Rescue at 4500 Feet

That day I arrived at Perth’s Jandakot Airport at 7.30am, as I do every morning. I’d been really busy doing tandem jumps – where the student is attached to me with a harness – as well as teaching students to jump by themselves. There were probably about 40 trainee jumpers out there that day so I hadn’t taken much notice of Christopher Jones. Another instructor had jumped with him up to this stage and this was my first jump with him.

Christopher was lucky to have the opportunity to do three jumps in one day. Students can get stressed when there are long gaps between their jumps. Sometimes they are more nervous on their second jump than their first. I reckon the more jumps you do in a day the easier it is – it boosts your confidence and you can build on what you learnt that day.

I was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in Namibia. My parents belonged to a flying club and one of my dad’s best friends was a skydiving instructor. Throughout my childhood, if I wasn’t out flying with the older guys I was helping pack parachutes and watching them jump. I started begging to jump from the age of five and I did my first parachute jump at 15.

I have been skydiving for 25 years and I still love it. It’s a very dynamic sport and there are a lot of challenges. I still learn something new every day.

Christopher was going to do his fifth jump [of the Accelerated Freefall training programme] with me. According to his logbook, he’d done really well up to this point. With each jump you learn something new and then consolidate what you mastered in the last jump. The fifth is the first solo jump. He had to show he could turn and do a forwards movement. The instructor just follows the student and signals, using hand movements to tell them what to do – like tapping your wrist to tell them to look at their altimeter. We film everything [using a helmet camera] so they can get a sense of where they went wrong, and after we get on the ground we debrief them. It was mid-afternoon and the weather was clear with light winds, perfect for skydiving. This is going to be easy, I thought to myself.

Christopher climbed out of the plane fine and did a reasonable exit. Then he over-rotated and became unstable for a second, but he quickly flipped himself back into the stable position again, which was really well done. Then when he was stable and level, he turned himself so he was facing me and waited for my signals. He started a left-hand turn – and then he suddenly stopped.

What are you doing? I wondered. We were 9000 feet above the ground. Christopher’s shoulders rolled forwards and his knees came up, then he flipped onto his back. Sometimes you see students suffer from sensory overload – the moment has got too much for them. Sometimes you see them spinning or flipping upside down. Maybe, I thought, he’s misunderstood the technique for doing turns?

I didn’t know what he was up to. It never entered my head that he might have been having a seizure.

“Come on, Christopher, right yourself, right yourself,” I muttered. I was waiting for him to flip himself back over onto his front. But he wasn’t doing anything to correct his situation.

For the next 30 seconds or so, Christopher, was free-falling at speeds up to 200 km an hour.

I dived down but I was descending too fast. I was worried about coming in over the top of him, as he might have pulled the rip cord and then I would be falling into an open parachute. So I approached to the side of him to observe how his body was flying. He wasn’t just falling, he was spinning and oscillating at the same time, and his head was pointing downwards.

I realised then that Christopher was completely unresponsive and doing nothing to get himself facing the earth. We were at 5000 feet and I needed to reach him and get his parachute above his head. Even though our students are fitted with two automatic parachutes, the first wouldn’t have opened until 2000 feet above the drop zone. That wouldn’t have given him much time to sort himself out before hitting the ground. He could have flown into a tree or a river and hurt himself. It had come to the point where he needed to get under that parachute sooner rather than later.

I swooped my arms back and lifted my chin. It takes just a split second – it’s the position you get in when you want to direct your flight. This position changed the aerodynamics so I could direct my descent in Christopher’s direction. Then I pointed my head down to build up speed and, as I came close, flared out so I would slow down. It’s possible to be 1000 feet above somebody and still dive down and join them in a formation. Within seconds, you can get down very quickly and flare out and match their fall speed.

At 4500 feet I caught hold of him and pulled on his harness with one hand and rolled him sideways to angle his body so the parachute could open properly. Then I reached over and grabbed the handle and deployed his parachute. The chute rushed out and swung him round. Christopher flipped head up, sitting in the harness. With this, he was wrenched up above me.

I knew that Christopher had been in difficulty, but with the parachute now open, I believed everything would now be fine.

I reached the ground about two minutes before him. As an experienced skydiver, my parachute was a third of the size of his which meant I opened it lower and did a bunch of turns to get to the ground quicker. Christopher was just a speck in the sky when I landed.

After I picked up my parachute, I went over to Donna, our ground instructor. She was talking to Christopher [who had recovered consciousness at 3000 feet] on the radio and giving him commands. “He might be a bit slow and unresponsive, he’s been spinning around,” I told her.

He was still a bit slow to listen to her commands but he did a great job and landed well. I waited until his feet touched the ground and then I headed to the hangar to prepare for the debrief and get ready for my next jump.

Donna came into the hangar behind me and said “he’s just had an epileptic seizure”. I couldn’t believe it. That was the first time I knew. Then in came Christopher. He gave me a huge hug. “Thank you very much,” he said, “You have just saved my life.”

If I’d realised while we were up there that he was unconscious, I don’t know if I would have been that composed.

I do an average of 800 to 1000 jumps a year, sometimes 12 or 13 on one day, and in the summer I can work seven days a week. In all my time in this sport I have never known someone to have a seizure mid-air, and it’s something I doubt I’ll ever see again.

A few months later, Christopher uploaded the training video taken from Sheldon’s helmet camera to YouTube. The dramatic two-minute video has been watched by over 17 million viewers. Shortly after the incident, Christopher told ABC News that he had been seizure-free for four years prior and that he had believed his condition had improved enough to enable him to skydive. His doctor had provided the skydiving academy with a letter to that effect. In December last year, the Royal Life Saving Society, Western Australia, awarded Sheldon a Gold Cross for his bravery.

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