Surviving an 8,000-Foot Fall

By the time 51-year-old Sacramento dentist Craig Stapleton jumped out of a plane on the afternoon of March 10 he had racked up more than 7,000 jumps, competed in 14 national skydiving competitions, and won one world championship. It took just one simple miscommunication to put him face to face with a grisly death.

Craig Stapleton Skydiving

How Craig Stapleton's skydiving trick should have looked     Photo: Courtesy of Redline

Statistics from the United States Parachute Association show that average annual skydiving deaths have gone down every decade. They decreased from 42.5 deaths a year in the 1970s, to 34.1 in the 1980s, to 32.3 in the 1990s, to 25.8 in the 2000s. As fatalities have decreased, membership in the USPA has increased, and the chance of death during a skydive in the United States has gone down. If you want to weigh the odds using 2012 numbers, there’s one fatality for every 163,158 jumps. A simple decrease isn’t the entire story.

Deaths due to equipment malfunctions have decreased, but landing-related injuries and deaths have increased due to the smaller, faster parachutes skydivers use to swoop into the ground at high speeds. The advanced gear is often much less forgiving of mistakes. High speeds mean athletes have less time for corrections. Human error increasingly plays a role in the number of deaths. One study said that mistakes made by people were responsible for 86 percent of all skydiving deaths between 1993 and 2001. On March 10, CRAIG STAPLETON was trying to execute an advanced maneuver using a lighter, faster parachute when a mistake left him spinning towards likely death. This is his story, as told to JOE SPRING.

It was one of those days where I got up a little later than usual. On Sunday, March 10, I rolled out of bed late because my wife was out snowboarding. I had planned a jump with two people: my skydive teammate, Katie Hansen, a 28-year-old nurse, and T.J. Landgren, a 30-year-old videographer. They were working in the morning, so we were going to meet up in the early afternoon. I kind of wandered down to the Parachute Center in Lodi and wasn’t super motivated to jump.

I’m 51-years-old, 5’8”, and 165 pounds. I had lost 35 pounds in the year and a half before this jump. I had done about 7,000 jumps, competed in six world meets and probably 14 nationals, and won one world championship. I had lots of experience, lots of competition experience, and a little bit of teaching experience. I’m actually the safety and training adviser for the drop zone here. That means I’m in charge of making sure the other guys stay safe. At one point, I was also the Norcal regional director for the U.S. Parachute Association.

When I walked outside I noticed it was a really pretty, warm day, which was nice because the plane tends to get cold. There was a blue sky, so I knew the video would look good.

Katie and I planned to build this specialized formation called a down-plane flag, where we float a flag between two flying parachutes. It’s basically two parachutes at the end of a line, across from each other, flying straight at the ground, with a big American flag between them. The flag is about 15-by-20 feet. We had actually been looking at ordering a bigger flag.

Our skydiving group, Redline, had been practicing the formation since the previous summer and were looking to eventually do it for a magazine cover. It’s very specialized. There are not very many people that do it. What differentiates us from the others that do it is that we use extremely small parachutes so we can go really fast.

Katie looked at me as we were getting on the plane and she was like, “I don’t have a knife. Is that a problem?” And I said, “Here, take my knife, I’ll use my backup.” In 25 years of jumping, I had never used that knife. I took my main knife off my chest, knowing I had a backup strapped to my leg.

It was a normal plane ride. Katie was nervous about the trick, so I was kind of like, “Just relax. Do what we talked about and it will work out just fine.” We set up what we were going to do and where we were going to be. T.J. climbed out of the plane at 8,000 feet. Katie left next. I looked at one of the guys sitting next to me and said, “Hey, what could possibly go wrong?”

I got out and got open. Katie had already opened her parachute. T.J. had a partial malfunction. He was actually spinning off on the side. I was like, “Oh, we need to keep an eye on T.J. He may be having an issue over there.”

Katie and I flew over. T.J. said, “Man, I had a real bad opening.”

We said, “Are you OK?”

He said, “Yeah, we’re good.”

We were at about 6500 feet.

It was already shaping up as one of those dives where just enough was going wrong—just a little bit at a time. That incident just threw our timing off. It threw Katie’s guidance off. It made me want to do a little more to make up for the bad combination of things.

We found our angle from the sun and our location and then started our little trick at 6000 feet. Katie and I flew our parachutes together. She put her parachute just below me, so I could dock. She floated up to me so that I was almost standing on her shoulders. I put my feet in the lines of her parachute. It’s a real safe formation. The top person is in control, and it’s pretty easy to maneuver and keep an eye on each other. Once we were set, I passed one end of the lanyard down to Katie and she clipped in. We were both hooked up and we made sure everything was safe and ready to go.

