Real life: 50 Seconds to live

Robert Kiener

Unconscious and plummeting to earth, the novice skydiver had no idea that he was just seconds away from death. Here's his story. 

Preparing to jump

preparing to jump

Along with a dozen other trainee skydivers, Christopher Jones is packed tightly into a Cessna 182 as it flies over countryside just south of Perth, Australia. This will be the fifth jump in his accelerated freefall programme and his first time jumping without being tethered to an instructor. 

As the plane climbs through the clear November skies, Christopher goes over the procedure in his mind. “Stay calm,” he mutters to himelf. 

Just after the plane reaches 12,000 feet, a green light begins flashing, a signal that the pilot has given his OK for the jump to proceed. Christopher’s instructor, veteran parachutist Sheldon McFarlane, slides open the side door. He motions to Christopher to take position. 

Although he’s cocooned in a helmet, goggles, blue jumpsuit and two parachutes (a main and a reserve), Christopher winces as he feels the cold air rushing into the plane. The wind is so loud that he can hear nothing but his own heartbeat. He’s nervous but focused on Sheldon, who’ll guide him through this first solo jump by following him as he freefalls to the drop zone some two miles below. 

Remembering his training, Christopher carefully begins the pre-jump cadence he’s learned:

“Check in,” he says and gives a thumbs up to Sheldon, indicating that he’s ready to jump.

“OK,” answers Sheldon with a thumbs up. 

 

 

“If I can’t fly a plane, I’ll jump out of one instead” 

 

 

Christopher fights the buffeting winds and looks down at the green and brown chequerboard pattern of the countryside. In the distance he sees the blue of the Indian Ocean. 

“Sky!” he shouts to Sheldon, indicating that he knows what direction to jump to and that he’s got his balance. Sheldon gives him another thumbs up. 

Then, as he inches his way to the door, he turns his back to the bright blue sky and grabs onto the plane’s hanging bars. He shouts to Sheldon, “Up! Down!’ and “Hard Arch!” (skydiving lingo for “Ready, set, go!”) and leaps out of the plane. 

Today’s solo skydiving jump is the culmination of a lifelong dream for the 22-year-old. As a child, Christopher would join his uncle in the small plane he owned. He planned to become a pilot when he grew up but his hopes were dashed when he was diagnosed with epilepsy aged 12. He was told his condition would prevent him from ever getting a pilot’s licence. 

Years later, after jumping in tandem with a skydiving instructor in Europe, Christopher fell in love with the sport. He found free-falling exhilarating; almost like flying. He was hooked. He told his parents, “If I can’t fly a plane, I’ll jump out of one instead.” 

Because Christopher hadn’t had a seizure in over six years, his doctor said he was fit enough for skydiving lessons at the WA Skydiving Academy. Donna Cook, one of WA’s course instructors, said Christopher was one of the best students she’d ever taught. Other instructors agreed; his first four tandem jumps had gone perfectly. He was ready to go solo.

 

12,000 Feet

That’s a bit messy, thinks Sheldon McFarlane as he watches Christopher misjudge a step and nearly slip out of the Cessna as he prepares to jump. Sheldon, who’s been skydiving for more than 25 years and made more than 10,000 jumps, is about to follow Christopher out of the plane to guide him through a prescribed set of manoeuvres as he freefalls.

Jumping just seconds behind Christopher, the instructor is relieved to see he’s recovered from his clumsy plane exit and is free-falling in the perfect “box man” position: flat out with his belly to the ground, his arms and legs spread for stability.

Both skydivers are free-falling; they’ll open their parachutes at 5,000 feet in just over half a minute. Sheldon points to the altimeter on his wrist, indicating that Christopher should check his own, which he does. So far, so good, thinks Sheldon.

 

9,000 Feet

As both men free-fall, Sheldon signals Christopher to begin an aerial left-hand turn. The novice jumper begins the turn to the left but suddenly stops and is buffeted to the right. Not good, thinks Sheldon.

Christopher continues to drift to the right as Sheldon wonders, What the heck are you doing?

    

8,000 Feet

Christopher fails to recover from his clumsy turn to the right. The veteran instructor quickly realises something’s wrong. The star pupil is failing. 

Suddenly, Christopher’s knees come up and he flips like a turtle over onto his back, seemingly out of control as he is falls at 125 miles per hour through the sky. He’s losing it, thinks Sheldon. “Come on, Christopher,” he says to himself, “right yourself, right yourself!”

 

7,000 Feet

But Christopher doesn’t respond. Sheldon watches as he continues to spin helplessly, his arms flailing. The instructor has seen other first-timers suffer from sensory overload and become incapacitated.

He thinks this may be what Christopher is experiencing. That usually occurs on one of their first tandem jumps but Christopher completed his without a problem. Now it’s a solo jump, Christopher’s life could be on the line. 

“Come on, Christopher!” shouts Sheldon as Christopher freefalls, upside down, arms akimbo beneath him. What Sheldon doesn’t know is that Christopher has suffered a severe epileptic fit and passed out. He’s unconscious, helpless, falling as fast as a speeding car to the ground below and is unable to open his parachute.

 

6,000 Feet

Christopher is plummeting to earth with his head pointed down. Sheldon has to act fast.

Although Christopher, like all skydiving students, is fitted with Automatic Activation Devices (AAD) that will automatically open his chute at 2,000 feet, Sheldon realises that wouldn’t give him enough time to regain control. He could break his neck in an uncontrolled landing. 

