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Flight Recorder

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Look, it was just a little skydiving accident, okay? Could have happened to anyone. It was my sixth jump and my first solo free-fall. No big thing, I’d had three tandem free-fall jumps before and two static-line/dummy ripcord pulls just to make sure I was ready. We go up to about 3500 feet in the little Cessna C-182. I’m a bit nervous because I’m thinking, Man, only 3500 feet, that’s not a lot of time if I screw something up. Why won’t they let me go higher so I’ll have more time? Ah never mind, this is how they always do it, why fight it? Just get it done so they’ll let you go higher next time…

The jumpmaster opens the door and we look down at the ground, three-fifths of a mile below. The air’s clear, and we’re positioned right over the DZ. “Okay, on the strut!” he yells. I crawl out, grab as far out on the wing strut as I can, and let my feet dangle toward the ground below. Hanging on as we fly, whee! I give him a look, and he nods to let me know I can go whenever I’m ready. I look forward, close my eyes, and breathe.

I open my eyes. Sky’s beautiful, air’s clear, God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. I open my hands and arch my back.

The plane falls away, a beautiful sight. This is just a “hop and pop” because I’m still in training, so right away I grab the ripcord. Staying arched, I bend my arm to my hip, my fingers splayed, making my hand as big as possible. There it is, wrap your fingers around it. I grab and pull. It doesn’t come.

WHAT?!? <pullpullpull> It doesn’t come. Damn! My arch isn’t quite right so my body begins to tilt diagonally, head first. The horizon drops from sight and the ground looms toward me, filling my field of vision. Wow that’s cool. I stay calm. Pull the reserve!? No not yet, plenty of time. It’s 20, 25 seconds before I’ll hit the ground so I’ll keep trying for now.

<yankYANK yankyankYANK> Okayokay, pull the reserve if it doesn’t come right n…<yankVIP! Flutter flutter FWOOMP!> Finally the ripcord yanks loose. Since I’m falling headlong, I take a hard jerk on the shoulders as the chute opens, then my body flips back over. I’m a bit out of sorts so I kick my legs as the chute’s opening, damn, shouldn’t have done that, bad form, and then I finally come aright and look: I’ve still got the ripcord, Good, didn’t drop it, so I look up, is the canopy all the way open? and, seeing that the canopy’s wide open and flapping in the breeze man that thing’s tiny! like it should be, I stick the ripcord in my teeth and reach for the steering toggles. Just as I’m reaching for them, the voice of the jumpmaster on the ground comes through loud and clear:

“Okay Jumper #1, check your canopy and stall. Nice hop and pop, Dean! You are now a SKY–DIVER!!” Yeah! I stall the canopy and breeze out of it just when it feels right. You’re there home boy!

I’m still a student, so now I have to listen to the jumpmaster on the radio as he tells me where and how to turn. “Right turn!” he says. I pull the right toggle smoothly but firmly, taking it all the way down to my hip. I sail sideways hard, feet pointing at the horizon, haw! and pull out of it just as he begins to say “stop turn!” Hey, I got this down, don’t hardly need your help at all buddy!

“Take your turns easier than that, I want nice easy turns.” Aw, c’mon! Oh all right, grumble grumble. “Left turn!” I pull the toggle smoothly but slowly, taking it only about halfway down, making nice, graceful curves. Just keep doing what he says.

The sky’s beautiful. I look up at that canopy, listening to it flutter and flap like mad. I look at the sky, the clouds, the sun. I look to the vast green canopy below, seeing the fields and farms and buildings, my shadow there’s my shadow! zipping along the drop zone field. What if I fall? Shut up and fly. I’m in full control of my canopy as I sail the earth. Yes, I really am a skydiver. Man, when can I free-fall again?

The ground looms near. Too fast! I have to flare the canopy to brake and slow down as I come in; that’s what I’m supposed to do anyway. If you flare too late, you hit hard. Too fast! If you flare too early, you hit even harder. The ground gets closer and closer, too fast! and I wait for the jumpmaster to tell me when to flare. It’s easy to make a mistake while you’re learning, so you’re supposed to make sure you don’t flare until he tells you to.

