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Saved by the Second Parachute

Skydiving is a wonderful sport. You willingly jump out of a perfectly functioning aeroplane into the void with a pack on your back, carrying what’s called a parachute. Gravity accelerates you for a meeting with Mother Earth at roughly 9.8m/s2. If you don’t have a breaking device, you keep on accelerating at this rate until you reach what is unfortunately but accurately called terminal velocity, a constant speed where the restraining force of drag exactly counterbalances the gravitational force. This occurs at around 200km/h but can exceed 300km/h depending on your orientation in space.1 Hitting the ground at this speed is not a good idea. Gnats get flattened against windscreens at a fraction of these speeds.   Frontal impact car crash tests against deformable barriers are conducted to a maximum speed of 64kph.2 Even the mildest form of impact is debilitating. Try slowly walking into a wall with your hands at your sides. Not nice. So you need that parachute to open. If it opens, you stand a chance, and gently arc towards earth at around 3 m/s.

Skydive graphic - GPS Catherina du Toit 5 April 2014 Catherina Skydive Heart rate-Elevation Graphic

Given the above, I need not tell you skydiving is dangerous.3 In fact, given your enhanced chances of death and injury, many insurance companies do not cover for disability if one engages in it.4 That being said, one has to try out everything at least once in life, and skydiving was next on my list. But I didn’t want to do it on my own. Catherina is always game for sports, so I drop her a line in New York and she’s dead keen, as is her boyfriend Michael. I contact Skydive Cape Town and confirm their jump.5 They book us in and tell us to bring cash along, as they don’t have credit card facilities. Hard cash up front, before the dive, that’s Skydive Cape Town’s business model. Wonder why?

Now, it’s prudent to finalise one’s will before jumping. I round up my beneficiaries and go through the repartition of the considerable millions of my dreams, just in case. Upon seeing my balance sheet, their eyes widen, followed by suppressed glee breaking across their faces. The strong reservations they had about my jumping immediately evaporate. My beloved ones become very encouraging of my jump, congratulating me on my adventurous spirit, sense of daring, excellence of judgement etc. No, jump I must, they insist.6

I’m set for a thrill of a lifetime. On the day before the jump, Catherina calls me all agitated. She heard one can break one’s ankles when skydiving. “Cat, you can break more than that”, I say. “You can break your ruddy neck. You can even die. In fact, only this morning on my way to work I heard over the radio that an experienced skydiver had died in Arizona the previous day.”7 “No, it’s not that”, says Cat. “I enjoy running, and it’s not really comfortable doing it with broken ankles.” “Oh” I say. “I’ll cancel for you.” “Is there a number I can phone, I want to speak to an instructor, just to reassure me”, she asks. “I’ve spoken to no-one”, I say. “And what reassurance can they really give you? Once you’re falling?” So I cancel for them.

The next morning Catherina phones saying they’ve changed their minds and will be jumping after all. I know. It’s the pull of the thrill versus the push of the risk, the very origin of Freudian neurosis. “Are you Sure?” I ask. “Sure”, they say. So on the finest early autumn day the three of us drive to Skydive Cape Town, close to Koeberg on the West Coast. On the way there, we crack jokes about parachutes not opening and planes failing with a few parachutes short etc. Fidgety laughter, but we’re not fooling ourselves; it’s a clear escapement of nerves. We arrive at 12H30, count over our cash to a cashier at a counter, and are made to sign indemnity forms.8 Catherina is excited, positive. Her eyes shine. She’s the coolest cucumber on the planet. Now that she’s in, she’s in.

Skydiving roster price weight limit Packing parachutes Kitting up

We loiter around the hangar, ambling among people packing parachutes. Bevan approaches. He is my diving instructor, the guy I’d be jumping with. Very amiable, has a calm voice. Says it’s time they put a harness on me. They do. I ask questions. He says he’ll explain everything later. All strapped up, we watch a small plane taxi down the runway. The six of us walk to it. We climb in through a rolling door on the side and cram into the small floor, backs to our instructors. Cat is all bubbles, all sunshine, as I know her. I’m not so sure about the whole thing anymore, and go quiet. “Alex, ha ha, why are you so quiet?” Cat laughs-asks. “Catherina daaaarrrrling, savour the moment, there are many who’ll pay good money to shut me up.” The plane takes off and Bevan keeps up a gentle stream of patter in my ear. “Give me the thumbs up!” he says. “It’s going to be exhilarating, I want you to enjoy it, I want you to please keep your eyes open and not miss a second! We’re going to reach around 220 km/h, you’ll love it, you’ll see. Now give me the thumbs up again!” I do, feebly. “Put these goggles around your neck. When we’re a little higher I’m going to strap your back to my front. You then lift yourself up and sit on my lap, put on your goggles, we move to the side of the plane, you fold your legs between mine around the bottom of the plane, rest your head backwards on my shoulder and I’ll push us out. In free fall, when I tap you on the shoulder, extend your arms, bent like this with open hands. Now thumbs up!”

