100% Failure Rate

Ryan skydiving for the first time

How Many Times Would You Skydive if Your Parachute Failed?

True story: My parachute has failed every time I have been skydiving. But then, I’ve only been skydiving once. I was living in North Queensland, Australia when I finally decided to give skydiving a try.

My friend Heath’s mother owned a skydiving school and had invited me to come on several occasions, but I always declined. At the time, it wasn’t something I was willing to do. This bothered me. There was no overwhelming desire to learn to skydive, but I wasn’t comfortable knowing I was letting fear prevent me from experiencing something new.

One day, I decided it was finally time to step up. I called the local skydiving school that operated out of the Airlie Beach airport. The rural airport was wedged in a valley, surrounded by rainforests next to the Coral Sea. A morning cancellation provided me with my opportunity. Like most first time skydivers, this would be a tandem jump. The guy with the parachute, who was an experienced instructor with thousands of successful jumps under his belt, would be strapped to my back. I did not have a parachute of my own, and was completely reliant on him to get us safely to the ground.

a view of the airstrip from my jump plane

While chatting with my instructor, I was impressed with how carefully he folded and packed our parachute. It made this seem like an entirely reasonable activity to be doing on a beautiful, tropical spring morning. But, what did I know about packing a parachute correctly? I trusted that our interests were aligned, assuming he wanted to avoid crashing into the earth at 125mph just as much as I did. My only job on this jump was to enjoy the view and, when he tapped my shoulder, to arch back as he pulled the ripcord to deploy the parachute. Simple enough.

We took off in a small Cessna airplane that, if it had seats, would probably fit six people. The ride up was exciting, and the picturesque scenery of the Whitsunday Islands—not far from the Great Barrier Reef—was as nice a place as any to jump out of an airplane. When we reached an altitude of 10,000 feet, my instructor smiled and nodded to me. It was time for us to strap together and, with him on my back, we prepared to jump.

When the door opened, the cameraman, who was there to capture the event, stepped out and grabbed onto the support bar that connected the wing to the body of the airplane. His legs were waving like a flag in the strong wind. The experience suddenly became very real for me. My instructor and I, now attached by four clips, awkwardly inched toward the open door. Three, two, one…out the door.

From my perspective, everything started off well. Someone once told me that skydiving felt like flying, but this is not true. It feels like falling—fast. So fast, in fact, that the wind rushing by is actually quite loud. My adrenaline was pumping as we did spins, hurtling towards the ground. I loved every second of it. Any previous fear I had was gone.

After a bit of free-fall fun with the cameraman close by, it was time to slow things down. I felt the instructor tap my shoulder—my cue to arch back as he pulled the ripcord. I’m not sure how I knew, but I suddenly became aware that something was wrong. Moments later, a man I hardly knew, who held my life in his hands, shouted four words into my ear that I’ll never forget: 

“WE’RE HAVING A MALFUNCTION.”

You never really know how you’re going to react until shit actually hits the fan. But my reaction surprised me. The moment I heard those words, everything seemed to stop. Whisper quiet, even with the wind still rushing by. The first thought that popped into my head was, “This is the first time in my life I’ve been completely committed to something.” Interesting how moments of clarity often come in times of chaos.

As I would later learn, somehow when our parachute deployed, it had twisted on itself, making it unusable. My instructor had no choice but to cut the tangled chute loose, causing us to drop into free-fall again…

As we plummeted, my instructor quickly reached to deploy our last chance of making it to terra firma intact. It dawned on me that if our reserve chute failed, the only other option was a very rough landing—and I would be the one who cushioned the fall.

Fortunately, the parachute opened, slowing our descent. I’d had enough enlightenment and needed some answers. I turned my head back toward the instructor and shouted,“Are we going to be all right?”

He gave me a weak, stuttering, “Yea… yea… we… we are going to be all right”. There are moments in life when we all need reassurance, sometimes lots of reassurance.

I asked again, with more intensity, “ARE WE GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT?” Malfunctioning parachutes are actually quite rare and, for all I know, this may have been my instructor’s first time in this situation. But I still needed to know the answer to my question.

Confidence found its way back into his voice and he yelled, “YES, EVERYTHING WILL BE OK.”

There are two ways to respond in situations like this: celebrate or let the fear of the moment sink in and overwhelm you. Those are both natural responses, but each leads to a very different outcome. Panic has caused people to die when death was avoidable. It’s ruined businesses and broken relationships, but not this time. We opted to celebrate our return to earth.

Focus, not Panic, Will See You Through

Next time you are in a difficult situation, remember that staying in control will serve you better than throwing up your hands and becoming a victim. That goes for your diet just as much as it does in skydiving.

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