Tales From the Bonfire | A South Florida Cutaway
By Mark Perry
November 18, 2018, was a beautiful Saturday morning, and I arrived at the drop zone anticipating making several jumps. My second jump of the day, an 8-way formation skydive, was uneventful until I tracked away and pulled. As my parachute unfurled, seemingly normally, a spin started. I was out of control and spinning hard to the right as I noticed several of my suspension lines tied into a knot.
I cut away and deployed my reserve, then watched my red, white and blue main canopy slowly descend over an enormous plot of fully grown sugarcane, which was divided into sections that were each as large as two football fields. Soon after landing safely under my reserve, I began the search for my main. Fortunately, my camera captured where the cutaway occurred, so I was able to review the footage, calculate wind direction and drift distances and narrow down the search area to a half dozen sections of field.
Searching the sugarcane fields on foot was not practical. Not only were they huge, they were thick and nearly impossible to walk through. Twenty-foot-wide drainage ditches, thick with weeds and filled with knee-deep water, separated each huge section. Since searching on foot was out, a drone pilot helped me by sending a camera-equipped drone over the search area for about two hours. No luck. The next day, an ultralight airplane pilot spent three hours looking. Again, no luck.
With the difficulty we were having locating the parachute, it was possible that it had fallen all the way to the ground and that the tall stalks of sugarcane closed around it. Although this would make it difficult to see, at least it would be protected from sun damage. But the time for my search was still limited: The sugarcane farmers would soon be burning the field, which they do to remove the leaves prior to harvest. Despite the daunting task ahead of me, my 90-minute Sunday drive home was filled with an unwavering determination that I would find the parachute.
That afternoon, I purchased a drone and learned to fly it. I went back to the fields early the next morning, equipped with the new drone and a 12-foot ladder to help me see over the sweet stalks from the bed of my truck. I flew the drone slowly over the field as I watched my monitor for color changes. Eight hours later, I had searched only one section of the field when I noticed farm trucks three fields over setting up for what I feared was the field burning.
I wasn’t able to return until the following Saturday. Luckily, neither the field nor my parachute had gone up in smoke. However, a dense fog had moved in and obscured my view of where the drone was flying. Two hours later, as I searched with my unseen drone through the fog, a skydiver dropped by to see how my search was going. At just that moment, I noticed something red on the camera footage. As my drone descended to the top of the sugarcane leaves, the propwash moved the stalks and the red, white and blue of my parachute came into view! I nearly fell off my ladder!
I yelled to the visiting skydiver, “There it is. I see it!” He told me that if I could keep the drone in a hover, he’d walk along the edge of the foggy field until he could see where it was. I concentrated on keeping the drone directly overhead. A great plan … until the drone’s battery ran low, and—having a feature meant to prevent loss—the drone automatically returned to the spot where it had taken off. All I could do was watch the monitor helplessly as the drone flew away from my parachute and back to me. Charging the drone battery allowed enough time for the fog to lift, and I spent several more hours searching with no luck.
The next morning, I got up early and started again. Four hours after that, I heard the sounds of crackling wood in the distance and began to smell a faint hint of smoke in the air. The farmers were burning the sugarcane. If I didn’t find the canopy soon, I knew that I never would. I kept at it.
As the sun was falling to the horizon, I was almost ready to admit defeat but asked myself, “How can I give up the search knowing that I saw the parachute?” Five minutes later, I saw a glimpse of red! I couldn’t believe my eyes! I found it again! And this time I had 67 percent battery power. I decided to fly the drone high enough that I could see the edge of the field in my monitor but not so high that the drone would lose sight of the parachute. Then, when I had the edge of the field in view, I rotated the drone 90 degrees, flew it toward the edge and crashed it there. I then walked the edge of the field until I came across my crashed drone. It took 25 minutes of slogging through the field while pulling the thick stalks aside until I looked down and there it was!
My search had finally ended. Relief came over me. As I walked into the hangar with parachute in hand, stunned skydivers congratulated me. “Man,” one of them said, “you are tenacious!”
Mark Perry | C-37171