In hindsight, I knew something felt just a bit off as I pulled the shoulder straps up and over my sweatshirt and reached down to tighten my leg straps. A mishap three weeks prior, in which the wind had grabbed my parachute and briefly dragged me across the tarmac had resulted in brand new leg straps and buckles. I’d picked up my repaired rig that morning, and had jumped it once already. Yet, as I hurried down the sidewalk toward the waiting plane, fifteen other skydivers impatiently waiting for me, my leg straps seemed several inches too short. Oh, I could still tighten them, and they posed no danger. But they just seemed…off. I shrugged to myself and broke into a trot, high-fiving my fellow jumpers as I squeezed past them and climbed the ladder onto the Twin Otter.
I’d be jumping in a two-way after three larger groups of angle and free-fliers. So, I strapped in at the forward-most position, with my back to the pilot’s seat. It would be a quick 14-minute climb to 14,000 feet, a ride I’d taken hundreds of times in the past.
As the plane rotated and began its ascent, I instinctively ran my hands over my gear, the first of three such checks that I habitually make before the door opens. Helmet strap….Check. Strapped and tightened (although I’ll remove the helmet for most of the ride before restrapping it 3-4 minutes prior to our exit). I double-check my altimeter, comparing its changing readings with those on the wrists of jumpers squeezed in next to me, tapping the dial lightly to ensure accuracy. Eyes out the window now, scanning the horizon and orienting myself to the direction of flight. In the case of an emergency bail-out, this would be valuable information.
Simultaneously, I make mental note of any clouds, not so much their position in the sky (which obviously changes with the air currents), but more for their altitude. Knowing that a cloud base ends at, say, 6,000 feet can be a great visual reference during a skydive that freefall is nearing its completion (when jumping in groups, we usually break off from one another at about 4,500 feet….about 7 seconds after passing through the 6,000 feet mark). On this day, only wisps of cirrus clouds dotted the blue. Check.
Reaching back with my right hand, I grasped my deployment handle and ran my fingers over the elastic opening from whence my pilot chute would emerge when I pulled on it at 3,500 feet. As it enters the airstream at deployment, the pilot chute fills with air and its bridle (the inch-wide material that stretches about ten feet back to the rest of the rig on one’s back) pulls the curved pin that opens one’s container and releases the parachute. My handle looks much like a hackysack. And a hackysack my fingers felt…..Yet, something still didn’t feel right. Again, I shrugged it off, looking down at the familiar black and purple riser covers on my shoulders.
In sequence, every check I made begins with my main deployment handle and progresses, in order, to my cut-away handle and then my reserve handle. The order is deliberate, as it’s the order in which, should it be necessary to initiate emergency procedures, one would use each. The cutaway handle rests tucked into a velcroed slot in the harness just beneath one’s right nipple, and mine is a solid, foam gripper, black in color. Alternatively, the reserve handle is a D-shaped metal handle that similarly protrudes from a Velcro pocket, but on one’s left side. Either a one-handed or a two-handed (my preference) pulling of these handles in order from right to left releases one’s malfunctioning main parachute and begins the deployment sequence of one’s reserve or back-up parachute. It’s a process that is practiced each and every time one jumps, and in my case, on three separate occasions during the climb to altitude.
Looking down and deliberately watching my hands reach up and simulate pulling first my right handle and then my left handle, I went through the motions. Check….and check!
Twice more on the flight to 14,000 feet I would go through this three-step handles check. And three times, my fingers paused longer than usual on my deployment hacky, but moved on. Check….Check….Check.
At about 11,000 feet, I begin my final preparations for the dive. My GoPro camera gets turned on. My helmet goes on my head, sunglasses cleaned and on, chin strap tightened once again. I check my chest strap, both for tightness and to ensure it’s routed correctly through the buckle. Check.
I reach down to make last minute adjustments to my leg straps. Check.
And last but certainly not least, I visually scan my three-ring connections, the point where my main parachute risers connect to my rig. The must be in a particular order, and although this wouldn’t change unless one were to completely disconnect one’s main parachute for some reason, I always check them. In simple parlance, they should look like a snowman…a large ring, with two sequentially smaller rings, each routed up through its larger neighbor. Check….and Check.
