Maja Kuczynska – Bigger than the Sky
Stunning routine by Maja Kuczyńska
It was only February in Raeford, NC, but the temperatures were well into the 80's. I decided to enjoy the warm day by jumping at Skydive Paraclete XP, where I finished out the afternoon by working in our school. Right before sunset load, I was asked to take Mitch on a recurrency jump. It turned into one I won't forget…
Photo by Vania Da Rui
A quiet guy, Mitch had progressed through most of our student program the previous summer, completing 25 jumps within about six weeks then taking a hiatus for 6 months. Now here he was again, having just completed his A license written exam. The only thing which stood between Mitch and his A license ceremony was his recurrency jump with me.
To me, most recurrency jumps present a unique balance between teaching a student how to safely pass the jump and being careful not to insult what they already know. Erring on the side of caution, I took time to guide Mitch through everything he'd need for this jump. We went outside the school to the mock-up, where we walked through the skydive in its entirety a few times and I told him what I needed to see for him to pass. I put him in a training harness, where I had him do several practice pulls on his pilot chute and physically practice his cutaway procedures. (“Touch your handles in the order you’ll use them.”)
I grabbed a stack of photos with pictures of canopy malfunctions and found a quiet area to go through emergency procedures; we spent about 10 minutes talking about malfunctions, controllability checks, and decision altitudes, and he simulated his cutaway procedures at least a dozen more times. (“Does it look like a ball of garbage? Get rid of it!”) Mitch and I then found an aerial photo of our drop zone and discussed several potential obstacles and issues, focusing on those specific to Skydive Paraclete XP (trees, power lines, off-DZ landings, etc.). At that point, I told Mitch to check out gear and get ready for the skydive.
_Does it look like a ball of garbage? Get rid of it!_
In the loading area, we reviewed the landing pattern, determined exit order, and conducted another gear check. Once on our way to altitude, I did a final gear check with Mitch and had him walk me through the jump in his own words. I breathed a silent prayer that he’d stay safe. At 13,500 feet, we spotted outside the aircraft and exited. The free fall portion was rather uneventful. He passed with flying colors.
Under canopy, I steered back toward the DZ and looked up to catch a glimpse of Mitch under a bright orange canopy. Okay good… I glanced again a moment later and saw a cutaway canopy and reserve free-bag… and no student. Oh no…
It’s funny how many thoughts can go through your head at once: Where are you, Mitch? Did he just go in? – would I even know?! No no no! And finally, Okay, two guys were behind us on this load… and I see three canopies. I can’t describe how relieved I was to know that Mitch was okay. I finally could breathe again.
I don't get flustered easily but I definitely ate it on that landing. Mitch came in nearby a few seconds after me and stood it up. I walked over to him, gave him a fist bump, told him good job, and asked him what happened. Together we went back into the school and debriefed his jump.
I don't get flustered easily but I definitely ate it on that landing.
Later that day we recovered his main canopy. Tension knots had ultimately led to his cutaway, just as he had described. Mitch was thankful that his muscle memory kicked in during his cutaway, and told me that he had trusted his gear. The guy was cool as a cucumber the whole time – he even kept his handles!
As a newer AFF-I, I am glad that I walked through emergency procedures with Mitch and spoke with him in-depth about reacting to malfunctions. It would have been so easy to just go through the motions and hand-wave the entire thing. (He’s practiced these before – he’s smart – he’s good!) Now I am thankful that we took the time to do it right. You know the best part? I got to conduct his A license ceremony – my first one! Right after my first student cutaway. I guess we both owed beer that day…