Tales from the Bonfire - Show Jump
by John Vanderschrier | D-2626
July 4, 1969 | North Royalton, Ohio
Three of us—Jimmy Robinson, Ken Weichec and I—boarded a Piper TriPacer with pilot Ken Jones at Strongsville Airport. There was a menacing sky north of us, but we weren’t concerned since we were heading southeast for our jump. We were doing a demo into a lake at a small park where they’d be setting off Fourth of July fireworks right after our jump. We were “well prepared,” having just received our water training 10 minutes earlier and having put our Mae West flotation vests on under our harness-and-container systems.
We started climbing to throw a wind streamer. Our pilot then radioed air-traffic control, which was about five miles north, letting them know we would arrive at our intended jump location in a few minutes. The controller radioed back, asking us to confirm our position. When we responded, his exact words (which I’ll never forget) were, “We just got hit with 80-knot winds. Abort your jump and land immediately at the closest airport. God speed.” So the pilot did a 180-degree turn and did a power dive for the airport. As we passed over the runway numbers, the storm hit!
I was sitting next to the pilot with my back to the dash, looking down the right wing directly at those numbers—36—now 200 or 300 feet below us. Throttle to the dash, we turned south to get away. However, the Piper’s top speed was about 87 knots, so we weren’t gaining much distance from the storm.
The pilot gave me a sectional map and told me to find an airport or another place to land. Now, with my experience (I had 58 jumps, Ken had 65 and Jimmy 45), I had no idea what to look for. We kept heading south, barely ahead of the storm. Several times we found a suitable field, but when we turned into the wind to land, the storm would catch up to us, and away we would go.
After about an hour, with no airports close, we devised a new plan. Since we were prepared for a water jump, the three jumpers would exit at 500 feet and deploy our reserves over the next large lake we saw. The pilot would then land downwind in the best field he could find. We saw many small lakes, but none we felt were large enough. And by this time, a new problem had arisen: fuel. One tank showed empty, the other was bouncing off empty. Then another problem arose: the dark. And the airplane had no lights.
Facing almost certain death if the plane ran out of fuel in the dark, the pilot was ready to climb to 500 feet and let us jump. As we started to climb, runway lights came on—out of nowhere—directly in front of us. It was the most welcoming sight I’ve ever seen! Our pilot did a screaming 180-degree turn and landed just as the storm hit. Ten to 15 men came out of a hangar to help keep the airplane down in the wind and tie it up.
After getting off our wet gear off and profusely thanking everyone, the men told us that this airport—the Ashland County Airport—had held its dedication ceremony earlier in the day. The men were about to leave when they heard our engine and thought we were in trouble (got that right!), so they turned on the runway lights.
The next day, after thanking the manager again, we prepared to leave. As we taxied to the fuel pumps, we ran out of fuel. I guess it just wasn’t our time!