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Free Fall

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Unlucky Skydivers
This group is made up of people who were both lucky and unlucky at the same time. Their bad luck was in having parachutes that failed. Their good luck was in somehow surviving nonetheless. There are a lot of these stories. Part of the reason for that is that in the majority of these cases the parachute came out, it just didn't fully open. Such a streaming parachute does slow a skydiver to some extent. So instead of hitting the ground at 120 miles per hour, maybe they hit it at 40, 60, or 80 miles per hour. Since there are so many of these stories, we'll only describe a few examples here, which are either particularly well documented or have some interesting aspect.

Notable Unlucky Skydivers
George Bushor Pine Island Park near Manchester, New Hampshire: In September of 1909, George Bushor, described as a one-armed aeronaut, ascended in a balloon with the intention of descending by parachute. However the parachute failed to operate properly so he cut loose at about 2,000 feet and fell into a pond. The Manchester Union wrote that he "came down with lightning rapidity and created consternation among the several hundred spectators who witnessed the incident." According to the account several women fainted. Bushor was rescued by several park employees in a boat and was found to be uninjured. He made another jump later the same day. See the full story from the Manchester Union.
Ray Noury Near the villages of Pradlo and Nepomuk, Czech Republic: In February of 1944, Ray Noury was a radio operator flying as a right waist gunner on a B-24 mission to Regensberg, Germany when the aircraft was hit by flak after the bomb run. Slowed by the damage, the B-24 was attacked by German fighters. The right outside engine was burning as Noury attempted to help the ball turret gunner out of his jammed turret. The aircraft exploded before Noury had a chance to fully attach his parachute. Noury fell an estimated 15,000 feet with a tattered and ineffective parachute, hit a ski slope, and slid about half a mile. A wedding party saw the incident and searched for survivors, but did not discover Noury until the following day. Everyone else on the crew died. After a short hospital stay Noury was sent to a prisoner of war camp.
Dave Hodgman Victoria, Australia: In March of 1985 Dave Hodgman jumped at 12,000 feet as part of a group that was attempting to build a formation. He was unable to reach the group and moved away. When he opened his parachute at around 2,500 feet he did not realize he was below another jumper, who also did not realize he was there. The other jumper, named Frank, was just opening his own chute at the time. His body collided with Dave, knocking him out and tangling with his lines. The two men came down together under Frank’s inflated chute and Dave’s chute, which collapsed and reinflated through the entire ride. Frank had no control and the two came down between some cars in a packed-gravel parking lot. Dave was badly injured but returned to jumping within three months. Frank’s injuries were minor. There is a photo of the fall.
Charles Williams Malindi, Kenya: In October of 2004 Irish Guard Lt. Charlie Williams fell 3,500 feet headfirst with his feet caught in the cords of his tangled parachute. He was unable to pull his reserve. He thought he was going to die but was saved when he plunged through the corrugated roof of a well-placed hut. His injuries: three cracked vertebrae and a dislocated finger.
Christine McKenzie Carletonville, South Africa: In August of 2004 recreational skydiver Christine McKenzie jumped at 11,000 feet but her main parachute didn't open. She tried her reserve and it released, but several lines broke and it never fully deployed. As she spun toward the ground she hit some power lines, which slowed her fall. She survived with a fractured pelvic bone and some bruises. It was her 112th jump. She says she wants to jump again.
Tang Lee Ping Kuala Lumpur: In February of 2001 Tang Lee Ping of Malaysia fell 1,500 meters after her main and back-up parachutes failed to open. She woke up three hours later in a nearby hospital. Her injuries were minor (only bruises). She attributed her survival to God and a soft landing area.
Gus Bernardoni On September 17, 1944 Gus Bernardoni was a member of the 501st Parachute Infantry, which was jumping into Holland as part of the invasion. The plane lurched as he jumped and he fell into the risers and suspension lines of his parachute. In addition, two equipment bundles dropped from other planes tangled with him as he fell. He fell about 300 feet to the ground with one bundle (a 500-lb. mortar) falling on top of him. After lengthy hospitalization, Bernardoni recovered. A doctor suggested he take up golf as a therapeutic measure and today Bernardoni is well-known for his work with handicapped golfers. His book "Golf God's Way" includes a description of his accident, Bernardoni's philosophy on golf, and also stories of amputees and others who have taken up golf despite their physical handicaps.
Arch Deal Cypress Gardens, FL: In June of 1975, Arch Deal made a skydive as part of a promotional stunt for Channel 8 News. His parachute failed to open and he fell 3,000 feet into "loose soil" in an orange grove. Spectators found him there alive thirty minutes later. Deal returned to skydiving and has made 4,500 jumps since his accident, many of them as head of the Miller Brewing Company's skydiving team.
Bear Grylls South Africa: In 1996, a British soldier named Bear Grylls fell thousands of feet when his damaged parachute failed to open properly. Despite his injuries about 18 months later, he became the youngest British mountaineer to reach the top of Mount Everest. He wrote about his experiences in a book called "The Kid Who Climbed Everest."
