One beautiful autumn Saturday in 1975, the rest of the UNC jumpers and I teamed up with some of our friends at a paracenter in eastern North Carolina for some really great formations. On our penultimate jump of the day, out of a D18 Beechcraft at 10,500 feet, we made a ten-man snowflake. We managed to get ourselves into complete formation before we hit the 7,000 foot mark and thus were able to enjoy a full eighteen seconds of flying the formation down a clear chasm between two towering cumulus clouds before breaking apart at 3,500 feet and tracking away from each other to open our chutes.
By the time we hit the ground the sun was down. But by hustling into another plane and taking off again quickly, we managed to get back up into the last of the sun’s rays and do a second sunset jump. For this one, two junior members were going to get their first shot at flying into formation— that is, joining it from the outside rather than being the base or pin man (which is easier because your job is essentially to fall straight down while everyone else maneuvers toward you). It was exciting for the two junior members, but also for us more seasoned ones because we were building the team, adding more experienced jumpers who would be able to join us for even bigger formations.
I was to be the last man out of the Cessna-195 in a six-man star attempt above the runways of the small airport outside the bustling town of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. The guy right in front of me, from the Roanoke Rapids team, was named Chuck. Chuck was also fairly experienced at "Relative Work"—that is, building freefall formations. We were still in sunshine at 7,500 feet, but two and a half miles below us the streetlights were blinking on. Twilight jumps were always sublime and this was clearly going to be a beautiful one.
Even though I'd be exiting the plane a mere second or so behind Chuck, I'd have to move fast to catch up with everyone. I'd rocket straight down headfirst for the first seven seconds or so. This would make me drop almost 100 MPH faster than my friends so that I could be right there with them after they had built the initial formation.
Normal procedure for RW jumps was for all jumpers to break apart at 3,500 feet and track away from the formation for maximum separation. Each would then "wave –off" with his arms (signaling imminent deployment of his parachute), turn to look above to make sure no others were above him, then pull the ripcord.
"Three, two, one...Go!"
The first four jumpers exited, then Chuck and I followed close behind. Upside down in a full head dive and approaching terminal velocity, I smiled as I saw the sun setting for the second time that day. After streaking down to the others, my plan was to slam on the air brakes by throwing out my arms (we had fabric wings from wrists to hips that gave tremendous resistance when fully inflated at high speed) and aiming my sleeves and pants legs straight at the oncoming air.
But I never had the chance.
Plummeting toward the formation, I saw that one of the new guys had come in too fast. Maybe falling rapidly between nearby clouds had him a little spooked—it reminded him that he was moving about 200 feet per second towards that giant planet below, partially shrouded in the gathering darkness. Rather than slowly joining the edge of the formation, he’d barreled in and knocked everybody loose. Now all five other jumpers were tumbling out of control.