 

5,000 Feet

Beep, beep, beep. Sheldon’s preset audible altimeter begins beeping in his ear at 5,000 feet, warning him that it’s time to deploy his own main chute for a safe landing. He ignores it as he instead decides to freefall to Christopher, grab him, and open his parachute himself.

It’s a risky manoeuvre; Sheldon has to ensure he prevents himself from getting entangled if Christopher’s shoot opens in the wrong direction. Both men could fall to their deaths. 

He lifts his chin and swoops his arms back, speeding to Christopher like a hawk going after its prey. But he’s coming in too fast above him and, afraid he’ll crash into him too hard or that Christopher may suddenly pull the cord and entangle them both, he aborts the effort. Christopher is still on his back, falling.

 

4,500 Feet

BEEP, BEEP, BEEP. Sheldon’s altimeter alarm is beeping even louder as he flares out to slow his descent. Time to deploy his own chute is running out. Even highly skilled skydivers don’t open their chutes any lower than 2,000 feet, and Sheldon will reach that height in just 14 seconds. But as Christopher drops below him he dives again to reach him.

This time he swoops like Superman down to Christopher and grabs his harness with his right hand to roll his body sideways. He knows that it’s crucial to get Christopher in the proper position before he pulls his ripcord. Otherwise, the chute could entangle them both.

Clinging to Christopher with all of his strength, he grabs onto his chute handle with his spare hand and pulls it hard. The main parachute billows out and up, swinging Christopher around and flipping his head up so he’s sitting in the harness. Thank God! thinks Sheldon as Christopher is immediately wrenched up into the sky above him. 

But Christopher’s still unconscious, unaware that he’s falling to earth beneath his billowing yellow canopy. A crash landing could easily kill him.

 

4,000 Feet

“Chris! Chris! Chris!” Drop zone safety officer Donna Cook has been watching Christopher’s descent from the ground and radioing him with no response. When she sees his chute open, she’s relieved and radios him, “Way to go! You have a good chute above your head.”  

Donna’s relief turns to concern as she sees Christopher drifting far off course. She radios him again: “Keep yourself upwind of the target. Turn right, Turn right.”

Christopher continues to veer off course, and Donna realises something’s wrong. “Come on, Chris!” she radios. “Don’t mess up now.” 

But he’s not responding to any of her commands. Christopher is still passed out, slumped over like a dead man under his open parachute.

 

3,500 Feet

Suddenly, as Donna watches him veer more and more off course, she wonders if he’s passed out. Something’s wrong with him, she thinks. Maybe his radio has failed.

Nevertheless, she continues to guide him, praying that he can somehow hear her: “Turn right, Chris! Please!” 

    

3,000 Feet

Slumped over in his parachute, falling through the sky, Christopher suddenly regains consciousness. It’s as if he’s waking from a deep sleep. But as he comes to he sees the ground beneath him coming closer and closer. He lifts his head and is amazed to discover he is drifting down to earth under an opened parachute canopy. 

How the?...he says to himself. He realises he’d passed out and his skydiving training instantly kicks in. He checks his altimeter and it reads 3,000 feet. The last thing he remembers was checking it following Sheldon’s instructions at 9,000 feet. He has to act fast.

Check the canopy, he tells himself and looks up to see that it’s fully opened and none of his lines are twisted. Orient yourself, he tells himself and looks for the drop zone, a small white fabric arrow-point far off to the west.

Before he can run through other landing procedures he hears the one-way radio in his helmet crackle into life and Donna Cook calling to him: “Chris! Chris! Fly toward the ocean. To your RIGHT!” He sees that he is far off the drop zone and tugs hard on the chute’s right steering handle. 

 

2,000 Feet​​

Back on the ground: Sheldon MacFarlane and a grateful Christopher Jones

The wind carries Christopher towards Donna. He pulls on the parachute toggle to direct himself closer to the drop zone, which he can now see looming up beneath him. He’s back on course. 

Seeing Christopher finally responding to her commands, Donna is ecstatic. “GREAT!” she radios him. 

She keeps directing him. “Turn your back to the ocean,” she tells him. Christopher follows her directives. “That’s it! You’re doing it!” Donna tells him. Afraid of losing him again, she keeps radioing him commands.

 

1,000 Feet

Sheldon McFarlane, who has already landed because he could open his small, expert parachute at a much lower altitude than Christopher’s standard chute, shouts to Donna that, “This was one of the worst Stage Five jumps I’ve ever seen!”

He still has no idea that Christopher had a seizure and that his actions saved the young man’s life.

 

300 Feet

Meanwhile, Christopher prepares to land close to the drop zone. As he nears the ground, he runs through what he has learned to touch down safely. Like a veteran skydiver, he expertly flares the chute by pulling on both toggles to slow it down moments before his feet hit the ground, running. Perfect!

Donna keeps up her chatter on the radio to Christopher and marvels at the miracle she just witnessed. After Christopher executes a faultless two-point landing, she’s close to tears. 

“Great!” She radios Christopher. “You did great!”

The first thing Christopher did upon landing was to wrap Sheldon McFarlane tightly in his arms. 

“Thank you very much,” he told the veteran instructor and explained that he’d suffered an epileptic seizure during his jump. “You have just saved my life.” 

For his courageous actions, Sheldon McFarlane was awarded the Gold Cross from the Royal Lifesaving Society, Western Australia. Christopher’s skydiving days are, sadly, over. A video of his jump and rescue has been watched by more than 17 million YouTube viewers. 

 

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