THE DAY I ALMOST “BOUGHT THE FARM”—–by John Timmons www.writtenbyjohntimmons.com
emilia_clarke What could match the profound existential terror of another birthday? Jumping out of a goddamn plane is what….Instagram-October 23, 2020
In October of last year (2020) EMILIA CLARKE (one of the most courageous humans on the planet) went skydiving for her birthday and was apparently both a little terrified, and greatly exhilarated. I hope you will get a chance to read this story at some point, Emilia, because I think you will get a real kick out of hearing what it was like to skydive back in the 70s when chutes were different and there was no tandem. Although one didn’t freefall on one’s first jump, one jumped alone.
This story is dedicated to my good, lifetime friend, CARL DIPILLA, with whom I shared this adventure. We lost him to Covid 19 in December 2020.. I miss him every day.
IT was sometime in the mid-70s that three friends and I decided to go skydiving. It was Carl DiPilla and myself and Billy Matthews, the brother of a former girlfriend of mine, and Howard Van Horn with whom I once shared a Jersey Devil adventure. But as Lou Jacobi says in Irma La Douce , “That’s another story.” The smartest one of the group was Steve Malloy who remained on the ground and watched.
It was a brutally hot day in July or August as we started our training at some little jump site in New Jersey. We had six hours of training before we jumped. We had several hours of classroom instruction about how to, among other things, exit the plane safely, steer the chute with the toggle lines, and if necessary, deploy the reserve chute in an emergency.
Then they had us jumping over and over from 6 foot platforms to practice how to land. It was feet together, knees together, legs bent, then roll to the side on impact.
INSTRUCTOR: ”Even if your chute deploys successfully, if you don’t land the right way you could BREAK AN ANKLE or BREAK A LEG!… If you don’t exit the plane with a firm push off, you could SMASH YOUR FACE on the landing wheel!… If your main chute fails to deploy, you have to know how to open your emergency backup chute. You have to remember how to do that successfully or YOU WILL DIE.”
Each group was assigned their own personal instructor. Needless to say, although I’m saying it anyway, our instructor, as Carl put it, was AN ALARMIST!!!!!. He repeated those dire warnings over and over and over again, all day long. By the time we were ready to fly we were all exhausted and just a little terrified. At least I was.
They had two planes on duty that day and several groups jumping, so we had to wait our turn in line as other people jumped and the planes circled back to land. The most popular plane for parachuting back in the early 70s was the Cessna 182 which only held 4 people (not including the pilot) but we jammed five in there including our wacky instructor.
Boiling in the heat; carrying what felt like 2000 pounds of equipment; strapped and trapped in the jumpsuit and helmet with reserve chute on our chests and main chute on our backs, we waited for our plane to land. Nobody spoke. We were all secretly shaking in our boots. When I am nervous and stressed I often default to humor. So, being the last one in line, I managed to replicate an old Three Stooges routine. I turned slowly away from the line and started to tiptoe away. Carl played along with me perfectly. I knew he would because we had both been brought up watching “the boys.” Doing his best Moe, he reached out and grabbed me by the collar and spun me around and said, “Hey, numbskull! Where do you think YOU’RE goin’?” and then he bopped me on the helmet. Everybody laughed and that broke the ice…….. for about five seconds.
I was the last one in line because I insisted that I be the first one out of the plane. To this day I’m not really sure why I insisted on that. I guess it was either because I wanted some extra bragging rights or, more than likely, I was afraid that if I didn’t go first I may never get out of the plane.
The parachutes themselves were round and white; straight out of World War II, like the 101st Airborne used when landing in France on D-Day. They weren’t the colorful Para-Foil canopies like they have today. I kept thinking how they were folded and packed by people that I didn’t know and would never meet. Talk about having faith in your fellow human beings.
Those days there was no such thing as freefall for beginners. There was no tandem jumping. Your first 10 jumps as a neophyte were static line jumps. That’s where the ripcord to the main shoot was attached by a line to the inside of the plane and when you jumped it would pull the chute for you. Sounds foolproof. Doesn’t it? I found out that it’s not.
