I’m Plunging to My Death … Now What Do I Do?

How to survive a sky diving accident (or any other crisis).

The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life by Ben Sherwood.

Why do some people live and others die? How do certain people make it through the most difficult trials while others don’t? Why do a few stay calm and collected under extreme pressure when others panic and unravel? In The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life, Ben Sherwood sets out in search of people who survived amazing ordeals—a woman whose heart was pierced by a knitting needle, a bicyclist crushed by a 21-ton truck, a pilot ejected from a jet traveling faster than the speed of sound—to figure out whether there’s a formula for staying alive. In this piece, adapted from The Survivors Club, Sherwood examines sky diving accidents—why do some people have the wherewithal to pull the cord while others freeze up?

What would you have done? You’re harnessed to an instructor for your very first tandem parachute jump at 13,000 feet. Plummeting from the airplane, you quickly sense that something isn’t right. Your teacher has fallen completely silent. You call out, but there’s no response. The instructor isn’t speaking or moving. At 5,000 feet, you realize that your life is entirely in your hands. Would you freeze or stay cool?

This was the scenario Army Pvt. Daniel Pharr faced on Saturday when he jumped out of a plane over South Carolina. Pharr felt completely safe strapped to an experienced instructor with 8,000 previous jumps. But after the 49-year-old teacher—Chip Steele—pulled the chute, everything went quiet. “I knew something was wrong,” Pharr told ABC’s Good Morning America. “My survival instinct just kicked in.”

Using a few tips he learned from an instructional video on the ground and from watching parachutists on TV, Pharr pulled the toggles and managed to land safely in a field. The 25-year-old quickly administered CPR to his instructor, but it was too late. Steele was dead of an apparent heart attack.

It’s not easy for a newbie sky diver to land safely, especially with a dead man strapped to his back. If he had pulled on the handles too hard, for instance, Pharr might have gone into an uncontrollable spin. And yet, when everything went wrong, Pharr somehow did everything right. Over the last two years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of men and women like Pharr who beat the odds and survived extreme challenges. Each time, I asked: How did they do it? And what do they know that the rest of us don’t?

To solve the mystery of who survives, it’s useful to examine those who don’t. In June 2002, a small group of people at the tiny municipal airport in East Troy, Wis., heard a terrible thud. It didn’t take long to discover the reason. Near a hangar they found the crumpled body of Luca Bertetto, a 31-year-old engineer from Italy who had recently moved to the area. With 33 previous parachute jumps under his belt, Bertetto was last seen at an altitude of 3,000 feet plummeting toward earth. He was sky diving along with six other jumpers from the local Sky Knights Parachute Club.

No one saw him “go in”—the sport’s euphemism for hitting the ground. Investigators found that the handles on his main parachute, emergency cutaway, and reserve chute were in place and had not been pulled. For some reason, the safety device designed to trigger the chute automatically at low altitude also had not fired. A coroner concluded that Bertetto showed no signs of medical problems during the jump and died of massive internal injuries. Why did this young man fall from the sky without opening his main or backup chutes? Did he simply forget to pull the handles? Suicide was ruled out as a possibility. The U.S. Parachute Association calls it a tragic mishap. Survival experts believe it’s a case study of why too many people die when they shouldn’t and how we can often fail to save ourselves.

James Griffith is one of the country’s top experts on what goes wrong when people die sky diving. When we speak, he’s just returned from a busy day in south-central Pennsylvania, where he jumped four times from 14,000 feet. At age 40, he’s a veteran sky diver and part-time instructor with more than 3,000 jumps over the past 10 years. In his real job as a psychology professor at Shippensburg University, he has studied all of the reports of fatal sky diving incidents going back to 1993. “Every time you jump, you literally are saving your own life,” he says. “Each time, you are cheating death in a way.” Yes, with good training and equipment, the sport is reasonably safe, “but there’s always an element that something could go wrong.”

If you examine all of the accidents, Griffith says, it turns out what happened to Luca Bertetto isn’t too surprising. There’s even a name for it. It’s called a “no-pull”—when the sky diver simply fails to deploy the main or reserve chutes. Another variation is known as a “low-pull,” when a jumper activates the parachute at a low altitude, often too late for survival. Every year, according to Griffith, around 35 people die in sky diving accidents out of some 2.5 million jumps. That’s one fatality for every 71,000 leaps. (For comparison purposes, your chances of dying this year from a regular fall right here on earth—say, down the stairs—is one in 20,000.) Ten percent of all parachuting deaths—a small fraction—involve no-pulls or low-pulls. So, what goes wrong? In short, human error.

