You know those stories that start with “The other day I met this bloke …” well; I’ve got one for you.
The other day I met this bloke.
This man is a skydiver, for the second time in his life.
Last weekend he was one of my students on the AFF course, the course everyone does when they want to start jumping by themselves.
He was attentive, enthusiastic and engaged. He asked questions, he answered questions. He took to the training drills with a passion, and when it came time to demonstrate the procedures he was flawless. Especially when it came to emergencies.
You see, the first time he tried skydiving he nearly died.
Six years ago, on a training jump, he had a problem. When it came time to deploy his main parachute he couldn’t find the handle. He tried again but without joy.
In skydiving we have a rule. We are trained to try something twice, and if we can’t fix the problem we use our emergency procedures to deploy the reserve parachute. No messing around, no “I think I can get it”, no “she’ll be right”.
Knowing he was only twenty seconds from impact he deployed his reserve, but instead of the familiar jolt of opening shock his world was turned upside down.
The reserve had malfunctioned.
He was experiencing a situation that happens so rarely we hardly ever think about it. Inexplicably some of the lines had broken, and only part of the canopy had inflated causing an uncontrollable high-speed spiralling descent.
We don’t train for the situation he found himself in; it’s not something we can do.
All you can do is your best.
This bloke fought back, wrestling with the mass of lines and fabric, trying everything he could to get something above his head that he could fly.
It was in vain.
Time ran out and he impacted heavily in a small clearing sandwiched between a freeway, buildings and hard ground. He missed hitting a log fence by a metre.
He was critically injured, and was near death when admitted to hospital where he spent weeks in intensive care. He told me that he had so many metal parts installed that he now sets off metal detectors at airports. His recovery took years.
Now he’s back, and I have had the privilege of being involved with his return to the sky.
I watched him being geared up and looked on proudly as he was taken through his drills before climbing into the plane.
From the ground I watched his freefall, then saw his canopy open as his two jumpmasters tracked away. I stood with the target assistant as he was brought back to earth, and I was there when he landed and punched the air with both fists.
That night a group of us went to the local hotel for a meal. Over dinner we talked about the course and his jump, and it was then that he opened up to me about the circumstances surrounding his return to the sport.
As he described his accident I could only sit there in amazement. He was calm; he was relaxed. He showed no signs of anger or regret as he slowly took me through the experience. In remarkable detail he described how it all happened. It was an amazing story.
As we got up to head back to the drop zone he again thanked me for being his instructor. He told me I was a good teacher, and that without my help he wouldn’t have gotten through.
I did that thing we all do in an awkward situation and said something along the lines of “Oh thanks mate, just doing my job” and as we shook hands I thanked him for the privilege of being his instructor.
It was me who was the student that day. He’d been my teacher, and he’d given me a lesson I’ll carry for the rest of my life.