Strange Happenings

When Special Forces teams practiced parachute drops, they either jumped at night or in the early morning at—or just before—sunrise.  The morning drops were the easier because the winds were calmer and you could see all of the drop zone and surrounding area much better than on a moonless night.

On one particular drop we did not get to jump until later in the morning.  I was the first one to exit the aircraft, and as I looked around and noticed I was still above several of the other team members who had jumped after me. It appeared they were descending at a much faster rate than I was. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks—they were not descending faster—I was “rising!” 

We had been briefed on thermal updrafts.  The best way to describe one is to think of a warm current of air like a huge cylinder many hundreds of feet in diameter.  The air inside that cylinder is warmer than the surrounding air and therefore anything flying into it would rise with the updraft. The speed of ascent would be dependent upon the overall surface area and weight of the object. Hawks, eagles, buzzards, and other large birds like to find these “thermals” and ride them to great heights, break out of them and then glide down in ever-increasing circles.

But I was not a hawk or an eagle, and no matter how I tugged at one of the risers of my old T-10 main parachute, I could not slip out of the updraft.  I was beginning to get concerned.  I had no idea how high this updraft would take me! We had exited the aircraft at about 1800 feet and I estimated I had already risen a thousand feet or more, judging from the size of the several open parachutes still between me and the ground. 

Within a couple of minutes, the jumpers from my aircraft had all landed and—except for several large cumulus clouds to my right, and a few birds off in the distance and well below me—I was alone in the sky.

Thinning oxygen and a temperature near freezing become factors at about 6,000 feet, and since I had no idea what the temperature differential was in the updraft or how high it went before it collapsed, I began to get concerned about losing consciousness or developing hypothermia. I began going through a plan where I would release my main parachute from my harness—then falling in a skydiving position—glide out of the updraft, roll over on my back and pull my reserve chute. 

“Option A” seemed simple enough.  However, the thought of purposely releasing my main parachute and relying solely upon a smaller reserve parachute that in all likelihood had not been used in years, brought on a wave of uncertainty.  I tried repeatedly to steer the old T-10 chute out of the updraft by pulling on one set of the risers, which partially collapses the parachute—causing it to descend faster and move in a diagonal direction.  It was no use.  Because of the strength of the updraft, I could not get enough of the chute to collapse to create any horizontal movement.

However, it seemed best though, to wait another minute or two so I would gain enough altitude to perform a safe sky-diving maneuver and exit the updraft.   As I analyzed my situation, it dawned on me there was no “Option B!”   I looked down to estimate my height so I would know how many seconds I had to play with. From the size of objects on the ground, I guessed I was somewhere around 4000 feet or so. Then, looking for some part of the surrounding terrain to help me judge the height, I noticed one of the SF helicopters rising above the horizon and moving towards me.  “What was going on?”I thought.