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By Michael Anthony Petranech. Copyright 2005
Box Man Freefall Position
Skydiving can be a very dangerous sport resulting in serious injury or death, and it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, oversight or mistake. If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much room! There was never a more perfect day to jump out of an airplane. Thin white clouds stretched out forever high across the light blue sky. The temperature was in the mid-seventies and there was a light breeze. I called my buddy Pete, who was in his early twenties like I, and asked him if he wanted to meet me at the airport to watch me make a jump. He said yes. That Saturday, the 23rd of May 1972 was a perfect day to go skydiving, or was it? The airport I jumped at was Aero Park in southeast Wisconsin--an itty-bitty little place with one 4,000-foot long grass runway that ran north and south, a small bar and restaurant and a small wooden shack where skydivers signed up to make their jumps. Usually a dozen or so airplanes of various types were lined up wing tip to wing tip about two hundred feet west of the runway. Fifty feet west of the brightly colored gliders, high wing Cessnas and low wing Piper Cubs was the parachute packing and skydiver loading area. To the south of the packing area was the shack, and south of that the bar and restaurant. Large Oak and Elm trees lined the east side of the half-mile wide by one-mile long, grass-covered airport, fields of wild grass and weeds to the north and south. West of the packing area, shed, bar and restaurant was a gravel parking lot, west of that a two-lane highway, then drainage ditch, barbwire fence, and then a golf course. There was nothing modern about Aero Park, but it was a great place to skydive. The morning of this particular jump I got up, got dressed, strapped my parachute on my back, hopped on my chopper, and sped to the airport at around 70 mph. I felt great and wild as the warm spring air pressed against me riding out to meet my friend and jump out of an airplane.
Here’s a thought. What if while speeding down the busy highway the parachute accidentally blew open. My back could have snapped from the sudden shock of the parachute slamming open, not to mention me being ripped off the bike and smashed to the ground. The cars behind me, with no time to stop, would have crashed into me or crushed me as they rolled over me. One of those cars would have undoubtedly dragged me by my parachute entangled in the vehicle with me bouncing off and dragging across the solid sandpaper like concrete snapping bones and ripping off flesh. Probably would have ruined my day, but I did it anyway. That was just a little character profile for your enlightenment and entertainment. Now back to the story. A skydiver usually earns a license indicating his skill in the sport the year he starts skydiving and by his twentieth jump. I got mine thirty years into the sport on my one-hundredth jump. When a man I jump with now heard this he said, “remedial skydiving.” I’d have to agree. On one of my recent skydives I was trying to do a sit-fly. That’s freefalling at over 160 mph with your butt down instead of your belly. The goal is to fall stable with arms spread out straight at the shoulders and legs positioned as if sitting in a chair. The goal is to fall stable. The Italian man I jumped with on that jump was falling about two hundred feet below me, he said that when he looked up and saw me I looked as if I were a dead man falling. I was tumbling head over heels, rolling sideways, upside down, on my back--a dead man falling. So I’m not the best skydiver. In 1972 I was jumping a round parachute. A round parachute is what you see in older black and white TV shows--it’s round. Present day skydivers jump more maneuverable and much safer square parachutes. My parachute in ’72 was plain white when I bought it, so I tiedyed that sucker red, yellow, green and blue. It was awesome! This however, was not an incredibly bright thing to do, because tie-dying a parachute degrades its ability to catch air and slow the skydivers descent to the ground. When hitting the ground under a parachute, going
slowly is a desirable outcome. Round parachutes crashed skydivers to the ground hard anyway, mine crashed me harder. Understandably, skydivers want the parachute opening to go smoothly, mine rarely did. My parachute container was too small for the parachute and that made for a very difficult ripcord pull. Like over-packing a suitcase makes it difficult to open because of the pressure on the latch; too much parachute inside the container puts pressure on the pins holding the entire thing closed making it difficult to open. I consistently had hard pulls. I had very hard pulls. They were so hard I had to use both hands to get the ripcord out. This not only unsettled my peace of mind, but also made my freefall un-stable, and it’s all about being stable when the parachute opens. When rushing through the air at 120 mph even slight body movements can make you lose stability and begin to tumble rapidly, and tumble I did. When a skydiver pulls his ripcord he should be stable and belly down, so when the parachute comes out of the container it can catch air and open in an organized manner. When I was tumbling and spinning through space at 120 mph this didn’t happen and could have gotten me wrapped up in the parachute, which was supposed to be above my head. I figured I got it out eventually and that’s all that counted. I even opened on my back several times. “No big,” I thought, “it opens.” On one of my jumps the parachute opened as I was falling on my back in my usual un-stable fashion. Fortunately the chute didn’t wrap around me. Instead it whipped through my legs and caught my right leg in the lines resulting in me coming down head first under the opened chute. That would have been an interesting landing. Fortunately I cleared my foot before landing. Stability was not my strongest skydiving skill. Before the jump I’m about to tell you about I had sent my parachute container in to the manufacturer to have it made larger so I would no longer have hard pulls. I borrowed a fellow skydiver’s equipment for this jump. His rig was close to the same size and style as my rig;
