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

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Mon, 04/17/2017 - 12:58

I was recently introduced to the same set of wind conditions. I had an "elevator ride" at 2.5. The winds aloft were intense. I know I was in the saddle @ 2.5 because as soon as I cleared my airspace I checked my altimeter. After the canopy checks I was about to turn to the DZ When WHAM! I was suddenly aware of all the places the harness touched my body. My first reaction was that my canopy had somehow exploded. I looked up and it was reinflating. I checked my altimeter and I was now at 2. Could I have possibly dropped 500 more or less? It definitely got my attention and I wondered if such a phenomenon could happen closer to the ground. You just answered that question . Since then I'm acutely aware of the variable winds. I have no problem scratching and have twice since then when the winds kept changing directions. Dust devil season is just starting at Perris and I have seen some giant ones . I don't have to impress anyone and if I don't like which way the breeze is blowing I'm not jumping until it settles down. Don't let one freak accident get the best of you. Use your best instincts and trust your own judgement. Blue Skies.

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