Skydiving: March 2, 2002: AFF Level 2

There is a saying among skydivers: "If it hasn't happened to you yet, it will."

It happened to me on this jump -- my second AFF student jump and fourth one overall.

The day started out like any other "skydive day" -- Matt and I went to the dropzone first thing in the morning -- 8:00 AM Saturday -- mentally prepared to complete our AFF Levels 2 and 3 that day. We started off with about 20 minutes of ground school for AFF Level 2 jump. The objective of this jump was to make right and left turns during freefall, and track forward. Learning this and practicing the entire jump from start to finish did not take too long, after which it was time to suit up and head on over to the plane!!! YEEEHHAAA!!!

Well, I was thinking two things to myself at this point: "Do not forget the gloves, and remember to check the helmet strap fits before deciding on a helmet." Two of the lessons learned from my AFF-L1 jump. Unfortunately, there were no more gloves left that fit my large hands.. but my instructor was kind enough to let me borrow an extra pair that he had.

My jump masters on this jump were Vic and "Bruce... Big Bruce" -- two people who love to have fun! But of course, all skydivers are like that! We were the first ones to get in the plane, which meant we would be the last ones out. Matt and his two instructors were sitting in front of me. As the plane rolled down the runway, the jumpers inside started talking louder and louder.. "Here we go!" ... And as the wheels lifted off, we all yelled at the top of our voices: "SKYDIVE!"

I was getting nervous again on the ride up to jump altitude (14,000 feet), so I started to review all handsignals in my head -- that's a good way of keeping your mind occupied! I talked out the entire jump again with Vic, and before I realized it, there was a yell from the back of the plane: "DOOOOR!!!"

Blast of wind.

Plane shakes as the first jumpers exit... then the next... then the next.... I give a high-5 to Matt as he stands up and starts making his way towards the door... Vic asks me, "Are you ready to skydive?" to which I reply "Hell yeah! Let's do it!" I get in the aisle, with Vic in front of me, and we start walking to the door.

Vic, Bruce, my video/photographer Clay, and I were the only jumpers left on the plane and were almost about to exit when suddenly Clay yelled to the pilot, "We've overshot the drop zone... You'll have to make a 180 turn."

I remember thinking, "$#*&@" (censored)... "Let's get on with it, I wanna FLY!"... Well, after what seemed like a very long turn that took an eternity, Clay made his way out the door, followed by Bruce, then Vic, and finally.... ME!

This time I was going to leave on the "GO" of "Ready, Set, Go!" I knew I had to do it, and my exit from the plane was perfectly timed with both my instructors... The only problem was that I was not arching properly. It took me a while to get stable, and I was so caught up in the thrill of flight that I forgot how to fly! Suddenly I remembered, "Oh yeah, I'm supposed to be checking my altimeter, then turn right..." When I checked the altimeter, I saw the needle at 11,000 feet -- I had lost 3000 valuable feet with nothing to show for it!

I tried to turn right... and couldn't. I tried again.... and couldn't!!! "$#*%"

So I gave up on that and started turning left. I made a full 360-turn and levelled out. I saw the handsignal for "Leg position", but according to Vic I did absolutely nothing to correct that. I also saw the handsignal for "Altimeter check" -- I did do that, and saw I was under 6000 feet! Well, that left no time at all for the last objective of the jump: forward tracking. It was time to wave everyone off and signal "5-5" and pull the ripchord, which I did without any problems.

It was a beautiful canopy opening, and I checked my altimeter immediately after the parachute was fully opened and flying forward (another lesson from AFF-Level 1) -- and of course the traditional loud "WOOOOHOOO!" I was at 4000 feet, and very far away from the drop zone. After quick canopy check (right turn, left turn, full flare, and another "WOOOHOOO!"), I turned towards the drop zone and let the parachute fly full speed ahead without any more turns -- realizing I may not have enough altitude to get back.

At 1,000 feet, my thoughts were the following: "Maybe I can make it... Okay, there's a highway and a power line I have to cross, maybe if I make it across those two then I can at least land a little closer and the walk back would be shorter. Anyway, there's an open field just before the power line, so that can be an alternate landing site."

Between 1000 feet and 200 feet, my thoughts were the following: "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can..."

At 200 feet, my thoughts were the following: "No way... I'm heading STRAIGHT for the power line! Left turn... left turn... left turn..."

After I came out of the left turn, I was looking straight down towards the ground (a mistake I hope I never make again).

Probably around 50 feet, I heard on the radio, "Green canopy - I cannot see the ground from here... you're gonna have to flare on your own! Consider a PLF!"

I probably started to flare just after I heard that -- I don't exactly remember now. What I do remember is realizing that I was starting the flare too high up, and had to ease up on the toggles and flare completely. I was still too high up, and had to flare a second time....

I don't remember if I flared a third time or not, but at some point I stopped easing up on the chute and flaring again... and at that point I was about 4-5 feet above the ground, with no horizontal momentum whatsoever. (4-5 feet is my estimate, but I'm obviously a very bad judge of altitude and some say I must have been higher - maybe as much as a good 10-15 feet off the ground).

That's when "it" happened to me.

Skipping forward one month in the above story:

The fracture in my right leg's fibula is almost healed completely after a surgery and being in a cast for 4 weeks. The foot is still swollen, and a lot of the skin on the foot is peeling off. The stitches from the surgery and the cast were removed on April 1st; I'm off the painkillers; and apart from the sudden throbbing pain that lasts for about 3-4 seconds about once or twice a day, I'm not really in too much pain any more.

Flashback to just after the landing:

I failed the jump because of four reasons: (1) Could not turn right. (2) Did not have time to do forward tracking. (3) Lost altitude awareness during freefall. (4) No communication with instructors (I saw the "legs" signal but did nothing to correct it.)

Interestingly enough, the bad landing with a broken bone was not one of the reasons... Later on I found out flaring too early is the most common mistake that students make. Matt passed his Level-2 jump and went on that day to complete his Level-3 jump while I was sitting watching skydiving videos with a bag of ice on my ankle for about 2 hours!

Lessons learned from this jump:

It has been one month since the jump to the time I'm writing this. In the last few days I've been thinking a lot about whether it's worth it to go again or not. "Is the thrill of a few minutes worth risking my life over?" My mind has been going back and forth about this for a while, but now I'm certain of the answer: "YES!"

A few days ago I read a quote on the internet: "A life not lived is not worth living." I couldn't agree more. It really does not matter what happens on my next jump -- I could break both my legs... or worse... but I'll have fun doing it!

"If it hasn't happened to you yet, it will." I know I'm in for a lot more on my future jumps -- this is only the beginning! Another skydiving saying (and seen on many bumper stickers) is "Skydiving -- good to the last drop!". Well, I've been thinking a lot about that too -- and have decided that even if my next jump really is my "last drop", at least I'll die having the best time of my life!

What better way is there to go?