therefore I thought it wouldn’t be a problem. Nobody else at the airport seemed to think it would be either. Possibly, they simply didn’t like me and hoped for the best. Yeah that’s probably it. Skydiving--good sport to get rid of friends you really don’t like. I was jumping equipment I was not familiar with, a sure recipe for disaster. The ripcord handle used to be located on the right front side of your chest, on the harness, tucked into a little pocket just a wee bit smaller than the ripcord handle so it would stay in place during your freefall. The ripcord handle was “D” shaped and made of aluminum. The guy who borrowed me his rig said, “The handle pocket has stretched some and sometimes the handle comes out of the pocket. Oh yeah, the cable the cord runs through ain’t tacked down either, but none of that should be a problem. If the handle comes out of the pocket and ends up floating behind you, you know a floater; just put your hands over your head and your feet out straight so you start going down feet first. The ripcord should come back over your shoulder. Then you can grab it and Bing Bang Boom, you’re good to go.” My response was, “Cool!” Now back to the day of my jump. I arrived at the airport around eleven in the morning and parked my bike in the parking lot. Pete was already there. I got off my bike, grabbed my jumpsuit that was strapped to the bike’s seat and walked to the packing area. I took off my rig and laid it on the grass. Next I put on my red, white and blue jumpsuit, went to the jump shack and signed up to get on a jump-plane to make my jump. While waiting my turn to jump Pete and I sat on the grass in the packing area. We watched other skydivers as they came in for landings in the skydiver landing area near the north end of the runway. Like the first time going off the high dive or giving a speech I was scared, and the waiting didn’t help calm the butterflies in my stomach tearing up my heart and soul, leaving me feel terribly empty and filling my mind with pictures of my death from slamming into the ground after my parachute failed to open. On every jump I was terrified. During the plane
ride to jump altitude I would silently repeat the Lord’s pray over and over putting special emphasis on the “Forgive Us Our Sins” part. I forced myself to appear calm and cool as we talked about other skydivers landings, girls, our bikes and other silly things as we waited two hours before it was time for my jump. Finally the green and white four-passenger single engine high-wing Cessna jump-plane taxied to the skydiver loading area about fifty feet from where we were sitting. I put my rig back on, tightened the chest and leg straps and walked to the plane. The door was open, engine running, and the turning propeller was blasting me with air as I climbed onto the step and into the plane; I was the last of three to get in. We taxied to the south end of the runway and lined up for take off. The pilot pushed the throttle forward; the engine got louder as its speed increased and the plane began to slowly move forward as the take off roll began. We bounced along the grass runway gaining speed, and when the plane reached about 75 mph the nose came up, the main wheels left the ground, we were flying and heading towards the sky. The plane had all the seats removed, except for the pilots, so it was possible for the jumpers to move around in the airplane, although in a very limited and cumbersome manner. We sat on the floor during the climb to jump altitude. I gazed out the plane’s clear plastic door as I approached the moment of what I was sure going to be my death. Sitting on the floor, looking out the door, I said my first silent prayer. If all goes well, a skydiver’s freefall lasts about fifteen seconds when started at 4,500 feet and opening the chute at 3,000 feet, and that was my plan for this jump; however, this time my freefall lasted a bit longer. Fortunately, I had an altimeter. I didn’t on many of my previous jumps and did the one thousand, two thousand thing. That may not sound bad; however, my doing the one thousand, two thousand thing when counting up to fifteen actually takes more like twenty seconds, and I’d get pretty close to the ground. I’ll explain. It takes ten seconds to fall