Intreprid skydivers  Alex Catherina Michael 5 Apr 2014 Jumpers Only DCIM100GOPRO

All good. The plane spirals steeper and steeper, so does my breathing. We look down on Table Mountain in the distance. We climb and climb to over 3000 meters. Table Mountain recedes to smallness. The Blue surrounds us. Cat laughs and smiles, laugh and smiles. Michael chats. I continue to explore the strange contours of silence. And dread. Nerves tighten and loosen inside me. I hear the instructor clipping himself to me. I prepare. We are really high up. Catherina arranges herself for the jump. “First jumper”, commands the pilot. It’s the point of no return. The side hatch is opened. All you now see is insubstantial Blue. I duck as the hatch rolls in above my head. I think that if the hatch weren’t so small and we weren’t so high up, we could have been in a garage. It’s just like the rolling door in my garage, I think. Actually, we’re in the safety of my garage, I say to myself. You should see the sturdy walls of my 1928 house. They’re 60cm thick. “First jumper!” says the pilot. I look at Cat. Our tense eyes meet. She and her instructor shuffle to the open door, towards the Blue, with nothing but thin air beneath then. She steadies herself, drops her legs over the side, leans her head back… and tears away into the void.

That’s the first time I completely shat myself was really scared. My beloved friend Catherina hurtling down to earth! What! When would I see her again? “Now, steady yourself”, says Bevan. My brain goes numb. No pondering, panic or resistance, just meek compliance. We shuffle into place. I haul my legs over the side, ease my head back, feel a push and all of a sudden am ripped by crosswinds and am spinning like a top. We right ourselves; I get the pat on the back, throw out my arms and am soon plunging down to a beautiful part of the Earth, over 3000m below. I cannot describe to you what a rush it is. I have never experienced anything like it. It was easily the most exhilarating twelve seconds of my life.9, 10


We fall and fall into an increasingly strong gust, its noisy, we’re buffeted. I look and look, eyes wide open. Magnificent, thrilling. We reach 220km/h. I’m just doing it. I’m alive, I’m free, I… am. Then, well, great, but when does the parachute open? After a few seconds more it does. I feel a sharp tug on the right shoulder, which burned; we decelerate and swing wildly… only to hear a click… and to accelerate again. Something had clearly gone wrong. I knew we had lost the parachute. We fall faster and faster. I think: Alex, you’ve had a good life. Funny, at that stage there’s no fear, only contemplation and resignation, that’s the mental state. We fall faster and faster then I feel a second tug, a breaking force. I look up and see the Blue, but a more beautiful blue was that of the flared out parachute above me. “All’s OK now”, breathes Bevan, “it’s plain sailing from here.” “Had problems?” I ask. “Yes, we lost our first parachute. There it goes.” I look around and see a ruffled brown parachute plummeting to earth. Above it are the parachutes of Catherina and Michael, drifting down. “Does it mean we’re falling faster because it’s a reserve parachute?” “No”, he says “all will be fine now.”11


We circle downwards and land on a large sand patch behind to the hanger. It’s like landing on cotton wool. I lift my legs and waft in. The part we had most feared was the easiest. Catherina lands equally softly. She runs towards me. Huge hugs. “You’re OK Aleeeeex, you’re white-white-white”, she pants. Yes, she had seen my parachute drift away, and thought something amiss. We wait for Michael and walk to the hangar. People had heard. Some geezer asks me whether I’m the guy whose first parachute didn’t open. Yes, I reply. A sequence of emotions ensues. Relief, disbelief, relief, exhaustion, relief, disbelief, relief…


DCIM100GOPROParachute Strap Burn

We watch the video of the dive, then head back to Catherina’s to re-live the event, crack more parachute jokes and imbibe copious champagne. We celebrate, talk, discuss. Michael says his instructor had had 5000 jumps, only three of which required deploying the second chute. I had had one out of one. That’s the way luck falls. Then they tell me they heard mine had been the second misfiring Skydive Cape Town had had that morning…

That evening, at around eight, sitting in my kitchen pondering life over a glass of Cognac and a little celebratory cigar, my mind’s eye catches glimpse of the parachute that should have floated me down to earth. I see it again, plummeting down, a tangled brown confusion of ropes and canvas.

I shit myself anew shudder again, shocked.



