Jumping… definitely not to conclusion

“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.

A skydiving demonstration in September 1988 was a humbling experience for me as a member of Akashganga, the Skydiving Team of the Indian Air Force. It was a matter of rare honour to have been tasked to jump and land into the Nehru Stadium, New Delhi during the Pre-Olympic Trial Games to cheer up our sportspersons headed for the Seoul Games later that month. On bailing out of a MI-17 helicopter, the Stadium—with its maroon race track, brightly coloured PVC seats, fluttering flags, ribbons, and buntings—looked like a bouquet of bloomed flowers. It was packed to capacity with euphoric spectators. We, the jumpers could hear their cheering a thousand feet above the ground as we manoeuvred our parachutes to land in their midst. The gaiety of the occasion was an integral part of Akashganga demonstrations—a given. But what followed that day was something unprecedented for me.

I was bundling up my parachute after landing on a predesignated part of the track when a young mother—with a child she was barely able to lift, and an older boy in tow—managed to slip past the security cordon, and staggered towards me. “Sir, please… my son wants to touch you,” she urged and, before I could realise what was happening, put the little one down and stretched his hand to enable him to touch me, and feel my parachute.

Soar like an eagle; land like a feather…

“You said you wanted to touch the uncle who jumped from the helicopter… here he is…,” she said to the child as she pulled the elder boy who was a bit hesitant, and made him follow suit. “See uncle is like us… he is not different,” she added excitedly as she encouraged the two youngsters to feel my overall clad arms and shoulders. Then pointing at the younger boy, she said to me, “My little one thought you people are gods descending from heaven… he wanted to touch you and have a close look at your parachute. It’s indeed a big day for my kids. This event will remain etched in their minds forever.”

I was overwhelmed.

All this happened in less than a minute. The mother didn’t argue with the security personnel who had followed her to shepherd the family away. Having accomplished their mission, the three prepared to leave. And, even as the lady took the boys away, the older one managed to say with all the confidence he had mustered in the minute gone by: “Uncle, what if, your parachute had not opened?” Although I told the curious child that I was carrying a reserve parachute to provide for that contingency, his question kept ringing in my mind for a few days before it was consigned to the less accessed recesses of my brain.

Whipping open a reserve parachute in case of a total failure of the main parachute, is a standard drill all jumpers practice before emplaning an aircraft for a jump. I had gone through that mock exercise before each of the hundreds of jumps I had carried out. In the process I had begun believing that opening a reserve parachute if, and when need arose, would be a reflex action. It’s a different matter though, that the thought of my parachute really failing never crossed my mind.

Not too far in the future, I would recall my interaction with the boy, and his innocent question, with a sense of déjà vu.

It happened about a month and a half later when I had almost forgotten the Nehru Stadium incident. It was yet another Akashganga demonstration; this time on, at Air Force Station Ambala. An AN-32 aircraft with our team on board, was cruising at 225 kmph, 6,000 feet above the ground. The team leader gave thumbs up––the universal sign conveying readiness––when the aircraft was over the spectator-stand. 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 detailed to exit the aircraft last. 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 facing the enthusiastic crowd.

The Strato Cloud parachute I was jumping with, had an aerofoil-shaped canopy. Once deployed, it behaved like a glider. Rather than descending vertically, it glided with a good glide ratio of 1:3. Simply put, it moved forward three feet for every foot of descent. It could reach airspeeds of 40-50 kmph. Its manoeuvrability and high sensitivity to controls enabled experienced jumpers to execute pinpoint landings. They used to say: “With deft handling of the control lines, one can land on a target as small as a lady’s kerchief.” Miscalculation, on the other hand, could lead to serious injuries.

The spectators looked skywards and counted the jumpers who popped out of the aircraft like tiny pebbles. They held their breath waiting for the parachutes to open. The jumpers falling below me deployed their parachutes at their assigned heights. I too threw away my pilot chute—a small parachute which initiates the opening sequence of the main 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.

Akashganga days…

The suspension lines on one side of my parachute were jumbled up and the canopy was badly deformed. The partially deployed parachute began turning to the right. My efforts to untangle the suspension lines were in vain. In a few seconds, the turns became vicious; I was hurled like a stone at the end of a sling and spiralling down at a tremendous speed. I pulled down the lines to stop the turns. Thanks to the gruelling training sessions under Sergeant R Singh, I had developed strong arms 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 would certainly result in a stall. I was still at 4,500 feet above the ground; a stall at that height would cause me no harm. But 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 for life due to a heavy landing.

There was a surge of adrenaline and yet my mind went on several quick errands. I was reminded of Mudit, my son, eliciting a promise from me while bidding me bye that morning to make a paper bird for him that could flap its wings. Let alone giving him lessons in origami, I wondered if I would live to see him again. Then I recalled Squadron Leader (later Air Vice Marshal) Ajgaonkar’s ordeal a year or so ago. In a similar emergency, 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 began comparing. “His was a high-speed emergency––total failure of the main parachute. I was faced with a slow speed emergency; I had, at least, a partially functioning parachute over my head. What if I jettisoned the malfunctioning main parachute and the reserve parachute did not open?”

That must-be-avoided-at-all-costs conversation with my own self had a numbing effect.

Mudit… origami… Augustine in wheelchair… Ajgaonkar…. Had time coagulated? No, it was an illusion. Time, and height above the ground, the two most precious commodities for me were 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 deformed main canopy, or jettison it and depend on the reserve parachute for a safe landing?” The dilemma was damning. I was a mere 2,500 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 survival, and the safety of my limbs. I pulled down my goggles, which had got fogged due to excessive sweating.

Suddenly everything became tranquil, and clear. Reason booted out all the silly thoughts from my head. There was no basis for assuming the possibility of failure of the reserve parachute. It had been packed by the most proficient hands and overseen by the most careful eyes; those of the skilled and conscientious Safety Equipment Workers of the Paratroopers’ Training School.

And then…

I took the most vital decision––the decision to jettison the main parachute and go for 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 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 white canopy was a great relief. 

When the parachute opened, I was 2,000 feet above the ground level—just about sufficient height to manage an accurate landing. Joy rioted in my heart; the wind with prankish flurry caused the stabiliser of the parachute to flap rhythmically. Its flutter was music to my ears. Since I had lost sufficient height, I executed a tight circuit and homed on to the landing area. I felt victorious and exhausted when I touched down softly on the target.

As I removed my helmet and unfastened the parachute harness, I realised that the usual enthusiasm, and the frolicking associated with an Akashganga display, was conspicuously missing. 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 had taken it to be a case of a total failure of the parachute and had feared 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. I also recalled my interaction with the little boy in Nehru Stadium: “Uncle, what if, your parachute had not opened?” Even in solitude, that thought registered a smile on my face. Then, mind, as is its wont, began wandering further. It flew way ahead of the aircraft, to my family in Agra. “How would I disclose the incident to my wife without causing anxiety?” I began contemplating.

At home, Chhaya was awaiting me at lunch with a plate of Russian Salad and her usual welcome hug. Having been a parachute jumper herself, she took the incident in a stride. I devoured the sumptuous lunch and was off for another Skydiving Demonstration in Agra that very afternoon.

That much to answer my little fan’s question about parachute failure. Parachuting today, is indeed as safe as safe can be—it is safer than crossing roads in Delhi. But then, there’s another curious question people sometimes pose: “What if the reserve parachute also fails?” Wing Commander AK Singh, a colleague veteran parachute Jump Instructor has an answer: “If your main parachute fails and the reserve parachute also does not open, then you are jumping to C-O-N-C-L-U-S-I-O-N.