In 1976, as a young helicopter mechanic, I was fortunate enough to be stationed at Ft. Carson, Colorado, where Butts Army Airfield had a flying club that utilized the Cessna Pilot Training Program.
The program was funded by the base Morale and Support Fund and would issue a coupon book the fledgling aviator could use to pay for flight training while working toward his private pilot rating. As he flew and used coupons, the Fund would deduct payments from his monthly pay. After the private license, he could use the G.I Bill to pay for additional flight training.
Upon reaching the Commercial level, I was fortunate enough to fly the club Bird Dog (really fun) to tow gliders and also flew the T-41 (Cessna 182) to take the parachute club guys up.
The story starts here.
The pilot of the jump plane is required to wear a parachute just in case an “in case” happens. I mentioned to another young pilot that I wasn’t quite sure of my ability to affect a positive outcome if I had to hit the silk. Word got back to the jumpmaster somehow, and I found myself in the front row of the next jump class. Wonderful! An opportunity to add another line to a future resume. Training commenced and we worked through PLF’s (the inevitable hard landing using the military T-10 parachute designed to get you down quickly with minimal exposure to folks intent on damaging you.)
Problem is that you arrive with a considerable amount of gravitational velocity and you could get damaged anyway. The instructor said, “It’s no different than jumping off your foot locker.” I found the truth to be a bit more harsh. Just imagine the trajectory and abrupt landing of a set of car keys flung from the top of a parking garage. Especially with a field elevation of nearly a mile up.
We practiced exiting the aircraft while it was parked on the ramp.
- In the door: sitting on the floor in the open right side doorway with your feet hanging out.
- On the step: reach out and grab the strut while stepping onto the wheel.
- Jump: push off and make a big X of your body facing the rapidly rising terrain.
Our chutes deployed by means of a static cord fastened to the floor of the aircraft and would pull out our parachute at a safe distance from the airplane.
I was the first out the door and, since I would normally be seated at the controls, a substitute pilot (a good friend and future airline pilot) was pressed into service. You accident investigators see this coming?
“In the door?” Good. “On the step?” Not good. My substitute didn’t set the parking brake. This added the log rolling event from the home and garden show to the scenario. My substitute and I made eye contact briefly.
One step back on the rolling tire, one bigger step forward to try to recover and I performed a perfect uncommanded halfroll maneuver in the open doorway. Gravity happened and I dissapeared like Wile E. Coyote.
I found myself on my back, looking up at the bottom of the airplane and thinking how big the jumpmaster’s eyes were as I watched him watching me, his entire upper body sticking out past the right side of the airplane. The static line zipped over my shoulder. I quickly arrived at the end of my rope and my chute deployed with me still wrong side up. A rubber-burning whoa. A chiropractic event. Sudden stoppage.
The landing was uneventful except that I felt like I arrived at the planet’s surface with the same speed a bowling ball would, having been dropped from the plane along with me.
I gained the nickname “Backflip,” rescinded my offer to be godfather to my substitute pilot’s unborn children, and decided not to list parachutist on any future resumes.