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How many skydiving stories have you heard in your skydiving career? I've heard hundreds and I'm guessing you have too: Some are "war stories, a typical "I can't believe I got away with that one", some surprising stories where you have to wonder if they're true or not but most of all the funny stories, and if they have any educational value, then that's even better.
As a young skydiver I had the privilege of serving five years in the Red Devils Freefall Team. During this period I was lucky enough to be part of a team who were selected to teach and establish the Kenyan army parachute display team (The Green Eagles).
Part of the training included organising some displays onto the beach for some local hotels, to give the Green Eagles some real practice under our supervision. The first display we organised was just the Red Devils Team, so they could see from the ground what we do and what we expect them to do after their training.
We exited the Buffalo aircraft at ten thousand feet and formed a ten man formation with smoke deployed. At four thousand feet five of use broke off to deploy and do some canopy formations to land on the beach, while the other five formed the last freefall formation prior to deploying.
The two man CF team did a bi-hand formation and I was part of the three man CF team who planned on doing a tri-plane. Unfortunately, I had a malfunction and in hign sight it should not have been a surprise when you consider the decisions that I made prior to this point. Let me explain; one of my team mates came to me saying he's got a problem with his main canopy which was not deploying properly, and asked if I could inspect it.
This team mate had been my instructor for the past two years, who had taught me to jump a ram air canopy, formation skydiving, canopy formation and how to pack a reserve parachute. However, I had just recently qualified as a parachute rigger which was one qualification he never had. I obviously jumped at the opportunity to demonstrate my skills as a parachute rigger and was convinced that I would find the problem, solve it and be recognised as a valuable member of the team with a skill that no one else had.
After my inspection I had to admit I found nothing wrong with the canopy. I decided to pack it for him and watch it deploy on our next jump, where he had a very bad opening. I decided to swap his main canopy with mine to rule out any problems with the deployment system, and experience the problem myself, first hand. Prior to the display I had three jumps on it and even though each one was a bad opening, I thought that trying a few more packing methods might help me solve the problem. Just before our last jump of the day our boss came over and told us about the beach jump display that he had just organised. We had to stop jumping to get ready for the display and give the Green Eagles time to get back to the hotels.
I deployed and looked at my canopy and recognised a definite malfunction, this time it was not going to open. I knew I had plenty of height and looked down to carry out my reserve drills. As I looked down I saw both of my hands in front of me holding the cutaway cable and the reserve handle and my reserve was already deployed. I spent many hours that evening wondering what happened to my reserve drills because I never followed a thought out process, therefore I must have panicked. I had 653 jumps, I was very current and well practices in my reserve drills so I kept questioning "how could I have panicked" I was aware that it could happen and I'm not the type of person who panics.
I did a lot of research after that and read many articles as well as discussing it with my team mates. The conclusion was that I never panicked, I did exactly what I had trained to do and my drills were so well drilled into me that it was a normal reaction to the situation. (a relief to me) A behavioural scientist from Switzerland came to a conclusion that when someone is faced with a life threatening situation, in a high stress or unfriendly environment, they will do one of a few things: carry out well practices drills, completely black out and do nothing or react in a very slow time while they go through a thought process. I had always expected to follow a thought process so having my drills take control was a bit of a surprise at the time. This has taught me why our reserve drills are so important and why it's important to be current and well practiced.
Anyway, while I headed for the beach I looked for my main canopy and freebag but couldn't see them anywhere. I landed on the beach before the bi-plane and the bi-hand and told the Kenyan army that its part of the display, and each team member has to take turns in cutting away. (I later told them I was joking) I thought it was a fitting end to the problem canopy which was now buried at sea. Little did I know what was going to happen next.
Later that evening during a few beers in one of the hotels my boss gave me a nudge and said listen. I looked across to a group of guys by the bar who were listening intensely to one of their mates telling a story about how he thought he was going to die during a scuba dive with his friends. He explained that he was about to break the surface after a dive when a boat suddenly appeared out of no where, which was about to run him over. His heart almost stopped as he tried to descend as quickly as he could because the light of the day suddenly went dark as the boat came overhead. "It wasn't a boat" he said "it was a f#@*&% parachute, can you believe it, who the f*#@$* dumps a parachute out at sea?" Of course we all burst into laughter and as the group turned to look at us, my boss told me to go and get our parachute back. After I had apologised to him and bought even more beers we all ended up having a great party and the whole team did a Scuba Diving course for free. The Scuba Diving instructor did an AFF course for free and qualified as a formation skydiver before we left Kenya.
I sent the canopy back to the manufacturer who sent us a new one and I never found out what was wrong with it. The experience taught me a lot and I'm sure it made me a better instructor and rigger because of it, and of course I went on to get my PADI advanced diver qualification which is something that I would probably have never done if this malfunction had not happened.
Allan Hewitt BPA Rigger Examiner/Aff Instructor