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El Paso

Submitted by Bob Cassella

My first duty station was the Air Defense Artillery School at Fort Bliss, Texas where I would attend the officer basic course and the Nike-Hercules weapon course. I arrived in El Paso on October 18, 1973 and immediately set about to find the closest place to skydive during my roughly six months in school. What I found was a bunch of jumpers that regularly assembled at a concrete pad (heated by on open fire in a rusted 55-gallon drum) located off McCombs Road to make jumps out of an antiquated—but reliable—V77 Stinson. There was no club, no structure, and just about no rules; it was a self-regulated collection of the most eclectic skydivers I had ever met.

The ‘usual suspects’ who could be counted on to congregate at McCombs DZ on any given weekend day included Dale Kleintop and his girlfriend, Jean; Joel Hendryx; ‘Dirty’ Fred Grant and his wife; Ray Burnett; Dave Johnson; Carter Duke; “Wee Willie”; Jim Keesee; and Wilbur (aka “Wilbur the Cop”) and his girlfriend, Nancy Lynn. They were a diverse group that ranged from active duty military, college students, an El Paso policeman, and one purported drug dealer. Wilbur the Cop was suspected of being an ‘undercover narc’ which I thought was ludicrous since we all knew he was a cop. While I never saw drugs used on the drop zone, the beer appeared as soon as the last lift of the day was off the ground. Every jump day ended in a party…

On one brisk December day that year, I had stowed my unpacked parachute in my car to wait for the last lift to launch so I could be one of the first to open a can of brew, but a problem occurred when one of the jumpers on the load scratched himself from the ‘manifest’. One of the guys on the load called out to me to join them and I deferred because I wasn’t packed. Wilbur ran up to me with his equipment in hand and offered it to me to use; using other peoples’ equipment is always problematic but I rationalized rapidly that, while Wilbur’s main parachute was a Mark II Para-Commander—a dog in terms of performance—the rest of his gear was similar to mine. For a bit of assurance, I would use my own reserve parachute in the extremely rare event that anything would go awry.

We exited the Stinson at 8000’ and did some relative work; at about 3000’ we separated, tracked off, and pulled our ripcords to open our parachutes; except for the fact that my (Wilbur’s) parachute didn’t open. The familiar feeling of the bagged canopy lifting off my back and the canopy deploying was absent; the usual cause of this particular problem—a pack closure—is remedied by elbowing the container to cause it to open, which I did to no effect. By this time I was within about 10 seconds of what we euphemistically referred to as ‘rapid ground deceleration’ so I rolled over on my back to deploy my chest-mounted reserve.

No sooner had I pulled the reserve ripcord and saw the kicker plate go one way and the red-and-white tri-conical canopy start to unpack, I felt the main canopy taking off too. It is worth mentioning here that a reserve deployment at terminal velocity takes little more than one second to occur—I watched it happen in super slow motion. Since a simultaneous main and reserve deployment is not desirable, I grabbed the lines of the deploying reserve to stop it, which I did.
The Mark II PC was open above me and I was bound to land somewhere in the desert but I couldn’t see any of it—I was encased in reserve canopy and was frantically trying to pulled it off me so that I could see where I was going and when I would get there…which was soon. I landed abruptly among the tumble weeds that blew across the drop zone; it was not a dignified landing but I really didn’t care since I was able to fulfill the old skydivers’ adage that any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.

Everyone ran out to help me (or to recover their parachute)—Dave Johnson walked back to the concrete pad with me and we discussed the jump; we both agreed that, had a pack closure malfunction happened to Wilbur, the outcome would probably have been fatal. I remarked to Dave that it was probably a good thing that it happened to me and not Wilbur.

Dave stopped and spoke quietly to me, “Bob, maybe it wasn’t meant to happen to you…”

From the 1987 USPA Directory