It was the seventh jump of the day for our newly formed and unnamed 4-way formation skydiving team. A normal jump on a normal training day. It was the scariest jump I’ve ever been on.
I check gear. All the time. I find things: incorrectly assembled 3-rings, unhooked or misrouted reserve-static-line lanyards and visors up on exit. And I check chest straps. I’ve caught tons of misrouted and dangling chest straps in the loading area and on the airplane. But I missed this one.
Our team is experienced. I, Amy, Carsten, Piya and our videographer Gary have 40,000 jumps and more than 100 years of skydiving experience between us. Three of us are current AFF instructors. And we missed the chest strap.
We were on a back-to-back jump. We returned from one jump, dropped our unpacked canopies and picked up freshly packed rigs, did a quick door jam and ran to the plane. And we missed the chest strap.
Our coach watched us do our final walk through. And she missed the chest strap.
We walked past an experienced loader and fist bumped him on the way to board. And he missed the chest strap.
The plane was full and we were in the tail. At 1,500 feet, two people got up off the bench and settled down to the floor. And everyone on the plane missed the chest strap.
The exit was a B—a stairstep diamond—and everyone had good visibility. We exited from 10,500 feet, so we had plenty of time to set up the exit and make sure we were solid. And we missed the chest strap.
We launched the B and quickly moved to the next point, a block, and turned the pieces. When we closed and moved to the next block, I saw Carsten sidebodied on Amy and sliding away … something wasn’t right. That’s when I saw the chest strap—when we all saw the chest strap—on the fourth point of the skydive.
Carsten recollected, “I saw something was wrong when we transitioned from the exit to the block but wasn’t sure what it was. Once I realized it was a loose chest strap, I stopped turning points and got Amy’s attention. I grabbed the chest strap and handed it to her … the rest was up to her.”
Gary said, “I saw that the chest strap was not attached when I was about 10 feet out the door. While I was considering dropping down to assist, Carsten saw it, as well. Due to the limitations of wearing my camera wings, I decided to stay out of the way, as Carsten had shown Amy that the strap was undone. Her immediate response was to try to refasten the strap.”
While Amy got down to the business of threading her chest strap, Piya docked on her leg to help stabilize her and keep her from sliding. Carsten and I watched helplessly and Gary videoed.
Amy said, “I realized I'd better stay calm and try to thread it myself. Or maybe tie a half-hitch knot if I only got it through part of the clasp. If I couldn't thread it by deployment time, I'd sit up while pitching the pilot chute and cross grip my harness while staying as symmetrical as possible. I have a very finicky canopy that spins up if I don't deploy with body level. I had a lot of time yet; we jumped from 10,500 feet.
“As I crossed the strap to the connector, I rolled a bit off axis. I considered continuing to roll to my back and continue threading with less airflow. I'm comfortable back-flying, and I could stay big to not fall much faster, but I thought it better to stay on my belly and fly stably and predictably.
“By now, another teammate (an AFF examiner) gripped me to watch and maybe help. I was very happy that I cut off my gloves’ thumb and pointer-finger tips (so I could put in earplugs and stow brakes), so I was able to feel, see and get the chest strap threaded by 4,000 feet … barely!”
At about 4,000 feet, Amy signaled a thumbs-up to all of us—she had managed to correctly thread the chest strap—no mean feat in freefall. She then made a short track off and deployed normally.
When we all safely landed, I had tears in my eyes. How did this happen?
Complacency kills. We hear these words over and over, but they don’t apply to us, right? We’re experienced. We’re old dogs. We’ve got this game down. Yeah … no.
The experience reminded us all of a few things:
- We were in a hurry. A back to back. But there is always time for a gear check on yourself and on others before loading a plane.
- he plane was full and we were crammed into the tail, but even in a tightly packed airplane there is time and room for a gear check before exit. Be aware of your own and others’ gear, especially in tight or cramped conditions. It’s easy for flaps to open or handles to dislodge while moving from bench to floor and back up again.
- Develop a routine (ritual, backstop, pattern—call it what you will) for your gear donning and inspection. Always put your gear on in a specific order and keep to that order. Include a visual and/or tactile inspection. Adhere to the pattern and don’t break it.
- If someone has a gear issue in freefall, don’t panic. Let the person know of the equipment problem. If applicable, one person can help with stabilization. The others should stay in a place where they can monitor and not be in the way. Respect the normal breakoff and pull altitudes.
- Remember you still need to deploy safely and land your canopy safely. Emotions and adrenaline can affect your decision making and mental timeline. Have a safe track off and landing. Allow the affected person to deploy in place if it’s safe to do so.
- Debrief the situation in a quiet and non-judgmental way. If you planned on making more jumps, make sure that everyone, not only the person who had the gear issue, is mentally ready to continue.
- Don’t be afraid or ashamed to share the story—knowledge is power.
Since sharing this incident, I’ve had several very high-profile jumpers confidentially tell me that they have also had misrouted or loose chest straps but were embarrassed to share their stories. Amy—who has 35 years of experience, is an AFF and tandem instructor and is very current with more than 8,000 jumps—decided to share. She said, “This situation could have had a significantly different outcome! I am extremely embarrassed and humbled. I am a professional who is highly educated in risk aversion, distraction management, consequences of complacency and the necessity of standard operating procedures. But I am still human above all. I am publicizing this in hopes to encourage all to go the extra effort of gear checking yourself and buddies on the airplane.”
We are a tribe and as such we are all responsible for ourselves and those around us. Do not allow complacency to step in. Always do your own gear checks and be vigilant about checking those around you. Three rings, RSL lanyards and chest straps are items that you can visually check on yourself and others. Be the person who checks. Be the one who catches the chest strap.
Kate Cooper-Jensen | D-7333 | Menifee, California