A Stellar Landing
Originally published in Parachutists Online, Feb, 2015
reprinted with permission of the author.
It was the summer of 1985 in La Tour de Crieu, France. I had somewhere between 50 and 100 jumps and found myself in a long spot under my Para-Commander. When I was about a half mile away and pretty low, I gave up making it back to the DZ. I had just passed a road and was trying to decide on a landing area upwind when I saw a neat, square field that looked very safe. The landing pattern was pretty simple: Just make a turn at a reasonable height to face the wind for landing.
As I prepared to land, I kept an instructor recommendation for achieving accuracy in mind: Never let the target out of sight. This was a good opportunity to practice, so I focused on the center of the field. As I got closer and lower, the target slowly drifted to my right, but I had learned not to start any turns at a low altitude, which froze me. Not very consciously, I turned my head to look at the target drifting by to my right as I continued to fly forward.
Soon, events were moving very quickly. The ground flew by below. A huge noise broke out above my head. What was that? PLF.
Then, as I lay on my right side, I looked up and got the surprise of my life. Yellow and orange sparks flowed in all directions. The background was just black. The sparks took a little time to softly dissipate, and then tangled wires appeared above me in a clear sky. I was up in a fraction of a second to put out any fire, but even though the canopy had been in the wild grass beneath the sparking wire, everything seemed fine.
I turned to face the DZ and waved to signal that I was still in one piece. As I prepped the canopy on the side of the road for the walk back, an infuriated old man showed up out of nowhere. He was complete with a cane and a madly barking dog. His shouting lasted for quite some time. I remember him turning theatrically to face the DZ with his hand up and shouting, "You got there a huge dropping zone, why do you need to land here?" and so on. This man had old-people wisdom: He never came close to me.
Then a lady approached and kindly inquired about the situation. She told me not to pay attention to her father, he was just angry because they had lost power in their home. She left briefly afterward, and I walked back to the DZ.
When I reached my destination, I tried to tell everyone that the canopy was fine, but I don’t think I expressed myself very coherently. After such fireworks, everyone expected the canopy to be utterly destroyed. At the packing table, a close inspection showed just a couple of tiny scraps of metal embedded in the left stabilizer. One piece left a tiny hole when I popped it out. There was also a burn hole that was less than a half-inch in length. The entire affected area of the canopy must have been less than a square inch! I could probably have jumped the same canopy that day.
A little bit later, a man stepped into the packing tent and introduced himself as a utility worker. He asked the group about the incident. I stepped up immediately to take the blame, but he kindly replied that he was not looking for a culprit. He was just surprised I was OK because the power line carried 1,200 volts and nylon is not an insulating material at such a high voltage. He then simply politely requested that we inform the utility company immediately if a similar event occurred.
I was told later that the fireworks had been a real sight from the distance. But I didn't really get to see them.
For the interested reader
Lat 43°06-49.1" N
Long 1°39'48.67' E
Probable landing point
Long 1°40'16.79" E