Classic tales: Ninth Life by Bob Drury

Friday 6 September, 2002

Joe Parr throws his reserve in Valle de Bravo, Mexico. Bob Drury wasn’t wearing a helmet cam…

First published in Cross Country magazine Bob Drury’s account of the day he tried – and failed – to throw his reserve became an instant classic. Hold on to your hat…

To the question, “Have you ever thrown your reserve?” I’ve always answered, “not yet!”. But the kind of places I fly, and the style of flying I like, has always meant that it was inevitable that sooner or later the shit would hit the fan. In other words, parts of the story I’m about to tell you were always going to happen: it was just a matter of time, and an unavoidable part of me being me that led me into the situation. It was what followed after that I really could have done without….

It was a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon in spring and the sky above Col de Bleine was rapidly filling with pilots keen to blast away the working week from their hair. The sky was clean and organised with cu’s popping over the peaks in the distance, and the local XC pilots were heading off towards St Andre in abundant lift.

As I climbed away from launch I felt excited. I knew that these days were always brilliant, as we were here just to practice aerobatics and wring the living daylights out of our wings.

Over the past year, I’ve been slowly working my way into aerobatics, trying not to rush things and trying to perfect each manoeuvre before moving on. I already had SAT’s and big reversals dialled and, more recently, I’d been trying to perfect my helicopter spins. Although I still couldn’t get a smooth, clean rotation every time, I felt comfortable with the manoeuvre so I went straight into it, even though it’s one of the harder tricks to master.

My first attempt rotated fine for a few revolutions before starting to get a bit messy. I was deliberately spinning it quite fast, faster than I normally do; playing with the rotation and trying to get more familiar with the different sensations I received. Once the ‘chopper’ got messy I tried to resettle it, but ended up exiting badly with a small cravat that took a stall recovery to sort out.

Back at cloudbase I got straight back down to business again and sent the glider into another ‘chopper’. Again I let the glider spin quite quickly, watching to see if the extra speed of rotation would clear the one wing tip I often seemed to have tucked in when helicoptering. After a few rotations things started to get messy again; the rotation was flicking me around and the wing was beginning to surge about too much. Normally this is a sign to exit the manoeuvre and start again, but with so much height and keen to understand more I tried to work at it again, making tiny adjustments to the controls to see if I could settle it down.

I must have released slightly too much at some point because suddenly the glider snapped out of the rotation, flung itself violently sideways and flicked me towards it. Unweighting the lines, I fell back under the wing, side-slipping it, and in an instant 70% of the wing had rolled in and cravated. As I saw the wing rolling in I knew what would happen next, so my hands were already forcing the brakes down into a full stall.

The glider stalled and I held on to it, studying it, to see if there were any signs of recovery – there weren’t. I was holding on to a screwed-up ball of cloth that looked more like a wedding dress than a paraglider. I held the stall for a few more seconds watching it thrash about, looking to see if the wing was untangling, and then began to ease up on the brakes slightly to give the glider more of a chance to inflate and recover from the situation. Instead the glider rotated, and in a split second I’d twisted up my risers, locked up the controls and accelerated into a violent spiral.

Once you’ve lost use of the controls there seems little point holding on to them but, perhaps for comfort more than purpose, I put them both in my left hand and kept as tight a reign on the glider as I could in the vague hope that it might slow down the rotation whilst I tried to reach above the twists to get to the lines.

But the glider was already locked in to the deepest of spirals with the wing showing no signs of recovering. Fighting against the building G-forces, I tried desperately to pull myself forward and grasp upwards towards the lines; but it was useless, I was totally pinned by the G-force and couldn’t even move.

Reaching this moment in my life was so inevitable, almost unavoidable through where my flying had taken me, that I was completely unsurprised to realise that I finally needed to throw my reserve. After nine years of flying, and having watched so many fall out the sky before me, I was neither shocked nor worried by the prospect of my parachute ride down. I went for the handle.

Out the corner of my eye I caught the red glow of the handle sitting snugly on my right shoulder so I threw my hand towards it. Grabbing and holding tight, I pulled hard, and then stared at an empty hand.

“Shit, I’ve missed!”

I went back again, this time twisting my head more to get a closer look, and began feeling around with my hand, but nothing, it had gone! No more comforting red glow waiting to end the dizzy blur.

The spiral continued, even deepening, or was it the massive G’s I was pulling that were getting to my head? I went back to work, groping and pulling at anything I could find, but nothing.

I couldn’t believe it! I’d even placed the handle carefully on my shoulder on take off that day to ensure I’d be able to reach it just in case today was going to be ‘the day’. I began to get pissed off.

“Where the fuck is it?” I shouted out loud in frustration.

I decided to lose my gloves, and with immense effort I brought my hands up close to my face and used my teeth to rip them off and throw them away. Something caught my eye. I stopped for a moment and felt slightly amused to see one of my gloves pinned against the under-surface of the wing waving back at me. Now, back to work. Where is it?

I could get a better feel now and went back to raking the back of the harness where the second handle should be; bits of material snagged on my fingertips but still nothing would pull. For the first time I started to worry that I might not be able to deploy.