Katie tapped me on the foot and gave me a thumbs up. My job was to get us to a place where we could do the trick safely in the sky. We didn’t want to be too far from the airport, but we also didn’t want to be where there was traffic from airplanes or other parachutes. Once I found that area, I was just like, “OK, here we go.”

We were around 5800 feet. I took my feet out of her parachute and flew forward. She was supposed to put on the brakes a little and go to the left. I was supposed to go a little faster and move to the right. But instead of going separate, we wound up both going the same direction. Instead of going away from each other horizontally, we ended up going away from each other vertically.   

Normally, I’d get to the end of the line and get a pretty good yank as the rope straightens out between us. Then I’d go from flying sideways to flying down pretty rapidly. But I got jolted so hard this time that I just got flung forward and upside down. I had fallen pretty far below Katie and that allowed the lanyard to lift me up and flip me through my harness. I actually somersaulted through my parachute gear. Just one foot, my right ankle, got caught in one line of my parachute and pulled it in. It made my parachute invert and do a 360. Then it circled around itself and knotted.

I wasn’t concerned about my safety.  I was more concerned about how bad I looked. I looked like an idiot first jumper. I came through the somersault and cleared the lines off my feet.

My parachute was moving in a spinning pattern. Modern parachutes are unlike the old, round parachutes. Those round parachutes caught air underneath them and that slowed you down. Modern parachutes work like a wing; they need air moving across them to generate lift. Mine went from generating lift to helicoptering into the ground. I couldn’t stop it.

I was flipping around and rolling at the end of this line. I’m tied up into my canopy. I’ve got this lanyard around my neck. I’m using my arms to try and get it off me. I was like, “This is incredibly bad. I don’t think I’ve seen anything this bad in my life. Man, I think I’m going to die from this.”

I couldn’t tell what kind of shape Katie was in. My biggest fear was that we were going to go down together. Neither one of us was going to get clear and we were going to be laying 22 feet apart on the ground.

For Katie, everything was pretty normal. The flag deployed as was expected. She didn’t get much of a jolt. As the formation tightened and the tension pushed us forward to start flying towards the ground, Katie felt a weird tugging. She started to look for me.

It took about four to five seconds for her to figure out this was going badly. She saw me knotted up and wanted me to release the flag so she could pull it away from me. At about 4800 feet, she finally heard me yelling, “Just cut me away. Just cut the flag away.” She realized, “Craig’s only asking for one reason, and that’s because he can’t get rid of it.”

I had so many things going on. I was turning on so many axes that it was hard to get oriented and do anything. I needed something small to happen so I could deal with the spinning.

We had four yellow handles on our setup to allow for a release. She grabbed one of hers and pulled it. The flag released from her. After that, I pulled a handle and the flag was off me. I thought, “This is no big deal. I’ve just got a malfunctioned parachute. I’ve had numbers and numbers of cutaways. I’ve had to release my main parachute before.”

I pulled the handle to release my main parachute. It didn’t come off. That’s when I knew I was in real trouble. I have half of a parachute that’s not flying. It’s spinning. I’m doing this long fast spin underneath it. I look like a ragdoll. I was spinning so wildly I couldn’t grab the knife from my leg. By the time I was at 1800 feet, I thought, “This is unsurvivable. I can’t go in using this configuration.”

Firing the reserve parachute was my last option. The problem was that I couldn’t clear my main parachute.  I tried to move my main parachute out of the way with my hand, but every time I touched the lines the spinning got more violent.

So I pulled the handle to release my reserve parachute. At first, it looked like everything was going to clear. I looked to my left and there was just nice clear air. I looked to the right and the reserve parachute had made its way right into the spinning parachute. The main parachute just started eating that reserve parachute. I thought, “Oh man, this is what a dead person sees.”

Katie was in a motorcycle accident the year before and had gotten pretty horribly banged up. She had a broken back, broken ribs, a broken neck, and a punctured lung. She was finally back jumping. She actually lived with us for a while after her accident. As she was watching me go in, she was like, “God, if you can just save him I’ll take care of him, like he took care of me.”

I must have been falling at about 30 to 35 miles per hour. I looked down and saw vineyards. Nothing I was doing was fixing the parachutes. I thought, “Stop messing with things, you’re just making it worse. You sat at the card table. You got a dead man’s hand. Just ride it in.”

Most of the grape fields in the area where we jump have rows that run east to west—almost 80 to 90 percent—but I noticed some fields here ran north to south. Either way, there were grape plants every four to five feet. Grape plants are these woody, stocky, gnarly looking beasts. They don’t have a lot of green on them. Inside each one of those grape plants is an iron spike that’s about six feet tall. At the top of the iron spike, from plant to plant to plant to plant, is a fencing wire. It provides the vines something to climb on.