At this point, I also glance down at a small connection that is tucked up against my right shoulder three-rings. This is my Reserve Static Line, or RSL, and its purpose is to facilitate a quicker deployment of the reserve parachute once the cutaway handle has been pulled. Essentially, as one’s main parachute risers are releasing from the harness, the RSL begins the deployment of the reserve chute even before you can reach and pull your reserve handle. And having cutaway twice in my skydiving career, I can attest to the fact that my reserve was already inflating over my head as I pulled my reserve handle each time. At 2,000 feet (or lower), every second counts and could save your life.
Dipping my head to the right, and my hand running across my three-rings, I stared at my shoulder. Where was my red RSL? I pushed the three-rings, convinced it had perhaps gotten lodged under them. No red RSL. What the hell?!?!
My eyes shot to my left shoulder. There it was, only it was yellow. What the holy hell?!?! My vision remained fixated on the little yellow strap that seemed to wave and laugh at the perplexed expression on my face. And honestly I panicked a little, my eyes now running wildly over the front of my rig, from the black material to the purple piping. And the realization flowed into my consciousness like honey in the winter, and my eyes met the skydiver’s across from me.
“This isn’t my rig,” I shouted over the din of the aircraft’s twin propellers, made even louder by the opening of the door at the back of the plane and the excited murmuring of jumpers preparing to launch themselves into the crisp air.
“What?!?” he yelled back.
“This is NOT my rig!” I repeated, shaking my head as it all sank in. In my rush to board the plane, I’d somehow grabbed someone else’s parachute, one that look remarkably identical to mine, except for a few minor details….and on potentially HUGE detail. I had no idea what size or type canopy was in this rig!
In the end, I chose not to jump, instead riding the plane back down to the ground for the first time in my skydiving career. I was embarrassed at my blunder. I was confused as to how it happened. And I was determined to figure it all out!
As it turned out, we pieced together the sequence of events that led to my predicament at 14,000 feet. But at least the mental pieces all fit together while still in the plane…In freefall or at parachute deployment altitude (3,000 ft, screaming toward the Earth at 120+ mph would not have been the ideal time for “discovery”).
So, let’s recap….
Mistake #1: Immediately after completing my pre-flight inspection of my gear, I had decided to run to the restroom with only 3 minutes to spare before the plane’s scheduled departure. I could have waited until I was back on the ground, but decided I’d have time.
Mistake #2: Upon returning and seeing everyone waiting near the plane’s ladder, I’d run over the rack on which I’d hung my rig, and grabbed it….or thought I’d grabbed it. By sheer chance, I’d hung it directly below an almost identical rig, and in my rush to get out to the plane, I hadn’t realized there were two black and purple rigs within a foot of each other.
Mistake #3: When my gut told me something was wrong with first the leg straps and later the deployment handle, I pushed back on that instinct, brushing it off as simply being flustered by the rush of things or the excitement of getting back in the air. Your gut feelings mean something….Pay attention to them!
In spite of all these mistakes, I could have made one more, even larger mistake that day. I could have, once I realized I had the wrong rig, simply decided to risk it and jump anyways, confident in my own skills as a skydiver and my ability to land safely. And, in eventually finding out what sized parachute was in that rig, it would have likely turned out alright. But I didn’t know that at the time. For all I knew, there was a 100 sq. ft. canopy on my back (I normally jump a 170 sq. ft chute…considerably more docile and forgiving). But I swallowed my pride, ignored my ego, and opted for the safer option.
Because as I’ve said before, risk-taking involves not only understanding where to draw the line between acceptable and intolerable levels of risk. It requires admitting when you’ve neared or crossed that line, and open and transparent evaluation of the chain of events that led you to that point. Failure to that changes educated risk tolerance to plain ol’ risk ignorance, and in the world of skydiving or organizational leadership, that’s never the route to go!
Acknowledge your mistake…Learn from your mistake…And live to jump another day!