Stranger (DZ) Danger
At the 2015 Turkey Meet at Skydive City Zephyrhills in Florida, my canopy collapsed at 20 feet as I was coming in on final. I broke the fibula at my left ankle and dislocated and fractured my tibia. The abrupt plunge also caused intense fear and anxiety about skydiving. Mechanical turbulence caused the accident: I landed close to the hangar and the wind rolling over it and into the landing area collapsed my parachute.
How could this happen to me? I was consistent with my safety routine. I had a very specific protocol I reviewed on every jump. I didn’t do anything unsafe. There wasn’t anything I didn’t check. But was this really true? Was I familiar with the potential obstructions in the landing area? Was I comfortable with the wind conditions? Some say it was a freak accident that could have happened to anyone. I agree it could have happened to anyone, but I don’t agree it couldn’t have been prevented. If I had taken some additional safety precautions at a drop zone I wasn’t very familiar with, I could’ve reduced the risk of an accident.
It was a chilly morning in Zephyrhills. I was excited to compete with my team, DeLand Rexcel. Only one month before, I returned from the USPA Nationals with a bronze medal in intermediate 8-way with Blocksmiths XP. Having fewer than 350 jumps, I felt accomplished. Perhaps this sense of accomplishment gave me a false sense of security.
That morning, the winds felt slightly gusty. When I met up with the members of Rexcel, we started dirt diving right away, and I focused on learning my new slot. Did I look at the landing-area map or pay attention to hazards? Did I check the winds? Nope. The only conversation regarding the landing area was about landing pattern and direction. I have to admit, these limited inquiries were my standard when jumping at a new DZ.
On the first jump, I felt significant turbulence at about 1,000 feet. Once I landed, the goal was to debrief and continue with the competition. Did I stop to evaluate the wind conditions? Did I gauge where the turbulent winds were coming from? Again, the answer is no. I had an opportunity to assess the situation, but I didn’t. The conditions were not obviously unsafe or extreme, which is why I didn’t stop to think about it. I think this is the case for many jumpers, especially when they’re focused on training, competition or simply great fun.
On the second jump, I felt a sudden bump and a significant drop at around 900 feet. All I wanted to do then was land and check the wind conditions. As I came around to final, I noticed I was not traveling forward much. I was getting ready to pull my toggles down to flare when I dropped straight down and landed flat on my feet. My left foot landed on a patch of overgrown grass and I rolled hard on my ankle. The snap, crackle and pop told me I had broken bones. The experience was surreal.
The physical recovery from the injury was difficult, but it was the easiest element to overcome. The mental aspect was more challenging. I was hesitant about returning to the sport because I felt powerless over what happened. What I learned is that we can never feel too experienced in skydiving. Taking responsibility for the situation has empowered me by making me safer. These are questions I now ask myself as part of my Stranger (DZ) Danger procedure before every jump (in addition to my usual safety protocols):
- What are the obstructions in the landing area?
- Where might turbulence come from?
- Am I comfortable with the wind conditions?
It took me seven months to get back to jumping, and I now get to enjoy it with newfound respect. The experience was terrifying, but it taught me a very valuable lesson.
Leslie Eggenberger | C-43012 | Winter Springs, Florida