Jumping Out of a Perfectly Good Airplane

Ed’s Vault — Ed Kilgore

Ok, I was young. Foolish.

But WOW what an experience!

Let’s go back to 1978, when I was WGRZ-TV (Ch2) Sports Director. This was a time in TV news when reporters often did self-involved stories because research showed that viewers enjoyed seeing their favorite on-air personalities becoming the focal point of a story – yay look at me! – over the more straight forward method of observing and then reporting on a subject person or matter.

But does that include jumping out of a perfectly good airplane?

Well, in my case, yeh.

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Having always considered myself an adventurous risk-taker of sorts – driving to Alaska, hitching over half the U.S, traveling Europe alone etc. – it was inevitable that doing a sky dive would be a logical step Someday. Not now….but….someday.

Finally, I decided to literally take the plunge, and do it as a self-involved news story. Is ego involved in this decision? Well, why do something this crazy by yourself if it’s a secret? I was still single and thought I was invincible, which is a feeling that left me years ago!

After some quick research, I approached the people at the Wyoming Parachute Center in Java Center and they were thrilled to give their sport some publicity. Luckily, if I’d had a crystal ball, there would have been no jump. Just 3 years ago a 68 year old man with 45 years of jumping experience was killed there when his parachute became tangled and he died almost instantly in the middle of a corn field in Wyoming County.

Ok, I knew there were risks involved, but it seemed like an abstract fear. This was REAL. A tragedy.

Before my jump, which back then was done with a static line attached to your parachute, we spent much of the day in instruction about all the possible things that could go wrong – and what to do about it in the rare instance you had a problem. One thing I learned, and I can’t help but wonder if this was a factor in the fatality I just mentioned, was to make SURE your parachute was perfectly round once it opened after you left the airplane. If there was even the slightest indentation, you were shown how to release that chute (seriously??) and open your reserve chute. The reason for this, is that even though you feel like your chute is working as you descend, anything less than the perfect circle means you’re falling too fast. The man who died was apparently ok when his chute first opened, but somehow some lines became tangled and he never attempted to go to his reserve chute.

This knowledge was almost paralyzing as we wrapped up the class in the afternoon and boarded the small single engine airplane. My Ch2 photog (Steve Coughlin) rode with me in the plane, and we had a second person on the ground filming as well.

Here’s the deal. They make it clear that once you board the airplane, you will not be landing in it. You’re going out.

It’s not a super high jump like you might envision, but even 3,000 feet looks pretty high when you look down. The airplane had a single wing with struts attached to the fuselage, and when the plane was over the target area, I was told to get into position. The door is open and the wind is fierce, as you climb out on to a strut while holding a support wing brace. You look at your feet and see the ground below, and it’s terrifying. All I kept thinking about, was what if the f’ng chute isn’t round? They call it a Mae West, which means the malfunction resembles a brassiere – suitable for a bosom with the proportions of the late actress.

The beauty of the static jump, is not having to worry about pulling the rip cord. This method was/is used in the military for low altitude jumps, where a long line goes out with you and releases when your fall hits a certain point. Because it’s a static line doesn’t mean you’re not falling through the air for several horrifying seconds. They said “go”, and I shove back and away from the wing, arching my back. I’m falling. The wind is howling. It’s quiet. And NOTHING is happening! I’m falling and falling, and already I’m thinking about going to the reserve chute. A hint of pure panic is creeping in.

Then, it happened. A huge jolt! Exactly what I’m told will happen. It means the chute has opened, but I’m still not home free. If it’s not perfectly round, I’ve got to get rid of it.

It’s perfectly, beautifully round. On the audio tape, you can hear me clearly saying “Do I have it? Do I have it? Thank GOD!!”

Now it’s almost surreal. The airplane by now if far away and I can barely hear it’s engine. It’s incredibly peaceful as I float down, but there’s still work to do. We’re told to land into the wind; the fall is normally about 10mph forward, so if it’s say, a 5-mile headwind, I’m only gonna hit the ground at 5 mph. However. If it’s a “running landing” – meaning I’m WITH the wind, that 10 becomes 15.

Here was my only screw up of the day. I knew I was headed for the target in a field, but didn’t remember how to get turned around. I hit the ground at almost 20mph, and it HURT! I seriously thought my leg was broken. Everybody got there in a hurry, and it turns out it was just a sprained knee. I was on crutches for about a week, but the attention and sympathy was incredible!! Whew!

Another quick word of thanks for BluTusk and Global Wine and Spirits for this edition of Ed’s Vault.

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