Sometimes One is Better Than Two

I parachuted three times when I was in my early twenties.

Back then, in a small town in Michigan, there was no concept of tandem parachuting. Instead I took a couple of days of training followed by my first jump. The first day was classroom style and the second day was a little more active, simulating things as closely as possible while standing on the ground. Simulating parachuting on the ground was incredibly inadequate and surprisingly effective at the same time.

We had a main parachute, on our backs, and a smaller emergency one, on our chests. I remember the instructor explaining that if we ever ended up in a situation where both parachutes were deployed, we needed to cut away the main parachute immediately so they would not tangle and both fail. I remember thinking how hard it would be to do that, if it came to it.

The process was that the first jumps were static-line jumps: a line was tied from the plane to the release for the main parachute, so all you had to do was fall out of the plane and the parachute would open. After five of those, they would let you free-fall and pull the release yourself.

When my turn came for my first jump, I was terrified. I had to step out of the plane onto a bit of metal that was too small for both feet. One foot was pulled behind me in the wind and I held onto a metal strut attached to the wing with both hands. I mostly avoided looking down. I remember looking to my left, through the open door, at the jump-master as she sat inside. She would tell me when to jump so I would land in the right place.

I must have been so scared that I blacked out most of that experience. I don’t remember her telling me to jump and I don’t remember jumping. My next awareness was after the parachute was open and I was drifting down.

The second time I jumped was much better because I actually remembered the whole thing. I smiled for a long time afterward. It was fun!

Before the third jump, the instructor explained that he wanted to prepare me for free-fall, where I would need to pull the release myself. On the ground, he had me put on a harness with parachutes and a dummy release that I could practice pulling to get the feel for it. I pulled the obvious one, in front of me on my chest. The wrong one. He said no, that would release the emergency parachute. The one I needed to pull for my main parachute was on my left shoulder.

I agreed to have the dummy release to pull for my third jump, to get the feel for it. When I jumped, I went to pull it, and made the same mistake I did earlier: I pulled the release for the emergency parachute. And the static-line automatically pulled the release for the main parachute, giving me two deployed parachutes, the situation I had been taught was deadly. I did what I had to, cutting away my main parachute.

Talking about this experience, or writing about it, floods my system with adrenaline, decades later. That day I came to know that I could make mistakes that could kill me.

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