NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST
There are good reasons emergency procedures are developed, committed to memory and rehearsed before conducting training or combat operations. The moment an emergency occurs is not the time to become creative or develop a better way to handle the situation. As a Type A personality, I have made the mistake of modifying a procedure while in the middle of an emergency, and it could have cost me dearly.
In the summer of 2001, I was afforded the opportunity to attend the Army’s Military Free Fall Parachutist Course. The course begins at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where students receive the ground and wind tower portion of training before going to Yuma, Arizona, for the airborne portion. Our instructors were very professional and ensured we were ready to progress to the next level of training before leaving Fort Bragg. I had been well trained in military free fall and emergency procedures.
The MFFPC places great emphasis on safety due to the inherent danger associated with free fall operations. In this course, students never jump in tandem with an instructor the way they do at most civilian skydiving schools. Our first jumps are conducted with two instructors exiting the aircraft with each student. Later, as the experience level of the class increases, the instructor-to-student ratio decreases. It is at this point in the training that I had an emergency.
The class had completed enough jumps and there was not an instructor with each student. I was beginning to be comfortable in free fall and confident in my abilities. As students, we were taught to pack our own parachutes and did so before each jump. During key steps of the packing process, a rigger would inspect our parachute to ensure it was being packed correctly. One morning, while packing my parachute, I realized the deployment bag had been replaced with an older canopy. This became even more apparent when I had a great deal of difficulty packing the folded parachute into the newer bag. I had even wondered if it would fit.
I was able to get the parachute packed and inspected. Once that was completed, we would conduct pre-jump training, which, ironically enough, included rehearsing and reiterating emergency procedures. During pre-jump training, not only do you state the actions to be taken during an emergency, you also physically go through the motions for each procedure. Once we were rigged and inspected, we boarded the aircraft, climbed to altitude and jumped.
I fell to 1,000 feet above the designated altitude to deploy our parachutes and conducted a wave off to my instructor. Everything had gone very well up until this point, and at the designated altitude, I attempted to deploy my parachute. My main parachute left the pack tray and the suspension lines extended. I looked up to realize my parachute was still in the deployment bag and I was now in a boots-down position.
At this point, I decided to perform the emergency procedure for bag lock. I pulled down on the risers but was unable to correct the malfunction. I looked up and the parachute was still in the deployment bag. Per the EP, I made an additional attempt to clear the malfunction by pulling down on the rear set of risers. This attempt also failed to free my parachute.
I am not sure what I was thinking, but I decided to amend the EP for this type of malfunction. Maybe I thought I was smart enough to change and/or improve the EP or that God loved me more than others and would prevent me from making such a big mistake. So, I snapped the risers one more time. To my surprise, I got the same outcome as my first two attempts. I was quickly running out of altitude and ideas, so I went back to the EP and performed a cutaway of my main parachute and successfully deployed my reserve parachute.
I landed safely and went back to the rigger’s shed, packed an additional parachute and conducted one more jump before the end of the day. It was not until that evening that I realized how foolish I had been and how badly this situation could have ended. During an emergency, we must count on the emergency procedures that have been developed by subject matter experts and trust our training.