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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber


In 1955 my father took me to Coney Island to experience the ‘Parachute Jump Ride’. This was a gigantic wooden structure with a cable running 250 feet into the air, attached to a giant military cargo chute. Riders sat in a wooden chair similar to what was typically found on a roller coaster, except this one had giant springs on the bottom to absorb the impact shock of landing.

That ride had a subliminal effect on me, one whose measure would not be played out in full for another 35 years. Something in the back of my head beckoned me to be fascinated with parachutes. I would take the plastic wrappers that covered my parent’s dry cleaning, cut them into a huge circle and attach strings and a weight to make a functioning parachute that me and my friends would toss up in the air for endless hours of fun.

When I was 12 I convinced my mom to spend the $8 for a small military cargo chute advertised in the back of Boy’s Life Magazine. When it arrived I stuffed it into an old military backpack that I would wear upside down so the canopy would fall out and inflate while I ran. A book on the shelf at the Boston Store in Wilkes-Barre caught my attention. It was the first commercially available book on parachuting. I have no idea how many times I read it cover to cover.

Growing up took priority for the next 30 or so years, until I got an itch in 1990 that I had to scratch. Parachuting had matured into skydiving, and we had a world class drop zone in Perris, Ca., a scant 90 minute ride from home. Without telling my wife, I signed up for the AFF (Accelerated Free Fall) first jump class. This consisted of 6 hours of ground training followed by a jump from 12,500 feet with two instructors, one on each side, holding on to your rig until you deployed your main canopy at 5000 feet. That was a great 60 seconds of free fall followed by a guided landing (we wore a headset connected to our instructor who was already on the ground).

That evening there was a deafening silence in the house when I put my video into the VCR and showed my wife what I had done that day. The atmosphere in our living was funerial at best. At about 2:30 the following morning my wife shook me awake and said “Gary, I know you’ve wanted to do this all your life. You have my blessing.” I started making a weekly trip to Perris to complete the 8 jump AFF training, followed by 20 jumps with a single instructor to increase my skill set.

The thing most people don’t understand about skydiving is it takes many hundreds of jumps to acquire the ability to jump safely with others. Consider that each jump gives you about one minute in freefall followed by about four minutes under canopy. I made three jumps every week once I was off student status. That’s 15 minutes a week. How long would it take you to become proficient at golf or tennis if you spent 15 minutes a week practicing?

At 200 skydives I earned my expert rating and graduated from jumping in small groups (2-4 skydivers) to medium size groups of around 8-10 people. I was attracted to a somewhat irreverent group of guys who gathered every Saturday morning to jump together. They were all ex-military (I never served) and reticent to accept me into their coterie, but a bit of persistence on my part eventually permitted me entry to their world. These guys put the F-U in fun!

Understand this: safety was always the primary goal of every skydive. From my initial training through every jump I ever made (530), we practiced the same ritual prior to every skydive – our safety procedures. At 120-170 mph in freefall, there is no margin for error. There were only two types of accidents on a skydive: catastrophic and fatal, and the difference between the two was rarely measured in more than a few seconds of reaction time. At deployment altitude (2000 feet) you are only 10 seconds from impact. It takes about 200 feet for your main to fully deploy, and you lose about another 200 feet as you look up and judge if you have a landable canopy above you.

If any in your group had a malfunction and had to jettison their main canopy and deploy their reserve, the unspoken rule was that everyone else on the jump would follow that individual down and land with them, even if it meant a several mile walk back to the drop zone, sometimes in stifling heat. Surviving a malfunction is stressful, and having friends around helps to calm the nerves and pick up the pieces, especially if they happen to be your bones.

As I mentioned, we were an irreverent bunch, and took no prisoners with our brand of humor and the type of jokes we told – everyone was fair game. On one particular jump I was with a small group of five guys that included two Mexicans. These men and I had become very close friends and I let loose with a zinger on the ride to altitude:

“A plane is travelling across the Atlantic when the pilot lets the half-dozen passengers know that they are running low on fuel and must lighten the load to reach the U.S. without crashing. They open the cargo door and begin throwing out all of the luggage. They check with the pilot, but he says no-go, still too heavy. Being resourceful, the men start unbolting all of the seats, passing them hand to hand and out of the plane. The pilot shakes his head, still too heavy.

