“My Parachute is Purple”

Not quite forty years ago, my favorite TV show was Combat, starring Vic Morrow. My second favorite was Ripcord, a series about two sky diving crime fighters who somehow managed to incorporate freefalling into their daily job of chasing bad guys. Even at age five, I had a very sound sense of logic telling me one could do the job a helluva lot easier in a squad car with Jack Webb and Sergeant Joe Friday. But still – jumping out of an airplane while on the time clock was a pretty cool thought…

A spin-off toy from the Ripcord series was a plastic army man with a red and white parachute. With his parachute folded up, you could throw him up into the air and he would make perfect, soft landings eighty percent of the time. The other twenty percent of the time the little plastic guy had to deal with such hazards as getting stuck in trees or being stranded on the roof. And then there was the occasional dog that chomps down on him and runs off.

One day I had a brilliant idea: I made my very own parachute (my sense of logic was on vacation that day.) I found a large beach towel and some lightweight rope. I tied the four corners of the towel to four lines of equal distance – just like the plastic army guy’s rig. I tied the other ends of the lines to the straps of a backpack (but I wasn’t that stupid as to fold up the towel and put it inside the backpack.) From the roof of the garage and with no trees or dogs in sight, I made my first jump: OOOOOMMMPH ! I landed on my belly. Every bit of air inside of me was knocked out. For some strange reason, my parachute failed to deploy…

I realized that I needed a larger parachute and that a large bed sheet would be perfect. I further reasoned that I needed a friend as a test jumper which would allow me to concentrate my energies into the design of the parachute. I never found a willing friend and the project was shelved.

Fast forward those (almost) forty years. One night, several weeks ago, over drinks and cigars, my good friend, Dan Pieczonka, and I discovered we both wanted to freefall from an airplane one day. Dan told me that he made a static jump years ago but never progressed to a freefall.

Dan called me several days later with the name of a sky diving school in Carmi, Illinois – about an hour’s drive from here. I called and made reservations for a Sunday jump. The deal was set!

The big day was this past Sunday. The Carmi airport sits in the middle of Illinois farm land. It consists of a cinderblock building, several small hangars, a wind sock, gas pump, two runways, and a small tarmac where several small planes were parked. A big sign that read, “Parachutes Over Carmi” told us we were in the right place. Inside the “control tower”, Lori, the owner of the sky diving school, greeted us. “What time is the next flight to Paris,” I asked her with a grin. “Actually,” she answered with a return smile, “you missed it. It left yesterday.” She noticed my look of disbelief. “Paris, Illinois – there’s a guy who lives there and he flies over here on occasion.”

Lori directed us to a room upstairs where Dan and I joined two other virgin jumpers – John and Kurt – two young guys who worked together at a software company somewhere in Illinois. Lori gave us applications to fill out. The packet included a brief description of the course, a two-page test (naturally, I read all of the test questions first) and about five pages of legal agreements, waivers and release forms. She told us to initial all paragraphs of the waiver and sign at the bottom.

This is where the initial fear sets in: You are reminded that sky diving “can injure or even kill you.” The release doesn’t simply state “there is an element of risk”… it says “there are MANY elements of risk involved” ! And the word death popped up more times than I felt comfortable with. You agree to all sorts of things including no one will sue them as a result of your poor decision to jump out of an airplane. They definitely had their asses covered including the part where it says, “if there are any legal cases filed, they will be filed through the county court of White County, Illinois.” I told Dan that the county judge most likely owned a share of Parachutes Over Carmi. Dan wrote his own addendums in the margins…

On your first jump you have two options: A static line jump or a tandem jump. Lieutenant Dan (as I began calling him this day) & I opted for the static line jump. You jump solo at an altitude of 3,500 feet with a static line attached to the inside of the plane that automatically opens your main container (pack) and aids in the deployment of the main canopy (main parachute) within six seconds of exiting the plane. You are under the supervision of a jumpmaster who stays in the plane and an instructor on the ground that gives you steering commands with the aid of a radio receiver that is in the left arm pocket of your jumpsuit. On the tandem jump, you are attached to the front harness of the jumpmaster as you exit the plane at 5,000 feet for a freefall. You are both under the same parachute which is rigged with dual controls so that you can experience control of the canopy. A drogue chute on a tandem system slows the speed down to that equal of a solo jumper. You spend approximately four hours in ground school for a static jump and minimal instruction for a tandem jump.