  1. You get to terminal velocity rather quickly. After only three seconds are you hurtling downwards at half the speed of terminal velocity, at twelve seconds you are pretty much at terminal velocity. A parachute drops your speed to 3 to 5 metres per second, depending on the parachute and skydiver, and can even be controlled to land much slower than this. This is less than 5% of the speed of terminal velocity and is survivable. Newton’s equations to compute speed and distance travelled after an elapsed time given the gravitational force, must be counterbalanced by a drag force to get real-life results.
  2. According to EuroNCap, the European New Car Assessment Organisation. See www.euroncap.con. For the test itself, see http://www.euroncap.com/tests/frontimpact.aspx
  3. Skydiving is dangerous. According to United States statistics, your chances of dying from any single skydive is 1 in 100000. The fatality rate for automobile accidents is 1.7 per 100 million miles driven in the US. That is 1.7 deaths per 2.2m kilometers. In a typical 20km commute, your chances of dying from a car accident are one in 6.47 million. So, going on a typical once-off skydive is roughly 65 times more dangerous than taking a 20km drive in a car in the United States of America.Of course there are many ways to cut-and slice the data. I’ve seen some shoddy analysis “proving” that skydiving is safer than driving a car, such as comparing the number of miles driven per year to that of a single skydive. Even if driving a car is dangerous, remember that whatever risks you take skydiving must be added to the base rate danger of driving a car. Another perspective: Your chances of winning the typical lotto are roughly one in 14 million. So your chances of dying from a single skydive is 140 times more likely than winning the lotto with one ticket.For more information on the mortality statistics of various sporting activities see “Risk of Dying and Sporting Activities”, at http://www.medicine.ox.ac.uk/bandolier/booth/risk/sports.html. See also “Your Chances of Dying” compiled by the National Centre for Health Statistics, athttp://www.besthealthdegrees.com/health-risks/. Interesting graphics on the various health risks we take, including extreme sporting activities.
  4. Many South African insurance companies have an exclusion policy grid, in which they don’t cover people who engage in the “participation in hazardous pursuits and/or risky activities”. These grids are set up by hardened actuaries who, if they understand anything, understand personal risk. In the case of e.g. Sanlam Matrix, uninsurable hazardous activities include rock climbing, mountaineering, hang-gliding, micro-lighting, acrobatic flying, paragliding, parasailing, parachuting (whether sky-surfing or sky-diving), speed contests of any kind, professional contact sports, and diving (including cave or commercial diving). See http://www.fanews.co.za/article/life-insurance/9/general/1202/the-long-road-to-consistent-exclusion-practices/3476
  5. Skydive Cape Town is at Brakkefontein Rd, Cape Town 7441, Tel +27(0)828006290. They’re open daily from 9:00 am – 4:00 pm. They only conduct tandem jumps, in which you experience free-fall with an instructor. For static line jumps, where your parachute opens the moment you jump and you jump on your own, Citrusdal further up the coast is the place to go. The cost of a jump in April 2014 was R1900 (around USD 180). Optional video and photography costs R600 extra.
  6. OK this paragraph is utter bull! A little poetic license for fun. I jumped against their strong disapproval. So I am loved after all…
  7. See USA Today, 03 April 2014, story at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/04/03/skydiving-record-accident/7265939/“A 46 year old skydiver from Berlin, Diana Paris, with over 1500 jumps to her credit, died in Arizona while attempting a record free-fall formation in a group of 222 experienced skydivers, when her second parachute opened too late.”
  8. Yes, see one of the attached pics. You must also weigh less than 105kg… there are scales there to weigh you, should there be doubt.
  9. See the attached graphic of our skydive, recorded by a Garmin Connect instrument Catherina wore on her wrist, which is a GPS/heart rate monitor training device. The information downloaded from it includes a map of the trip and statistics like maximum height reached above sea level (3091m), the maximum speed Catherina reached during the jump (221.5 km/h), the calories she consumed (77) and her maximum heart rate (129). Just for the record.
  10. The graphic of Catherina’s heart rate with altitude makes for fascinating reading. It is typical of most people I think. The heart rate rises from around 80 to over 120 as the plane takes off, then settles, and soars to a maximum of 129 just before the jump, when she is clipped to her instructor. It drops, then soars again as she jumps. It settles during free-fall, and rises from 90 to 110 as the parachute opens. Her heart rate once again drops for the float downwards, then climbs strongly as she comes in to land (those ankles?). So these are the pressure points: Pre-jump, jump, parachute opening and pre-landing. But you knew that… (see second appended graphic).
  11. This really happened to me.ooooooooooooooooooooo