Never Again

To jump or not?

July 1, 1999

During my studies at Ohio State University, I became fascinated with sport parachuting through the local parachute club at Derbydale, Ohio, just outside of Columbus. By the time I graduated, I was considered an experienced skydiver, competing and being paid for exhibition jumps.

A couple of years later, I moved to San Diego, California. By this time, I had my private pilot certificate and was working on my commercial at Gillespie Field, all the time jumping just as much as I could each weekend. In the early 1970s, California was considered the skydiving capital of the world. There were jump operations at Perris, Lakeside, Elsinore, and Oceanside in Southern California, and I was jumping at all of them.

One bright Saturday morning, I rented a Cessna 150 at Gillespie Field. I threw my parachute gear in the passenger's seat and took off for the Perris Jump Center, figuring that I was going to save lots of time flying instead of driving. After a day of jumping at Perris, I took off in the 150 to head home to San Diego. It was late afternoon.

Having recently moved from Ohio, I was very impressed with the weather in California for flying and jumping. The weather rarely interfered with my activities, a pleasant change from the unpredictable weather in Ohio.

As I headed south from Perris to San Diego, I noticed a thin cloud deck forming below me, but there were plenty of big holes, and I could see the ground easily. At this point, I started checking my distances and fuel, and got some weather information. The big holes below me were becoming little holes, and by the time I got to San Diego, there were none. I decided that I could always go back to Perris and spend the night wrapped up in my parachute, sleeping on the ground. I had done that before. After flying back to Perris, I found that it also was socked in.

Because I was not instrument-rated, I was very determined not to get in the clouds. In Ohio, I had the opportunity to go through the flight physiology program at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. The program had impressed upon me how quickly one could become disoriented and how you could not depend upon your senses. I had watched as a student in a rotating chair was asked in which direction he was turning. He swore that he was turning right, but the rest of us could plainly see that he was turning left. I never forgot that.

Back to the problem at hand — I formed a plan that seemed logical at the time. I figured that since I jumped out of airplanes for fun and truly enjoyed it, there was absolutely no way that I was going to go down in this airplane. Sitting right next to me was my freshly packed parachute that I had been jumping with all day. My plan was to tune in the Oceanside VOR, which was close to the beach, head the airplane west, and jump out at about 2,000 feet. That way, I figured that the airplane would head harmlessly out into the ocean. Also, from that low altitude, it would not have much opportunity to change from its westerly heading. I would land the parachute either close to the beach or right on it. I made another call to San Diego International-Lindbergh Field. Even with the controller's help, I knew that I would have to descend through those clouds, which were probably no more than 1,000 feet thick. I was willing to jump out before risking disorientation. To me, jumping out did not seem like much of a risk.

San Diego Radio said that there were large holes in the clouds 20 miles west of Lindbergh Field. The only problem was that I was way up north over Oceanside VOR, struggling to put on my parachute in the confines of the 150. After doing a quick check of fuel, time, and distance, I decided to go for the reported holes west of Lindbergh Field. After what seemed like an eternity of flying, I found the holes that San Diego was talking about. I could see the whitecaps on the ocean and an occasional sailboat and a large commercial ship. I spiraled down below the clouds through one of the holes and leveled out on an easterly heading to get back to Lindbergh Field. All of this took an hour and a half. My palms were so wet that it was hard to keep them on the yoke.

Now I was 300 feet above the water — too low to jump. One fuel gauge was pegged on "empty" and the other was bouncing off the peg. Lindbergh Field gave me clearance for a straight-in landing opposite all the traffic.

The sound of the tires hitting the runway at Lindbergh Field was about the sweetest sound that I have ever heard. After topping off the fuel, I determined that I had seven minutes until the prop would have stopped.

Although this occurred about 30 years ago, I have thought about it many times. I thought about how I could make it through a five-year engineering program at a Big Ten school and still be stupid enough to get stuck on top and then start eliminating all of my options one by one.

Since then I have not even come close to duplicating that experience. I know that the good Lord helped me to land that 150, because after spending 1.5 hours thinking about the possibility of self-destructing, you are not exactly operating at your best.

Paul Ritchey, AOPA 1278657, of Cincinnati, Ohio, is a 2,400-hour commercial pilot who owns a 1954 Cessna 180.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts should be typewritten, double-spaced, and sent to: Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.