A guy named Sarge started our lesson in one of the airport’s hangars. He looked to be in his early fifties, was in good physical shape and looked like he might have served in Viet Nam.

” OK, first I am going to discuss all of the various reasons why we want to get rid of a main parachute.”

The sentence sent a shock wave through my body. I gave Lt. Dan a concerned look. This momentary break in my attention cost me two or three reasons – the guy was talking very fast and in sky diver’s code with all of the appropriate acronyms. No one was asking questions.

Shit! I thought, how in the hell would I have the nerve to get rid of a parachute? Especially at 3,500 feet!

One reason brought a much needed chuckle to my nervous state:
” OK, ” Sarge continued, “if you look up and see that nothing has deployed, you have a malfunctioning canopy that you will definitely need to get rid of.”

Yeah, I thought, but can I first wipe the shit up that is pouring out of my jumpsuit collar??

Lt. Dan and I joked earlier about whether or not we should buy a box of Depends to wear on our afternoon flight.

Sarge continued. I felt like I needed to be taking notes. I’ll never remember all of this! At this point, he had us standing and mimicking all of his movements and voice commands. Everything was counted off in seconds. Sarge stressed that you must outwardly verbalize these commands to yourself. It promotes clear thinking and rational actions. Here is my vague recollection of how they went:

[looking overhead at a purple parachute with twenty seven granny knots in it while it pitifully flaps in the wind like a New Orleans Saints banner:]

(or was it ‘uncontrollable chute’?)

Breathe 1000

Pee 2000
(my addition)

Grab 3000
(you are reaching for your emergency handle which is right over your heart; use both hands)

Look 4000
(you’re supposed to look at the handle, but I think I’ll check out the parachute one last time….maybe those granny knots undid themselves…)

[in the process, you discover the granny knots had babies]

Pee That Last Little Bit 5000
(again, my addition)

Pull 6000
(pull the handle straight out in front of you with both hands; be sure to pull hard)

Ooops! Put Your Heart Back In 7000
(I over-grabbed)

[Now here you are supposed to count off 3 seconds. Or was it 6? Do I start with 8000 or go back to 1000?]

Consult Your Parachute Manual 7000-and-a-half
(I snuck one up here…now let’s see page three-hundred-something…Oops! Lost to the wind!)

Something-Or-Other 8000
(I forgot this one – but I know it DID have an ‘8000’ after it…)

Pee 9000
(Wow! Didn’t know I had it in me!)

Breathe 10000
(Sarge says this is one step everybody forgets)

Pray 11000
(my addition but nothing really long, OK?)

[OK…1-2-3-4-5-6 !!]

Check 12000
(shit, I know this is wrong – I don’t remember anything having a ‘12000’ after it!)

[The Check is to look up once again and confirm that your reserve chute is deployed]

Oh Shit 14000 !!!!!
[Notice that 13000 is eliminated from the count. We do this for good luck.]

(my purple main is wrapped around my green and yellow reserve. New Orleans just defeated Green Bay. End of game. No overtime. Please leave the stadium, so we can clean up the mess.)

Still, no one was asking questions. I asked Sarge to go over the various commands again. Maybe my questions will slow him down… What I really want to ask him – and I imagine everyone else is wondering the same thing:

” WHAT do you do if your reserve doesn’t open?” I was afraid to ask because I knew the question would stump him. And I didn’t want to hear that for an answer. I imagined my own:


Breathe 1000
(enjoy it, it’s gonna be one of your last…)

Reach 2000
(there’s a loaded 38 in an ankle holster on your right leg)

Pull 3000
(get it out of the holster and in firing position)

Test 4000
(shoot a couple of rounds at Green Bay to make sure it’s in good working order)

Pee 5000
(simply amazing!!)

