As a SoCal jumper, I don't have to worry that much about landing in trees or anything green. So I took seriously memorizing the DZ's aerial photo (the kind all DZs have hanging near manifest) when I went jumping in Maine. I knew where all the tree groves were, along with power lines, ditches and other obstructions. After a couple of jumps, I got comfy with the landing pattern, and I felt I knew my way around.
Around sunset, some good-sized cumulus clouds showed up, and I decided a hop-and-pop at 12,500 feet would give me some good photo opportunities. The view was indeed spectacular, and every minute or so, I would glance at the DZ to make sure I could get back.
At around 7,000 feet, I discovered a problem: A small, low-level cloud came out of nowhere and parked over the DZ. I headed toward it, figuring the little cloud would move soon. When I got to 5,000 feet, it did, but it was not a happy moment when I saw what it revealed: The DZ was not under the cloud. Somehow, I had become disoriented and fixated on a cloud that was not over the DZ. I looked around frantically for the DZ without success as I drifted under 2,000 feet. Time to switch to Plan B.
What I saw were lots of scary trees and a few patches of farmland. I wouldn't have minded landing in a corn field. I would've happily paid for some squashed corn. (By the way, all jumpers should offer to do this. Often, the farmer will let you slide, especially if you do a bit of cleanup. That way, you get some valuable community PR for the DZ.) However, I worried about the invisible power poles and phone lines and such that often circle farm fields, and the plots looked small. Rather than risk it, I turned my attention to an untended area of low bushes maybe 1,000 yards from a road. Nothing looked very tall, and the area went on for about a half mile: a good-sized target without buildings or obstructions.
The landing was much softer than expected. The reason was that I'd landed in a swamp.
I pulled my canopy off the bushes, pulled it together into a bunch in front of me and set off for where I thought the road might be. The mud was up to my knees in most places but up to my hips in some. As the sun set, a cloud of mosquitos turned my skin into bubble wrap. Fortunately, I had my cellphone and the 911 operator triangulated my position and kept me slogging toward the road. An altogether unhappy night followed, ending in the early hours as I finally spotted the flashing red lights of the fire truck waiting for me.
After a long, hot shower, the DZ safety officer and I had a long chat. The takeaways that I'd like to pass on are the following:
1) Studying the DZ's aerial photo is not enough. Do that, but study the big picture at altitude, as well. Learn which landmarks to follow to the DZ, particularly major roads. It wouldn't hurt DZs to put an aerial shot from 12,500 feet next to the customary aerial shot of the landing area.
2) Put the DZ's phone number into your cellphone's contact list since the 411 operator may not be able to find it listed by its familiar name. When you don't show up, the DZ may be where you'll find the only people who care.
3) And of course, bring your cellphone on every jump. Yowling into the wind—alone and in the middle of nowhere—would not have been fun.
Peter Shikli | D-7846 | San Clemente, California