Falling out of the Sky, deliberately.
August 20, 2023

Sometimes the best way to get your hit is to light a flame and stoke the fire.

Years ago, some days before my friend Lisa landed in a broken heap on my sleeping bag at the base of a wall deep in the Hex River valley after multiple cliff-strikes during a B.A.S.E jump, she had showed me footage of a skydiver impacting the tarmac whilst still fighting to rid his canopy of riser-twist. As a professional camera-man on assignment the footage was P.O.V shot old-school on a VHS camcorder, long before the GoPro craze. Eating cheap Chinese, sitting on cushions on the floor of Lisa’s apartment I remember being taken aback at the whole scenario but, mostly, his calm, silent, focus on fixing the situation – right up to point of impact.

Lisa was showing me a glimpse of her world, almost as a badge of credence - a statement to the brutally unforgiving world of defying gravity, willingly. I remember the pilot, I think his name was Dougs, pulling his pilot-chute, the wild jerk as the canopy opens ripping him from a horizontal freefalling body position to a vertical one. The next view was of riser-twist, which he calmly, silently goes about trying to un-twist. This seems to go on for an eternity, and then the ground arrives, rather abruptly (he was still looking up, focused on the risers), and the camera is stationary against the tarmac...seconds later feet run into the frame and it's clear he is being attended to. Miraculously he lived to jump again.

In late March '15 I had the opportunity to use a cutaway-to-B.A.S.E acro paragliding harness in Chamonix. I do not fly acro, but the idea seemed like a lot of fun. Fly a paraglider until over one's landing area, while 150-200m above ground. Then, cut-away from your perfectly fine wing and in so doing have a B.A.S.E canopy deploy automatically. What could go wrong?

Michael phoned late in the afternoon of my last day in the valley to say he'd finished flying for the day and I should bring my wing. Quite understandably he didn't want to risk having to retrieve his own wing from a tree or moving bus after I unceremoniously ditched it in the cutaway. The fact that the largest wing I had with me was my Ozone XxLite 16, a single-skin lightweight mountain wing, was a little concerning (to me). It weighs just 1.2kg.

Michael, Richard (a local instructor) and I met at the bottom ski lift of Brevent at 16:00. Last lift was at 16:30. A time-pressured explanation of how to connect the B.A.S.E-harness correctly (I learned that if I forgot to connect the deploy-cord then I'd cut away a perfectly good wing, watch it float off as I plummet – without the B.A.S.E canopy deploying) ensued.
Me: " think my XxLite will have sufficient weight/inertia to pull the B.A.S.E canopy out?"
Mike: "hmmm, I don't know - I'm sure it'll be fine. Otherwise just throw the standard reserve"
Me: "...uhhh, can't, it's a right-hand pull, I can't reach the handle"
...Mike gets distracted and Richard cuts in
Richard: "...when you're flying you're sitting. So just prior to cut-away, reach down, grab the reserve handle so that you have it in hand should the B.A.S.E not deploy"

Seemed logical.

Me: "Mike, how high up are the toggles on the B.A.S.E risers? Will I be able to reach the right hand toggle?"
Mike: "...uhhh, not sure. Time to go, remember the lower you cut-away the better the chance of collecting your main wing later...enjoy"

The solitude of the cabin-ride gave a pretty serious feeling to the whole thing. I figured that there was a less than even chance of the XxLite deploying the B.A.S.E canopy, a 1 in 5 chance I couldn't reach the toggle and a less than even chance of then being able to throw the reserve. Not great odds, but hey – it's like asking the prettiest girl in the bar for her number, sometimes the risk is worth the reward.

Laying out on the south-west take-off, a gentle wind came over-the-back, forcing a move to the south-east take-off. Felix Rodrigues - a world champion acro pilot at the time - was on launch, and he was super excited (and animated) that I was "going to pull the red handle.” Nothing like celebrity pressure to get underway. I gave my best impersonation of a nonchalant French shrug, and asked him to just watch my wing as I ran it off in zero wind.

The XxLite is an exciting wing to fly at the best of times, flying out knowing I was about to cut-away from it seemed to make it feel completely safe – certainly the least dumb thing of the afternoon. Four or five 360s got me to my desired (guestimated) flight level. A quick look to check that I was above the edge of the landing zone, right hand down to grab the reserve handle, left hand to the cut-away toggle, deep breath...pull!

Like most things done for the first time, things happened rather fast, accentuated by the brain's inability to predict the sequence of events. It all seems to happen simultaneously.  There was the stomach-churning falling sensation as my main wing and I parted company, followed by the rush of air and then a jerk, followed by a secondary bump. My first image is looking up at the blue of the B.A.S.E canopy. Bringing my hands up in search of the toggles focused my vision on the risers – complete with riser-twist!

I'd seen this film before.

I was reasonably certain that I had seconds to sort that out. A quick glance earthward confirmed that earth was, in fact, still below me...inbound. Contrary to the initial “new-thing-time-scale”, add some real and immediate threat and like most things done under pressure with consequence, time seemed to stand still. The irony of the paradox was lost on me while I was fighting with the riser-twist for what seemed like a LONG time. Eventually I was concerned that I MUST be close to impact – yet I became curiously aware that there was no sense of ground-rush, no rush of air, no sense of impending doom. At the same time, I was beginning to question why my B.A.S.E canopy appeared to be at an angle to the vertical rather than directly overhead – almost as if it were in front of me. Beginning a process of elimination started with a glance over my right shoulder, which revealed a very real, and perfectly deployed reserve canopy.
Total time between cut-away and this point was 5 seconds.

If you play these sorts of games long enough, you learn not to question the how and why while in the moment, but rather get on and deal with sorting the shit out. Time is, usually, of the essence. So I set about recovering the B.A.S.E canopy, while the primary concern shifted to my likely area of touch-down. Under a steer-less reserve I suddenly had very little say in where I might end spire, road...tree? At some point I realized that I could use the B.A.S.E canopy as a steering spinnaker, and guided my way back toward the landing zone, touching down gracefully and not even requiring a roll, on the far corner of my target.

It is often said that; "one must be careful what one wishes for, you might get it". There was an awful lot of neuro-input in a very short space of time – exactly what I was looking for, although not quite in the exact manner anticipated!

It's a seemingly contradictory way to appreciate life – by risking it – but it is the purest, most honest medium that I know. To see things without the clutter, and noise, of life, sometimes it is necessary to force the detox.

For whatever (personal) reasons, I judged the reward worth the risk of a number of unknowns – I was not sure the main wing would deploy the B.A.S.E canopy, I was unsure that, even if the B.A.S.E canopy deployed, that I would be able to reach the right hand toggle, and I was reasonably certain that I wouldn't be able to throw the secondary reserve if needed.
But I chose to expose myself to the situation, to learn, to experience...and to remind myself of my ability to deal with serious situations, to have the mind cleared of self-doubt. To remind myself what it is to live.

Beer certainly had a sweet taste that evening.