Aim 6000
(pick a favorite body part. I’d go for the head but with your luck today, that little plastic helmet you’re wearing might stop the bullet. I doubt it, but just to be safe, go for the heart. Remember it’s on the LEFT side. And DON’T shoot yourself in the foot – this is where they came up with that expression.)

Fire 7000
(you know what to do)

Check 8000
(Open one eye carefully, if you still see purple, green and yellow, repeat above steps.)

Sarge noticed we were all a little perplexed and told us that we would later watch a video that would go over everything he had just described. He introduced us to our jumpmaster, a young guy named Steve. Steve went over more commands and procedures with us. Steve went over them slower and more thorough than Sarge had. There was still so much to remember.

Steve then led us into the main building to watch a video. He excused himself and said he would be back shortly. The first part of the video was a bit disconcerting. It was an attorney with an in-your-face style. He looked like Gomez on The Adams Family. “Now, remember that release you just signed? I am here to remind you that skydiving can result in injury….possibly even death…” That dreaded D-word again. I guess this was the point where we were given a chance to back out. The attorney discussed all aspects of the waiver and release. (We later had to sign another document stating that we had watched the video and understood what we were getting our butts into.)

The video continued with a detail visual on the entire jump process. It was good to see how everything was supposed to happen. Every few minutes the narrator would say, “Now, stop the video so that your instructor can answer any questions you might have.” The four of us looked at one another like abandoned orphans. The video continued on non-stop. After several “Now-stop-the-video” ‘s, we began to answer our own questions. “I just want to know where we are supposed to keep the 38 ?” I asked. One of the software guys looked very concerned: “Are they going to give us guns to carry?” I bet he scored lower on the test than I did…

Next, we practiced our PLF’s – Parachute Landing Falls. With our jumpsuits on, Steve walked us over to a wooden platform in a grassy area near the runway. The platform was roughly four feet high. Under it was a round patch of gravel. All this grass, I thought, and they want us to jump off and land in gravel? Steve demonstrated a PLF. It looked easy. “Stand with your feet and knees together. With your arms together and down near your crotch, you jump off and land on the balls of your feet, then roll onto your calves, thighs, butt and shoulder without using your hands or arms to catch yourself. Now, I want you all to practice this five times. Anybody want to volunteer to go first?”

” I will!” Lt. Dan said enthusiastically.

He climbed onto the platform and jumped off. Dan looked great until the part came where you hit the ground: THUD! It sounded similar to the noise that my early leap off the garage produced… Dan looked as though he had dislocated a shoulder. So as not to leave a mark on the old guys’ (the two of us) behalf, Dan quickly pulled himself up and said, “Hey, that was fun. I want to try that again!”

For me, the scariest part of the training was the practice session of climbing out onto the wing strut of the airplane (remember, this is a parked airplane – on the ground.) I suddenly realized that this plane – a Cessna 182 – was NOT designed for someone crawling out the door and scooting up the side of the wing strut. The strut was also wet (as a result of the rain) which made it slippery. There were no ribbed rubber grips and I knew we were not going to be wearing gloves. And just as if I were in a jumbo jet looking out at huge, dark thunderheads while the turbulence tosses the plane around violently – my hands are sweating up like a flooding river ! If they are sweating this bad on the ground, WAIT til I get up THERE!

The maneuvering in and out of the plane seemed awfully awkward. There is a lot to remember and you are given a sequence of checkpoints where you make eye contact with the jumpmaster and await his command to continue. In the practice session, I forgot certain stopping points and couldn’t remember the counting sequence.

