With a gentle jerk and the familiar perceptual uplift, I felt the parachute fluttering open above me. A quick look skyward showed the gradually expanding panels of my red and blue canopy. The slider cruised down the tightening stabilizing lines. I breathed easy, and shifted my gaze toward the landing zone 3000 feet below and to my left. Another fantastic freefall!
I instinctively reached above my head for my brake loops, and sliding my hands into them, I pulled down purposefully. The left handle came free easily, but the right didn’t budge. Immediately, the left side of my canopy dipped and pulled into a tight left spiral. Confused, I let up on the left handle, and the canopy leveled out. I looked up again, only then spotting the tight knot that prevented my right brake loop from un-stowing. Without the ability to bring both handles down evenly, my steering ability was severely restricted. I yanked on the right side several times, but it was clearly not about to loosen. And I was still descending in the direction of several aircraft hangars.
I quickly checked my altimeter. 2500 feet. Reaching up with both hands, I tried working my fingers into the knotted mess above my right shoulder. Damn, I wish I had finger nails! No luck. The knot smiled down at me with an evil grin. 2200 feet now. Rear risors, I thought. I can steer with my rear risors. Essentially, this entails not pulling directly on the steering lines, but rather controlling your flight (and eventual landing) by manhandling the entire shoulder straps. It’s something I’d trained on before, so it would be possible, but not ideal. 2100 feet.
I should point out that while I had a reserve parachute, I’d never used it before, and just the thought scared the dickens out of me. That’s why you have it, my mind raced. 2000 feet, a beeping in my ear announced my pre-determined “decision altitude.” Within skydiving, this is the altitude at which you either get rid of a malfunctioning main canopy and put your faith in your reserve chute, or you ride the main all the way to the ground.
In an instant, I made my decision, and uttering a few timely four-letter words, I locked my eyes on my reserve handle and reached for my cutaway handle on the right side of my chest. I pulled. By the time my hands got to my reserve handle and pulled it, my reserve parachute was already fluttering overhead. Two minutes later, I touched down on target and as gently as I ever had. What a feeling!
Thinking back on that afternoon, what I remember most is the feeling in those seconds when my main parachute released and my reserve chute opened. It was painless. It was completely controlled. And it went exactly as I’d been told it would.
Sometimes in our careers, the most fearful occurrence is that which we haven’t before experienced. Often it’s the anticipation of the unknown that freaks us out more than the actual experience itself. In skydiving, as in life, the key is in thinking ahead, planning, and rehearsing for the eventualities and possibilities that we may face. And don’t forget to set your own “decision altitude,” at which you MUST make a decision to move….or NOT.
If we’ve visualized and practiced enough, when the time comes to jettison a project, job, or entire career, will we still be gripped with fear? Probably so….but we just may find that the transition to our reserve parachute is smoother and easier than we ever expected.