Lois Frotten Marstons Mills, MA: In July of 1962, a day after becoming engaged, Lois Frotten and her fiancé celebrated with their first skydive. Unfortunately, Frotten's foot became tangled in the rigging and her main parachute never fully opened. However at a low altitude it began to blossom and so she stopped tumbling and fell feet first into Mystic Lake. Two bystanders saw her fall and went out in a motorboat to retrieve her. By that time her jumpmaster had reached her and was there to help her into the boat. Frotten broke her nose and several vertebrae, but outside of a week in the hospital and some time in a back brace, she was fine. See the Travel Destinations page for a picture of Mystic Lake.
Sharon McLelland Queensville, Ontario, Canada: In September of 1994, McLelland's main parachute malfunctioned and she failed to deploy her reserve. Aided by the streaming parachute and a landing in soft dirt, McLelland's first reaction was to apologize to her instructor for not using her reserve.
Joan Murray Charlotte, North Carolina: In September of 1999, Joan Murray's main parachute failed during a jump from 14,500 feet. Her reserve opened at around 700 feet, but then deflated. She landed in a mound of fire ants, whose stinging may have helped keep her heart beating. In a coma for two weeks, she was well enough to head home six weeks later. She returned to jumping in July of 2001.
Gareth Griffith Umatilla, Florida: In a tandem jump (i.e., a student and instructor jumping simultaneously) in June of 1997, Griffith pulled his ripcord at 5,500 feet, but the main chute partially failed, which triggered the reserve chute to be opened. The reserve chute tangled with part of the main chute, and despite cutting away the main chute, the reserve was never fully cleared. Griffith, the student, landed on top of Michael Costello, the instructor. Griffith survived, but Costello did not.
Carol Murray Bradford, Ontario, Canada: In 1997, Carol Murray went skydiving for the first time. Her main parachute failed and her reserve tangled in the main. She landed in rain-softened ground in someone's front yard, only feet away from the house, a tree, and the driveway. After years of rehabilitation, she is able to walk and is now working full-time.
Kevin and Beverly McIlwee Vannes, France: In May of 2001, a newlywed couple made a tandem jump from 13,000 feet. The main chute failed and became tangled in the reserve, the couple landed in grass and both suffered severe leg injuries.
Klint Freemantle Auckland, New Zealand: In August of 1993, Freemantle's main and reserve parachutes failed to open. He fell 3,600 feet and landed in a shallow duck pond. He walked away with just a small cut over his left eye.
Craig Paton Auchterarder, Perthshire, Scotland: Paton's main parachute failed and so did his reserve. He fell 3,200 feet, landed on a grassy embankment, and suffered a severe chest injury. A newspaper account estimated his speed at more than 40 miles per hour. He was put in a drug-induced coma, but was expected to survive.
Lynda Harding Lake Elsinore, California: In April of 2001 on her ninth jump, Harding's main parachute failed and her reserve tangled in her main. A newspaper account estimated that she hit the ground at 70 to 80 miles per hour. She spent a week in intensive care with a variety of injuries, but was expected to make a full recovery.
Brett Shabey Tecumseh, Michigan: In September of 1995, Schabey's main chute failed. His auxiliary opened late and he landed in a pond. A colleague swam out to help him. He survived, though he ended up in the hospital in serious condition.
Michael Cox Fort Bragg, NC: In the summer of 1977, Michael Cox was a Radio-Teletype operator in the 82nd Airborne division. Jumping with a heavy equipment bag from 1,200 feet out of a C-130, Cox hit the side of the plane and spun as he fell, which prevented his parachute from opening properly. With his parachute streaming uselessly above him, he hit the ground in a sandy area. He was knocked out for about 45 minutes, but recovered well enough to hike back to the mustering point where the company commander ordered him to do fifty push-ups for arriving late. Cox collapsed and was taken to the emergency room where he was found to have a neck fracture. He recovered and jumped again about six weeks later.
Other Examples
  • Michael Vederman, August 1997, Quincy, IL
  • Geoff Divco & Jerome Rich, January 1997, Corowa, Australia
  • Rob Lock, September 1996, probably in the United Kingdom
  • Jill Shields, May 1991, Geauga County, Ohio
  • Darren Weber, March 1991, Muskogie, OK
  • G.B. Booth, 1940, probably in England
  • Eddie Szula, late 1930s/early 1940s, probably in the United States (see Other Amazing Stories)
  • Lt. "Bugs" Fisher, 1924, Lake Michigan
  • Dragan Curcic, October 2002, eastern Europe, probably Serbia (see Incident Log)
  • Cliff Judkins, June 1963, Pacific Ocean (see Other Amazing Stories)
  • Michael Gifford, June 2002, near Davis, CA
  • Glenn Hood, June 2002, Jarvis Lake, western Alberta Canada (see Incident Log)
  • Paul Delaney, July 1998, Wainwright (near Calgary, Alberta, Canada)
  • Bren Jones, December 1997?, Lincolnshire, eastern England
  • S D Magidela, September 2002, South Africa (see Incident Log)
  • David Clements, April 2001, Coventry, England
Unlucky? Well, yes, but at least their parachutes worked...
There is also a group of unlucky skydivers who were unlucky in a different way. Their parachutes worked, but something else went terribly wrong.
  • Leon Sebek: In August of 2002 Leon Sebek was on the wing spar of a Cessna 182 waiting to jump when his main parachute deployed prematurely. The open parachute slammed him against the horizontal stabilizer. Under the open parachute he fell unconscious and landed in a quarry. It took searchers eight hours to find him. Due to his head injuries, he was in a coma until September but had recovered well enough to return home by December.