Next we took our test. Remember, I already read the questions but unfortunately, there was so much going through my mind that I forgot them. It was all fill in the blanks. I worried about passing the test. Lori came in and told us to keep the tests and write-in the correct answer (with your initial beside it) as she went over each question. “This,” she said, “is so that we will know that you were given the correct answer.”

I had an image in my mind of them scraping my body off the runway. My test paper was in the jumpmaster’s hands: “Poor guy….you know Lori, maybe we should raise the percentage of right answers up to 40%…”

Lt. Dan and I finished ground school with flying colors. We ranked in the top five students within our class. Now comes the big moment…

The weather was not cooperating. Each time it appeared that we were ready to suit up and jump, another wave of rain arrived. Although they will jump in the rain, they prefer not to. The jump school was also short one plane. Someone from the school was performing a demonstration parachute jump at a nearby town’s fall festival parade. There were also a handful of freefall jumpers waiting their turns to go up. So, the anticipation compounded any anxieties we felt. There was a lot of waiting and…….looking up.

Finally it was time to suit up. There was a tie-dyed jumpsuit I wanted to wear but it had no arm pockets for the radio receiver. I had to opt for basic blue. Dan chose basic black with matching black helmet. He looked like one of the Flying Zambezi Brothers ready to get shot from a cannon. We were equipped with a harness and container with a main and reserve canopy; an AAD [see description below], an altimeter, a radio, helmet and goggles.

In case you have stage fright or bump yourself on the head on the way out of the plane, an Automatic Activation Device (referred to as an AAD) automatically triggers at 1,000 feet AGL (another tricky acronym – Above Ground Level). It will sense that no one is on duty and activate your reserve chute. You might end up a bag of bones but at least you will end up a BREATHING bag of bones. It is calibrated on the ground before you load onto the plane. I can’t begin to tell you how much it contributes to your peace of mind.

“Ready to Jump”
Robert, “Lt. Dan” and Steve, our jumpmaster.

We loaded into the plane. I got in first because I was taking pictures of Dan. He would make the first jump.

Oh WAIT!! We need to scare them a little bit more! Steve turned to us and went over emergency procedures. He told us that if the plane had trouble and we were below 2000 feet, we would attempt a landing in a field. If higher, he would instruct the first jumper to jump on a static line as usual; then he would instruct the rest of us as to how he would like us to exit the plane. Fucking FAST, I thought. “Oh yeah,” he added, “it hasn’t happened since the Seventies’ but I need to mention this: If, for some reason, your static line gets hung up on or wrapped around something on the plane, tap the top of your helmet to let me know you are OK.” Just listen for my blood-curdling screams, I thought. “I will send you this down the static line,” he said as he produced a knife with a ring on the handle, “and you can cut yourself free; dump your main chute and pull your reserve.”

The pilot started the engine. We taxied out to the runway. Weird, I wasn’t nervous in the least. I think fooling with the camera kept me busy. It took us five minutes or so to get up to 3,500 feet. I looked at Lt. Dan to see how he was doing. He was in the hot seat. I have only known Dan since we’ve been in Evansville but I can say that I know him pretty well. I suddenly realized Dan had an expression on his face I had never seen before. It wasn’t a fearful expression – it was a serious one. I’ve seen serious Dan but I’ve never seen this type of serious Dan!

The jumpmaster gave the command, “Door open! He popped the door open. A rush of wind and cool air blew in. Steve took a quick look outside for bearings. He signaled to the pilot who slowed down and eventually cut the engine. “Are you ready to sky dive?” Steve yelled out. Lt. Dan nodded in the affirmative. Dan began his climb out. The next thing I knew, he was hanging from the wing strut with his feet dangling in thin air. The sight gave me a mild case of willies…

In an instant, he was gone. A little black dot that vanished within seconds.