Our plane finally arrived and we all packed ourselves in on the floor of the fuselage. All the seats had been removed and Carl, Howard, Billy, the mad instructor, and myself seated ourselves in that order from back to front. I was seated right next to the door. We were told we were jumping from about 10,000 feet. As we climbed, I watched the little altimeter on the top of my reserve chute pack; 2000, 3000, 4000. When the needle hit the top, the pilot cut the engine speed in half, the door flew open, and I pooped my pants. Not literally, thankfully, but the view below, which on any other day would have been exhilarating, was now quite menacing . Then the plane banked to the right and I slid a little towards the open door. THAT too was a fun moment !!!
Time to jump. The instructor told me to check my static line. I checked my static line. “Get Ready” means stick your legs out the door, reach over and grab the strut under the wing, pull yourself out and stand on the wheel of the plane. The instructor yelled, “ Get ready.” As I tried to step out, the wind blew my leg against the side of the door. Again, “Get ready.” I forced my legs out the door, grabbed the strut, and pulled myself out. From here you have to lean forward on the strut and push yourself backward as you jump off the plane because this is where the aforementioned “smashing your face on the wheel” bit comes in. “Get set” meant “Get set”( Last chance to crawl back through the door and beg forgiveness, I guess.) Finally the instructor yelled, “ GO”………. and I froze.
Now I know this next part sounds like I’m doing standup comedy but I swear to you I have a clear memory of what I was thinking at that split second when he said, “ GO”. I was thinking, “Are you crazy? Jump?”
At that point he reached out the door and smacked me with his hand on my helmet and screamed, “GO” which snapped me out of it and caused me to think,” I have to jump. That’s what I’m here for”.
So, I jumped.
I managed to push away and avoided rearranging my face on the wheel but… after that? I FORGOT EVERYTHING. I was firing mental blanks. One after the other.
The first thing you’re supposed to do after you push off from the plane is to go immediately into what they call the “arch-spread position”; chest out, head back, arms and shoulders arched backwards, so that all your weight is centered on your abdomen and you don’t flip over in mid-air. Your back is then clear so nothing interferes with the opening of the main chute. The last thing you want to do is flip over. I forgot all that and FLIPPED OVER THREE TIMES.
The next thing I remember was the quiet. There was a lot of noise in the plane even after they powered down the engines, but all I could hear now was the wind blowing through my helmet. I was descending slowly, floating. I was parachuting. How beautiful it was. How quiet it was. How serene it was. I had done it. Mission accomplished… But my peaceful relationship with the firmament was short-lived.
(STATIC AND THE CRACKLING SOUNDS OF A RADIO TRANSMISSION)
( panicked voice)” John. This is ground control. Kick your legs if you can hear me.”
THAT scared the hell out of me. Nobody told us there was a one-way radio built into the top of the reserve chute pack. Gee. I guess they didn’t want to scare us.
”Come on, John. Kick your legs if you can hear me.”
Fine. I’ll play along. I kicked my legs.
“That’s good. Now pull the handle for your reserve chute.”
Wait, what? I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. Like an idiot I started yelling back at the radio as if he could hear me.
”Pull the reserve chute? Why? I’m fine!!!”
The last thing I wanted to do was mess with the reserve chute. The procedure was as complicated as Einstein’s relativity theory.
“Come on John!! You have to pull the handle for your reserve chute. Now!!”
My mind was racing trying to figure out what the hell he was talking about. Finally, I looked up at my chute. I WAS SPINNING. With no point of reference up there, I hadn’t felt the rotation but I was definitely spinning along with the chute. When I failed to use the “arch-spread” position as I left the plane and tumbled in the air three times, two of the shroud lines( aptly named ) that are connected to the chute had apparently gotten caught on the edge of the chute and pushed in two of the panels. Not being completely inflated, it was leaning to one side and spinning. At last, I remembered something from the training. I remembered that this was called a “partial malfunction.” And it was dangerous.
“Come on, John. Pull the handle for the reserve chute, boy! Pull it! Pull it!”
His voice had changed from slightly panicked to panicked and pleading.
If it had been a “ total malfunction” where one is plummeting towards the ground at 120 miles an hour of terminal velocity, one just pulls the metal handle on the side of the reserve pack. The wind, at that speed, will RIP the pack open. Then, one just hopes for the best. But for a “partial malfunction” great care must be taken to complete the sequence that frees the reserve chute so it doesn’t get tangled with the main or before the main collapses completely. Even during a partial malfunction of my chute, I knew I was falling a lot faster than I seemed to be. Faster than I should have been. So, I could end up with broken legs, broken ankles, maybe a damaged spine, or the main chute could collapse at any second . You get the idea. So, I had no choice but to deploy the reserve chute.
