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Mortality & Skydiving as a Parent

Today, 12th October 2015, is exactly 12 months since I had a skydiving incident unlike anything I had experienced in my previous 12,000 jumps. On opening on a tandem jump, I found my customer and I suspended under an open parachute that was flying fine but with a malfunctioning left 3 ring which meant that it might detach itself at any moment and let us go. I could not cutaway the chute and deploy my reserve due to the malfunctioning 3 ring, so we had to ride it all the way to the ground knowing it could give way any second.

This tenuous life or death situation for my customer and I was the direct result of my failing to sufficiently check my equipment. I had conducted the same gear checks that I had done thousands of times before but I failed to see the problem. My failure to discover the problem and the situation that resulted had a profoundly negative impact on my confidence as a professional skydiver. I grounded myself indefinitely pending my own investigation.

In the months that followed I learnt about several human factors that lead to my situation which I detailed in a report. What I learnt about human error went a long way to explaining how I had checked my equipment but failed to pick up on the problem, unfortunately understanding the this did little to restore my confidence.

The tail end of 2014 was a miserable time for me. I was depressed for the first time. Skydiving was my life but I was stuck in limbo between wanting to get back in the air and not having the confidence to do so. After several months of procrastination I sought professional help from a psychologist.

After several visits we concluded that rather than waiting (which is unhealthy) to return to skydiving it might be better to do something else instead. Specifically something that:

  1. was proactive (and mentally healthy)
  2. tapped into my passion for skydiving
  3. diverged sufficiently from skydiving for my confidence not to be affected by the incident
  4. might help me to regain confidence in the areas in which I had previously fallen short
  5. might possibly one day re-converge and lead me back into skydiving

We identified two possible scenarios, Tunnel Instructor or Pilot. I opted for pilot for two main reasons. Firstly, the physically demanding job of tunnel instructing is a young mans game and I was 43 years old at the time. Secondly, flying a aircraft is a scientific left brain activity involving analytical, sequential, pragmatic thinking with check lists galore and a lot of attention to detail.

As a mostly creative right brained individual these were areas of personal weakness that I felt had contributed to my incident in some way in the first place. I hoped that by setting and achieving specific goals required to become an instrument rated, turbine endorsed, commercial pilot would in some way address these weaknesses and allow me to return to professional skydiving while at the same time providing an alternative career path if this proved not to be the case.

Left_Vs_Right_Brain

The last 10 months have been an incredible journey and I feel I have changed myself considerably as a result. I have studied hard to pass 7 Commercial Pilot theory exams, 1 Instrument Rating theory exam and 1 Gas Turbine Endorsement theory exam. I have also done my Instrument Rating flight test, and Cessna Caravan Endorsement and I only have my Commercial flight test to go before I am a fully fledged commercial pilot. As it turns out this process has achieved all the desired outcomes and more. I hope to start flying the Caravan with Skydive The Beach & Beyond in the coming months and now plan to return to tandem skydiving shortly thereafter.

To prepare myself properly to get back on the horse as a tandem instructor I plan on doing several hours of tunnel time and some fun jumps followed by some jumps as a coach then as an AFF (Accelerated Free-fall) instructor. Thus easing myself one step at a time back into the huge responsibility for another persons life that is part and parcel of the day to day activity of being a professional tandem skydiving instructor. In many ways I guess I have a whole new respect for the job and the privilege that comes with it than I had before the incident.

Perhaps the biggest positive influence of the past year has been the support I have received from my peers within the industry. The support of the APF (Australian Parachute Federation) the management at Skydive The Beach & Beyond, and most importantly my fellow skydivers and tandem masters has made a real difference. Doing my ICUS (In Command Under Supervision) in the Caravan with 14 passengers in the back was especially important to me. The instructors at Skydive have no idea but their positive feedback as their “Pilot In Command” had a real impact on me and it was this more than anything else that has affirmed my confidence in myself as a competent, responsible aviator.

