Tales from the Bonfire - Malfunction Over Z-Hills
by John Vanderschrier | D-2626
November 24, 1972
The Z-Hills Turkey Meet in Zephyrhills, Florida, was the epitome of skydiving events in the early days. There we were, the Grafton Scroadload, one of about 15 teams at the event, and I was the team captain. We had just landed after one of our jumps and were busy packing under the shade of the one and only building on the airport when I was called to manifest. So I told Bryan Bowman, who was packing next to me, to be careful of my parachute since I had already flaked it. I returned from manifest (where I was told we had a 30-minute call) to find that Bryan had danced on my canopy; it was a mess. Since we were on a call and didn’t have much time, I said, “Screw it,” pulled the sleeve up and finished packing.
We went up on our jump (about which I later wrote in my logbook, “10-man, 38 sec., real clean!”). As I tracked away, I thought about my pack job, so I pulled high, at 2,500 feet. Well, sure enough, I had a spinning Mae West malfunction (now called a line-over). So I cut away that garbage and was hanging under my unsteerable 24-foot rip-stop (like F-111 that has about 3,000 jumps on it) reserve at about 1,800 feet cursing Bryan!
The weather was hot and humid—had to be in the mid-90s—without a cloud in the sky, thermals galore and a 10-mph wind. I was hanging under my reserve when it began to oscillate, 20 to 25 degrees to each side; it was not good. So I pulled down my right-side risers in an attempt to stop the oscillations. No change. Then the fronts, to no avail.
Back in the day, we were very good at judging where we were going to land, because we jumped reserve parachutes that had a forward speed of just a few, if any, miles per hour. Well, I knew exactly where I was going to land … in the center of a concrete runway! With my reserve oscillating, the wind, my high descent rate and landing on concrete, I was experiencing the perfect storm of skydiving. I was preparing myself for an extremely hard landing and was telling myself this was going to hurt bad... real bad.
I saw people running toward where I was going to land. It was going to be very, very ugly. Then, six inches above that black death, that pain, the end of my skydiving life … my canopy stopped! It stopped! Stopped oscillating, stopped its descent rate; it just stopped moving. I reached for the ground with my left foot before the canopy changed its mind and slammed me into that unforgiving concrete.
Well my foot found the concrete, the canopy collapsed, and I was left standing there … on one foot! I heard noise, so I looked up and those 100 jumpers who had been watching the drama unfold were standing up and applauding. All those skydivers had been holding their collective breath, understood my circumstances and knew how dire my situation was. When I landed safely, they were as elated and thankful as I.