I almost died today

If you don’t regularly skydive you might shrug your shoulders and quizzically ask, “Don’t you almost die every time you jump out the plane?” While there is always the possibility that something could go wrong on any jump, this question is really the same as asking, “Don’t you almost die every time you drive to work?” The possibility exists that something could go wrong on any car trip, but you don’t get back home from the day and exclaim, “I almost died today!” 

Today, I almost died.  

It was the 3rd jump of the day, and my 336th jump overall. After one last walk through of the skydive our group of belly flyers headed to the plane. We were a fair sized group, and were going to exit second.  As I’d done 24 times before at Chicagoland Skydiving I waited my turn to board and did one last check to make sure my altimeter showed zero. As I was about to step onto the plane the pilot began furiously pointing in my direction. The group looked around perplexed, wondering what all the fuss was about. After a few moments we discovered the source of the pilot’s distress…

My chest strap was misrouted.

A misrouted chest strap is the automobile equivalent of unbuckling your seatbelt and heading into oncoming traffic at 60mph. It renders every other safety device and emergency procedure worthless. If your chest strap is not correctly routed you will fall out of your rig when you deploy your parachute and begin hurtling towards the earth again at terminal velocity. Your canopy, AAD and reserve will all land safely. You will not.

This could never happen to me

At this point you’re probably thinking, “This could never happen to me.” You run through in your mind a litany of reasons why your safety procedures could never fail you in the same way.

“She must’ve been rushing to get on the load. I never rush, I’ll be ok.” I have been rushed before on jumps, but this wasn’t one of them. We geared up at the 10 min call as usual, and I had more than enough time to complete my pin checks before putting on my rig. 

“She’s a new jumper with barely 330 jumps. I’ve got much more experience, I’ll be ok.” When I landed I spoke with a few very experienced jumpers about what happened. Despite decades in the sport and thousands of jumps, each shared a story about a similar experience. I’d also encourage you to ponder the question, “Has experience made you more or less complacent about safety?”

“She must not have done enough jumps recently. I’m current, I’ll be ok.” I did 300 jumps in the last year, being current was not an issue. Being current also doesn’t prevent a misrouted chest strap.

“She must be one of those crazy jumpers with no concern for safety. I’m careful, I’ll be ok.” This is the thought that used to run through my mind whenever I’d read about an incident or a near-incident. I’m very safety conscious. I have a strict set of safety checks I do before putting on my rig, once it’s on and when I’m on the plane. I constantly analyze and try to improve my safety procedures, and I’m on the look out for others on the plane as well. 

Yet for all that, I misrouted my chest strap and would’ve boarded the plane like that if it weren’t for the pilot.

Be safe

Invariably when an equipment issue is discovered a chorus of experienced skydivers declare, “Check your shit!” in tones varying from concern to anger, distress to self-righteousness. While this is well intentioned advice, it’s not all that valuable.  Most skydivers already know to check their gear, and do. Except when they don’t.

You need to plan for safety.

  1. Create your safety routine
  2. Make sure it includes gear checks before gearing up, immediately after gearing up, before boarding the plane, and while on the plane
  3. Follow this routine on every jump
  4. Adjust the routine as you learn more to improve safety
  5. Watch out for others

After this incident, I added an extra step to my safety routine: Tug on my chest strap - there should be no give, a misrouted chest strap come loose when you tug. I’ll do this after gear up, before boarding the plane, and while doing my final gear check on the plane. It’s simple, takes less than a second and could ensure I get to skydive many more times.

However, if you tightly route your chest strap through the elastic a tug may not be sufficient (since it won't give), I'll also use the tug as a reminder to LOOK to see it's routed correctly. 

I was jumping with experienced load organizers who check their group before they leave the plane, so in all likelihood they would have caught my misrouted chest strap. I do a final check of my chest strap before leaving the plane, so in all likelihood I would have caught my misrouted chest strap. But likelihood isn’t certainty. Today the pilot saved my life.

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My safety routine

At the start of the day

  • Turn on my AAD and watch it count to 0
  • Gently tug on my reserve line to make sure it flows smoothly. A stuck reserve line will make it very difficult to pull your reserve. And check:
  • Reserve pin is seated securely to prevent premature reserve deployment
  • Reserve pin is straight, to ensure no issues with reserve deployment
  • Main pin is seated securely and correctly oriented
  • Pilot chute is cocked
  • Bridle is tucked away nicely
  • 3 rings correctly oriented:  3 ring closing loop only goes through the smallest ring, then through the grommet on the riser then through the keep on the cable housing and the cable is completely through it.
  • Main lift web, leg straps, chest straps are all in good condition

Before putting my rig on

  • Check reserve pin is seated securely and is straight
  • Main pin is seated securely and pilot chute cocked
  • Cutaway and reserve handles seated securely
  • Bridle is tucked away nicely

After putting my rig

  • 3 rings correctly oriented
  • Chest strap routed correctly - give a tug
  • Leg straps secure
  • Cutaway and reserve handles seated securely
  • Main handle is reachable and no loose bridle
  • Practice emergency procedures (look, grab cutaway, look, grab reserve, tear, pull, tear, pull) 

Before boarding the plane

I repeat the above, make sure my altimeter is at 0, and I’ve got my gloves and helmet.

At 7,000 ft

I repeat these steps above.

While many do it higher, I like 7,000 ft because it gives me time to make any necessary corrections or ask someone for help. I’m also completely focused on my gear check - there’s no shuffling around or temptation to muck with cameras that comes when you’re closer to altitude.

Just before exit

  • Cutaway and reserve handles seated securely
  • Main handle is reachable and no loose bridle.

A wise skydiver was once asked, “Why do you check your gear so often on the plane, you’ve got lots of jumps?”. To which he replied, “I have lots of jumps because I check my gear so often”.

Keep learning, stay safe!

For more on safety I encourage you to visit Dan BC’s website: http://danbrodsky-chenfeld.com/safety-tips-for-skydiving-and-life-as-well/