Tales from the Bonfire - I Broke My Back

by Angie Clifford | B-43066 | Berkeley, California

Like many of you, I fell into skydiving by chance and immediately fell in love. At the time of my accident, I had been in the sport six months and had a little more than 100 jumps. After 75 uneventful and comfortable landings on my docile, aging canopy, I considered moving to a newer canopy with better wind penetration and more horizontal glide but with the same wing loading (less than 1:1). I consulted AFF instructors, coaches and colleagues before making the move, and I understood that while my new canopy was relatively docile, it was less forgiving. I was comfortable with the change. Six jumps later, I had a hard landing and broke my back. As is often the case, the accident was the confluence of preventable events that were in my control.

At the time of my accident, I was focused on staying current, typically jumping one day or two days each weekend. After two weeks of weather holds, I took advantage of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and headed to the DZ. I had originally planned to do a solo jump and was ready to go in my freefly suit. Right after gear call, three friends asked if I wanted to do a 4-way belly jump. I love FS, so I was excited and I agreed to it. I wanted to change into my belly suit, but I knew there was not time, so I decided to jump in the freefly suit. The jumpers told me they had fast fall rates, and since I have a slower fall rate, I added weight to my weight belt. I had jumped with the same amount of weight on my previous canopy with no issues.

The skydive went well. We had a blast, turned points, broke off as planned, tracked as planned, and I deployed as planned. Under canopy, I entered the pattern as planned, but the winds were gusty. As I came in on final, the winds died down, and I realized I was coming in more quickly than I was used to. My gut reaction was to slow down as I approached the landing area.

As I reached full flare, I realized I was still too high above the ground. I remembered my training and held the canopy in brakes rather than releasing them. The canopy stalled, and I fell 10-15 feet. I performed a PLF, but when my feet hit, I heard a bone crack and instantly knew my back was broken.

I lay there yelling for help, but another skydiver had landed in a tree, so it took a minute for people to notice my cries and come to my aid. I told the first skydiver who arrived that I thought I might have broken my back. When I found that I could move my arms and legs, I rolled myself onto my stomach … in hindsight, a horrible idea with a spinal injury. I then lay there until others arrived. Unsure of what to do and with internal doubts about my spinal injury (maybe I was overreacting), I decided to get up on my own. It was painful, but I made myself stand up, and nobody told me to stay still and wait for medical attention.

After walking back to the hangar and waiting to see if I’d become paralyzed after the adrenaline wore off, I decided to go to the hospital at the urging of some fellow skydivers. I drove myself there because I did not want to impose on anyone.

At the hospital, I found I had a compression fracture on my L2 vertebra. I did not need surgery, but the injury required six to eight weeks of complete rest, followed by a slow recovery. I eventually started jumping again. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, a horribly hard opening fractured my back in an entirely different area, and I am once again out of the sport for a few more months. Horrific luck, but I am grateful to be able to write this, and grateful that I have learned from my mistakes:

Lesson 1: Gear call is the time to evaluate whether or not you are properly prepared for the jump. Did the groups change? Does everyone know breakoff altitude? Does everyone have the correct gear for the jump?

Lesson 2: Added weight changes canopy performance. I had jumped with the same amount of weight on my previous canopy with no issues, but the same amount of weight on this canopy had a different effect.

Lesson 3: Even canopies loaded the same can have very different performance characteristics. I flared too high, and with the increased canopy performance I was coming in faster than I was used to. I should have flown the canopy to my planned flare point. My previous canopy would have forgiven this mistake … and maybe it had before.

Lesson 4: A PLF can save your life. My spinal specialist told me that if I had leaned forward any more on my landing, I would likely have severed my spine.

Lesson 5: Don’t move if you are hurt. I am lucky that I did not do anything worse to my spine by moving immediately after my accident, and I’m grateful to be alive.

The most important thing I have learned is that it is OK to miss the next load in order to be prepared for the skydive. My friends will understand. In this case, I needed more time to evaluate whether I should wear weights and how it would affect my landing. I was new to my canopy, and it had been two weeks since my last skydive, so I should have jumped with less weight until I was much more comfortable with my new wing. I was rushing to jump that day because I had not jumped for a couple weeks and was eager to get back out there. That was my biggest mistake.

I hope that this will help others learn how to avoid my mistakes, as well as to remember to be careful when responding to those who have potentially injured their spines. My goal is to encourage education, preparation and positivity in this wonderful sport.

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