Breakoff. Greg turned 180 degrees to track from his five teammates. It was a simple 6-way with no contact. Uneventful, yes, but still glorious. Everything about skydiving was glorious. Especially when the jumps were from a C-130 Hercules at 12,500 feet … and it’s your job.
Greg was just one of hundreds of military freefall parachutists in training for the Army. On this, his 35th jump, he was tracking over the arid California desert, just a speck in the sky. Greg was a typical young parachutist with a great sense of humor who loved to joke with his fellow jumpers. But when it came to skydiving, he was quiet and deadly serious. His focus was absolute.
He was almost insignificant among the multitude of other parachutists who came and went. Little did he know he would eventually fly a 75-square-foot canopy with a 3.5:1 wing loading and skim just inches over the ground at 90 mph. Little did he know that his fastest speed would be well over 100 mph and that he would become the fastest human ever under canopy.
Greg Windmiller would also eventually become a lethal soldier, a U.S. Army Golden Knight and a skydiving instructor. He would participate in and win an unbelievable number of competitions. He would work on the film “Transformers 2,” landing his accuracy canopy in a box 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep. Windmiller would also introduce the swooping discipline to the Golden Knights. He would retire from the military and work as a canopy coach for skydivers of every age and ability.
But that was the future. On Windmiller's 35th jump, as he tracked away from his 6-way, before all his future accomplishments, he experienced something that would remain with him forever. A cruel twist of fate.
The 35th Jump
Windmiller deployed at 4,500 feet. As he looked behind himself to check his distance from his teammates, he heard a loud rumble then a loud snap of fabric as a canopy opened hard. Straight in front him, another skydiver had just deployed. And they were flying directly toward each other.
Both Windmiller and the other jumper immediately and simultaneously grabbed their right rear risers and turned. Phew! A close call. Windmiller exhaled in relief as the two canopies peeled away from each other in an arc.
A moment later, the body of the other jumper was directly in front of him. Stunned, Windmiller felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was headed directly toward the other jumper at a high speed. The other jumper was also flying at a high speed. The inputs they used to avoid one another actually caused them to increase their closing speeds to nearly double that of normal canopy speeds.
Windmiller woke up under canopy at 2,000 feet. His mouth was filled with raw nerves where most of his upper teeth were knocked out. He had difficulty swallowing. The next thing he knew, he was lying on a backboard being tended to by medical staff. Hovering over him stood a fellow parachutist shouting, “I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!”
After one day off for dental work and recovery, Windmiller was back up in the air. And he hasn't stopped since.
Many Questions, Few Options
What happened? Who did Windmiller track into? Why did he collide with the other jumper after they both turned away from each other? Were they really flying toward each other faster or did it just feel like it? The other jumper was shouting, “I'm sorry,” and desperately apologizing: What had he done?
Windmiller explains, “We were exiting a C-130 Hercules in groups from 12,500 feet. There were four 6-man teams, two teams per pass, and my team was last out on the first pass. My team left the ramp 10 seconds after the first group, which was standard.”
The Army designed these exit and timing procedures for safety—and they were safe—but didn’t account for one small, seemingly insignificant turn of events: A jumper from a following group accidently exited with Windmiller's group. That single jumper remained outside of Windmiller's 6-way but was in the wrong place at the wrong time during deployment.
"When we pulled down on our right rear risers to turn away from each other, our bodies swung out like pendulums. Our bodies finished the 180-degree half circle facing each other," Windmiller explains. "And because we were swinging under the canopy, that created more speed for each of us, creating a much harder impact." He then adds with a serious tone in his voice, "And our canopies were 370 square feet."
Did they do the right thing by pulling down their right rear risers? "Yes," nods Windmiller. "That was the right thing to do." He then quietly says, "Sometimes s**t just happens."
Was there something—anything—else Windmiller could have done differently? "Yes. I could have done one thing differently. I could have pulled down both rear risers. Pulling down both rear risers causes the tail to fold together. Essentially, you're stalling the canopy. You can go backward 20 to 30 feet per second." Windmiller then emphasizes the point by saying, "If just one of us had pulled both rear risers, there wouldn't have been a collision."
Today Greg Windmiller is a canopy instructor with his own business, Superior Flight Solutions LLC. As a competitor and instructor traveling around the country, he sees a lot of habits and practices that jumpers could improve. He shares these observations hoping jumpers will heed them and avoid collisions:
Windmiller asks, "When your canopy is deploying, is there any reason your hands should not go immediately to the risers?" Usually when he asks this of a group, there is silence. He reiterates, "Your hands could and should be right there, ready to turn left or right or be ready to stall."
