Along with other trainees in his skydiving training program, 22-year-old Christopher Jones has done everything required to be attempting his first solo skydive.
Ascending in the Cessna 182 over the Australian countryside near his home in Perth, Jones mentally prepared for what will be an accelerated freefall and his fifth ever skydiving experience.
A Little Nervous
Jones was a little nervous, as would be expected of anyone making their first jump not connected to a fellow instructor or experienced professional.
He remained confident, however, and calmed his racing heart by going over in his head each maneuver he was about to perform.
The required altitude of 12,000 feet was reached, and the green light on the wall began to flash, letting Jones and the others know that the pilot gave permission for them to start their jumps.
Although this was Jones’ first solo jump, he was accompanied by Sheldon MacFarland, a 25-year veteran of the sport with more than 10,000 jumps to his credit. The door opened and Mcfarland signaled to Jones to take the ready position.
The air was cold on this November day, and Jones did his best to embrace the expected chill. The blustery wind was loud enough to make communication nearly inaudible between him and his instructor, but they were connected via radio headset, and they also communicated with learned non-verbal hand signals.
Jones and MacFarland made sure one last time that they were properly equipped with everything they needed: goggles, helmet, jumpsuit, main parachute, and reserve parachute were all secured. McFarland would be communicating with him in the air, and everything would be recorded on camera for later review.
“Check in,” Jones said with a thumbs-up to McFarlane; standard protocol letting him know he was ready to jump.
“OK,” replied McFarlane with a thumbs-up.
Looking down from the edge of the plane, Jones took in the full beauty of the vast countryside on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other.
“Sky!” he shouted, indicating that he knew in which direction to jump and had gotten his balance. McFarlane gave him another thumbs-up.
A Complicated History – Plan B
When Jones was a child, his first flying experience was when he flew with his uncle in a small airplane. He was hooked, and not long after that, he decided he wanted to become a pilot someday. He loved to fly.
At the age of 12, that dream would be put on hold after he was diagnosed with epilepsy. Doctors said he would never be allowed to get his pilot’s license.
Plan B came years later after he made his first tandem jump in Europe. He learned that the rush of a free fall was at least equal to navigating an airplane from the cockpit. In an interview with Reader’s Digest, he said he told his parents, “If I can’t fly a plane, I’ll jump out of one instead.”
Outside Of The Norm
He found out later that epileptics aren’t normally allowed to skydive alone. However, Jones was given a pass on that rule, because he hadn’t had a seizure in over six years. The WA Skydiving Academy in Jandakot, a suburb of Perth, was no challenge for Jones. He easily completed all requirements, having learned so much about the sport on his own.
Donna Cook, one of his skydiving instructors, said Jones was “a star pupil.” As it turns out, Jones was praised for his knowledge and enthusiasm of other staff members as well. They all agreed that he was ready to solo.
As he stood on the ledge ready to make that first solo jump, he felt the pride and support of everything he had done to get him to this point, and he was ready.
A Clumsy Exit
Jones’ jump would be a quick one. At 12,000-feet, the entire experience, from exit to landing, would take two minutes. He lost his balance and stumbled a bit, nearly slipping right out of the plane as he got into full position. He regained his balance quickly, however, and chalked it up to common first-time nervousness.
With his back turned to the sky, Jones gripped the sides of the open door. After arching his back demonstrating that he is in full position to jump, he yelled to McFarlane, “Up! Down! Hard arch!” This is skydiving slang for “Ready, set, go!”And with that, he jumped from the plane into the wild blue yonder!
Dual Free Falling
McFarlane followed, just seconds behind him. His instructor took note that Jones was in exactly the position he should be, a perfect “box man” position.
Both sailed through the air, waiting the one minute it took to reach the 5,000-foot mark, where they would engage their chutes. Everything was a thumbs-up at that point, and they began a training and testing portion of the dive.
McFarlane signaled to Jones at 9,000 feet to start an aerial left-hand turn. Jones started to make the turn, but stopped suddenly and veered right instead. He continued drifting, leaving McFarlane baffled.
Jones then appeared to miss Mcfarland’s other instructions, and that’s when he realized something had gone wrong. Jones’ knees came up to meet his chest and he flipped over to his back, arms extended and flailing, out of control. McFarlane was not aware that Jones had epilepsy, so he tried to figure out what the heck was going on!
“Come on, Christopher!” McFarlane shouted.
But Jones fell helplessly, spinning on his back. McFarlane thought he might be suffering from sensory overload. But that’s usually only seen in a small percentage of rookie divers, and Jones was anything but that. Whatever it was, he knew that Jones was completely incapacitated, and the man would be spiraling toward the earth towards his imminent death, unless he could find a way to help.
A Life Or Death Rescue Attempt – Plan C
McFarlane knew that Jones was equipped with an Automatic Activation Device (AAD) that would automatically open his main parachute at 2,000 feet, but he feared that wouldn’t give Jones enough time to regain control before landing. Also, the odds that he could fly directly into a power line, tree, river, or anything else was high. He also knew AADs have failed before.
McFarlane heard the beeping of his preset audible altimeter in his ear, telling him now was the time to deploy his main chute so he could land safely. He ignored it. Instead, he decided to free fall down to Jones to try to open his parachute.
McFarlane, chin up and arms back, put himself in “speed position,” like a super hero, focussed on reaching Jones as fast as he possibly could. It was a life or death decision McFarland made that put both of them at risk.
McFarlane quickly realized that he was coming in way too fast, and he was afraid he’d smash into Jones or that Jones would suddenly pull his rip cord and entangle them both. He aborted the attempt. Jones continued to free fall on his back, unconscious, and uncontrolled.
The second beeping warning, the last, was heard by McFarland, letting him know this is it—either he deployed his chute or he would hit the ground. The most skilled skydivers in the world don’t open their chutes lower than 2,000 feet, and McFarlane is just 14 seconds from that limit.
Last Chance – Plan D
He made the decision to dive to Jones one more time. This time, he gripped Jones’s harness and rolled his body sideways. If he was not in the correct position before pulling the rip cord, all efforts would have been lost.
McFarlane then grabbed Jones’ chute handle and pulled hard, releasing his main parachute and turning Jones so he was sitting upright in his harness.
“Thank God!” was all McFarlane could think, as Jones reversed direction, heading upward into the blue sky. A crash landing could still easily kill Jones, but this was his only chance to survive at all.
Jones, however, created yet a new concern as he drifted unconscious further and further off course. Cook tried to radio Jones again, but there was still no response. Hoping he would eventually regain consciousness and be able to hear her, so she kept trying: “Turn right, Chris! Turn right!”
Finally, Jones, who was drooping like a rag doll in his parachute, regained consciousness and groggily realized the ground was approaching.
Still dazed, but awake, he landed safely.
Jones began to comprehend what just happened, and he immediately approached McFarland and hugged him, feet firmly planted on the ground.
“Thank you very much,” said Jones as McFarland told him he just suffered an epileptic seizure. “You just saved my life.”
Jones hasn’t had a seizure since that fateful day, but he says his skydiving days are over. McFarlane was awarded the Gold Cross from the Royal Life Saving Society, Western Australia, after the incident.