When A Good Jump Goes Bad

The winter months might not seem to be the right time of year to skydive. However, being able to see miles and miles of magnificent snow covered mountains along Colorado’s Front Range, makes the jump out of an airplane at 12,500 feet above the ground a breathtaking experience, even in winter.

My name is T.J. McGinley. I started skydiving at a drop zone in Longmont Colorado in 1995. I loved the freedom of flight and jumped as often as I could, eventually becoming a coach in 2000.

My interest in this sport was first sparked in the military. I was in an elite recon team in the 101st Airborne Division in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Once I returned home, I continued to pursue that adrenalin rush by riding motorcycles, extreme skiing, hang gliding, scuba diving– you name it. I was a chronic type A personality, but skydiving really hooked me in a way nothing else had before.

January 18, 1998, was one of those perfectly beautiful, cool, clear and calm days that are unique to Colorado in winter. As I pulled into the skydive center, I could see a few people had already gathered and knew we had enough for a King Air load.

Three friends and I, Allen Hunt, Mike Pridgen, and Brett Eisenberg, decided to do a simple four-way jump just to warm up. First, we practiced the jump on the ground. This is called “dirt diving,” which helps to form the idea of the maneuvers in your head just before jumping.

Even though the lack of humidity in Colorado cuts down on the moisture content in the air, and it may not seem as cold, we knew we would be falling at 120 miles per hour from 12,500 feet above the ground, or 17,000 feet above sea level. This can freeze exposed skin in a short amount of time. So we dressed in layer after layer of our warmest clothing.

Then we checked each other’s containers, the pack you wear on your back, which holds your main, reserve, and pilot parachutes–all the necessities to save your life. The location of the pin that holds the reserve parachute in place is different depending on the type of container you own, so you don’t normally check reserve pins on each other’s containers during a typical gear check. In my container, the reserve pin was under a flap high on my back.

We walked out to the loading area, and checked each other’s gear again, which is customary. We did another dirt dive, which is also customary, and watched the pilot going though his pre-flight check. When all was ready we climbed aboard. This would be my 477th skydive.

Skydive aircraft don’t have seats in them. They either have benches or you sit on the floor facing the back of the plane.

But in this case, we faced each other with our backs or containers pressed against the wall of the plane. This proved to be a big mistake and a practice that was corrected after this incident.

As we were climbing to altitude, unknown to me, the rubbing of the back of my container against the vibrating wall of the airplane loosened the pin holding my reserve parachute. As the plane reached jump run, it slowed down and the green light came on, giving us the go ahead to start our climb out.

Allen, Mike and Brett climbed out and held onto the side of the plane. I stayed in the plane and took hold of Allen’s chest strap as planned. I looked into their eyes and gave the count by nodding my head three times. All you can hear is the wind when you are hanging onto the outside of an airplane moving at 100 miles per hour, so body English like nodding and hand signals are utilized.

Just as we left the plane, my reserve pin came loose and my reserve parachute started to deploy. The lines on my canopy began to surround Mike. Allen saw the danger we were in and was able pull Mike from the rapidly expanding canopy and they where able to dive away from me. In the process, three of the outside lines that stabilized my canopy were broken.

Brett had somehow gotten above us. As my canopy was opening, I slowed down, while Brett was still falling at 120 miles per hour, and not having time to react, slammed into me. He had a full-face helmet on and I did not. His head hit mine and knocked me unconscious. The impact also shattered the tibia and fibula of my right leg.

At the time of the accident, we were around 12,000 feet above the ground. In a freefall situation, without a deployed parachute, impact with the ground is around 72 seconds from that altitude. Under a properly functioning parachute, it would take approximately 12 minutes to land from that altitude.

In my situation, three of the seven cells of my reserve parachute were collapsed, as a result of the broken stabilizer lines. This caused me to go into a centrifugal spin, increasing my rate of descent from 1,000 feet per minute to roughly 1,500 feet per minute. I had approximately eight minutes to work with when I was knocked unconscious at 12,000 feet above the ground.

I spun toward the ground for 5,000 feet before I became partially conscious. My head was in a field of stars, I realized my feet were cold and I was in a violent spin. The first thing I did was look at my altimeter. I was 7,000 feet above the ground. I was in no shape to do the math, but I had less than five minutes to impact at that point.

I had to look up at my parachute to understand why it was spinning. When I looked up, I remember seeing a white canopy with the word TEMPO written across it. Why was my reserve deployed? Then I lost consciousness again.

