Who packed my parachute?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Audrey Burkel
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
You can rest assured; I know who packed my parachute - literally! It was one of the first questions I asked as Christian -- my master-certified parachute instructor, former German military paratrooper and certified packer from the Firebird Skydiving school in Bitburg -- explained the steps of the tandem jump to me.

On the ground, it's easy to joke as the various steps are explained. Of course, having an audience of family and friends there makes it much easier. While waiting for my turn as the sacrificial lamb, I had a chance to reflect on what led me to this point - ready to jump out of a perfectly good airplane and put both my life and trust in Christian and fate.

To do this, I have to explain my childhood; one spent growing up as a tomboy amongst three active siblings. Like most kids, the phrase Operational Risk Management was foreign. I grew up playing tackle football on the asphalt, riding a trail hopper with shorts, sandals and no helmet, jumping off roofs hoping to reach the grass, cliff jumping into the lake at Possum Kingdom and playing soldier with BB guns. All these activities were considered normal. There was no way we could get hurt; we were invincible.

Before you ask, "Where were your parents?" you have to place yourself in the times. During the summer, we were out of the house basically from dawn until the streetlights came on. But I'm digressing.

Fast-forwarding to my first year of college, I was offered a skydiving opportunity and the bonus - it was free. Being a little older and supposedly wiser, I asked my dad what he thought. He had been a diving and altitude chamber instructor with more than 1,800 jumps under his belt, and his comment to me was, "Are you nuts? With your knee problems, it's the worst thing you could do."

I'd like to say I listened to his advice because I was a dutiful daughter. The truth is I chickened out, and I've wondered about that decision off and on ever since.

Fast-forwarding to mid-July of this year. I'm a little older, and I'd like to think a lot wiser. My husband and I are visiting our oldest son, Bernhard. We're there for the family-night part of an annual, weeklong campout; one that he and a group of friends have been doing for 16 years. Well, this year I met Bernhard's former military colleague, Christian. The two of them served together as paratroopers in Germany and Kosovo. Christian explained he was now working as a certified jump instructor and tandem jumps were also offered.

I don't know what possessed me to express interest, possibly a lingering voice from my youth. I also learned another important lesson. What you say is a big part of ORM, especially if there's someone around to hear you (like Bernhard).

A few weeks pass and my three favorite men - husband and my two sons, hand me a beautifully wrapped box as a birthday gift. Yes, you guessed it. A tandem jump with video coverage. Thanks guys!

I'm pulled back to reality when I hear Christian say, "It's time to get ready." I clearly remember stepping into the coveralls and then slipping on the harness. The fun begins as the straps are tightened. I didn't know the leg straps would be so tight that I'd have trouble walking. I really felt like I'd just gotten off a horse after an hour of riding - my legs felt that bowed. And let me tell you about the protective eyewear ... they make the military issue glasses look super cool.

Now it's time to step to the plane, a Cessna 182. Did I mention how small that plane is? Well, Susi, our pilot, Christian, Albert, the videographer, a solo jumper and I managed to fit. I remember thinking, Okay, this isn't too bad.

The take-off is smooth and the view from about 11,000 feet pretty phenomenal. Christian pointed out a lot of the local towns, including my small village of Burg-Salm. We even flew over Spangdahlem Air Base. Let me tell you, it's a truly impressive sight from above; at the time I was betting it would look great from the ground too.

As I'm truly starting to enjoy the aerial tour, I ask Christian how much longer before the big plunge. His answer is five minutes. I'm perfectly okay with that. Now imagine my utter surprise when, not more than a minute later, he tells me we need to start getting ready. Another small adrenaline spike, but still not too bad. We start going through the harness hook-ups. There are four and you can bet I'm listening for and counting them all.

I'm doing pretty good, thinking, 'How bad can this be? ... when, all of a sudden, the small cabin door is opened. My first thought, as my heart starts its rapid acceleration, is, "Holey, moley!" Of course, as my friend Heather Klabunde can tell you, these words have a totally different meaning. However, for the purpose of this commentary, they suffice.

What I remember from this point on is the sound of the wind rushing past the plane, the cool air flowing in and then watching the solo jumper step out onto the platform and basically fall backwards into space. Poof, he's gone. Next, Albert clambers out. He must have because I see him holding on to one of the wing struts as he floats in front of the door. Now it's our turn. Here's the tricky part. I truly believe I'm remembering all the instructions. Boy, was I deluding myself.

Thankfully, the very experienced Christian is there to guide me through. I got the first step right, placing my right leg next to his on that very small platform. My next instinct is to uncurl my left leg and have it join the right leg, the place my brain is telling me it belongs. Wrong answer. It stays curled in front of me inside the plane. I look up to see Albert let go of the strut and disappear, I feel Christian pull my head back against his chest, and then boom, we're tumbling into space.

I truly do not remember whether we were up, down or spinning in those first few seconds. My brain is however sending messages at a rapid pace - keep your lower legs bent, arch your back, keep your elbows loose but behind you, and most importantly, keep your head back. I must have gotten those things right because I received no more nudges from Christian.

At this point, I believe we're in the right position and falling rapidly because the wind is roaring in my ears. Then lo and behold, I see Albert about ten feet in front of us filming. After what was in reality about 45 seconds, although it felt like hours, of posing for the camera with a lot of international hand gestures to my family and friends, Albert drops below us and Christian pulls the cord. Again, with no time to think about it, our chute opens. It was much gentler than I expected.

For me the fun really starts. Our descent has slowed, I get to look around at the beautiful ground below us, and miraculously, I can hear. Christian, the trooper that he is, lets me take off the glasses. He loosens the leg straps a bit to allow me to stand on his feet and then asks the magic words, are you ready to spin?

Oh yeah! I take control of the risers, naturally with some extra help, and we start spinning. What a thrill. After about three or four of these, both left and right, Christian takes over because we've run into heavier winds and we're drifting off course. We do get in one more half spin and a verbal greeting before touchdown.

What I failed to mention is that my legs started tingling, I think about halfway through our descent. It's possible that the straps cut off the blood flow but it's a small price to pay. Unfortunately, as we're coming in to land, my legs do not obey my brain signals to lift. Despite this fact we manage an almost picture-perfect landing.

Christian, who's about eight inches taller than me, touches down feet first. My feet, attached to the legs that refuse to obey, also touch ground. This is the part where both of us are supposed to be standing. Yeah, right. At this point, we gently, but embarrassingly, slide to the ground on our posteriors. But we're down safely! And before I can even blink, Albert joins us still filming away to capture the moment for future laughs.

Walking back to join my family and friends and share a toast with Christian, I ask myself, "Would you do it again?" At that moment, my answer -- probably not. A week later, I'm thinking, maybe once more ... I know what to expect and it won't be on tape!

And for the safety folks, yes, I signed and was briefed about my "high risk" activity prior to the jump.