Steve gave me a signal to get into position. I crawled over to where Dan had been sitting. My moment of truth was here. “See that cloud over there?” he asked. I nodded. “See the little black dot below it?” I nodded again. “That’s Dan,” he smiled. Dan was drifting safely to the earth. Maybe I could do the same. Steve looked at me to see that I was doing OK. “Door open!” he called out. He opened the door and stuck his head out. We were face to face; he was looking forwards and I only saw what was behind us. I watched his expression. The wind was rushing into his face at 100 mph. He made a silly-looking face with the distortion from the strong wind. I laughed. He laughed back and asked, “Are you ready to sky dive?” “YES!” I answered. Steve gave me a reassuring smile and gave the command, “feet out!” I scooted over to the door and put my feet out on the wheel strut. I looked to Steve for the next command: “All the way out!” I continued out. I grabbed the wing strut with my left hand and held onto the door opening with my right. Carefully, I grabbed the wing strut with my right hand and pulled my weight out of the airplane. This was a lot easier than how it had been on the ground. And I actually remembered every step, every command, every action. Oddly, I sensed no fear of heights. My only worry was clearing the plane when I fell. And that wasn’t a big one. I thought the force of the wind was going to be much stronger. My palms were sweating like crazy but it wasn’t a problem. I eased my way on out the wing strut. My hands were in the final positions on the wing strut. I slowly dropped my right foot into the air. I had the sensation that I was on a high dive over a swimming pool; I could see all the way to the bottom and I knew I would have a soft landing into the water. As I lifted my left foot off the wheel strut and into the air, I imagined that the gravitational pull was going to stretch my body downward and that it would be difficult holding on. Not at all – in fact, I felt like I was floating. Maybe all of that adrenalin increased my strength.

“Robert Climbing Out of the Plane”
Robert making his way out onto the wing strut. His static line is attached.

Once you are in position on the wing strut – with both feet dangling freely in space – you are to look at the jumpmaster who commands you to, “Look Up !” You look up and see a small dot and focus on it. It’s a logo of the US Parachute Association. Then you yell “DOT!” (you could yell “FUCK!” – it sounds the same in a hundred-mile-an-hour wind) and simultaneously let go with your back arched, your arms and legs spread as you count, “Arch 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000, 5000, Check-thousand,” at which point you look over your right shoulder to make sure your chute has properly deployed.

I let go and concentrated on keeping my back arched. The plane flew back into the distance as if I were throwing a camera’s zoom lens back to its wide angle position. It was like in the movies where the guy falls off the building – he gets smaller and smaller – real fast! I lost sight of the plane and felt a rather violent sensation of going into a serious back flip. Oh shit! I thought, I couldn’t maintain my arched back and I went into some kind of a spin or flip. There was a tug on the harness and I knew my parachute had opened. First hurdle made.

I looked up and saw that my parachute lines were twisted. Fortunately, I remembered the correct procedure for correcting this: pull on both risers (webbing straps connected from the harness to the parachute’s separation lines) simultaneously, then wait for it to spin slightly. Once you figure which way it wants to spin, kick your feet out in that direction. The lines should correct themselves. Mine did. Big relief. Second hurdle. I don’t have to toss my parachute ! Lt. Dan later told me he too had twisted lines but forgot the step about pulling on both risers. He just kicked and had a little harder time untwisting his lines. If you don’t untwist your lines, you will have limited control of the canopy and most likely will land at a much higher speed.

Another check you need to make is to make sure the canopy channels are filled. The newer parachutes are much more maneuverable and are basically like kites or hang gliders. There are nine tunnels or tubes in the top of the parachute that allow for passage of air. Sarge told us that seven out of nine needed to be filled with air. Mine appeared OK but I don’t think I could really count at that point. As long as everything looks good, I’m not worried. Lt. Dan confessed to me later: “You know, I honestly believe if only five were filled air, eh? I’d still take my chances and hang on to the original chute. To hell with tossing it ! I vote for the broken bones…” I told him I would have done the same thing.