After you rule out suicides and physical problems like heart attacks and bumps on the head, 75 percent of no-pull and low-pull cases are caused by a loss of situational awareness. Sky divers don’t realize their altitude because they’re distracted by other things. Most people have very limited “attentional resources,” Griffith explains. That means they can concentrate on only a few tasks at a time. If they’re busy, say, practicing a new flying technique, they may simply forget to pull the handles. It seems hard to believe, but Griffith says sky divers get so preoccupied with one activity that they fail to deploy their chutes. In addition, “humans are absolutely horrible at telling time.” Even when sky divers know to pull their main chutes 45 to 75 seconds after jumping from a plane, they’re often way off judging the passage of time. When they finally take action, it can be too late.

Another, more disturbing reason for no-pulls is what sky divers call brain lock. Jumping out of a plane with your heart pounding and stress hormones pumping, it’s no surprise that your mind can freeze up for a few seconds. You can literally forget where you are and what you’re doing. It happens to all of us every day—our brains seize up for a moment—but we’re usually sitting at our desks or pushing a cart through the grocery store. When you’re speeding at 120 miles per hour toward earth, it can be fatal if you don’t recover in time.

Friends and other sky divers suspect that Bertetto brain locked on his last jump. It can happen to any parachutist, although how quickly you recover is believed to be a function of how many times you’ve jumped before.

What, exactly, is brain lock? Lancaster University’s Dr. John Leach, one of the world’s leading experts on survival psychology, has actually tried to measure it. Along with his colleague Rebecca Griffith (no relation to James Griffith), he tested the memories of 40 parachutists at three different stages: right before a jump, after a landing, and on a non-sky-diving day. He found that people often display memory problems under stress. They seem to forget what they’re supposed to do. On the surface, it appears their ability to remember gets overwhelmed by other thoughts, anxiety, and worry. But when Leach probed, he discovered their memories aren’t actually impaired at all. They know exactly how to deploy their main and reserve chutes. So, what happens? Leach theorizes that their knowledge—how to save themselves—is stored in their long-term memory, but under great stress, that information can’t get across to the part of the brain where it’s activated and put to use. Leach found that this happens to novice and experienced parachutists alike.

So, what lessons can you draw from the mystery of the unopened parachutes? Christian Hart, a psychology professor at Texas Woman’s University and a veteran of more than 400 jumps, has worked with James Griffith to interview sky divers who didn’t pull their chutes and were saved just seconds before impact by their automatic activation devices. He has also reviewed many reports that sky divers have filed about these harrowing incidents. He believes two kinds of personalities emerge under extreme pressure. The first type keeps trying to solve problems no matter what happens. They refuse to quit and sometimes die trying to save themselves. The second type gives up quickly. They resign themselves and surrender.

In May 2005, Hart watched an experienced sky diver named John Appleton jump from a Twin Otter at 13,500 feet. Well-known in the sky diving community, the 55-year-old Appleton had once participated in a world-record 357-person sky diving formation in Thailand. On that Sunday, after a routine free fall, Appleton encountered serious trouble. His main chute failed to deploy, and he took immediate action to cut it away and activate his reserve. For some reason, however, the main chute didn’t fall away. Instead, it tangled up with the reserve. Watching from below, Hart knew that Appleton had no chance of surviving. And yet the sky diver kept moving his arms, trying to fix his problems and save his life until he hit the ground. In another euphemism of the sport, his snarled parachutes resulted in a “hard landing.” He died on the spot.

Griffith and Hart believe that parachuting offers three survival lessons for those of us who don’t jump out of airplanes. First, try to relax. Some sky diving instructors have a special signal when they’re free falling with anxious students: They pat the top of their heads. It’s a sign to stay calm. The simple act of remembering to loosen up can break you out of brain lock. Second, remember where you are. It may seem obvious, but situational awareness can mean the difference between life and death, whether you’re hurtling toward earth at terminal velocity or driving 75 miles an hour on the interstate. Third, never give up. Many parachuting deaths could have been prevented if sky divers kept working on their problems. Human and mechanical errors might be fixable, but you’ll never find out if you give up.

Daniel Pharr’s sky diving story is a perfect illustration of these three rules. He kept his head, he understood his predicament, and he never gave up. “I had to assess the situation,” he explained afterward. “And my military training kicked in. I didn’t lose my cool because I knew it wouldn’t do any good.” He went on: “We’re just taught to deal with adversity, whether it be on the battle front or at home or … up in the air, and you just do what you have to do—assess the situation and keep a calm head about you, because it doesn’t do anybody any good to panic.”