That First Chop; When it’s Time to Say Goodbye

If you’re in business long enough, eventually you’re gonna get audited by the IRS. It’s a given. It’s not an “if” but rather a “when.” You can do everything possible to avoid it, you can be the most conservative filer of taxes in a Republican system, but eventually the IRS is going to claim their day in your office or home looking up into the dark recesses of your physical and financial cavities.
In many ways, the first cutaway is like that, it’s not a question of “if” but rather “when.”
For some, their rig is like a lover. Caressed, gently packed outside of heat and light, always lovingly put to bed after each deployment. No one else permitted to touch her/him but you, and always considered with the most respectful and intimate thought. But still…one day she/he betrays you, leaving little choice but to cut away.

For those who aren’t skydivers, a chop, cutaway, breakaway, or that “o sh**” moment is when you realize your main parachute isn’t going to work, so you must cut it, chop it, or otherwise remove it from your body before deploying your reserve/emergency parachute. This is usually accomplished by using a “cutaway handle” designed to get rid of the offending partner. In the event of failure, a lot of flailing and curse words seem to help, and failing that, a hook knife is employed to cut off the wad of useless nylon and string.

My first occurred on Sunday, August 24, in Pepperell, Massachusetts at the Casa boogie.
It was the last jump of the day, last jump from the CASA, and last jump at sunset. Packers were frantically trying to get the last tandems done so they could fill the load, and so handed off my rig to another wingsuiter that they assured me “had plenty of packing experience.”
I was busy transferring video from various cameras to a hard drive system, so didn’t have time to break away and pack myself.

When Danny came up and told me he’d “never packed that kind of canopy before” I laughed it off. Another friend said “Aren’t you worried? If he’s never packed that canopy, don’t you think you should pack it?” I responded with “Look man, canopies WANT to open. As long as he doesn’t double wrap the locking stoes or something stupid like that, it’ll all be good.” Famous last words….

On the plane, Danny says “I sure hope that opens OK for you.”
“I do too.”
“I’ve never packed that kind of main before. I’m a little worried.”
“I’m not. But if I die from a malfunction, I’m coming back from the dead to kick your ass.”

We all exit the plane. The plan was to burble Purple Mike. First Scotty, then me, then Reed, and we were going to do it all over again. Except Mike figured it out after he’d been burbled three times in a row, and he took off to the right. I followed, hoping for one last, glorious ‘hit.’
I missed, and found myself lower than I probably should have been, around 2k.
I pitched, and my container opened. I felt the bag lift off my bag; it’s a familiar feeling that I’ve experienced nearly 1300 times.
And then it happened. I realized I had no decelleration of any kind. Looking at the ground to see where I was, I knew I needed to chop, and needed to do it fast, before I hit the woods. It was pretty dark, and I didn’t want to be looking for my canopy all night. At the same time, I thought “Dammit Danny, what did you do to my rig!?”

Some might consider it a tad bothersome to watch their main speed past them, trailing lines, looking like a black sperm swimming towards the earth. Others might just think, “Fuuuhhhh….so THAT’S what a baglock looks like!”

