Falling

One bad decision sends northern California skydiver Craig Stapletoon toward a crushing impact

craig stapleton skydiving accident fall survived survives survival falling parachute risks

    Photo: Matt Mahurn

I looked down and saw vineyards. There were grape plants every four to five feet. Inside each one was an iron spike about six feet tall.

My skydive teammate Katie and I had planned a formation for a jump last March where we would float a giant U.S. flag between our two flying parachutes. I had done about 7,000 jumps and competed in six world meets and probably 14 nationals. I’m also the safety adviser for my local drop zone here in Lodi. Katie looked at me as we were getting on the plane and said, “I don’t have a knife. Is that a problem?” I took mine from my chest pouch and handed it to her. In 25 years, I had never needed one. Plus, I had a backup attached to my leg.

We started our trick at 6,000 feet. Katie placed her parachute just below me, so I could put my feet in the lines. I passed one end of the lanyard we’d use to hold the flag down to her, and she clipped in. At that point, we were supposed to move away from each other horizontally, but we ended up moving apart vertically, and I got jolted so hard when the lanyard straightened out that I was flung forward and upside down. My right ankle got caught in one of my lines, and my chute inverted, then circled around itself and knotted. The lanyard was around my neck.

At about 4,800 feet, Katie released her end of the lanyard, setting me free, then I pulled the handle to release my main parachute, but only the left side came off. I was spinning so wildly, I couldn’t grab the knife from my leg. At 1,800 feet, I fired my reserve parachute while tangled up, but the main parachute just started eating it as soon as it opened.

I was falling at 30 to 35 miles per hour. I looked down and saw vineyards. There were grape plants every four to five feet. Inside each one was an iron spike about six feet tall, and they were all strung together with fencing wire. I visualized the horrible things that were about to happen to me. I said goodbye to my wife and kids and apologized to them. I thought, Just relax as much as you can, roll with the impact, and exhale.

Next thing I know I was lying on the ground. I’d landed between all the wires, in dirt that had just been plowed, so it was like really fine sand. Katie called 911, and the emergency crew came pretty rapidly. They cut my jumpsuit off and looked at me. I didn’t have internal bleeding, just a separated left shoulder, and my left side was really sore. The best news I heard was the fire chief canceling the helicopter.

My wife was signing into the security desk at the hospital when I walked out. All she wanted to do was give me a hug, but I was like, “No hug! I can’t take it!”

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