The canopy is controlled by two toggles – one connected to each riser. They are attached with Velcro and should not be pulled down until you correct any problems with the main canopy using the risers. The toggles are the brakes and the way you control the parachute. Pull down on the left one and you turn left. Pull hard (hands all the way down to crotch level) and you turn very hard. Pull down on the right one and you turn right….very simple concept. Continue pulling and you continue turning. I was happy that the procedure didn’t have the added confusion that you find in sailing: Pull the tiller to the left and you turn right; push it to the right and you turn left. It was very similar to flying a stunt kite – maybe a lot easier.

Once you have established that the canopy is controllable, the radio person on the ground begins to guide you down with steering commands. If you have no radio contact, you are supposed to signal them by a continual turn or spiral. Then you are on your own. Hurdle Number Three passed when I heard Lori’s voice telling me to turn left. She gave a couple of commands to make sure I was hearing her.

Now it was time to sit back and enjoy the ride. It only takes you five minutes or so to reach the ground but it seems a lot longer [happily]. The view was spectacular – even if was just Illinois farmland. The sun was very low on the horizon giving us pink clouds and long shadows on the ground. I looked around for Dan and saw that he was already on the ground. He was several hundred feet right below me. He landed near the runway and was gathering up his parachute. “HEY DAN!!” I yelled, “Look up! I can see you! YEEEHAAAAAA!!” Dan later told me he looked up and saw me but couldn’t make out what I was saying.

Lori was directing me in with the turn commands. I felt like they were too far apart because it seemed like I was too far away from the landing area. When you are only a couple of hundred feet away from the ground, it is a good idea not to initiate turns. You want to be sure that you are landing into the wind – otherwise, you will land too fast or have difficulties with crosswinds. We were given a wind briefing before takeoff which included wind speed, direction, location of wind indicators, plus geographical reference points (the town of Carmi to the northwest and a chemical plant to the southeast.) If you pull down on both toggles at once, you slow your forward speed. Pull hard (all the way down to your crotch) and you initiate a flare. This is a good way to pull off a smooth landing. Steve made this look totally easy and graceful. If a flare is held too long, it turns into a stall. If you perform a flare too high – fifteen feet or more upon landing approach, you will be in a possible stall position will basically fall out of the sky at a very fast rate – and feel it in the landing. So, you want to perform flares seconds before you touchdown. It is very important that you keep your knees and feet together and remember to look – not towards the ground – but towards the horizon. This is so that you don’t push down with your legs in an attempt to meet the ground.

Lt. Dan & I did not make the most graceful of landings but I think Dan’s was better than mine. He landed on his butt and had a big wet spot to show for it. I landed in a freshly plowed field – facedown. My parachute dragged me for a few feet until I was able to spit the dirt out (I swear there was cowshit in that mixture) and fully extend one of the toggles. When I first put it on, my jumpsuit was clean. Now there was a mud streak that extended up from my crotch to my face. It was pretty late in the afternoon and the wind had died down considerably, so there was no problem with gathering up my chute in the wind. I beat Dan in the closest to the target category – my walk back to the hangar was much shorter than his.

I was concerned about the back flip sensation and later asked Steve how my jump was. He told me that my jump was perfect – my arms and legs were in good position and I maintained a good arched back. “You did really well,” he said. I guess the jerking was my chute pulling on the straps.

Dan and I were on an incredible high ! Back in the hangar, there was a camaraderie with the freefallers that had not existed earlier. We were now members of their club. I guess you never forget your first jump and these guys seemed to delight in our excitement. They offered us a beer and we laughed and told stories. Steve presented us with jump certificates and a log of our first jump. It was dark by now and we needed to get home. We shook hands with everyone and promised to be back.

Dan & I had a couple of well-deserved martinis at his house. And Elizabeth had a nice dinner waiting for us.

I got home and undressed for bed. I discovered a mysterious bruise on my left biceps. No idea how it got there. It was purple – just like my parachute.

I slept like a rock that night….

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