the first 1,000 feet and reach a speed of 120 mph, Terminal Velocity. After that a skydivers falls approximately 1,000 feet every five seconds. Adding an additional five seconds to my freefall decreased the space between the ground and me by an additional 1,000 feet. What this all means is, I got way too close to the ground for comfort. I opened very low on a prior jump, and somebody said I should probably get an altimeter. PROBABLY get an altimeter! I did. This was going to be a problem free fifteen-second freefall. Now the story of my actual skydive begins. I was going to be the first out of the plane, so I was facing forward and sitting on the floor where the front passenger seat normally would have been, looking at all of the instruments, listening to the roar of the engine and I could feel the airplane vibrate and shudder as it climbed steeply upwards into the sky. After about fifteen minutes of watching the ground get farther and farther away, everything on the ground get smaller and smaller, we reached 4,500 feet--jump altitude. The pilot lowered the nose of the plane to level flight, pulled the throttle back and slowed the plane to 85 mph. Almost time to get out--one last prayer. Unlike the doors on cars or other airplanes that open forward, the door on this jump-plane opened upward against the upper wing. The air the plane was flying through would hold the door up, opened and against the wing. Like when you stick your hand out of the window while riding in a car going 65 mph; if you angle your hand up, your hand goes up--so did the door on the jump-plane. The pilot released the latch on the door and the wind lifted the door holding it tightly up against the wing. It was time for me to exit the plane. The wind outside and the blast from the propeller were blowing into the cockpit with a deafening sound and mighty force. The ground was very far away. No more praying, now I had to focus all my attention on my jump. I began to get out of the plane. First I leaned back and put my right hand on the back of the door somewhere near
the floor. Next I pivoted on my butt as I swung around to the right forcing my feet out the door, against the wind and onto the step located about two feet below the door. The legs on my jumpsuit flapped wildly in the wind. Next I leaned forward out the door into the wind and thrust my left hand out to grab the lower part of the strut. That’s the pole running from the underside of the wing to just above the belly of the plane and directly in front of the door. I grabbed the strut with my left hand and pulled my entire body out into the prop blast and powerful wind that were all the while trying to push me off the step. I struggled to hold on with my left hand while I forced the rest of my body out of the door and pivoted on the step to face forward, simultaneously reaching my right hand through the wind to grab the strut about three feet above my left hand. I did it! I was poised to begin my jump. My hands tightly holding the strut, feet balanced precariously on the tiny little step, and my body hunched forward over the strut. I was fighting against the wind so I wouldn’t be blown off too soon and unprepared. I looked down at the ground nearly one mile below. The cars and houses were smaller than Monopoly pieces, and from this altitude I couldn’t even see the people on the ground. I took a deep breath and prepared myself. I pushed off the strut as I released my grip, and simultaneously jumped backward off the step. I was airborne! Nothing else feels like being 4,500 feet high with nothing around you but open sky and looking up to see the airplane flying away as you begin to fall away from it. I was in mid-air, nothing below me except air and the earth--the hard, solid unforgiving earth. It was beyond exhilarating. Immediately I began to fall and within ten seconds I was traveling at 120 miles per hour—Terminal Velocity. I could feel the force of the air as I fell against it and all I could hear was wind blasting in my helmet as if in a hurricane. The pressure from the air I was falling through tried to push my arms and legs upward; I had to relax even though I had to fight against the air as I fell through it. I was skydiving!
I was actually falling stable with my belly down in the typical skydive position. My legs were straight out from my hips, spread slightly, and bent upwards slightly at the knees. My arms were out to my sides at right angles to my body and bent forward at right angles at the elbows in what’s called the Box Man Position. It was going to be a great skydive. I fell for five more seconds after reaching Terminal, my altimeter indicated 3,000 feet and it’s now time to pull the ripcord giving me fifteen more seconds before impact if everything goes terribly wrong. I’m glad I won’t have that nasty hard pull, and I think, “Everything’s going to be great; no tumbling, no using two hands and no going unstable,” and I’m right. No hard pull. No pull at all! Just like the guy who borrowed me his equipment said, the ripcord handle worked its way out of the pocket and is now floating somewhere behind my head and out of reach. At this perilous moment while plummeting earthward, I think, “I love it when people tell me the truth.” I’m in what would be considered an emergency situation and I think, “No problem. I’ll do like the guy said; put my hands up, feet out, fall feet first and all is going to be good.” I do this. Now I’m falling kind of feet first toward the ground eating up what precious little time I have left expecting the handle to come floating over my shoulder so I can pull it and live. Seconds pass. No ripcord handle because it’s wrapped around the lines behind me. “Bummer” I think. Five of my fifteen seconds used up. My altitude is now two thousand feet and diminishing quickly. I think, “Ok, Ok no problem--Emergency Procedure!” In 1972 the reserve parachute was attached to the harness in front of the stomach and had no devices to slow the opening. If I’m falling in a bad body position the chute will come out of its container, whip me over on my back, and slam open with the very real possibility of snapping my back from the sudden change in speed from 120 to 0 mph; therefore, I want to release the
