Tales from the Bonfire - How NOT to Break a World Record

“Basically, there are only two things you must do on any skydive: pull and flare. In that order. If you forget the first one, don’t worry about the second.” I have occasionally made that facetious statement as a funny way to explain simplifying priorities. But in the sunny skies over Rochelle, Illinois, in June 2013, those priorities were no joke. W hile hurling myself at the planet with a broken right arm, I was challenged to put my own advice to the ultimate test.

I happened to be near Chicagoland Skydiving Center and thought I would check out the DZ, as I had met several skydivers from there but had never visited. I discovered after arriving that a Parachutists Over Phorty Society event was about to take place over the following days. After a shrewd suggestion, Betsy Hoats—the rigger at the CSC loft—and I decided to try to set a POPS W omen’s Sequential Formation Skydiving 2-W ay W orld Record. It was going to be easy (so we thought) because there was no previous record and both of us were seasoned AFF instructors who were very current on our bellies. We planned an easy 12 points from 14,500 feet.

We were first out. I was in the door outside of the PAC 750, hanging onto the plane with the wind in my face, ready to go. But as we left the plane together, my arm was pinned very briefly—for just a split second—with my elbow against the frame of the door and my wrist against Betsy’s shoulder. There wasn’t a lot of force, but this momentary pinch put enough pressure on my forearm to snap my radius in half like a toothpick. Instead of breaking a world record, I broke my arm!

I was confused, in extreme pain and in denial at this unexpected, fluke event. I bump myself all the time while instructing tandems and count my bruises on Mondays, but I rarely feel these minor events as they happen. So it surprised me that I felt a significant amount of pain. W hile Betsy was looking around for our photographer, I took a look at my arm to assess the situation. At first, it just looked swollen, but as I peeled back my jumpsuit, my distinct thought was, “ My arm isn’t supposed to look like that!” For a second or two (which felt like several minutes), I struggled to wrap my mind around the reality that I was in freefall with a broken arm and had only about 30 seconds to figure out how to deal with it. Oh, and guess which arm it was? Yes, my right arm. My pull hand!

At first, I was in denial since I still really wanted to get that world record! I shrugged off the pain. I’ve played hurt before. I thought, “ We can get these points quick enough and I’ll still be able to pull high.” Betsy turned and presented a side body to me. I knew I couldn’t grab a grip, so I just put my fist up to touch her leg. It was the smoothest, most gentle point ever, yet the force of my broken arm touching her leg bent my arm back in a way that was not only unnatural, it was intensely painful! I knew this crazy idea of turning points first was not going to work.

I then took a big sighing breath in then out, reset my body position, became neutral in the sky, didn’t maneuver and just simply fell calm and stable. I regularly teach my students how to regain body, altitude and situational awareness in an unexpected situation, so thankfully this came instinctively. This helped me slow time in my head so I could decide what to do next. I could not problem solve: There is no way to fix a broken arm in freefall, and I also knew that focusing on a problem wastes valuable time and is distracting. So I focused on the main goal: getting a parachute open. I couldn’t survive without it. A broken arm wouldn’t kill me, but having no parachute open would. This is where I had to use creativity quickly and persistently. I reached back with my broken arm and felt the handle, but I didn’t have any grip. I could not pull it out. I thought, “ I’ve handled difficult situations before, I can handle this, too. Of course, I’ll go where my eyes go, so focus on what works, on the positive, what I have available right in front of me. I have two parachutes in my container: my main and my reserve. I have two hands, although one works better than the other at the moment. And I have a little bit of time. Don’t fix anything, just remember the main goal of getting a parachute overhead.” Later, watching the video, it was remarkable to see human nature in process: The thoughts I had seemingly took minutes, but the video showed that only a handful of seconds passed.

I reached with my good hand, my left, around the back of my container and felt the handle, but my arm wasn’t long enough to pull it from the wrong side. I thought about reaching around the front with my left arm, but I might go unstable. I didn’t want to risk that. Another idea: I could pull my reserve parachute open with my left hand. “ I’ll save that idea,” I thought. “ I’ll give it one more try with my broken right arm, but since I can’t grip it, I’ll try to push it out however I can manage.” I then used the broken end of the bone to push the handle out into the air. The air took the pilot chute, and the canopy started to deploy. It felt like the most beautiful, on heading, smooth opening I had ever packed!

Whew! I did it! I had a canopy over my head. But then I faced another interesting situation: how do I steer and land with a broken arm? I tried the often-discussed idea of steering with one hand to no avail, so opted to push the toggle past the break in my arm and steer with both. Because it was so painful to use my right arm, I steered to the ground turning only left.

So the moral of the story is: two wrongs don’t make a right, but three lefts do! Actually, what I took from that situation, and what has been significant in all my decisions since, is that I did not consciously decide to use the valuable tools of regaining awareness and prioritizing. It was a habit from using that approach for years, consistently, every jump, as well as using it in my teaching. It was an attitude of persistence in the face of challenges. It was an approach of using creativity and positive thought processes instead of getting inundated with problems or complaints. It was a decision I had made long before: to focus on what’s really important and keep going until the goal is met. These were staples that skydiving experiences and my skydiving students had taught me over the years. And while that approach literally saved my life in a skydiving incident that particular day, developing and using it had long before saved my life metaphorically.

by Jen Sharp | D-17516 | Tandem and Coach Examiner, AFF Instructor and PRO
(but not a world record-holder)
Owner, Skydive Kansas in Osage City

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