Sat in a hot tub, looking out over the mountains this afternoon, when conversation turned to parachutes.
Out skiing in the Alps with some friends, two of whom are UK skydivers. As we were talking about life, Liz casually dropped into the conversation ‘when i had my first mal’, then carried on with whatever story she was telling. Hang on. ‘Mal’? A ‘mal’ turns out to be one of those inconvenient moments when your parachute fails to open and you have to cut it loose (not, it turns out, as in my imagination, with a bowie knife, but instead, by pulling a different cord.).
Now i’m no expert, but things like parachutes seem to exist in a digital state; they either work, or they don’t. Not working seems like a bad thing. A possibly life changing event. I was quite surprised by this casual talk of ‘mals’. Yes, mal’s plural, because Liz’s parachute has failed to open three times. This is ok, apparently, because your main parachute, you pack yourself ‘in about three minutes’, whilst the reserve is packed by an expert (e.g someone who takes an hour and actually knows what they are doing).
Both Francois and Liz have jumped around 1,400 times each, so it’s probably not too surprising that there have been some equipments failures, but this did, nonetheless, take me by surprise. I suppose it’s because most of my hobbies and pastimes have quite wide margins for error. The most dangerous thing i do is probably driving to work or eating too much cheese, neither of which is likely to kill me on a day by day basis, although statistically over time, they might. The notion of jumping out of a plane, not once, but 1,400 times, is not one that has occurred to me. After the first time my parachute failed to open, i also suspect i’d have hesitated to jump out again, but not Liz. As she explained, her training just kicked in.
The training is as realistic as you could expect; people shouting, shaking you, time spent in a harness and simulated failures. The theory behind this is as you would expect, that if you experience the disorientation, noise and sensations once, you will learn to deal with them better the second time. It’s similar to the way that people are dropped into tanks of cold water in a helicopter chasis to simulate crashing into water, on the assumption that it’s better to nearly drown and experience this when there is a diver next to you, than it is to find out what it feels like for the first time in the North Atlantic.
Still, the calm with which she described her feelings and experience surprised me; maybe it’s partly familiarity, maybe the confidence that comes from training. I’ve never jumped out of a plane, but i guess after a thousand jumps the sensation of plummeting to the earth will be less disorientating than the first time.
As with so many things, familiarity builds confidence, experience lets us develop strategies for dealing with situations that make them easier to cope with. I guess that after your first ‘mal’, the second and third ones become easier; it’s not like it’s a surprise anymore.
Francois, on the other hand, has never had a single failure. Maybe he’s better at packing his parachute, or maybe, being french, he’s just too stylish to let it happen. He did mention that he’s never had this ‘realistic’ training, and that maybe it would be a good thing to do. Who knows, but I think I’d like to have someone shout at me before I jumped out of a plane.