Tales from the Bonfire - Take Not Thine Altitude for Granted

by Joe McHenry | D-6770 | Newport, Pennsylvania

Unlike other commandments that I was taught in first-jump class, “Take not thine altitude for granted, lest the earth rise up and smite thee,” is carved in stone.

I started skydiving in 1974 in Alamogordo, New Mexico, near the Lincoln National Forest. The club was using mostly military-surplus parachute gear, and we landed hard in the high desert air. We also had only two altimeters for about 15 jumpers. Our jump pilot, Rainier, had a pretty thick German accent and was known as our “German Ace” because he had destroyed two American planes … in landing accidents. Rainier responded to all requests for altitude and heading with a laconic, “No svet.”

About six months after I began jumping, our DZ got kicked off the airport after my friend, John, performed a successful 20-second delay but then drifted across the runway under a 28-foot round canopy while a B-17 water bomber was on final approach. Our instructor, Bobby, found a disused airport about an hour’s drive north, and we planned to move our shoestring operation up there.

I was a few jumps shy of my B license, so I was picked to be on the first load over our new DZ, the Carrizoso Municipal Airport. At Alamogordo, most of the club members got into pickup trucks and headed north while five of us got our gear on for the flight to the new DZ. We gave Elmer, who had the least number of jumps, the number-five slot and the one altimeter available, and we got into the Cherokee 6 aircraft.

When we arrived over Carrizoso, we piled out of the door into the thin air and pretty quickly built a 4-way and held it, waiting for Elmer. He was about 20 feet out of the formation when he pulled his ripcord because his altimeter read 3,000 feet. (He later said he was thinking, “Good luck, guys!”) I wasn't looking his way. A few seconds later, one of the other jumpers, Bobby, dumped right out of the star. The three of us remaining dutifully turned to track away, but then I pulled without waving off because the desert looked really close.

After opening shock, I realized that it was also windy. The air was full of dust because the ground crew had been driving up and down the dirt runway trying to warn us of the high winds. After a very brief, wild ride (I’m glad it was under a round canopy), I did a PLF on landing and the wind dragged me until a mesquite bush snagged my main. Because Elmer opened first, he landed the farthest away, and we waited for him near the dusty airport sign that proclaimed “Connections to Worldwide Points!”

Another jumper, Dan, had cut away on landing, so we were sorting out his canopy when Elmer got back. As Elmer got out of his gear, I noticed that our one-and-only altimeter was still reading 1,200 feet. That's right … no one had thought to check (“no svet”), and as it turns out, Carrizoso is 1,200 feet higher than Alamogordo. So, when Elmer wished us luck and opened, he was going through two grand, not three. When Bobby dumped out of the star, we were approaching 1,000 feet. When we turned and tracked away, we were very close to the desert floor and lucky to have quick openings.

We learned from our close call, stuff like finding out field elevations and getting wind forecasts. The club moved twice more, to Organ and then to Las Cruces, New Mexico, and we never made those mistakes again. We also bought more altimeters and paid attention to them.

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