I don’t really remember reaching for the handles; they just appeared in my hands as my reserve opened above my head. My first thought was “If I lose these handles, I’ll never hear the end of it, so I’d better be sure to carefully tuck them inside my wingsuit.
Next, I looked for my main, and immediately spied it, a black missile trailing a few white lines as it sped towards the ground like a bullet. I thought I could see where t was heading, and then located my freebag and pilot chute. Everyone knows to follow the freebag, right?
Once I located my freebag, I reached up to collapse the non-collapsible slider, and then realized my error. Then I felt around for my toggles, all the while seeking my out, the landing area that I’d be using to land this canopy I’ve never landed, let alone seen in entirety. Vowing to be there the next time my rigger packed the reserve, I located a great landing spot on the residential road between the very tall trees and powerlines. But I had not located my reserve toggles yet. It was too dark to see them, so I ended up quickly removing my sunglasses and stowing them inside my wingsuit.
About the same time as I recognized how low I really was, I also realized a car was coming around the corner of the road I was planning to land on, and the timing made it fairly obvious that I was going to meet the car during my landing, so changed my out plan again. I was still around 150′ to 200′ in the air. I chose a front yard, even though I’d been warned that the residential occupants of this particular neighborhood weren’t too fond of skydivers dropping into their yards.
As I set up for my landing, I could see two ladies sitting on the front porch of this fairly austere home. My brain screamed “don’t f*** up and go too far in front of these ladies. They’d really hate peeling me off that rock wall.”
Just as I landed, a third lady came out the door with some drinks in her hand, saying something like “I just talked to Judy on the phone and….” at which point, I said (must have yelled) “call Judy back and tell her a skydiver just landed in your yard.” (I was pretty adrenalized at that point)
The women all rocked back and at least one of them exclaimed “Oh my God!” The eldest of the three asks me “where did you come from, and are you alright?”
There was no cell service in the area, so I begged them to call the DZ and let them know I was fine. By now, it’s dark enough that you can’t really see very well. Gratefully, I accepted a ride back to the DZ. I knew I couldn’t find my gear, and figured next morning was good enough.
Danny ran up to me, looking like he’d seen a ghost. “Are you OK? What did I do? What was the reason? Are you gonna kill me?”
What a GREAT guy!! He missed his early morning flight just to help me find the freebag. I knew where it had landed within about 100′ because I followed it down. What I missed was the “right” 100′. Scotty Burns and Danny located the freebag about 80′ up in a tree, a tree so big around and moss-covered, it wasn’t going to come down easy, not even with a professional tree service (we know, because we called). No one could climb the tree; I fail to mention that it was in the middle of a bog/swamp filled with leeches, ticks, and other things that bite.
Rigging Innovations assured me that they could get replacement parts to me the next day (and they did).
Next up; finding my main. I volunteered to go into the swamp. Everyone else fanned out into the neighborhood, all of us wearing radios. Mine sounded like popcorn in a Jiffy Pop stovetop container.

I don’t know what everyone else was doing, but I know that I will be scarred for life from the experience of walking through 12″ of dirty, smelly water, being bitten by unknown and probably unidentified bugs, experiencing ticks crawling into my toes, ears, and other intimate areas. The smell nee’ stench was overpowering, but I endured for nearly two hours before I heard the blessed sound of “qzisgthorp funerburked griswodsbullconey is! qzisgthorp funerburked griswodsbullconey is!”
Justin Shorb had located my canopy on the back deck of a house roughly 500 feet from my freebag.
It was a moment of elation, overshadowing the ticks, bugs, snakes, stink-water, and itch, but only temporarily. I still had to get BACK out of the swamp.
Margaret (master rigger at Eloy who packed my reserve) has now received her bottle of Baileys (Her beverage of choice), Sandy Reid at Rigging Innovations has received my profound appreciation for his sweet rig design, Purple Mike was kind enough to solemnly shake my hand and say “I’m glad you didn’t die,” and Scotty Burns was loud enough to announce to the world that I’d just experienced my first chop as he proceeded to order beer for the entire restaurant, handing me the bill.

All in all, it was a great experience. I learned a lot. I saved my life. I’m relieved the first one is done.
I’m excited to have it happen again.
About as excited as I am about having my prostate examined and my financial records audited.

Thank you Margaret, for packing my reserve.
Thank you Jack, for making sure I was trained in how to deal with a malfunction.
Thank you Scotty, for forcing me to buy beer; I would have preferred to buy a case of Miller Light vs buying the entire bar a couple of rounds of the most expensive beer from the local brewery.
Thank you to whomever it was I once observed ridiculing someone else for losing their cutaway handles; it taught me to “not be that guy.”

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Published by

DSE

I've been a successful sales manager, musician, film/video professional, instructional designer, and skydiver. Picked up a few pieces of gold, brass, titanium, and tin along the way. This blog is where I spill my guts about how I'm feeling at any given moment, and maybe a blurb or two about what's happening in the sales, video, or skydiving worlds.

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