Gino was a bald guy whose super fit physique belied his age. He claimed he was of Hungarian, German, and Italian descent and spoke with an accent that belied his origins. As the owner of Wanaka Parasailing rig in New Zealand, he was adept at hoisting people into a harness and pulling them into the sky, like a kite, while chatting about any subject under the sun. During such an excursion, he and I had a conversation about his day job, as a skydiver. He confessed that he had jumped 26,000 times in over 21 years. Here is an except of our conversation about the craft of skydiving:
Q- So, how does it feel today when you sky dive?
A- It's like driving a car. It's dangerous but you don't think about it, you just do it as habit
Q- Do you get nervous during a jump after so many years?
A - not when I'm in the air falling, not particularly. May be after a few months of not jumping, when I get back up there, I feel a second of hesitation with my feet dangling from the edge. Then I roll off and it's easy as ever.
Q- Do you pack your own chute?
A- not the main one, just the reserve.
Q- What! why?
A- I can pack the main parachute in less than three minutes. It's easy and it works. Of course it is critical to get it done well but it is not as big a deal as getting the reserve parachute right. A reserve chute is more technical to pack, can take up to 90 minutes to pack, but more forgiving in the air. It is also the one that should be calibrated correctly for the total weight of the jumpers. I never let anyone else pack my reserve chute.
Q- In your 26,000 jumps, have you ever had to use your reserve?
A- yes. twelve times
Pause/ I stare at him.
Q- How do you know exactly when to deploy the reserve?
A- smiles.. You know. You look up and see if the main chute is not fully opened or tangled up and you have to make the call.
Q- What's the call?
A- To cut the main chute off, and then deploy the reserve... Of course with enough time
Q- Why not keep the main chute, and just open the reserve as well?
A- that could get both of them tangled... And then, you will have to maneuver both the chutes which can make steering and landing very dangerous
Q- You are telling me that there's a moment when you cut your main chute, and then pull for your reserve. That's the exact moment when you find out if the reserve opens.
A- Now you know why I pack the reserve myself
Q- Is that the most dangerous part of sky diving? The moment when you pull the cord to open the chute?
A - No.
Q- Really, what is it?
A- The most dangerous part of sky diving is the first 1000 feet of flight. After the plane takes off, if something happens within the first thousand feet of its climb, there is nothing I can do to save myself or others. Not enough height and time for a jump. You will just get crushed. Above that height, I can always jump and open the chute.
Q- And land on your feet?
A - that's the idea, mate.
Q- So, it what do you do about this risk?
A - Nothing. Just hope that the pilot does his job.
Q- For someone who's looking to skydive for the first time, what's the single piece of advice to reduce their risk?
A - Go with an experienced jumper
Q- Who is an experienced jumper?
A - Someone who's done at least 6000 jumps. You are rookie until then.
Life lessons I took away:
Redundancy .... Have multiple chutes
Know your most critical risk, and control for it ... Pack your own reserve chute
If you can't, don't worry about the risk ... Count on the pilot to fly