When it comes to skydiving, the first thought that conjures up in our mind is if we are going to have a malfunctioning parachute and die.
Well, skydiving is considered a dangerous sport, so there are possibilities. However, it’s not as dangerous as people believe it to be. It’s rather safe as long as we are staying alert, making good decisions, and keeping that ego in check. In fact, skydiving is safer than driving your car but before you drive your car, do you worry about car accidents every time?
Malfunctioning parachutes happen, not very often, but they do happen.
Whether you are going for a tandem skydive or wanting to learn to jump on your own, anyone who is responsible for landing a parachute is taught emergency procedures incase the main parachute does malfunction.
So, what causes a parachute to malfunction? I worked in skydiving for about 5 years and I would say the most common reason, and obvious, is poor packing. On average, parachutes want to open and they want to open the way they are specifically designed to open. However, when you’ve been skydiving long enough, you are comfortable enough to notice minor details in the openings of your parachute, whereas, when you first start, you solely focus on whether it opens or not. That’s understandable. I was that way too.
Since people get too comfortable with the consistent good openings, sometimes they just become complacent and “trash pack” their parachute by cutting corners in order to save time. They do this knowing that they have a reserve parachute to come to their rescue if the main parachute does fail to do it’s job. There are many other factors that contribute towards a malfunctioning parachute, but it’s not worth noting unless you are wanting to skydive. If you are, just ask me.
Well in my case, my malfunctioning parachute really didn’t have to be one. I was trying out a type of parachute that is known to fly nicely and opening slowly, which is great. Skydivers love those nice slow openings because they don’t snap you on opening like some others do.
Anyways, I was a fairly new skydiver jumping with one other person for fun. As we were sitting in the plane climbing up to 12,500 ft, I had this very subtle thought that I might have a malfunctioning parachute, or cutaway, as skydivers call it. I just forgot about it and waited until “jump run”. However, I did remember to do a quick check on my emergency handles in case it did happen.
I remember looking out at the horizon right before I started to climb out of the plane in order to prepare for my exit with my friend. When we did exit, I had this very short episode of sensory overload, where I completely blacked out for a couple of seconds. I’m still conscious though, somewhat. When I first started skydiving, the initial exits used to scare the shit out of me and I would forget I existed in this lifetime right on exit but once I was about to reach terminal velocity, I was fine and dandy.
So after playing around with my friend in the sky, it was time to track away from him so I could have the space to say hello to my main parachute at 4,000 ft. But as it was opening, something was not right. And from what I learned in my basic course, if it doesn’t look right or it starts spinning, get rid of it. The right side of my parachute did not want to open and I started to spin a little. There was a minor tension knot on the lines during opening but had no idea what it was at the time. I got scared and uncomfortable. I remember saying to myself, “Oh fuck, here we go” and then performed my emergency procedures – look red, grab red, look silver, pull red, grab silver, pull silver. Red is the cutaway handle on the right side that releases the main parachute and silver is the metal D-handle on the left with a cable that has a pin to release the reserve parachute. So when performing the emergency procedures, the purple and grey main parachute that I wanted to open so badly was now a bright yellow reserve parachute that had opened quick and flew nicely. I was able to locate the drop zone and still had enough time to head in that direction to land.
It all happened rather fast but the first thing I noticed was that I still had this kung fu grip on my handles. In the basic course, they teach you to throw them in order to train you to pull those handles hard and make it a habit, but I kept them and zipped it up in my jacket for later.
As I landed, I laughed at myself because my landing was less than stellar, but whatever, I landed where I wanted to and I landed safely. I came to realize that the opening of my main parachute was very slow and it started spinning because one side of it wanted to open much faster than the other side. But because I was so nervous and never experienced that before, I had to do what I had to do to increase my chances of landing safely.
In all reality, the experience wasn’t something to brag about or was anything really crazy but it’s always an interesting story to tell people because everyone wants to know what happened because it’s a scary thing to experience. Anytime I see someone have a malfunction and yes sometimes you can see it all happen in the sky, looking from the ground, I’ll always ask what happened. I’m just happy that I was able to do it, and had the experience to where I’m not so fearful about it anymore, although it still does creep up. Who knows, I may have another one at some point, I’m sure. I just need to make sure I stay on top of my packing game, stay alert in the sky around others and that my knowledge of my emergency procedures is top notch.
Photo: Me with the reserve parachute after having a malfunctioning main parachute on my 43rd skydive.