When the Parachute Fails…i

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.

And then…

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.

Never say die

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.

Out of the Blue into the Tree!!

“Out of the blue, into the tree,” is the Hindi equivalent of: “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.” That is exactly what happened to me (the Hindi one) when I parachuted through the clear blue Goa sky on a fine January day in 1986.

It was a skydiving demonstration as a part of the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of the Liberation of Goa. I was in charge and leading a team of skydivers. The forecast winds were way beyond the performance characteristics of the parachute we were using, and the capabilities of the jumpers, to counter. Prudence demanded that I called off the demonstration jump. But then, the thought that organisers and the spectators would be disappointed impelled me to give it a try.

To our good luck, the winds died down absolutely by the time our helicopter came overhead to commence the drop. Flight Lieutenant Thapar from the ground control transmitted the position of the streamer (a piece of cloth that has the descent characteristics of a parachute) that I had dropped to judge the actual winds. The position of the streamer also confirmed gentle winds. It was safe to jump.

It was a clear blue sky and fine weather for a parachute jump but my mind was still clouded by the forecast of very strong winds. So, I decided to err on the positive side. I signalled thumbs up to the jumpers (to jump out) much upwind of the sports ground––where we were to land in front of the spectators––hoping that the winds would help them drift and make it to the target on the ground.

It was a mistake. Jumpers could barely make it to the sports ground––a few landed in the front of the spectators others landed scattered outside the ground. I was the farthest from the landing area. Tall trees welcomed me as I approached mother earth. Despite my best efforts to avoid them, I landed in a big one. My fall through the tree broke several branches before the suspension lines of my parachute got stuck and I was jolted to a stop. It was an uneasy feeling dangling ten feet above the ground.

In the time I took to take stock of the situation, several thoughts flashed past my mind.Burma Radio Operator The worst recall was that of the vivid account of a radio operator who had bailed out of a disabled aircraft over the thick forests of Burma during the Second World War. In a similar situation i.e., hanging from a tree, he was attacked by giant red ants. He tried to cut free of his parachute harness by shooting at its webbing with his service weapon. He shot himself with the last bullet when he failed to come out of the situation and the nuisance of the ants became unbearable. His skeleton was found hanging upside down in the parachute harness when the search and rescue team found him several moths later.

It was a silly recall. I was in a much better situation, less than half a kilometre from the ground. People would soon come looking for me. In any case, I did not wait for them. I followed the standard drill: I whipped open my reserve parachute and lowered it to the ground; carefully unfastened my parachute harness and slithered down to safety. Recovering the parachute was an arduous task.

That parachute jump in Goa is one of my most memorable ones for all the wrong reasons.

Tipping the Fear of the Unknown

“Aren’t you scared abandoning a perfectly well flying aircraft mid-air? How did you feel when you made the first parachute jump? What motivated you to volunteer for such a perilous duty?” I have been asked those questions, and the like, umpteen times since I qualified as a Parachute Jump Instructor (PJI) at the prestigious Paratroopers’ Training School, Agra way back in the October of 1982.

I have trained hundreds of jumpers, including the NCC cadets. Individuals undertake parachute jumps for different reasons. Some want to prove a point––to themselves, to others, to the world. Some do it for adventure. Many in the army do it for the lure of the Maroon Beret and the paratrooper’s brevet––by far the most coveted insignia on a military uniform. The saying goes: “On the eighth day God created the paratroopers and the devil stood at attention.”

I knew little about PJI duties when I volunteered for selection for such a job. I was newly commissioned and posted as a logistics officer at an Equipment Depot in Devlali. Flight Lieutenant UR Rao, a PJI himself, was a role model for us youngsters. He said that it was a wonderful life as a PJI; we would get a glimpse of it during the selection process. “In any case, you’ll be able to see the Taj Mahal when you go to Agra,” he used to chuckle.

My training at Sainik School Rewa and the National Defence Academy, saw me through the tough selection. During the process, we were taken for an air experience in the Packet aircraft (an aircraft of WW II vintage). “The noise and the vibrations of this aircraft might be enough to force a person to bail out,” I wondered.

The toughening phase commenced on the following New Year’s Day (1982). Even in the biting cold and foggy winter of Agra, by 7 am, one could squeeze half a litre of sweat from our jerseys. There was no compromise. We were being trained to undertake assignments that would involve lives––on our actions would depend the safety of scores of paratroopers.

The training for the Para Basic Course lasted 12 days. Following an aptitude test we were ready for the first jump.

“Why the heavens did I opt for this?” That question hit me hard as the aft end door was opened over the drop zone and I was made to take position at the edge. It was scary standing in the open door of an aircraft flying at 225 kmph at a height of 1250 feet above the ground level. I wondered if I was better off as a logistics officer back in Devlali.

“Why? Why? Why?” The fear of the unknown was gnawing at my confidence. There were 30 seconds for the “G-R-E-E-N” signal to come on.

Turning back or looking back would amount to a weak resolve on my part––I had a decent opinion of myself. I couldn’t let myself down. Nonetheless, I managed a furtive glance into the aircraft. Standing behind me were four jawans, also ready to take their first plunge. They were quiet, absolutely quiet. Their faces were open books. Perhaps each was fighting a battle within. They were looking up to me to lead. I couldn’t have let them down.

I had found my trigger to go ahead.

Someone in the line hailed, “Chhatri Mata ki Jai!

“Green ON… G-O,” barked the despatcher.

Like a bullet I threw myself out of the aircraft. The parachute opened before I could count: “One thousand, two thousand, th-r-e-e…” The winds were gentle. On landing, the parachute collapsed like a pricked balloon. It was an experience of a lifetime. I smiled at my pre-jump apprehensions.

In the following years, as an instructor I always allayed the anxiety of my trainees by telling them that jumping from an aircraft was safer than crossing roads in Delhi.”

It takes right trigger to overcome the fear of the unknown.