Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Get in the Door

When I first started my sport parachute training, the static line method was still the generally accepted method of learning. In the years after I left “student status” the Accelerated Free Fall system came into favor, and I am not sure there are very many drop zones still using the “dope rope”.

The static line is a length of canvas webbing with a clip on one end, which attaches to a D ring on the aircraft floor, and a section of Velcro loops, which attaches to a corresponding section of Velcro hooks on the parachute ripcord. In my experience these static line training jumps were performed from a Cessna 305, a small single engine plane with room for pilot, jumpmaster and three students. Once over ‘the spot’, the jumpmaster signals to the first student to move toward the door, and attaches the static line to the D ring. The jumpmaster then opens the door and signals for the student to ‘get out’. The student carefully pivots on his ass and steps out onto the step, a wide metal plate over the right landing gear. He reaches forward and grasps the wing strut, walks out and drops his feet off the step, and is now hanging under the wing, looking back at the jumpmaster. On signal the student drops away, the static line draws taught and pulls the ripcord, opening the parachute container and pulling the chute out and lines taut, and finally tearing away, student now under an open canopy.

For those who continued beyond the first few static line jumps, the agenda was to get off student status, to be allowed to spot and exit the aircraft on your own, and from higher altitudes so actual freefall could happen. The static line exit altitude was around 3500 feet, whereas a majority of freefall jumps are from 13,500 feet, affording about 60 seconds of free flight before deploying a parachute. On this particular day I was taking a ride up with two static line students for a ‘hop and pop’, an exit and quick manual deployment of my chute.

You can think of the aircraft layout as like a panel van with the interior removed, except for the pilot’ seat, on the left just like a car. The exit door is on the right, just below the wing. The jumpmaster sits on the floor next to the pilot, facing the rear of the plane. One student sits behind the pilot and facing the rear, and two students sit against the back bulkhead, both facing forward. On this flight I would be the last one out, and as usual the jumpmaster would land with the plane.

As the plane neared jump altitude the pilot poked the jumpmaster, who kneeled and looked down through the door and motioned to the pilot with course adjustments. The spot to exit needed to take into account wind speed and direction so the jumpers could easily make it back to the DZ. He motioned to the jumper behind the pilot, clipped the static line in, opened the door and yelled “get out”. I couldn’t see him from where I sat, but as he dropped off the plane dipped slightly as the pilot adjusted for the change in weight distribution. One away.

The jumpmaster reached out and pulled the door closed and motioned for number two to move up. Clip in, open door, climb out, go! With the shift in weight this time the pilot overcorrected and I watched as the jumpmaster lost his balance and lurched out the door! I kneeled to move toward the door myself and saw him hanging from the strut, facing the tail. I will never forget the look of terror on his face. He was too far away to get footing back on the step, and his handhold on the strut wasn’t strong enough to hold him there long. And anyway, landing the plan with someone hanging there was not a viable option.

I kneeled and crawled forward to get a better look. I had placed my life in the hands of this man who now looked back at me with this plaintiff glare, as if I could possibly have some solution to his problem! I moved closer to the door and gauged if I could possibly reach him with a hand to help him back in, but there was just no way. I saw his attitude change from terror to sadness as he resigned himself to his position.

I had heard the pilot yelling but hadn’t really been able to make out what he was saying. I don’t think the jumpmaster could hear him from outside in the slipstream, but he did finally look over my shoulder to see the pilot gesturing. I leaned back on my legs to see him point at the jumpmaster and clearly mouth the words,

“You have a parachute”.

I will never forget the look of peace that came over the jumpmaster as he realized the solution to his problem had been with him all along.

All he had to do was let go.