  • William Rankin: In 1959, Lt. Col. William Rankin was flying at 47,000 feet when he had to eject from his F8U jet over Norfolk, Virginia due to an engine failure. He parachuted into the middle of a severe thunderstorm that carried him over 65 miles to Rich Square, North Carolina. The trip took over 40 minutes.

  • Didier Dahran: In May of 1993, Frenchman Didier Dahran parachuted at 1,000 feet and was caught in a cyclone that lifted him to 25,000 feet. His first parachute collapsed at that point and he used his reserve to descend to earth some 30 miles from where he started. The incident happened in the vicinity of Boulac, France.

  • Mathieu Gagnon: In June of 2002, Gagnon was sucked into a dark storm cloud while parachuting in Ontario and was pulled up by the storm. After rising 1,000 meters, he cut away his main parachute and fell out of the clouds. Using his reserve he came down about 25 kilometers south of the airfield where he was supposed to land.

  • Alan Peters: While skydiving in western Massachusetts in November of 1993, Alan Peters was free-falling when he struck the vertical stabilizer of a plane flying below. This caused the plane to spin out of control and crash, killing all four people aboard. The collision broke Peters' ankle, but he was able to open his parachute and land safely.

  • Dana Bowman: In February of 1994 while practicing a two-man maneuver for the U.S. Army Golden Knights, Sgt. First Class Dana Bowman collided with his partner, Sgt. Jose Aguillon. They were moving toward each other so quickly that Aguillon's arm sheered off Bowman's legs, one leg above the knee and the other below the knee. Bowman's parachute opened and he survived. Aguillon's automatic opening device deployed his parachute, but it was too late to save him.
A Look Inside a Very Close Call
Robert X. Leeds came within a few feet of his own obituary one day in 1947 when his main and auxiliary chutes streamed and tangled. Want to know what that feels like? Here is his account.

George Hopkins Describes a Parachute Failure
Here's one of the most understated descriptions of a parachute failure. It's by George Hopkins, who in October of 1941 was trying to break the world's record for number of parachute jumps in a day, which stood at the time at thirty. Hopkin's account is from a book called Wings of Adventure by Dale Titler:

"On my third fall the chute streamed but didn't open. I pulled the ripcord on my reserve chute and as it strung out it tangled with the main chute. I climbed my lines and managed to get them about one-third open. My descent was eighteen to twenty feet per second and the stiff wind gave me a forward speed of about thirty miles an hour. I hit hard. When I got to my feet I was bruised and bloody."

Hopkin's quoted speed of eighteen to twenty feet per second (around 15 miles per hour) is not that fast for a parachute descent, but the winds that day were also pushing him forward. Though the accident left him shaken, he continued jumping after taking a break for an hour. Hopkins made it through twelve jumps but was convinced to stop before his thirteenth. He had recently survived a six-day stay on top of Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming after parachuting there as part of a stunt to drum up publicity for his record attempt. Hopkin's plan to descend from Devils Tower was unsuccessful and he was rescued days later by a team of climbers. About a week later, the combination of the parachute failure, his exhausted state, and high winds forced him to break off his record attempt.

Another Account of a Close Call
Roger Fancher describes a close call with a severed static line and a Mae-Wested reserve in this account from an incident that happened in 1978.

| Home |
| Free Fallers | Wreckage Riders | Unlucky Skydivers | Other Amazing Stories |
| The Unplanned Freefall | Falling Math | Fictional Falls | Record Falls |
| Incident Log | Questions | Recommended Reading | About This Research |

Questions? Send an e-mail to Jim Hamilton.

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