A seasoned skydiver in Northern California was attempting a complex stunt after jumping from about 8,000 feet when both of his parachutes failed and he went into a three-minute spin, hitting the ground at 30 mph but surviving with minor injuries.
Craig Stapleton, 51, jumped from a plane Sunday above the vineyards in Lodi, Calif., around 1 p.m. March 10 with his friend and housemate Katie Hanson. The two were attempting what Stapleton calls a “down plane flag,” a flag-release stunt in which their parachutes land on the ground with a flag landing straight up on a lanyard, in what Stapleton calls a “beautiful display.”
But his parachutes didn’t cooperate, and he found himself plummeting to earth as he scrambled to save his life.
“I thought, ‘God hates me,’” he told ABCNews.com. “I felt like nothing was going right here. I knew I was going to die. I thought, ‘If I live through this, I’ll have months of rehab, hospitals … nothing fun again.’”
The duo started their stunt – one Stapleton has done many times throughout his more than 7,000 dives in the past 25 years – at 5,800 feet, about 40 seconds from their exit from the plane. But their speeds were off: Stapleton’s was too fast, and Hanson’s was too slow.
Stapleton said his foot flung up, and he went through his gear. That left the lanyard going in the wrong direction. He knew then he was in trouble, and he was not pleased.
“I was like, ‘Man, this is like a bad student jump,’” he said. “I can’t believe this is going on. If you go through gear and get a twist, it’s usually not that big a deal. But with the flag and lanyard, I drug the equipment through the riser group, and it made things malfunction.”
Stapleton got the flag off of his gear, but he said it went afoul with his chute.
“I was pulling on it, yanking it, trying to unthread the knot,” he said. “At one point, I had my fear in my teeth. I needed a third hand.”
With only half of his main chute deployed, he went with plan B. Stapleton went for his auxiliary parachute, which went directly into his main chute, and stayed in there.
“Time slows down,” he said. “You can take time and do things. I could see I was running out of time. I got through 1,700 feet and realized my situation hadn’t improved.”
In video shot by his other teammate T.J. Langren, Stapleton is seen plummeting to earth. He lucked out by landing parallel to the road in a row of grapes, in freshly plowed dirt, which he said was “very soft.”
“I remember being relieved because I was still alive,” he said. “It didn’t kill me instantly, I remember being really happy I was in the dirt. I rolled onto my back – it knocked the wind out of me – to take a few seconds to collect myself. I could hear my teammates coming.”
Hanson, a nurse, was already on the ground and running toward Stapleton. She told him that she thought his fall was fatal, but she saw him in the distance tearing his expensive gear off, which he knew the EMT workers would cut off him.
“She’s expecting open traumas, and she ran up the road, saw me moving around,” he said. “She thought I was still twitching. She started yelling for me to stop moving.”
Stapleton’s shoulder was dislocated in the fall, but other than a new bumps and bruises. He was fine. He says he’ll be diving again soon, but he’s not sure about any more complicated stunts.
“I don’t know about any flag jumps anytime soon,” he said. “But who knows, I’m pretty stupid.”
After hearing about his intense landing, his son, Austin, 23, came up from Fresno, Calif., to check on him. But it was daughter Analyse, 18, who might have summed it up perfectly.
“It just figures, dad,” she said. “You’re the luckiest guy I know.”