It happened in my home town of DeLand, Florida on Sunday morning, 20 June 1993, Father's Day. My mom told me she had bought some spicy Italian sausage at the butcher and was going to make a pot of sauce so the plan was to have a big meal around noon or so. Initially I hadn’t planned on going to the DZ on Sunday. I’d spent all day Saturday at the DZ and that night a bunch of us went over to Scotty Carbone’s house for a party. Before leaving, Scotty invited me to go on an early morning jump that he was organising. I said OK and figured I’d make a jump or two before heading out to my mom and dad's house for the afternoon. Florida in June is always hot and muggy so getting out to the DZ early while it was still cool and then heading out to the lake and hanging out with my folks for the rest the day was a perfect plan. After jumping with Scotty’s group it was still not too hot so I quickly packed up and manifested for another load.
The second jump was a sit-fly jump. In those days we called it chute assis, I guess because that’s what the French skydivers called it. Sit flying is just what it sounds like. All of the participants assume a body position in freefall that is like sitting in a chair rather than falling in a flat, belly-to-earth position. The sit position is very comfortable and affords better visibility than any other freefall position. Back in '93 this style of flying was getting popular and we had special sit-fly suits with wings on the arms and short pants giving us more drag on top and less on the legs. We also had web fingered gloves so we could catch more air. After about a year we realised that the sit body position is much easier without extra drag and these days no one wears stuff like that.
With ram air parachutes we fly traffic patterns to landing just like aeroplanes; There are Downwind, Base & Final legs although the turns are are not so squared off as they are in an aircraft traffic pattern, they are more like a racetrack. When I was at about 1,100 feet I decided that I would execute a 360 degree turn to the right and then a 180 degree to the left which would put me on my Downwind leg. I checked for traffic and started the right turn. I put a lot into it and could feel the Gs which is always fun. When I rolled out on heading I immediately initiated the left turn without letting the canopy completely recover from the right turn. That was the big mistake. I was suddenly kicked around violently and laid out on my back. I tried to let up on the left toggle but it was just limp in my hand with the slack line floating lazily by my face. I had given myself severe line twists which had cinched down on steering line, locking in the control input. I couldn't see the ground or my canopy because my suspension lines were knotted tightly behind my head, pushing my chin into my chest. After one quick revolution I tried to separate my risers in an effort to get rid of the twist. That action took up a second revolution. Witnesses on the ground reported that it appeared that my canopy just "went away" and I lost at least 500-600 feet in those two turns. After the second turn I was still on my back and knew I was getting low and that I would have to chop it, so grabbed my cutaway handle located on the right main lift web of my harness and jettisoned my main canopy. Centrifugal force slung me out horizontally. Still on my back I flipped over to my belly and reached for my reserve ripcord handle which is located on the left main lift web of my harness (directly opposite the cutaway handle). It wasn't there! That’s because my harness had shifted after I chopped my main canopy. This is normal and I had told many of my students to expect it so it was no big surprise. It was just that I was a bit in a bind for time and could not afford to be groping around. I followed the main lift web up and found the handle up near my shoulder and pulled it with one hand but I had a "hard pull" it did not clear so I came across with my right hand and punched it out for all I was worth and it cleared. I watched the pilot chute launch off my back and felt the free bag containing my reserve go so there was nothing left for me to do except let nature take its course and hope that I had enough altitude for it to deploy. Geographically I was just off runway 9 in the vicinity of the NDB tower. I was way down “inside the bowl” and looked down at a gigantic number 9 and directly below me a little patch of what looked like grass but was actually palmettos filled my vision.
All this was happening across the runway from the DZ so about a 30 or so people or so had a perfect view of what was going on while I was high but there was a line of trees that went down alongside runway 30 between me and them. They later told me that just before I went behind the pine trees all I had out was my pilot chute. Then after my body disappeared behind the trees they saw a little flash of pink. My reserve canopy (also a ram-air) was pink in those days.
When I got back to the hangar I dropped my canopy and stepped out of my harness. When I unzipped my jumpsuit, my webbed gloves fell out on the floor and I realised if I had not taken them off I probably would have died because it would have taken a bit longer to go through my emergency procedures. I started shaking like a leaf. Before that I had been cool as a cucumber. I went to the bar and ordered a Yoo-hoo chocolate milk drink to calm down. One of my fellow jumpers was a bit critical of how I had gotten into the emergency situation and why I didn’t have my hand on my reserve ripcord when I pulled the cutaway handle. Scotty heard him and came to my rescue saying "Don't listen to him. You did everything right. If you didn't you wouldn't be sitting here".
Now we knew what had killed those other jumpers. The next week when the canopy manufacturer heard of my lucky escape he gave me a call at the magazine. After what I reported, he made recommendations in the owner’s manual and in general tell people not to do what I had done. Since then I have had four subsequent cutaways. All of them have been up high but I have always had my left hand on my reserve ripcord before pulling my cutaway handle.
The rest of the story is that we made it out to my mom and dad’s house and my mom’s pot of sauce was indeed delicious and that meal of spaghetti and spicy Italian sausage was delicious. Later while we were having a couple of beers I told my dad I had a routine cutaway that morning and that it was no big deal. But I'm here to tell you I've really been enjoying these bonus days.