reserve while falling with my right side down. When the chute opens the rolling of my body from side down to back down will take up some of the shock from the opening. Seconds are flying by and the space between the ground and me is almost gone. Before performing the emergency procedure I get out of the feet down position and get belly down by going back to the Box Man Position—seconds pass, altitude decreases. To initiate falling on my right side I stick my left arm straight out, my right arm to my side, and my legs together. I’m now in the proper body configuration and I grab the ripcord handle on the right side of the reserve and give it a yank. It doesn’t come out. The ripcord on my reserve is impossible to pull with one hand. Five more seconds gone. The ground is much closer. I can see people and the buildings are rapidly getting a great deal larger. I’m only one thousand feet above the ground— five seconds to impact. I think, “It seems I’m in somewhat of a pickle here. Ta hell with procedure.” I grab the handle with both hands and immediately go belly to earth, but this time in a kind of cup shaped body position. I tear the ripcord out with all the energy I can muster, but I’m only seven hundred feet above the ground, without a parachute, traveling at 120 mph and with only seconds left before smashing into the ground and my death. A parachute doesn’t open the instant it leaves its container. It has to come out of the container, unfold, catch air then inflate—all taking time and distance that I’m now out of. Furthermore if it doesn’t open in an orderly manner it may not open at all; also, there is the very real possibility it will wrap around me if I’m not falling stable, and I’m not falling stable. The reserve comes out of the container, whips through my now flailing legs, unfolds, three seconds left, catches air, inflates and slams open whipping me over on my back with a force and sudden stop that almost breaks my back.
The reserve opens at tree top level—TREE TOP LEVEL! It opens less than 150 feet above the ground with only seconds left before my impact. Two more seconds and I would not be writing this story. Later Pete told me that when he could make out my face he started walking to the phone to call my Mom and Dad to let them know they didn’t have to buy me any Christmas presents that year. Ma didn’t like me jumping out of airplanes anyway, so now she wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. Pretty much a win-win situation for her. But wait! Now the story gets good. I open at tree top level over the golf course next to the airport, and I’m coming down over the fairway of the 8th hole. I notice some guys teeing off on the 8th hole. I think, “I kind of wish I was doing that.” Somehow, the golfers don’t see me. Now I’m going to get whacked in the head by a speeding golf ball. Wonderful! I frantically start yelling “Fore! Fore! Hey Skydiver here!” I get their attention and make it through that. I think, “Easy Street from here on in,” and I believe that. Silly Boy! Nobody told me there were no steering handles on the reserve like there are on the main parachute. I guess I was just supposed to figure that out. Instead the ends of the steering lines stick out only and inch through the risers that connect the harness to the rest of the lines. I didn’t see them, had no time to search for them, and figure there aren’t any, so there’s no way to steer the thing. I think, “Fine! I’ll just ride it in and let the chips fall where they may.” With me being the chips. Now the parachute is flying me. Where is it flying me? Directly toward the barbwire separating the golf course from the highway. I’m less then twenty-five feet above the ground, coming down out of control and heading directly for the razor sharp rusted spikes on the barbwire fence. I lift my legs and my butt sails over the fence missing it by only inches. After the fence, there’s the highway with the cars speeding by. I think, “This can’t be good.”
Fortunately, I landed short of the highway in the ditch between the barbwire and the highway. The drainage ditch full of brownish-yellow, greenish, oozing, yuck! I splashed into this gooey slime. My jumpsuit and I were covered in this awful smelling, sticky, oozing, bubbling goo. I stunk and my pretty jumpsuit and I were now a brownish, greenish, yellow mess, but my jump was over and I was un-broken and alive. Next was supposed to come my fifteen minutes of fame and proof the other skydivers there actually liked me. Some of them came running over to show their thanks for my being alive and give me all the hugs and handshakes I should have gotten. What did I get? “Ewww you wreak, what a stench! Go wash yourself off.” What was I thinking? In my thirty years of skydiving I’ve cracked ribs, separated bone from tendon, pulled muscles, bruised my Achilles heel, and suffered other various injuries, and I still love this sport. Skydiving is a high risk, very exciting, heat-pounding, extreme sport—Therein lies the appeal. Don’t be afraid to die, be afraid to have never lived!
“Dead Man Falling!” By: Michael Anthony Petranech IamMichaelTony@hotmail.com
Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today. James Dean
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