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Skydive Las Vegas in 1996, when I initially got my tandem rating, was not exactly what you’d call a supportive environment where you could learn from your mistakes. It was very much the opposite. If you fucked up, you were sure to, at the very least, get your ass publicly ripped by the DZO Mikey Hawkes, but more times than not, you’d get fired as well. So, people not only tried not to do ANYTHING wrong, but were much more likely to try and cover it up if they did.
Now I agree, skydiving isn’t a terribly forgiving sport when it comes to making mistakes—not big ones anyway—but knowing that if you do, you’re completely fucked is about the best way in the world to guarantee mistakes.
Everyone has fucked up videos. I’ve screwed up more than my fair share of rolls of film. (Yes, you little young fuckers, we actually used to use something called film in skydiving.) I’ve had camera malfunctions, tape mals, screwed-up exits and more, but video mistakes are pretty easy to fix, especially when you work for a drop zone that mails the damn videos to the student two weeks after the jump. Those mistakes are pretty meaningless really, and you tend to learn from them ‘cause they take money out of your pocket. The ones that really suck though …
I hadn’t wanted to get my tandem rating. At all. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now. I’d been forced to get the rating by good old Mikey when he told me that if I didn’t, I could basically go fuck off. So … tandem rating it was.
I hated it. I mean I really hated it! It not only made the day-to-day job one I didn’t look forward to, but it legitimately scared me in the beginning, and that’s really not the guy you want strapped to your back. Not only was I pushed into the rating, but I was thrown into a very hectic rotation with no time to let any of the lessons I was trying to learn on each and every jump soak in. Eventually it was gonna bite me in the ass …
She was pear shaped. She was whiny. She was as uncomfortable in the harness as a pear-shaped whiny woman was going to be. She wasn’t just bitching under canopy, she was borderline screaming about how uncomfortable the leg straps were, and no matter what I said or did, she wouldn’t shut the hell up. All those little tricks you learn along the way to keep this kind of thing from happening I still had yet to learn, so I was completely thrown off what little game I had that I pretty much stopped paying attention to anything but her mouth and the fact that it wouldn’t fucking close.
We were using the old Vector system at the time, and if memory serves, I was hanging under a 421-square-foot, F-111 beast of a canopy with this miserable human being hanging in front of me, just wanting to get back to Earth as quickly as I could. I’d given up on even trying to talk to my passenger at this point, because she had slipped from English into some sort of high pitched screech, occasionally punctuated by a random grunt or two and it was seriously freaking me out. Unfortunately for her, it freaked me out so much so that I committed the horrible cardinal sin on those old canopies: I forgot to pick up the flair toggles.
If you’re a tandem instructor from back in the day then you know. When I realized I’d forgotten them, I made the whole situation a whole lot worse by snatching for them low, instead of beginning my flare early. The result? I flared all the way to my toes and the only thing that changed was my expression. The next change to occur was the shape of her ankle as she sat on it. Hard. I probably didn’t actually hear it snap, but I sure as hell imagined I did later. The rest was all her. Fuck me, could that woman scream!
In retrospect, it was totally my fault. Yes, she was a horrible student. Yes she bitched and moaned and complained through the whole experience, and I hated having her as a passenger. Yes she sat on her own god damn foot instead of picking it up. But … I didn’t do my job. I didn’t take care of my pain-in-the-ass student. I didn’t pick up the flare toggles, and when I realized my mistake, I tried way too late to do what I should have done in the first place, instead of working with what I’d given myself … Totally my fault. Hard lesson to learn, but learn it I did.
Four broken lines. Same drop zone. Same shit. I should have cut the damn thing away, but it was pretty well-known that Mikey hated it when you chopped his gear. I had a light passenger, the controllability check seemed OK and as it worked out, the landing was fine—BUT, I got it wrong. I should have cut that fucker away without a second thought. I never ever should have let that son of a bitch on the ground dictate how I dealt with an emergency. Another hard lesson to learn, but one I can proudly say I’ve never repeated.
The harshest wind I’d ever jumped in. It was out of control steady over 30, gusting to 35-plus, and there we were, turning on to jump run. No doubt about it: you ride the plane down when The Man says it’s good to go? You can just pack up your shit when you land. So with the most sincere handshake and an, “It’s been nice working with you,” from Simon, the tandem instructor I was filming, out on the strut I climbed, relatively sure that if I didn’t get myself killed on this one, I was at least gonna bend the fuck out something.
My Stilletto 120 felt like it was a 210 from the speed I was backing up, and with my camera helmet on, my peripheral vision was absolute shit but somehow, either from sheer dumb luck or just enough skill, I managed to put my feet down just close enough to the tandem catchers for them to grab my toggles and shut me down. It’s the only time I’ve ever had to have catcher on a sport canopy, and If I think about it, it’s the only time I’ve ever seen it. Simon, being just as good as we all thought he was, placed those toggles right into the catchers’ hands as they were doing Mach 5 backward, and with not much more than a little slide on their asses, he and he student were back safely on the ground. According to one of the guys on the ground, the winds were just shy of 40 when we left the plane. Since that jump, every time the wind was too much for me I’ve stood down, and fuck you if you think I’m a pussy for it. My name is “Princess” for a reason.
I paint a picture that I was forced into these situations and had I been given a choice, I could have handled it better. The truth is: I did have a choice.
I had a choice and in these, and in many more instances, I got it wrong. I could have handled each and every one of these drastically better than I did, either by not putting myself in the situation in the first place, or by not allowing someone else to dictate my behavior. I’ve always said you need to go with your instincts in this sport, and I still firmly believe it.
But … For as fucked as these were, and many of the other mistakes I’ve made, I would like to think that I’ve managed to learn valuable lessons from them all, and with sincere hope, avoided making the same mistakes twice!
We all fuck up from time to time, but, especially in a sport like skydiving, I highly recommend you do your best to learn from someone else’s.
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