I tried to remember the sequence that I was taught but the rising fear in my throat made its way up to my brain and I again started firing blanks.
STEP ONE: Place your left hand over the very front of the pack to catch the little pilot chute. The pilot chute is on a little spring and attached to the reserve chute. It helps pull the reserve chute from the pack. STEP TWO: Pull the metal ripcord handle on the side of the pack while catching the little pilot chute with your left hand. Then shove the metal handle down between the pack and your stomach to keep it from falling to the ground and crushing someone’s skull.. STEP THREE: Slowly let the little pilot chute out and then reach inside the pack, placing your thumbs at the back of the pack and feel for the very back of the chute. Pull the folded chute out of the pack and shake it open in the direction that you are spinning.
Voila !……. Piece of baklava!!
I made it through STEP ONE and STEP TWO except STEP ONE was actually STEP TWO and STEP TWO was actually STEP THREE because the real STEP ONE was…CLOSE YOUR LEGS!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The little pilot chute POPPED UNDER MY HAND and slipped from my grasp like a cat that refuses to be held. It guided the reserve chute right BETWEEN MY LEGS!!!
There I was; spinning like a top with a big, long. white, useless tail trailing behind me; flapping in the wind. All I could do was to try to pull the chute, hand over hand, back out from between my legs.
Meanwhile, back in the plane. My friend Carl said that the instructor, Mister Panic Attack, had been screaming out the open door at the top of his lungs, “Pull the reserve chute, boy! Come on, son. PULL IT, BOY!!! PULL IT!!!
Sitting on the floor of the fuselage and weighed down with heavy equipment, none of my friends could see out of the tiny windows. All they had was the voice on the radio and the play-by-play from Mr. Panic.
Carl said, “I just kept imagining you ‘Roman candling’ and I just kept thinking, ‘What am I going to say to his mother?’ ”
After an eternity, I had only pulled the chute maybe a third of the way from in between my legs. The wind resistance was formidable and I was on the brink of despair when…….
“ Never mind, John. Leave it alone. Leave the chute between your legs. Your main chute has cleared.”
I looked up and sure enough, the shroud lines had slipped back off the chute, the two panels were clear, the chute was fully inflated and I might have enjoyed the rest of the now abbreviated ride, but I’ll be darned if I can remember. What I DO remember is the fact that I “stuck” the landing. Feet together, knees together and bent, roll to the side. Perfect. It was the ONLY thing I got right all day.
Well, I guess if you had to pick one thing to get right, the landing would be first on the list.
As I was gathering up my chute, a little white Rambler station wagon came roaring up in a cloud of dust and a guy jumped out.
“Hey, man. You ok? You had everybody freaking out down here. C’mon. I’ll give you a ride”
And he did. I was surrounded by well-wishers when I got out of the car, including my friend, Steve, who echoed the driver.
“You alright, brother? You put on quite a show. It was crazy down here. Everybody was panicked; running around, pointing up at you. They scrambled an ambulance AND a fire truck. I guess they figured you might crash AND burn” Steve was a funny guy. Still is.
In the meantime my friends were “hitting the silk.” After my near-death nonsense, I’m not sure that they were quite as enthused about jumping as they were before. Ironically, I landed closest to the drop zone target. My friends all landed way off and had a long trek back to the hangar because I was the only one for whom they sent a limo .You’d better believe I caught a lot of flack from them for THAT. My friends were so happy I was alive they could have killed me.
Carl came limping back with a sprained ankle. He landed in a bean field. He said he mistook the top of the bean field for the ground and braced himself too early. When he passed through the stalks, he momentarily relaxed and landed awkwardly. CRAP!!.
Looking back on this misadventure, I was very lucky. That chute could have easily collapsed. If it had, I would have been a goner. So far, I have been a very lucky guy my whole life. Health, loving family, good friends, and generous talents. I am very grateful and I try to never let my expectations exceed my gratitude. I told myself that one day I would jump again and this time I would get it right. But I never did. Maybe I just didn’t want to push my luck.