Don’t flare until says, don’t flare until he says, don’t flare until…“Flare!” …wait, do I flare hard or gentle? Okay, stay calm, flare gent…

<BAM!>

…ly. Ow. Feet were in front of me, not under, on my butt, dammi…

“OW! AOW! Gnfck.” <Strugglestruggle> Jesus my back! “AAAAA-OW!!” Get over here you people, I’m hurt! “AAAA-OW!! AAAA-OW!!”

Mnnnftgrrraaa… “AAAAA-OW!!! <swear struggle swear swear>Are the feet there? Yesyoucanfeelthemwiggle<wiggleokaydammitwigglewigglestruggle> “AAAA_OW!!”

“Oh man lie still! Stay calm! We’re here! Can you move your feet?” “Yes, my feet are there, don’t worry I’m okay, it just hurts, AAAA-OW!! Help me out of the harness” <swearstruggleow>

“Do you need an ambulance?”

“No, I’m okay, it just hurts, gaaah, ow. Hang on a minute, I’ll be okay, it just hurts. Ow”

It’s not too bad. It hurts but it’s not shrieking agony, just like I got punched really hard in the back. I press on it and it doesn’t hurt. No bones grinding, your feet work, you’re okay, just a bad bruise and the wind knocked out of you. “Can you stand?” Yeah. I nod and stand.

I walk slowly back toward the trailer for debriefing. Everyone’s concerned but relieved. Kelly, the chief jumpmaster, walks with me, staying by my side and reassuring me. He’s a great guy. (Heck, all the guys at Sport City Skydivers are great.) But, I screwed up and I know it. I didn’t do the things I knew I was supposed to do; I hesitated on my flare. Worse than that, though: I saw the ground coming up and me, and reacted to “protect” myself by lifting my feet up–and landed hard on my dignity at about 20 miles per hour.

Another student diver, a little more advanced than me, lands nearby. He’s picture-perfect, light as a feather and on his feet. “Show off!” I yell, laughing. I’m okay. Jeez, hard to breathe though. I tell the other divers that I’ll walk it off. It’ll probably hurt worse in the morning. Just keep moving.

A couple of the jumpmasters express regrets that I had a bad experience on my first solo free fall. Everyone is concerned, but they’re glad to see I’m walking around. They all tell me it’s always a good idea to think about seeing the doctor after something like this. I let them know that I’m okay with it, that I just made a mistake and learned from it, and I indicate that I’ll probably go see my doctor in the morning. Then I tell them about the trouble I had with the ripcord.

One of the senior jumpmasters, Gary, voice always serious, demeanor always rock steady, says probably I didn’t grab the ripcord right and got part of the harness. “That is not at all unusual” he says, ” it happens to a lot of people.” I argue a little because I really don’t think that’s what happened; it didn’t feel anything like harness material. But I’m not in the mood to argue. I only protest halfheartedly, then let the matter drop. If you keep arguing with him he’ll just think you’re a stubborn idiot liable to get yourself killed by not listening. And maybe he’s right.

Debriefing over, I walk around some more and socialize a little. Jesus, still hard to breathe. Jump again maybe? Still plenty of time. No, best not try it. Everybody watches me for half an hour and we can all see I’m fine. Time to go.

I slip quietly out, back hurts, get in the car, and start to drive home. Get some aspirin, lots of aspirin, lay flat in bed as soon as you get there and stay there, you’ll be okay, boy it’s going to hurt in the morning, hope I can go to work, hope they won’t think I’m slacking off if I call in, yarg it’s hard to breathe.

It’s a 45 minute drive home. After about ten minutes I get dizzy because I’m having to breathe shallow. It hurts too much to breathe deeply and I can’t get myself positioned comfortably in the car. I stop and get out and walk a bit, which eases the pain and makes breathing easier.

I get back in and start back toward home. Man this sucks, I can’t breathe. Oh shut up and keep driving, you’re fine. I keep going, shifting uncomfortably, trying stubbornly to keep breathing even though it hurts every time I suck air. But finally I have to stop again. I put my seat back and lay flat for a while, then get out and try to catch my breath some more. Man this sucks. It isn’t getting any better. I lean against the car for a while longer, then get back in. Okay, this isn’t working. I decide to go to the hospital.

