Stokes - email@example.com
I rolled out to my drop zone last Saturday after returning from a week-long BASE jumping trip to Idaho. The trip to Idaho was very successful (18 BASE jumps), and I was looking forward to a somewhat "casual" day of tandems.
If only I knew that it was my lucky day...
I exited the Cessna at 10,500ft and reached back for the drogue after 3 to 4 seconds. Instead of the drogue, my hand grasped suspension lines. Reaching behind the lines, I located the drogue handle and threw it out to the side and watched it come right back down on top of my right shoulder. As I tried to get the drogue off me, it went up into my burble and back down my left shoulder and then under my neck.
At this point, my tandem passenger and I have reached tandem terminal and the situation is getting uglier by the second. There is a mess all over my back and a drogue wrapped around my face.
I pulled the drogue off my face and transferred it from my left hand to my right hand, and then threw it underhand style to the right. This time I saw it take off above me. Unfortunately, the drogue was not open and as a result, we did not slow down. Finding the primary drogue release was somewhat difficult since the deployment bag was out of the container, but I located it within a second or two and pulled it. Nothing happened.
The secondary drogue release came next (right rear-of-leg) and nothing happened. I shook my back and wiggled my legs to make sure nothing was wrapped around them. By this time, we were smoking something fierce and as much as I didn't like it, I had no choice but cutaway and fire the reserve. As I tossed the drogue releases and reached in for the handles I said to myself, "God I hope the reserve deploys cleanly".
I pulled the cutaway handle and hesitated for a spilt-second to see if the RSL would pull the reserve pin. No dice. I pulled the reserve a half-second later and felt the reserve pilot chute launch off my back.
The nothingness that followed was the worse feeling I have ever experienced. I looked over my left shoulder and caught a glimpse of the orange reserve pilot chute trapped above me. As I looked at the ground (as a form of an altitude check), I distinctly remember the following thought: "I can't believe this...today is the day that I am going in."
I threw away the remaining handles and began shaking my shoulders and back. Within a second or two, I went feet to earth as the reserve canopy blossomed overhead.
Altitude check: 2,000ft
My passenger had no clue as to what just took place (they never do) and was yelling "That was awesome!" just as the bag-locked main and freebag assembly came screaming past us. "What the f*** was that!", he said. And as I released the brakes, I calmly said, "That was our main parachute...it wasn't working too well so we had to use our reserve system."
If only he knew how close we were...
This entire scenario gives us a very clear reminder: Even if you react correctly to a given situation, it may not be enough. However, for me, it truly was my lucky day.
Bryan Stokes is a full-time skydiving instructor for the "Wings of Blue Parachute Team" at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is a S&TA and a videographer. He has a Vector and Eclipse Rating, and a Military Freefall Rating. The tandem incident happened on his own Eclipse tandem system at a different drop zone than the Academy.
Here are the results of our gear investigation:
1) The closing loop was intact and in good shape.
-- I received a pin check prior to boarding the Cessna. I sat in the back of the plane where I attached the passenger from a sitting position and "scooted" to the door for a diving exit from the step. How the pin came loose is unknown to me.
2) When we recovered the drogue, the drogue bridle was knotted around the fabric of the drogue and the mesh. -- This explains the collapsed drogue.
3) A significant portion of my altitude was spent getting the drogue off my face and into the air stream. Even though both drogue release handles were pulled after the knotted drogue was above me, nothing happened.
-- When we recovered the main parachute assembly, it was still in the deployment bag. The locking stows for the right riser assembly (both front and back) were un-stowed while the left riser assembly (both front and back) were still stowed all the way through. The portion that was stowed (left riser assembly) was badly knotted on itself and a baglock was the result. This was likely caused by the bag bouncing all over my back in a horseshoe configuration prior to drogue deployment and subsequent drogue release.
4) With a knotted drogue and a baglock so close to my back, there was not enough force to pull away the main assembly once the cutaway handle was pulled.
5) Time and altitude was running out (we were at tandem terminal), so I had to deploy the reserve. Unfortunately, it entangled with the crap on my back.
Fortunately, it came free. Either: the freebag did its job -or- the reserve pilot-chute came free of its entanglement -or- the main assembly finally left my back effectively acting as a "pilot-chute" for the reserve system. (when the jettisoned equipment passed me under the reserve canopy the freebag and the main assembly were very close to each other but when we recovered them on the ground, they were 150 yards apart)
End result: Out-of-sequence deployments is the #1 cause of tandem fatalities in the United States. The new Sigma system by the Relative Workshop has virtually eliminated the chance of an out-of-sequence deployment. If your own or use a more "traditional" tandem system, check your gear and always be cognizant of your pins. Your life could depend on it.