Tales from the Bonfire | Flying Backwards, PLF, Explosion
Tales from the Bonfire | Dec 01, 2020
Tales from the Bonfire | Flying Backwards, PLF, Explosion

Sandy Harper-Calliham

This story originally appeared in the book “Skydivers’ Stories: No S**t, There I Was, Thought I Was Gonna Die” edited by Tim Long and Doug Garr.


My last jump was on May 20, 1979. It was a demo into the fourth annual May Fest picnic that I had organized for my new whuffo boyfriend’s nephew. He just happened to run the idea by me and of course, I said yes. I hadn’t jumped in a month, so I was ready.

I went to the DZ to see who would jump with me. Mike Owens, Tim Long and Sally Wenner rounded out the load. It was a cloudy day, and Mike was wearing smoke.

Time to jump, and we’re over the target and have low clouds. We bailed out at two grand, and I had a pilot-chute hesitation. I punched my backpack with my right elbow, and off she went. Tim, Mike and Sally followed me out. I looked around and saw three good ‘chutes and Mike’s smoke dangling, so all was well.

But not for me. I looked up and was a bit confused for a second. My square was fully open but something wasn’t quite right. Oh god, the effin’ thing was attached backwards! I was over the crowd and in a good place to set up for the landing site where the ground crew, including Bob Celaya, was waiting for us. But I was in kind of a panic, as I was having a hard time trying to figure out how to steer while flying backwards.

All the while I could hear Bob laughing his ass off, yelling, “Over here, Sandy, over here.” (No s**t, Bob … I know where you are; I just can’t figure out how to get there.)

I realized I wasn’t going to land at the target. My next thought was, “OK, how am I going to miss all the cars?” Because that’s where I was headed. Meanwhile, I heard fire engines, because the field was on fire where Mike had dropped his smoke grenade.

While all this was going on, I was headed for a van with windows on its side. I looked over my shoulder and thought, “I’m not going to slam into those windows!” So, I grabbed a riser, turned to miss the van and slammed into the trunk of the car behind it. I landed feet first and did the most hellacious PLF off that trunk that you ever saw. My knees were up in my chin, and I was surprised I didn’t snap my bum leg.

My boyfriend came running over and helped me up. My legs were shaking, but I stood up. I walked over to the target, where I found Tim, Sally and Mike. We went to the microphone to introduce ourselves, but the mic had just been turned off. I had some pain in my legs, but I figured I could medicate with beer.

Then I heard a loud boom and saw fire and smoke. The fire department was still there, and it was a good thing, because the car I landed on had several gallons of gas stored in its trunk. After I collided with it, the fumes and heat in the closed trunk had exploded. I could have been blown up.

The owner of the car was looking for me, and the fire department was looking for him. I put all my gear in my kit bag, and it has been there for more than 31 years.

Sandy Harper-Calliham | D-4621
Hemet, California

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