The Confidence / Competence loop

confidence

Being confident and competent (and having confidence in your competence) is must for any aviator whether your an astronaut, pilot, skydiving instructor or a sport skydiver. This is not something that we all start out with. In most cases it is the result of a journey. For me that journey involved several decades and thousands of successful skydives only to be lost in a single jump.

Regaining confidence in my competence for me involved taking the first step, setting a new objective, and then taking the required steps to achieve it. I am lucky to have had a lot of help and support along the way from family, friends, professionals and peers and I am very grateful to all those involved for helping me get back on top of the world.

There is one final factor that I have had to reconcile as a result of the incident.  My mortality.

As a skydiver I have come to appreciate my finite mortality more deeply than most and I have long since come to terms with my own death. Historically, like most skydivers, I have chosen to live for a full short life over a empty long one.

But that changes when you become a parent. If I fell terminally ill today, instead of going BASE jumping I would chart a course that would allow me to survive and enjoy as many days as I could with my son and share in his growth at this wonderful age.

So on one hand I want to be around for my son for as long as possible. On the other I want to keep living my dream and to teach by example that he can live his dream also.

I am truly afraid that if I die on a skydive, not only would I not be around to guide him, worse still he could become unhealthily risk averse because of my mistakes. That would really suck!

So I have resolved to make a “if you are watching this then the worst has happened” video. During my incident, under canopy I left a video message to my son to the effect of “don’t be afraid, I am not afraid, its ok to die, I love you very much, life is wonderful and don’t ever be afraid”. That was all I had time for, but I would have liked to have said more. So I will, just in case. It is not much but I hope at least that if the worst happens then he might remember who I am, understand how I felt about him and the world and perhaps learn something of how to live from a pre-recorded father in the absence of a live one. Its melodramatic i realise, but at the moment it is the best I can think of. If I can’t totally mitigate the risk of something happening on a jump, I can at least mitigate against the consequences if something does happen.

In returning to skydiving I know that not even the best attitude, people, procedures, equipment and environment are enough to guarantee the life of a skydiver. Skydiving is inherently life threatening and incidents are all to often fatal. There are no guarantees. We do the best we can to minimise risks and mitigate against them, but ultimately we learn to live with with the consequences of our choices, and I hope, so do those that we love.

Peace & Love

Mike McGrath

12.10.15

PS – I  got a lot out of an audio book by astronaut Chris Hadfiled called An Astronauts Guide To Life On Earth which helped get me through my tests and exams. The book shares insights such as “sweat the small stuff” on paying attention to the details, and “aiming to be a zero” how  working with a highly professional, competent team aiming to have a neutral impact can achieve better results than aiming to have a positive one. There is lots more good stuff in the book and I highly recommend it for anyone involved in skydiving and aviation.

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Just came across this post from The Flow Genome Project about “post traumatic growth” and thought it was quite relevant to my experience above  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-find-meaning-in-suffering/

Another interesting and relevant post on stress and how to deal with it

http://ideas.ted.com/how-to-be-good-at-stress/?utm_campaign=social&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_content=ideas-blog&utm_term=social-science

3 Comments
  1. Corrine permalink

    Wow!! You have had one intense year! Reading ur story was so interesting and so you!! I am glad u are doing well and getting back on the horse. I loved reading about your ordeal….ahem… Journey

  2. Zoscha Kozlowski permalink

    Thank you for sharing this eloquent, moving and insightful account of your journey. You make a lot of thoughtful observations about the positive and negative aspects of fear, and the difficulties of justifying taking risks. I think our attitudes to risk-taking definitely change over time as a function of our biology; the balance of priority between having responsibility only for ourselves and those who rely on us is dynamic and affected by many factors.
    I did my only tandem jump in the Gong earlier this year, and have only very positive feelings about the entire experience.
    It’s great that you had the support, both professional and personal, not to mention your own tenacity, skill and determination, to come through this.
    I wish you all the best for the future.
    – Zoscha

  3. really fascinating authentic experience , with great “life guide” (for males) , in understanding Jonathan Livingston Seagull syndrome.

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