Francis Meyrick

Castles in the Sky “The Expert “

Posted on April 7, 2010

Castles in the Sky

The Expert

A buddy had told me that it wasn’t a problem.
I can still remember the authoritative look in his eye when he said it:
“No problem… “
I believed him implicitly. He was after all, an Irish Parachute Club expert. A really seasoned skydiver. Had at least ten jumps. Compared with my measly three jumps, that made him almost an old-timer. He had even gone ‘free-fall’. He had done six static line jumps, and then gone out for the Big One. First free-fall. His seventh jump. A real hero. Now he was up to eight second free falls. Unbelievable. I reflected on my miserable three static line jumps. Would I ever get that far? Jump out with nothing? And suddenly, that thin line of webbing that automatically ripped open my parachute, seemed to me the most solid link imaginable, the most comforting piece of equipment there was in the skydiving world.
As for doing without it. I secretly hoped they would decide to keep me on the static line. I didn’t mind pulling dummy ripcords. To prove I was thinking, aware, and capable. . Practise ripcords. Not the real thing. I’d do that until the cows came home. But I couldn’t comprehend the enormity of doing it all myself for real.
Small wonder then, that I really looked up to my ten jump free-fall hero. Small wonder I occasionally asked him for advice and guidance. He was always so confident, he inspired faith. The real instructor was often airborne, lobbing out students, or just plain busy, and that was when I would glean a tiny morsel of priceless knowledge from my mentor, the great guru.

Like the day that it was really blowing. Right up against the limits. Whatever they were. Nobody quite seemed to know. You could see these jumpers landing, or hitting the deck more like it. Those old C-9 canopies, army surplus, were not like today’s fancy-dancy poofter ‘ram air’ square canopies. The ones where today’s sky divers leisurely put one foot down, (yawn!), and then the other. Too much cissy stuff. No, in our day, 1970 or so, those old canopies leaked air like a well perished inner tube. The landing was hardly a sedate, delicate, feather like touch down. The modern day skydivers look more like ballet dancers to me. They even wear funky pink and purple outfits. Pony tails and sneakers. Bunch of wimps.
We did proper skydiving, in old grass stained once-white boiler suits, and French Paraboots, coming down like a sack of spuds. Even under a fully inflated canopy, I swear the wind still whistled around our ears. Our landings resembled more of a World War Two bombing run. With thousand pounders. Skydiving was meant to hurt when you landed. That’s why only the men did it. And you spent weeks practicing your parachute landing falls (PLF’s). You had to demonstrate proficiency at your PLF’s, off a six foot ramp, or nobody was going to let you fall out of a real airplane. You had to be good at your PLF’s. ‘Cos you were really, really, going to need one.

Anyway, I’d noticed these guys hitting the deck (leaving a small crater), and on this windy day, the canopies would not just conveniently collapse in a pile beside them. That was the usual case that I had observed on other, less windy days.
Normally, the jumper would impact the ground, and the canopy would collapse gently in an obliging pile beside him. He would roll it up, or ‘field pack’ it, and amble on back to the club house. No sweat.
Occasionally, the canopy would drape itself over the jumper. That was entertaining. You could see this figure trying to figure out which way was the exit. From the soon-to-be very tangled mess. His hands would be trying to hold up the canopy from underneath, so he could see, and first one hand, and then the other would be raised above this shrouded figure. It was like a pantomime. Usually, it ended up with him stepping out through a modification, a ‘steering hole’ for the uninitiated, which in turn meant a tangled mess of Spaghetti in the club house later. And eventual plaintive wails of:
“Mick, I can’t sort this out! “
Mick Flaherty, my instructor, with the fastest scooter in County Dublin, wasn’t stupid, and he let his students struggle for an hour or so themselves, before he kindly intervened. The idea being that fear of the tangled mess, and the resultant frustration, would provide an extra incentive for the little dears to scamper up off the deck quickly, in order to avoid the collapsing umbrella. Good idea. It didn’t always work. One day, a particularly vocal sailor, had landed underneath his canopy, and gotten totally entangled with it, much to his very much audible frustration. On his very next jump, he had landed right outside the club house, and the very same thing happened. In the windless calm, before he could react, the thing had collapsed on top of him again… We all waited breathlessly for his views on the matter, which were bound to be forthcoming. This was his second Spaghetti Bolognaise in two days. And another nightmare untanglement in the make.
Instead, he sat there motionless, this huddled, shrouded figure, in deep thought, his head slumped forward, chin resting on his hand. There came a long silence, and we waited, transfixed, beginning to quietly titter.
Long thought, considered opinion.
“Mick, I’ve f…ing well had enough of this p…ing caper, and I’m going HOME… “
I was soon to know just how he felt.