In an act of bravery, the Englishman steps to the door, shouts ‘God save the Queen’ and jumps out. Still too heavy. Without batting an eye, the Frenchman steps up, says ‘Viva la France!’ and jumps out. The rest look towards the pilot, but still no joy. Finally, the American moves towards the door and yells: ‘Remember the Alamo’, and throws the Mexican out.”

All of my friends laughed. We had a good jump, but at pull time I looked up and saw I had a ‘line over’ malfunction. This occurs during the packing of the main chute during a critical step when all of the canopy lines are oriented properly before folding the parachute. I had hired a packer that day, and he packed my malfunction. The laws of physics made the canopy unsteerable with a control line wrapped around the front of the chute. It strangled a third of the fabric.

Physics and gravity conspire against you in a situation like this. The unstable canopy starts to swing you around like a toy in the wind, and you have less than six seconds to react. After the first revolution, your body is horizontal to the earth and centrifugal force is beginning to act on you. By the third revolution the force is so great that the struggle to reach your handles, to cutaway the main canopy and deploy your reserve (two separate actions) is nearly impossible to perform.

My mind screamed CUTAWAY! I looked at the pud (what we called the cutaway handle) on the right side of my harness. I put both hands on it like I was trained, and then shifted my eyes to my reserve deployment handle. We do this prior to chopping the main because the harness will shift vertically in the process, and if your eyes are not on your reserve handle, you will lose precious seconds looking for it. It took less than 3 seconds to accomplish all of this, and I was finishing my second rotation when I pulled my cutaway.

The main detached immediately and I was flung horizontally across the sky at great speed – as if shot from a canyon, there was no longer a sense of falling. I dropped my pud and reached for my reserve handle. Fortunately, my rig was equipped with a lanyard device (RSL – Reserve Static Line) that was attached to my main canopy and my reserve ripcord. As the main detached, it extracted the pin on my reserve, automatically deploying it for me. It beat my pull on the handle by about two seconds. It takes the reserve another two seconds to fully deploy, and I look up with a sigh of relief to see that pretty, white, stable canopy over my head. Now I have to find a safe place to land. My initial deployment was about a mile west of the drop zone, very close to a main thoroughfare. I am at 1200 feet when I check my altimeter and now have under 10 seconds to find a safe place to land, and then set up my final approach into the wind.

Further complicating the decisions I have to make very, very quickly is the desire to land as close as possible to my descending main canopy so I can easily retrieve it after landing. That parachute is worth nearly $2000.00 and there are more than a few stories of skydivers unable to retrieve their mains because passing motorists scooped them up as souvenirs. I do a quick 360 under canopy, using up more precious altitude and spot my main descending. I see power lines in front of me and on my left, a row of trees on my right and a hedge behind me. Receiving a ‘D’ license (expert rating) required demonstrating that you could consistently land standing up inside a two-meter circle. That challenge was put on the scorecard specifically for days like today.

With all the grace I can muster, I set up on final approach and perform a tiptoe landing not more than four feet from my main canopy. The adrenalin surges through my body and my knees wobble a bit. Fortunately, a fire engine with siren blasting wakes me up. I pause for a moment to wonder what poor bastard needs to be rescued, until I realize that I’m that poor bastard. Apparently, someone saw my main descend and hit with a thud and thought a skydiver ‘went in’ – descended without a canopy with obvious fatal results. I picked up my main and my reserve and my freebag (the bag containing my reserve that jettisons when it opens) and trudged through the field to the fire engine.

Once they ascertain that I’m uninjured and not in need of medical assistance – although I could really use a shot of tequila, they give me a ride back to the drop zone. It then occurs to me that none of my buddies landed with me. As I walk to the packing area, they are all lounging around waiting for me to get my shit together. More than a little irate, I inquire why they didn’t have the courtesy to land with me.

My Mexican friend Carlos stands up, and in as loud a voice as he can muster shouts:

Remember the Alamo!

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