On jump number 25, it’s unlikely that you were doing a high altitude, low opening jump with about a hundred and twenty total pounds of gear, an oxygen setup and a big ol’ weapon. Oh! And this is all happening in the black of night, by the way. Well, Special Operator 1st Class Trevor Thompson was doing all that–and bad luck ended up handing him a brutal malfunction to top it all off. Since this incident, Trevor went on to a top-flight career jumping with the US Navy Leapfrogs, so you may rest assured that this crazy story ended really, really well.
Though your jumps may not be so laden, what Trevor learned that night still has plenty of relevance for your happy-go-lucky civilian hucking. Here’s his story in his own words.
This particular jump was a military training jump at our training drop zone in San Diego. It was January of 2009.
All of the prospective SEALs go through a training program that includes military freefall. Military freefall instruction starts with five static-line jumps–the old school, round ones. Following that module, you do a normal AFF progression. You do seven AFF jumps; if you pass, they immediately start teaching you to fly your military canopy in a stack with the other guys. Following that, they teach you to jump with a rucksack–something the size of a 40- or 50-liter hiking backpack. It hangs from the middle of your shins up to your waist, and it’s full of gear. Then they teach you how to fly with a weapon–like, an M4–on your side. Then they put oxygen bottles on your right side. Then they teach you how to do all of that at night. And it all happens pretty fast; you’re all loaded up by the time you have 25 jumps.
Looking at that from the outside perspective of a civilian skydiver, that probably seems pretty crazy. You have to remember that those are all guys that have been carefully selected for this kind of thing. They have made it through a lot of training by that point, so the assumption is that they can pick that sort of stuff up.
My accident happened on the final jump of the program–jump number 25. It was a night “kitchen sink” jump, which means I was jumping with the full kit: the rucksack on my front, an oxygen system and a weapon on my side. We were doing a HALO [high altitude/low opening] jump.
My exit was just fine–very stable–and I picked up my direction quickly. I turned, I faced, I got a bearing and I waited. I was, of course, essentially a student at that point, so my job was to just hang out and not mess around too much until our 5,000-foot opening altitude.
Keep in mind that we have spring-loaded, ripcord-deployed mains in the military. The ripcord sits at your shoulder level on your right side, and it deploys the pilot chute. The main comes out behind your back in the same place that a normal main would, but it’s spring-loaded like a reserve.
If you are in a decently good body position, you create a large burble–like a tandem, over the top of you. These spring-loaded pilot chutes aren’t very powerful, so occasionally they will come out and bounce around in that burble. Sometimes, it’ll bounce off your feet–head–boot–whatever, before it clears. On this particular jump, the pilot chute bounced off my back and feet, and when it bounced off that, it went under my right arm and looped around my right hand. Unlike with a civilian rig, the pins at that point were already out, so it was open.
At that point, the main starts floating up across my back. I was kind of spinning around; and lines were starting to come out. Of course, I started to work through my emergency procedures–but I was literally covered in equipment, and I was in the pitch black of nighttime, too. I looked down in my oxygen mask and I just couldn’t see anything.
So I fought it. I tried to grab, blind, where I thought the cutaway handle would be. I couldn’t find it. I tried one or two more times. I grabbed the oxygen hose; the harness; all the pieces of combat gear that were in the way. The extra weight from all that equipment resulted in a much faster fall rate, so I was under a lot of time pressure.
By the time I tried it again, my CYPRES was firing. The reserve fired right through that spaghetti of lines and deployed clean over my head, At that point, I was, like: Cool. I am alive. That’s great. Where do I need to go now? I knew I needed to go back to the dropzone, so I grabbed the toggles and turned left.
About a couple hundred feet below me was a hilltop that’s right next to the dropzone. I ended landing on the side of the hill, bouncing down it and landing on the dropzone access road. Just as I’m pulling in my reserve canopy, a car came ripping around the corner. It very nearly hit me, and it was definitely going fast enough to kill me, so that’s two bullets dodged in one five-minute period, I guess. At the end of the day, my worst injury was line burn across my nose and a twisted ankle.
They do something–which I think is very good, and I recommend to everyone–in the military. Basically, when you experience an incident, you are required to immediately sit and write down exactly what you remember happening, without talking to a soul. That’s the best you are ever going to recall it, and–memory being what it is–it is still going to be flawed. So right when I arrived back at the dropzone, I wrote it down.
The trainers looked at what I wrote, evaluated my gear and my physical state, and agreed with my assessment. I had a strange horseshoe that turned into an entanglement with my main, and my CYPRES saved my life.
Since that happened so early in my parachuting career, I’ve never, ever had a second thought about the necessity for a trustworthy AAD. I mean, look at the possibilities: If you are unconscious, it’s going to be low, and you’re just going to wake up alive and be happy that you had it. That’s very simple. If you are conscious, it is almost certainly going to be a situation like mine: An absolutely horrifying malfunction where you’re working your ass off to fix your problem and you’re, like, I hope to God this works. That’s the reality.
I have had thousands of jumps between now and then. Understanding altitude, keeping awareness, staying calm and talking yourself through what the actual malfunction is–that’s all awesome, and a really good thing to do, because maybe that can prevent you from having the AAD fire in the first place. But stuff happens where you fight it when you shouldn’t, or perhaps you have no choice (like me), or you don’t really comprehend how low you really are, or you’re jumping a very small canopy and your time to respond is that much more reduced.
At the end of the day, this is skydiving, not BASE. Manage the variables you can manage. Be ready.