But on this particular windy day, I needed advice. It was really blowing, and the guys seemed to have a way of collapsing the canopy. They never got dragged for more than a few yards.
“How do they do that? “, I asked my hero, the grand guru.
“Easy “, he said, my hero of countless windy landings.
“You just release the capewells. “
“Oh “, I thought, “Of course “.
Now the capewells were two separate metal fittings,in the ‘risers’ above the jumper’s head. If you pulled down each heart shaped dust cover, these two metal rings popped out. You put your thumbs through the rings, gave them a firm yank, and you were then released, and fell away from the main parachute. Useful for achieving a clean reserve deployment, with no risk of the reserve tangling with the main ‘chute. It was essential for water landings. And of course, how stupid of me, they were the obvious weapon to use to collapse a canopy on the ground if you were being dragged.

In due course, it was my turn. Up we went for my static line jump number four. It all went according to plan. I jumped as usual, scared to death as always, pulled the dummy practice ripcord, and the canopy inflated normally. Then there came the usual rapid reversal in emotions. From thinking, on the run-in to the dropping point, things like:
“Dear Lord, if I survive this nonsense, I swear I’ll NEVER jump again… ” To the ‘hanging in the saddle at 2000 feet’ exultant young man’s euphoria:
“This is BRILLIANT! “
Down, down I floated, noticing that it looked as if the strong wind would land me in the bottom south west corner of the airfield. The canopy, a so-called “Double L ” was mildly steerable, I did my best, but it still looked like a quarter mile walk back to the club house. Never mind. I faced into the wind for the landing, the atterisage as the French call it, adopted the proper and well practiced PLF bomb landing position, tried to ignore the screaming ground rush, and contacted the deck firmly.

I rolled over. Relief. That was all right. No sharp pain. Happiness. Survived that one. Now to…
There was a sharp tug, and I looked around in time to see the canopy re-inflating fully, and beginning to tow me over the bumpy ground. But this was a problem I had seen everybody else cope with quite comfortably. Thanks to my hero, the Wise One, I knew how to deal with that slight technical hitch.
Now, where are those capewells?
Ah, there…
I reached up, noticing that I was beginning to accelerate across the ground quite quickly. Never mind, I thought, still confidently, I’ll soon sort that little poser out.
It was at this stage that the first little flicker of doubt dared to sneak across the threshold of my conscious self confidence.
I found that it was no simple matter to actually get my hands on the dust covers. I knew I had to rip them off first, and then grab the much more fiddly metal rings. As I was bouncing up and down across the rough grass, I found the normally simple task (when you’re in the club house) of getting the dust covers off, surprisingly difficult. Every time I had just about gotten my hands on them, the next jolt would dislodge my grip again. Accelerating all the time, it was becoming increasingly difficult to get hold of the covers at all. The thought flashed through my mind that if it was that difficult to get the dust covers off, how on earth was I going to get my thumbs through the metal secondary rings?
Around about this time, the sneaky flicker of doubt , sneaking across the threshold, was metamorphosing into an explosive inferno bursting in through every window.
Oh dear! Now what…?
Often enough, in my subsequent career and Life, I have made the mistake of thinking “Well, it can’t get any worse “.
I’ve learned this is a very unwise, albeit stoic and philosophical point of view. This was a case in point. Because then… I became intimately acquainted with my first cow pat. Fresh cow pat. Very… fresh.
Weston Airport, County Dublin, in those days (it’s probably a housing estate by now), had a large herd of resident cows. The grass was Irish, lush, fresh and green. And so were the cow pats. And they were humongous.
The contact with the first cow pat was a shock to the system. I actually saw it coming. I just had time to squeal, and then I got dragged straight through the middle. Hideous green mush splattered every where, and the not so gentle aroma of re-processed grass slammed up my nostrils.
I can assure you, I re-doubled my efforts to extricate myself. All I could think of was getting those dust covers off. But by now I was being dragged at a truly astonishing speed. I could never have imagined that being dragged by a parachute could be such a violent experience. I was being drubbed up and down across the ground, and it became quite impossible to hold on to the risers, never mind undo the dust covers. Believe me, I was trying. Stark panic was now the order of the day. I met my second local cow pat. How-do-you-do…? My third. My fourth. Fifth. Sixth…. I was now traveling at breakneck speed. It seemed like thirty miles per hour. Somebody ahead was running across, trying to intercept me. But the inflated canopy was easily capable of outpacing a running man. I passed yet more cow pats. I lost count.
I was by now half dazed, still fumbling vaguely for the capewells. My goggles were spattered, and a horrible, sticky clamminess, or was it a ‘clammy stickiness’, seemed to be soaking its way through my jump suit and clothes. Something was pouring down my neck. It felt like a bad dream. This couldn’t be happening.

