This past weekend at Skydive New England's iconic annual Tiki Bar Boogie, I had even more reason to celebrate on Sunday night when we watched the specially built Tiki Bar go up in flames, marking the end of the summer season and a cathartic release of our worries, fears, and losses.
On Saturday, September 1st, at the end of the second jump of the day, I had a canopy collision with another highly experienced skydiver right after opening my main parachute 3000 feet above the ground. Both of us emerged from the incident completely unhurt. The other skydiver has over 5,600 jumps and was jumping a Performance Designs Spectre 150. I was jumping a Performance Designs Sabre2 97, loaded at just under 1.3:1.
The jump was a 6-way wingsuit flock. Most, but not all, had jumped together before. Some had a lot of experience with organized formation dives and others were emerging from a progression that included more solo and 2-way jumps. After an uneventful skydive, I broke off on the side of the formation where I was flying (to the left) at the previously briefed and agreed-upon altitude, 4500 feet. The jumper next to me started a breakoff that would have given him ample separation. However, wanting to open up closer to the dropzone and assuming that he could find clear airspace, he carved his flight path back to the left on the second half of his breakoff. That jumper later reported:
"Prior to opening, saw another wingsuit to the left, ahead, and slightly below. Elected to deploy, as I deployed, saw second wingsuit deploy." [The second wingsuit was me.]
I looked around to clear my airspace before deployment and did not see the other jumper. He was in my blind spot. I waved off before deploying my main parachute. I had one line twist on opening that turned me 180 degrees as my deployment sequence completed and the twist cleared. As I came out of the off-heading opening, I was faced head-on with the other jumper. We were flying directly towards each other at high speed. He immediately grabbed his rear risers with brakes still stowed. I initially thought I would try to steer with my rear risers as well, but ascertaining that the collision was imminent, I grabbed my cutaway handle and released my main parachute as the jumper impacted it. The other jumper flew his body, main canopy and lines through my parachute and lines above the slider, cutting my main parachute in half. The total time elapsed between the other jumper entering my field of view and the cutaway/impact was less than three seconds.
After the cutaway, with my wingsuit still fully zipped up, I was unstable and elected to deploy my reserve parachute quickly. The reserve deployed with several line twists which I was able to get out of almost immediately, and I landed safely on the dropzone along with the other jumper, who landed his main parachute. His parachute had no visible damage. His wingsuit had some kind of burns, possibly line burns, on the tail wing.
Every skydiving incident comes at the end of an "events cascade" - a series of small events that, taken individually, wouldn't be a big deal but that in sequence create hazardous circumstances. Every skydiver, regardless of experience level, is responsible for stopping events from cascading into dangerous territory. In this case, the jump took place at a dropzone with a very small landing area surrounded by trees. To put this in perspecive, my main parachute, which drifted down in two pieces visible to multiple locals who went out looking immediately, was not recovered because it was not visible in the tall forest where it landed. There are a lot of trees that no one wants to land in. The wind had been shifting during the day, so the prospect of landing out could have prompted any of us, consciously or not, to angle back towards the DZ on breakoff. I had no view of the other jumper, but had he seen my wave-off and deployment before pulling his own main parachute, he could have taken evasive action. My off-heading opening, which was out of my control, contributed to the "perfect storm" of this collision, putting me on course towards the other jumper's canopy with no time to steer away.
What I am happy about:
1. Both jumpers involved reacted to the circumstances of this events cascade with the skill and experience of thousands of skydives and the ability to process information and make decisions quickly under pressure. Despite the high speeds and unexpected visuals during the incident, I did not panic and it appeared that the other jumper was also hard at work to resolve the problem from the moment it became evident that we were going to collide.
2. We both did exactly the right thing while on the collision course, enabling us to save each other's lives and our own. He jumped on his rear risers which prevented this from being a body-to-body collision that could have been more harmful. Had I not cut away when I did, the full force of the impact may have caused us both serious harm and the subsequent entanglement could have been much harder to deal with.
3. Both jumpers calmly and rationally debriefed the situation on the ground and have learned from it.
4. I got the following lesson driven home with everyone involved totally unscathed: We can't always control what happens in the air, but we should always continue to try. Skydiving is fast and the ground is hard and patient. The ground doesn't care how many skydives you have or how good you think you are. Complacency needs to be conquered on every jump. That might mean more repetition on dirt dives and in briefings, and, for me as an organizer, continuing to always work backwards from the worst-case scenario even while the sun is shining and everyone else is in boogie mode. Sometimes, things will go wrong anyway. I choose to embrace the risk, not just when this sport is easy and beautiful, but also when sh#t hits the fan.
To my dear friend Jason Eisenzopf, whose memorial jump ended the Saturday because his events cascade took a different turn back in April: I love you and I'm sorry I couldn't be on your ash dive. I figured you would understand that I didn't want to steal your thunder by tempting fate with borrowed gear. I hugged your mom a lot, as promised. And we were all with you throughout the weekend.
Year after year, loss after loss, after every incident I see or experience, I keep coming back to the way my late life partner and best friend, Eric "tonto" Stephenson, defined Blue Skies/Black Death before his own passing. We are all fragile. I'm grateful for every breath I get to take, but especially those in the sky with people I love. I live for the moments that, no matter what follows, can never be taken away. Here is Eric's wisdom:
"Making a lot of small mistakes is a good way to stay alive. It helps you recognise when things are going bad early, and builds the tools to save yourself in the process. Deny the mistake and the oportunity to learn slips away... If I go in - flame away. Learn what you can, but most likely, it'll be because I made a few small mistakes and they cascaded into eternity. This sport can kill any of us without very much effort. Blue Skies. This sport glows brightly, and burns incomparibly beautiful images into our memories. That brightness comes at a very high cost. It's the lives of our friends, the blood and the bones of our sky family. That's the dark side, the BlackDeath. There is no one without the other."