I had seconds until impact, but that was plenty of time to visualize all of the horrible things that were going to happen to me when I landed. If I hit an iron spike, it was going to go through me. If I hit a plant, it was going to go through me. If I hit the wire, it was going to cut me in half. I thought, “Man, this is going to be really messy.”

Nowhere in my vision was, “I’m going to land and walk away from this.” I was convinced that I was going to be a paraplegic, or, that I would be dead.

I said goodbye to my wife and kids and apologized for not being there for the things that were going to come. I watched the grapes coming up, and even go by a little bit. I thought, “Just relax as much as you can, roll with the impact, and exhale.”

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever felt. Next thing I know I was laying on the ground. It took me minutes to get the air back in my lungs. I was convinced I had internal injuries. I knew that I was in for a haul to the hospital and surgeries. No one was going to save me in the field. I thought, “You do what you can because you’ve got to make it to the hospital. That’s where the help comes.”

I somehow landed in the rows running north to south, fitting perfectly into this four-foot window between the wires. Because it was spring, they had just started plowing the land between the rows.  The dirt had just been broken up and was so soft, like really fine sand. Four rows down from where I landed, they hadn’t plowed yet. The soil was rock hard.

Katie is a nurse. After she landed and saw me, her initial reaction was, “Oh man, he’s moving around. He’s still twitching. I’m going to watch my friend die.”

As she was coming over I was taking my equipment off. I wanted to get everything clear because I knew the paramedics were going to come and cut everything off.

Kate was the first person to me. She started arguing with me about what I was doing. She said, “Lay down and stop moving and let’s assess the situation.” She was totally surprised that not only was I awake and conscious, but I was relatively unhurt. She was yelling at some people nearby to call 911. I was like, “Screw them, call ‘em yourself.”

I handed her my phone and said, “Tell them where we are and what’s going on, because you know better than anybody.” I didn’t even know where I was. I’d been so spun around so much. She called 911 and the emergency crew was there pretty rapidly. They cut my jumpsuit off and looked at me and realized I didn’t have internal bleeding. They weren’t sure if I had a broken neck or a broken back. They thought I had a broken left foot. My left shoulder was dislocated. Pretty much everything on my left side hurt, from that foot to my eye socket. They taped me to a board and started to carry me out to a field.

That tilled dirt was really hard for the firemen to walk in. It was so soft they just sank into it as they moved. One fireman actually fell down. They kept complaining about how hard it was to walk. Finally, I said, “I could’ve gone for softer ground.”

The first good news I heard was the fire chief canceling the helicopter. Then he said, “We’re not even going to go lights and sirens. You’re pretty stable.”

When I got to the hospital, I asked Katie to use my cell phone and tell my wife that I’m at the hospital and not to hurry. She had already heard I’d gone in, which meant that I’d died. I told Katie to tell her, “Do not speed down the mountain at 120 mph. We don’t need you to die and me to survive. That would be the worst case scenario.”

I spent four hours in the ER. They did a CT scan, head to pelvis. They did an X-ray of my leg. I felt like most of my organs were on the left side of my body. I really felt lopsided. All of the soft tissue, all of the cartilage, was just so sore, but I didn’t have blood in my urine. I didn’t have internal bleeding. I didn’t have any broken bones. And so, they released me after four hours.

My wife was signing into the security desk as I walked out. The first thing she wanted to do when she saw me was give me a hug, and I was like, “No hug! No hug! I can’t take it.”

EXPERT OPINION:

Skydiving comes with inherent risks, but through proper training and sophisticated equipment, skydivers do everything possible to reduce those risks. In this particular incident, these highly experienced skydivers were attempting very advanced maneuvers, which naturally increases the risk involved and drastically reduces the acceptable margin of error.

Most skydivers performing canopy formation jumps use larger, more docile and forgiving parachutes. In this case, the jumpers were attempting a very complex trick using small, fast, high-performance parachutes, making the stunt more difficult and risky and, when things started going wrong, making Stapleton’s parachute spin much more quickly and violently.

Skydiving accidents usually involve a chain of mistakes, some big, some small. Break any link in that chain, and the accident can be avoided. As Stapleton points out, this incident started with small things not going according to plan, leading to the situation gradually becoming worse.  

Thanks to Stapleton’s extensive experience and quick reactions, as well as a solid dose of good luck, he was able to come away from this scary experience with minor injuries and a good story to tell. There’s a mantra that skydivers use when things go wrong, even when the situation seems unsurvivable: “Never give up.” Stapleton did just that, fighting all the way down, luckily giving his story a happy ending.
—Jim Crouch, U.S. Parachute Association Director of Safety & Training

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