From the bottom South West corner of Weston, to the top North East, is a good mile. Grass all the way. As I passed roughly abeam the club house, more running figures took up the chase. They were shouting something, but I couldn’t understand. None could catch me…
It must have been an extraordinary spectacle. I wonder what a Time Traveller, fresh from the Ancient Past would have made of it. A green and brown, slimy monster, with two bulging eyes peering desperately out from under a cockeyed crash helmet, arms and legs flailing, being dragged by a strange looking cloth with a lot of strings, chased by an odd assortment of villainous looking individuals, all shouting at the same time. He probably would have put it down as a religious ceremony, or some kind of ‘coming out’ young men’s ritual. Close, when you think about it.
By now a sort of weary resignation had entered my mind. I was still struggling manfully, but more weakly. I could hardly see a thing. I was bruised and breathless. Vaguely I was aware of the North East corner boundary hedge coming up. I hoped that this would be the end of my indignity, and that the rogue parachute would impale itself on the wild hedgerow. I might then slither to a well lubricated stop, at long last, without further hardship.
But Fate, that fickle Mistress of all our Futures, that two faced harlot in the Sky, had one further twist in store. Somehow, at the last second, the bobbing parachute-cum-windsail managed to lift itself , snag momentarily on the top branches, free itself, and drag me at bareley reduced velocity, smack into the very center of that old Irish country hedge.
And there I sat, impaled, wedged, jammed, being dragged ever deeper by the silk cloth.
I was now past caring. The wind had been totally knocked out of me. I wearily managed to pull my goggles off. I could now see the speed at which I had been dragged. Despite having passed at one stage within twenty yards of my closest pursuer, the shouting, panting, gesticulating mob was still two hundred yards away.
They came at the gallop, but I regarded the arrival of the cavalry with resigned equanimity. Fate had done her worst to me.
She could do no more – for now.

Mick was leading the posse. He was cross.
“What the hell do you think you were playing at?’, he barked furiously.
Although I was in pain, this got my gander.
“What do you mean, PLAYING? “, I snorted indignantly. Trying to muster some composure.
“I couldn’t undo the bloody capewells! “
He shook his head.
“Capewells? You should have pulled in the bottom suspension lines! That will collapse the canopy! Who told you to release the capewells? “
Now I was really fed up.
“He did! “, I said, shamelessly pointing an accusing, green dripping finger at my erstwhile hero. The once esteemed grand guru. Then I noticed he was grinning. No, laughing his socks off. In fact, all of them were.

It was only after a shower in the kind airfield owner’s house, a loan of fresh clothes, that I started digesting the benefits of my painful lessons. I learned something I was to learn again and again, in my later life. Especially in Aviation.
Pick your teachers carefully. Advice is plentiful. If you elevate the blind to seeing status, you will not be led into the light.

From then on in, whenever I was dragged in a strong wind, I pulled in the bottom suspension lines. It worked like a treat. Just like Mick said. It collapsed the canopy every time. When I got to be a jump master eventually, in charge of lobbing scared people out of perfectly good airplanes, some lessons I taught well. I guess I instructed, and warned, or at least tried to, from bitter experience.

Wet, smelly, slimy, slithery,

bitter experience…

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on April 7, 2010, 11:24 am

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