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The Horny Gorilla

The Horny Gorilla

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CAPT. CLAYTON O. CARPENTER
3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment
Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia


Editor’s note: Capt. Clayton O. Carpenter wrote the following article for Knowledge while attending the Aviation Safety Officer Course at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Sadly, he was killed in a Black Hawk mishap on Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, in January. Because Capt. Carpenter wanted to pass along some important lessons learned to his fellow skydivers in hopes of preventing an accident, Knowledge is running his article posthumously.

Have you ever seen a horny gorilla? Yeah, I didn’t think so. But now that I’ve got your attention, I’d like to share a story — and I assure you it’s not about randy primates.

Instead, I’d like to focus on a skydiving formation called the “horny gorilla,” which, when executed poorly, caused me and two friends to land significantly farther away from our intended drop zone during one of my early skydives. Thankfully, our alternate drop zone was an empty polo field on the famed North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, just down the road from our primary. Had there been a game in play, this might have been the story of how I jumped out of a plane and got run over by a horse.

The real culprit in this “off” landing was our group’s collective loss of altitude awareness during the jump. The horny gorilla is a formation in which three or more skydivers link legs and/or feet together and exit the plane at the same time. The aerodynamics cause the group to fall feet-first toward the ground in a somewhat seated position in the air. At some time during the freefall, all the jumpers release each other’s hands and either intentionally spin the formation or just enjoy the ride down. Formation skydives require planning and practice. We’d practiced our exit and had a good plan. But we failed in one major regard that could have had catastrophic results — we lost altitude awareness on the way down.

All skydivers wear altimeters, generally on their wrists or hands. Many also have audible altimeters that emit distinct high-pitched beeps when passing through preset altitudes during free fall. Our group either missed the cues or failed to maintain our normal scan that included our wrist-mounted altimeters. As a result, instead of breaking the formation at about 6,000 feet above ground level, we broke somewhere about 4,000 feet AGL.

To give some perspective, a typical skydiver falls at a rate of about 1,000 feet every 5.5 seconds in a belly-down position. We made ourselves more aerodynamic as a result of our formation, so our speed was likely a little faster. Once we broke the formation and separated, I realized just how low we really were. Our group had a rather wide variation in body weight, so upon breaking the formation, some of us floated up (falling slower than others) and some of us accelerated.

I happened to be the lowest jumper once we broke. I can’t be sure of our exact altitude once I deployed my chute, but I remember several very important things that probably saved me:

1. I made a conscious decision to flip on my back in freefall to find the other two jumpers because I’d lost sight of them.

2. I did not deploy my chute until I had confirmed that both the other jumpers were not above me and had already deployed their parachutes.

3. I evaluated my altitude, distance to the primary drop zone and glide ratio and committed to landing in the largest open field I could find (conveniently, a polo field).

Had I not flipped over and found the other two jumpers, I could have deployed my parachute only to have one of them drop right through my canopy. I could have been knocked out, experienced a main parachute malfunction or hurt one of the other jumpers — all at a significantly lower altitude than is considered safe for deployment. It would have left me very little time to recover, get stable and pull my reserve canopy. It takes about 500 feet of freefall for my canopy to open fully, so I had to factor that in during my descent.

My experience as a helicopter pilot helped me determine the likelihood of making it back to the primary drop zone about two miles away. I could see my intended point of landing off in the distance and noticed it rising in my visual field. I knew this meant my flight path would lead me to a point somewhere far short of my primary drop zone. I was right over the top of a polo field, however, with ample space and plenty of room to maneuver. As a secondary option, I also had a beach nearby with little vegetation and very shallow water.

All three of us survived our encounter with the horny gorilla and safely landed within 300 meters of one another. We learned an important lesson that day about altitude awareness and talked through what went wrong. Thankfully, our simple failure did not escalate into a catastrophic incident involving multiple jumpers.

  • 1 October 2014
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 12999
  • Comments: 0
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