Under normal conditions, should your main canopy malfunction, you can cut it away and deploy your reserve. But you cannot under any circumstances, cut away your reserve parachute. I knew I had to fly my reserve even if it was damaged. Had I made the mistake of deploying my good main parachute, the two would have become entangled and I would have dropped like a rock.

I regained some consciousness and again checked my altimeter. I was still spinning, but now I was 5,000 feet above the ground and had approximately three minutes before impact. It was then I looked down and noticed my shoes were missing and the entire lower half of my body was covered with blood, which was being forced out of my right leg by the combination of a compound fracture and the centrifugal spin I was in.

I realized that I couldn’t stop to think about my leg at this point. There was absolutely nothing that I could do about it. That survival voice inside my head started screaming at me to “ACT NOW!” I knew that if I didn’t stop spinning, and land normally I would not survive. I had to figure out why my canopy was spinning without looking at it. The only way to do this was to fly it.

On a Ram-Air parachute your steering lines are also your brake lines. If you can turn in both directions and face into the wind, then you can come to a level, slow, and reasonably safe landing. So I released my steering lines and gave them a tug. The left line felt solid, but the right line dangled with no response. I knew by the direction I was spinning and the reaction of my steering lines, the right side of my canopy had collapsed.

My feet were exposed, dripping with blood and starting to freeze. The whole right side of my body was going numb from the effects of the impact. Blood was draining from my head and thinking was becoming more and more difficult, so I put all that I had left into one plan. If it didn’t work, I knew I was a dead man. If could tighten up the right side of my parachute, and stop spinning, I just might have a chance.

So with my left hand I took a hold of the right steering line, wrapped it over my right shoulder, then back down to my right hand to take up the slack caused by the broken stabilizer lines. I felt this should allow me level flight. I took a hold of the line and pulled. It worked. I stopped spinning and I could turn in both directions. Now, it just might be possible to land the damaged parachute.

The spinning had made me extremely dizzy and I had no way of stopping the blood that was still gushing from the bone protruding from my right leg. I was having an increasingly difficult time staying conscious. Under these circumstances, I knew that going into shock was a distinct possibility. In Vietnam, I’d learned that there is a strong mental connection with shock that can be somewhat controlled. Even though I was rapidly running out of time, altitude, blood and consciousness, I actively fought down all panic and concentrated on my situation.

At this drop zone, there is a target spot in the middle of the landing area, which is used for accuracy landings. It is a pit filled with pea-gravel, about the size of a small kitchen. It was January and the ground was frozen. So the pea-pit was the softest place I knew to have a potentially rough landing.

I needed to land in the pea-pit, something that I’d done before, but this time I really didn’t know what was going to happen when I flared the damaged canopy, so it became essential to land there.

I was now 3,500 feet above the ground, about two minutes to impact. The airport and the landing area were about a quarter of a mile in front of me. Fortunately the wind was to my back pushing me toward my goal. I only needed to make one turn, back into the wind, but it had to be precisely timed or I would not land in the pea-pit.

I remember struggling to stay conscious, by creating concern over how mad all the pilots were going to be because I spattered most of the airplanes on the tarmac with my blood as I flew over them.

As I cleared the last hangar, the landing area became somewhat visible thru the expanding field of stars in my head. I made a small left and right turn just to make sure my steering lines were working.

My stabilizer lines were streaming behind me, my right steering line was wrapped around my arm and at least three of the seven cells of my reserve canopy were collapsed. I was drenched in blood and so was most of my equipment. My feet where frozen and I couldn’t feel the right side of my body. My field of vision was rapidly diminishing, my motor skills were getting weaker by the minute and I was still about 75 feet above the ground.

Fighting to stay conscious I lined myself up with the pea-pit and struggled to make the crucial turn back into the wind. At what I though was about fifteen feet above the ground, I pulled both toggles down and flared the canopy. I sat my left foot down in the corner of the pea-pit. I laid my right leg on my left leg and fell onto my left side to prevent further damage to my right leg. I don’t remember hitting the ground.

The next thing I remembered was the concerned faces of my skydiving companions. I recall the first thing I asked was everybody else O.K.? I was relieved to know that Mike, Allen and Brett had landed safely and were not hurt.

It took ten months to recuperate, but wanting to give my leg time to heal, I didn’t jump again for a year. I returned to the sport with a new respect for my vulnerability and the necessity of safety first. I went on to achieve my goals in skydiving, which were to earn my gold jump wings for 1,000 jumps and to teach others about the sport. As a skydiving coach, I tried to instill a sense of safety and respect for the sport in my students, while introducing them to a rewarding and exhilarating experience.

Story by T.J. McGinley