Two questions often asked of me relate to: First, my maiden parachute descent and second, a possible parachuting emergency––a parachute failure, to be precise––that I might have faced. I have written about my first jump from an aircraft, in an earlier post.
The question relating to parachute emergency is put in interesting ways: “What if your main parachute doesn’t open? What if your reserve parachute also does not open? Has your parachute ever failed? How did it feel like to be in that situation?” Questions of that ilk take me back to a sunny October morning nearly thirty years ago. The memory is still vivid because it was a matter of my life and I had but a few seconds to decide and act.
It was a Skydiving Demonstration at Air Force Station, Ambala. The AN-32 aircraft with Akashganga, the Skydiving Team of the IAF on board, was cruising at 225 kmph 6000 feet above the ground level. I was a member of the team. The team leader gave thumbs up––the universal sign conveying readiness when the aircraft was overhead the spectator stand. Then he opened the barrier at the aft end of the aircraft and roared, “Go!” On that command, the team members jumped out of the aircraft one after the other in quick succession. I, being the lightest, was the last to exit the aircraft. Within seconds, we reached our terminal velocities and were falling at 120-200 feet per second. We had been assigned different (staggered) parachute opening heights to avoid a melee at the time of landing on the target––a circle of 15 metres diameter in front of the enthusiastic crowd.
The Strato Cloud parachute that I was jumping with had a canopy shaped like the wing of an aircraft. Once deployed, it behaved like a glider. Rather than descending vertically, it could glide (with a good glide ratio of 3) and speed, 40-50kmph. Its high manoeuvrability and high sensitivity to controls enabled experienced jumpers to execute pinpoint landings. At the same time, mishandling of the controls could lead to serious injuries at the time of landing.
The spectators looked skywards and counted the jumpers who appeared like tiny specks falling from the aircraft. They held their breaths waiting for the parachutes to open. The jumpers falling below me deployed their parachutes at their assigned heights. I too threw away the pilot chute (a small parachute which initiates the opening sequence of a parachute). In a second and a half, my parachute was filled with air. And then…began an ordeal, the memory of which, even today sends a chill down my spine.
The suspension lines on one side of my parachute were jumbled up and the canopy was badly distorted. The partially deployed parachute began turning to the right. My effort to recover the situation by tugging at the suspension lines was in vain; I could not untangle them. Soon the turns became vicious and I felt like a stone at the end of a sling spiralling down at a tremendous speed. In a last-ditch effort I pulled the suspension lines down to stop the turns. Thanks to the gruelling training under Sergeant R Singh, I had developed strong muscles to deal with such situations. My effort met with partial success. The turns slowed down to a stop (almost) but now the parachute headed for an incipient stall––a condition in which there could be a sudden loss of height (40 to 50 feet). Holding on to the lines could result in a stall. I was still at 4500 feet above the ground level. A stall close to the ground would be disastrous. I recalled with horror, an accident involving Warrant Officer Augustine who had been sentenced to the confines of a wheel chair due to a heavy landing in a similar situation.
There was a surge of adrenaline and yet my mind went on some quick errands. I was reminded of our son eliciting a promise from me while bidding me bye that morning to make a paper bird for him that could flap its wings. I wondered whether I would see him ever again, let alone teach him origami. Then I recalled Squadron Leader Ajgaonkar’s ordeal a year or so ago. He had promptly deployed his reserve parachute and landed safely. “Never Say Die” was the gospel he had passed on to us. “Am I in the same situation?” I asked myself. “His was a high-speed emergency––a total failure, no parachute at all. Mine was a slow speed emergency; I had at least a partially functioning canopy over my head. What if I jettisoned the malfunctioning main parachute and the reserve parachute also had a problem?” That silly thought had a numbing effect.
Mudit…origami…Augustine in wheelchair…Ajgaonkar…. All those thoughts whizzed past in a jiffy as I struggled to revive the parachute to a fully inflated state as per the Standard Operating Procedure.
There was an eerie feeling of stillness. Had time coagulated? No, it was just an illusion. Time, and height above the ground–the two most precious things for me at that instant–was fast running out. The impartiality of the earth’s gravity was evident in the rate at which the (unwinding) needle of my altimeter was sweeping the face of the instrument.
“Should I risk a stall with a jumbled main canopy, or jettison it and go for the reserve parachute?” The reserve parachute was smaller in size and low on performance. We used to joke: “The main parachute is meant for a safe landing; the reserve–to ensure survivability with possible disability.” The dilemma was damning. I was a mere 2500 feet above the ground and approaching it at a breakneck speed. I was left with a few precious seconds in which, to decide, and cram deliberate action on which, would depend my life and safety of my limbs. I pulled down my goggles, which had become foggy due to excessive sweating.
Suddenly everything became tranquil. Reason elbowed away the silly thoughts from my mind. There was every reason to rely on the reserve parachute that had been packed by the most proficient hands and overseen by the most careful eyes; those of the Safety Equipment Workers of the Paratroopers’ Training School. There was every reason to rely on the training I had undergone and feel in control of the situation.
I took the most vital decision in that situation––the decision to jettison the main parachute and pull open the reserve parachute. A tug at the cutaway handle got me rid of the malfunctioning main canopy. With the Newton’s Law of Gravitation at work I went hurtling down, as I got detached from the malfunctioning parachute. Again I was approaching Mother Earth at a very high speed, and accelerating. Then, without further delay, I pulled the ripcord handle of the reserve parachute. Sight of a fully deployed reserve parachute was a great relief.
I was now just about 2000 feet above the ground level. Joy rioted in my heart; the wind with prankish flurry caused the stabilisers of the parachute to flap rhythmically. Their flutter was music to my ears. Since I had lost a lot of height, I executed a tight circuit and headed for the landing area. I felt victorious and exhausted as I landed on the target.
As I removed my helmet and unfastened the parachute harness, I realised that the enthusiasm, and the frolicking associated with a skydiving demonstration by the Akashganga Team was conspicuously missing among the spectators. In its place was a lingering melancholy. The main canopy that I had jettisoned a while ago had fallen a mile away from the spectators. They took it to be a total failure of the parachute and perhaps a fatal accident. Concern for the safety of the unknown skydiver had cast a shadow of gloom. They heaved a sigh of relief when they came to know the fact.
In the flight back from Ambala, I went through the day’s events. Mind flew ahead of the aircraft and I wanted to be with my family soon. “How would I disclose the incident to my wife without causing anxiety?” I wondered.
Chhaya was awaiting me at home at lunch with a plate of Russian Salad and a smile. Being a parachute jumper herself, she took the incident in a stride. I devoured the Russian Salad and was soon off for another Skydiving Demonstration in Agra.
And now, the answer to the interesting question: “What if the reserve parachute also does not open?” Wing Commander AK Singh, a colleague parachute Jump Instructor has an answer: “If your main parachute fails and the reserve also does not open then you are jumping to C-O-N-C-L-U-S-I-O-N.”