Eventually my car swerves into an empty parking lot alongside Doctor’s Hospital in downtown Shreveport, a half-mile from my apartment. A lady walking by says something about reserved parking. I ask where the emergency room is. She tells me I’m on the wrong side of the hospital, that this lot is reserved for doctors, and I need to drive around to the other side of the building.

I look at the car. I look at her. I look at the car. I look at her. I’m not getting back in that thing.

She sees my look of pain and uncertainty, and takes pity on me. She takes me into the building and points me to the emergency room. I arrive to find it completely empty except for a guy wiping the floor. Great, no one here! No waiting I guess.

Silence. Oh. There’s no one here. Silence. Ho, wonderful.

I hear voices through a doorway, so I walk through it, and behind some counters I find a couple of women talking and laughing. A pretty, earnest-looking lady looks up at me with a smile. “Can I help you?”

“I think I hurt myself”

She looks at me standing there in my leather jacket, outbacker’s hat, and sunglasses. No blood, no clutching limbs. I stare at her, arms loose at my sides.

“What’s wrong?”

“I think I hurt my back”

“Well, umh, what were you doing?

“Skydiving.”

Everything and everyone starts moving, <Rush rush bustle bustle talk talk>with people everywhere, running hither and yon, hurrying and yet somehow all managing to be considerate and polite. They put me on a gurney, and I lay there feeling guilty. You’re just being a baby. You’re hurt but you’re fine, they’re just going to send you home with some pills and everyone will wonder why you bothered to come in here.

Within minutes, a Doctor Mosely appears. A reserved man who oozes composure and competence, he quietly asks me the same questions everyone else has asked, all while methodically pressing and pulling on me this way and that, looking for signs of shock, paralysis, loss of motor control or sensitivity, and making sure I’m coherent. Finally, after they take the x-rays, he’s able to determine what’s wrong. He shows me an X-Ray, and it turns out that one of my lower (lumbar) vertebrae is fractured and compressed. “We’re going to admit you,” he says. Oh. Guess I’d better let them know at work.

I mention to him that my tailbone also hurts. He says, “No, the x-ray doesn’t show anything wrong with your tailbone.” I look at the x-ray and notice the end of my tailbone is being cut off in the photo by a label. I point this out to him, so he agrees to x-ray me again. And yup, after a closer look it’s clear that I’ve broken my tailbone too. Great, those things never heal right do they?

I finally get around to making some phone calls. I get ahold of Peter and tell him that I had a minor skydiving accident and would probably be in the hospital for a few days. I describe what happened. “Oh, I guess you’re not going to take this sitting down, eh?”Ha ha, that Peter, what a kidder.

The above article was written in the summer of 1993, within a week or so of the events described.

People have asked me if I would ever jump again. Actually, I did jump again, about a dozen times after I healed. Going up in the airplane for my next jump after the accident was one of the scariest moments of my life. But I did it, a dozen times more. Some friends told me I was crazy, but I’d just point out that you can get hurt doing all kinds of things. That very year, a co-worker shattered his leg playing a simple touch-football game on a beautiful Saturday morning. Yet no one in the office said, “I’ll never think about playing touch football again!”

The most important thing skydiving gave me was an understanding about overcoming fear. The lesson is that you can’t eliminate fear. No, it’s deeper than that: you feel the fear, but you do it anyway. Doing that gives you a strength that’s hard to measure, but stays with you forever. I consider skydiving one of my most important spiritual experiences.

In the meantime, if you ever have a chance to try skydiving, go for it. I think everyone should experience it at least once. It’s will stay with you for the rest of your life.

In the meantime, my life is pretty good. My back aches me sometimes when the weather changes, and my tailbone hurts if I sit in the same position for too long. Otherwise, I’m fine. Unfortunately, I haven’t been back to the Drop Zone in years. I have a family now and have to think twice about spending money and taking unnecessary risks. But I think that one day I’ll be back. In the meantime, I have memories to treasure and war stories to tell.

Besides. I know what it feels like to fly.

—-

The above appeared at Dean’s World. Feel free to come on by for a visit, any time!

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About Dean Esmay

  • Eric Olsen

    Great story Dean, thanks! Conveys both the ecstasy and agony very well, exciting too. I don’t think I’ll be going up any time soon, however – there are other ways to overcome fear with a much less severe downside.