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After a Three and a Half Mile Fall, I Landed on My Feet

By Richard Walkup

November 1, 1965, was a bench mark in my beloved sport of skydiving.  The event occurred on a warm breezy autumn afternoon during my 235th parachute jump.  I’d been a member of the Omaha Sky Divers since April, 1962.  During those three years I developed several close friendships among those of us who considered ourselves “hard core jumpers.”  We had just gotten our Cessna 180 out of the shop after a major engine overhaul, and three of us were going to ride it as high as it would take us before starting a long plunge.

But wait, let’s rewind back to the previous spring and summer.  For over a year my friends and I had dabbled with the prospect of making a jump from 35,000 feet, with a 33,000 foot free fall.  We realized we had two serious obstacles: First, the only aircraft that could take us to that altitude were the        C-130s, based at Offutt Air Force Base, and we knew the Air Force wouldn’t even consider such a request unless we had the proper high-altitude training.

Actually, the chances were slim to none that we’d receive cooperation from the military, but we decided the only way to find out was to try.  Lincoln Nebraska Air Force Base was in the beginning stages of closing, so we talked the officials there into to giving us the high altitude training we needed.  After completing the official course and enduring the decompression chamber we were ready to approach the officials at Offutt Air Force Base.

The answer from the Air Force was not just nay, but hell nay!

Our alternate plan was that three of us would board N5148E at the Council Bluffs Airport and climb to three separate exit altitudes over the drop zone.  The first two jumpers would exit at specific altitudes on the way to aircraft’s absolute ceiling, wherever that might be.  That was where I would begin my plunge.

After the first man left the airplane at 12,500 feet, we closed the door and, the pilot continued to guide our craft up to 18,000 feet where Shorty Janousek, my friend from the Lincoln Nebraska Parachute Club, would exit.  Shorty and I began sharing oxygen from a mask connected to a walk-around bottle at 12,000 feet, and planned to continue sipping the life giving gas until we left the airplane.  The pilot had his own oxygen.

As we climbed into the thin atmosphere, the temperature dropped, and breathing without the assistance of supplemental oxygen became more difficult.

At 18,000 feet while continuing to climb, the pilot lined up on the second jump run.  I watched Shorty as he leaned out of the opened sky-motive door and gave the pilot the necessary five and ten degree turns to line him up over his exit point.

I was really cold now.  The frigid breeze wafting in the opened door cut through my heavy wool shirt and jacket like an icy knife.  Shorty turned and handed me the oxygen mask.  Then he climbed out on the step, looked back at me, waved, and disappeared from view.

After the Cessna 180 became unburdened of Shorty’s one hundred-eighty pounds, the rate of climb increased ever so slightly.  But by the time my altimeter nudged at 20,000 feet, the airplane was barely flying at just above stall speed and we had stopped climbing.  The pilot knew the drill and he carefully started lining up for my jump run.

It seemed strange-eerie-viewing the terrain below as if from a high flying airliner.  I stuck my head out the door attempting to use the oxygen while spotting my jump, but the Neoprene line connecting the mask to the tank was not long enough.  Frustrated, I tossed the mask back onto the seat.  Without supplemental oxygen, movements, like reaching for something or climbing forward on to your hands and knees causes you to become weak, breathless and winded, but I figured I could endure it for the few seconds it took to reach the exit point.  When we’d nearly reached the landmark on the ground that I was aiming for, I crawled forward and out onto the step.  The prop blast hit me like an Artic storm!

When the exit point moved directly under me, I pushed away and tumbled uncontrollably in the thin air.

Below 12,500 feet, a freefalling parachutist reaches terminal velocity in twelve seconds, the maximum speed you can fall in a spread-eagle position when gravity is overcome by air drag.  That speed stabilizes at about one hundred and twenty miles an hour.  In the thin air of 20,000 feet, reaching terminal would take longer and terminal velocity speed increases to about one hundred-fifty miles an hour.

Finally, after fifteen to eighteen seconds, I gained aerodynamic control, beginning the longest freefall in my sky diving experience.

When I’d checked the winds aloft forecast earlier that morning, the wind at 18,000 feet was forecast to be from the north at seventy knots.  The forecast must have been close to accurate, because I was drifting south at a pretty good clip, but as I descended lower the direction of drift changed to the east.  As I passed through 14,000 feet, the air became warmer, and when I’d reached 10,000 feet, it was like dipping my body into a warm bath.

In free fall at one hundred-twenty miles an hour, the only sensation of falling is the spreading edges of the horizon.  There is no rushing sensation when you look straight down.  It’s like being suspended motionless in space on a cushion of air.  But as you fall closer to the surface there is a point when you begin to see the ground moving up to you, at first very slowly, but the lower you get, the more rapidly the perceived speed of closure increases.  We call this ground rush.  Each skydiver experiences this phenomenon at different altitudes.  For me, ground rush typically began at about 4,000 feet.  But during this ninety-second free fall, I experienced ground rush at 8,000 feet!

Had my altimeter malfunctioned?  “No,” I told myself, “trust my equipment.”

While passing through 3,000 feet, I reached for my ripcord handle and slipped it out of its pocket…waiting…waiting.  Ground rush was so pronounced at 2,500 feet I was sorely tempted to pull, but I waited.  At 2,200 feet I pulled the ripcord, re-spread my extremities and waited some more.  Free falling is such a grand adrenalin rush I seldom wondered if this would be the day I might have a malfunction.  But after I pull the ripcord, I always wonder, big time.  From a height of eighteen hundred feet, if the parachute does not open, while falling at one hundred twenty miles per hour, you have about eight seconds until impact!

I was still waiting for the opening sequence when I realized that the pilot chute was out but was bouncing around in a cone of low pressure over my back.  I dipped my shoulder, freeing the all important miniature chute and felt the canopy string out, pulling me vertical, and again, I waited.  Finally, after falling for a minute and a half from 20,000 feet the canopy snapped open.  High G forces of deceleration pushed me heavily into my harness; my head weighing four times its normal weight was pulled down, pressing my chin against my chest.  Finally my speed was checked and the rush was over.  Now hanging below my canopy, descending at a mere twelve miles an hour, life was never so delicious, I was drunk and giddy on adrenalin.

I looked up to make sure my canopy was fully deployed, and then at my altimeter.  1,800 feet.  I searched the ground for the cloth target.  When I didn’t see it; I reached up to the left riser and pulled the steering toggle.  After a turn of about a hundred degrees, I lined up on the target a couple hundred yards ahead.  The descent beneath the canopy was quiet, peaceful and beautiful.  With a forward air speed of twelve miles an hour, and a head wind of eight to ten, I’d never make all the way to the target.  When I glanced at Lake Manawa a mile ahead and to my left, memories of my first water jump came to mind.  As I descended through 800 feet, several of the jumpers on the ground and their kids and wives began to move toward where I was expected to land.

Turning squarely into the wind, and adjusting the forward speed with both toggles, the parachute descended the last hundred feet with no forward momentum.  As the ground moved up to my feet I prepared myself for impact.

After a three and a half mile free fall, I landed on my feet!

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