It was 1971 and the training method was static-line progression, gradually leading to freefall and eventually terminal velocity. Spanky’s first few jumps were static line, where a jumpmaster would assess her exit and body position. As she progressed, her next few jumps were still static line but now she would perform a dummy ripcord pull. The ripcord handle had no cable or pins but had an orange piece of canopy fabric attached so that when it was pulled from its pocket, the jumpmaster could see that she performed the task properly. So during the first 6 to 10 jumps she experienced very little airspeed and no major problems. Her next progression would be 3 to 5 clear and pulls, depending on her performance. Again with very little airspeed. Next came 5-second delays, then 10s and then 15s. Once she reached 20-second delays, a maximum rate of fall was achieved and Spanky was getting comfortable in her new environment. So at this point she had acquired approximately 20 to 25 jumps.
OK, so during those first 20-some jumps, Spanky made one very very small error: She never tucked in her excess chin strap. No biggie, right? Now she was ready for her first 30-second delay. She left the step and was feeling pretty comfy, until about 20 seconds into freefall when the loose end of her chinstrap started whipping against her cheek near her eye. This annoying distraction caused her to try to fix it. Reaching up with her left hand she struggled to locate the flappy strappy. She started a slow turn. Not a big deal but she couldn’t get the loose end tucked in with one hand. After attempting to correct the turn, she reached up with both hands and went into a head-down spiral. The clock kept ticking and precious altitude was being spent. At this point she felt she needed to arch and correct the spiraling turn. So she did and at the same time the buzzing chin strap became her main focus again. She tried to tuck it in one more time and experienced instability once again. Finally she became altitude aware and realized she was burning up time and altitude. Also she felt it was best to deploy with good body position and that she had time to correct it. She corrected but was already at an altitude for her AAD to fire, and it did just as she deployed her main. Both canopies came out and battled each other for clean air but ended up in a jumbled mess of nylon. Spanky was on the last load of the day and it was getting dark. The spot was off as well. She rode the garbage into a huge tree and was suspended about 60 feet up near a swamp. The DZ staff had a tough time finding her at night. When they finally found her she had been nearly eaten alive by mosquitos. Spanky ended up with malaria and later died.
Cause of death: malaria? Nope; malaria was the end result but the key factor was never being to terminal velocity and getting away with not tucking in her chinstrap. Many more small errors began to snowball, culminating in her demise.
The series of events were:
- Not stowing the loose end of her chin strap.
- Trying to fix the problem more than once.
- Losing track of altitude.
- Prioritizing stability instead of pulling.
- Having little experience and jumping so late in the day.
- Poor spotting.
Some of these errors could be switched around but it all started with something as small as a loose chin strap.
We all know that it’s not usually one sole element that produces a fatality. It is usually a series of small errors that ends up in Kapowieville. The preceding is a fictional story I tell my students about a sequence of events that ends up becoming a feast for the Grim Reaper. The reference goes way back ‘cause I am an old fart.
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