Once, in the Himalayas a few years ago I’d had cause to go for my reserve and that time too I’d failed to deploy. I had extended the back of my harness and made it deeper to carry more gear for vol bivouacing, which had resulted in the handle being much further around the back than before. It would have been a low throw that time except I’d missed the handle – I should have cratered but miraculously the glider recovered and I managed to hook turn away from the hillside in the nick of time, missing it by barely a metre. I never flew that harness again!

The optimism that had kept the panic away up till now began to dissolve and I stole a glance downwards to see how low I was. I was gutted to see a blur of green trees, and lifting my head up I realised I was below ridge height; Col de Bleine isn’t very high, 300 metres at the most and I’d lost control over 1,000 metres above the ridge!

I must have been locked in the spiral for 30 seconds or more by now, although it felt like a lifetime longer, and strangely enough the situation had become almost familiar. Whirling round so fast, hurtling downwards, locked in my harness by the immense G force, with just the blur of green and flashes of blue to distract me from the cocoon of my own little world, it seemed almost futile to try and resist. These are my last few seconds I realised, I’m not getting out of this, there is no ‘extra man’ this time. GAME OVER. I relaxed. “It’s pointless”, I thought. “I’m only three or four seconds from impact and going so fast that it won’t even hurt”.

Death is such a let down: you know you can’t escape it; it’s inevitable, yet few of us are really ready to go when the Reaper’s card lands on the doormat. Even the seasoned optimist within me, hardened by years of luck, was now failing to find a way out – depressingly there appeared to be no happy ending.

Realising that I was finally going to die, after all the years of risk I’d somehow survived, brought forth a weird mix of emotions. I was bitterly disappointed rather than scared by my impending death. Even though I had already dodged far too many bullets in my life to really have any cause for complaint, the circumstances surrounding my tragedy were too avoidable to just lie back and take it like a man.

How long I relaxed for, and whether or not life truly flashes before your eyes in your last seconds before the screen goes blank, I can’t say. However it can only have been milliseconds and I know I did a lot of thinking. Somewhere in the myriad of pretty images, sounds and smells of life an idea popped into my head. I think it almost tried to pass me, sneaking quietly by on tiptoes hoping that the crushing G force would keep me still for the last few seconds. I almost let it; the inescapability of my situation brought comfort now and it seemed foolish to fight it. But being sometimes excessively optimistic I saw it, and as I had nothing else to do at the time, I grabbed it from the melee.

I realised that the vaguest chance of survival still existed; if I could somehow get to the back of the harness I might yet be able to pull the second handle. But that meant getting out the harness! Pulling my shoulders in I slipped my arms free of the shoulder straps, and grabbing at the risers in front of me, I physically dragged myself forwards against the pressure of the spiral. Once free of the harness’s shoulder straps I twisted my body around to face backwards and, throwing my arms around the back, I committed myself to the move.

I was fully aware that without the shoulder straps that had locked me in so well I might just be ejected from the harness and flung in to free fall. As a climber I’d always wondered what it would be like to fall to my death, and I began to imagine how it would feel like once I shot free of all the webbing and was ejected into free fall. I decided that once that happened I’d relax and try to enjoy the end of the ride.

I was surprised to find that I stayed stuck in my harness so I began to rake away at the back of the harness again; my vision was lost in a blurred sea of greenery and my body was tensing slightly in anticipation of my impending impact.

Then something happened. Something changed: a slight drop in pressure and a distant noise. I was upside down, facing backwards and half out of my harness when I saw the ribbon of black bridling streaming away from me, upwards, between my legs towards the sky. It took another moment to understand what had happened and what could happen next, and then I instinctively threw my legs wide hoping they might jam on my leg loops and keep me in as I decelerated, grabbing at the risers till the forces ebbed away and I swung gently under my parachute. Only 100 metres below me the only clearing in the forest for miles around waited for my arrival.

Walking back into my garden later that day, the kids were still playing in the garden and the dogs were still sleeping under the bushes. Lifting her eyes from her book, my wife Claire watched me as I sheepishly pulled the edge of my parachute out from the top of my glider bag for her to see.

“Strange, I had a weird feeling that you’d throw your reserve today!” she said, sounding unsurprised, before turning back to her book. I guess living around my flying for so long has desensitised her to the risks. So far I had always made it home. I sloped off to play with the kids in the pool. It took me a couple of days to summon up the courage to tell her what had really happened.

So what should I draw from this encounter with the Reaper? Not to do aerobatics over ground? Not to do aerobatics at all? That I need a new harness? Well, all of these factors would have helped me, so I’ll take them all on board. But no, what really sticks in my mind is that you can never beat a will to survive and phenomenal amounts of luck – because I never knowingly reached and pulled that handle.

Three weeks later I heard of Henrik Jensen’s tragic death in Slovenia and was reminded exactly how lucky I’d been.

Take care up there.

Bob Drury

• Got news? Send it to us at news@xccontent.local. Fair use applies to this article: if you reproduce it online, please credit correctly and link to xcmag.com or the original article. No reproduction in print. Copyright remains with Cross Country magazine. Thanks

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