Windmiller has noticed that instructors rarely teach new jumpers harness turns. He says, "That's because harness turns are thought of as something that's only done under small canopies. It's true they're easier under small canopies. But I've seen a 90-pound skydiver making harness turns under a 260. Harness turns aren't difficult to do if taught correctly. Unfortunately, it’s the techniques people use to teach them that makes the act so difficult."
Windmiller explains that first, it helps if the chest strap is loose. Then the jumper lifts the opposite leg and hip and moves them in the intended direction (as if crossing them over the body). The harness input or harness turn gives jumpers an additional control method that also maintains pressurization in the wing. Jumpers who make minor corrections with toggles instead of harness input on final approach depressurize their wings and in turn take performance out of their wings, making their flares less effective.
"Keep your head on a swivel" is a skydiving catch phrase that jumpers use to remind each other to stay vigilant under canopy. But Windmiller believes that the original intent of this cliché gets lost. “Some people interpret it as quick checks side to side,” Windmiller says. “If done too quickly, it can actually be disorienting. It takes 1.2 seconds for your mind to process what your eyes see and 80 percent of what we take into the brain is with our eyes. People can look but not see."
Windmiller hopes that instructors become more conscious of the words and phrases they use when explaining maneuvers so that jumpers will learn to take a full four to six seconds to clear their airspace. He believes that teaching proper scanning techniques during student training can save lives. “Once on final, pick your heading, make sure your runway is clear. Then clear over your shoulders, looking first to whichever side the pattern was flown. Clear high to that side then low to that side, then to the other side, high and low. Look, absorb and process the information.”
Another habit Windmiller sees often is target fixation on final approach. "There have been several fatal collisions on final approach. That's because people can get too focused or develop target fixation." He clarifies by saying: "Remember, we are trying to land on a runway not on one point."
Accuracy is wonderful and it is nice to land where you want, but on final it is too late to worry about where you are going to land. Windmiller says, “Your pattern sets you up for accuracy. The final is about avoiding obstacles, maintaining the same heading as the other jumpers and focusing on the flare technique at the appropriate altitude.”
Separation on Exit
"When you're told to wait on exit until the group before you is at a 45-degree angle to the plane, did you ever notice what happens? They stay at a 45-degree angle," Windmiller says, pointing out the flaw of this method of separation. He adds, "But when you tell each group to wait, say, 10 seconds between each group, what happens? The count becomes faster and faster for each group. That's because no one wants a bad spot, so they rush that count."
Windmiller does not claim to have one solution to all these issues, but he hopes that if jumpers become aware of them, they’ll adjust their own habits to maintain safe separation. And he emphasizes that jumpers should discuss the plan for separation and exit timing in the boarding area when they discuss their landing patterns.
Every DZ Has That One Person …
Windmiller points out a sensitive subject that most jumpers aren't sure how to handle by saying, "Every drop zone has ‘that one person’ everyone avoids, that one jumper who, when they hear he's going to be on their load, everyone quietly moans and dreads it." He suggests, "Rather than complain and avoid getting on 'that person's' load, work with the person. If they’re really bad at tracking, work with them. If they’re unpredictable under canopy, work with them."
That special-needs jumper just may become a world champion one day. Windmiller was one of those jumpers who needed a little extra help when he was learning. He's the first one to laugh at some of his early jumps. "Standing on the C-130 platform before my first freefall jump, my knees buckled and I almost fainted. The jumpmaster had to grab my chest strap and ask if I was okay."
On his 16th jump during the Special Forces Military Freefall Course—a night jump—Windmiller landed downwind in a ditch. He broke his ankle but hid his injury so he could continue jumping and finish the course.
Flying among other canopies causes a fear many people don't like to talk about. "Most people fear the canopy; they dread canopy flight and would do away with it if they could," says Windmiller. From the first jump, he was fascinated with canopy flight, but that changed after his collision. No one had a greater fear under canopy than he did after his incident. He confesses, "I, too, was once scared of the canopy and didn't like being under it. I would open up at 2,000 feet and spiral down as fast as I could to not be under canopy."
What did he do? He studied the aerodynamics of canopies and flight. He trained in accuracy and eventually competed in it. Windmiller gives sound advice and hope by saying, "If the canopy is what scares you the most, embrace it. Embrace it and focus your training on it and soon your fear will become your passion."
Jumpers can contact Greg Windmiller with questions or to schedule canopy flight courses at superiorflightsolutions.com.