Posts Tagged ‘Jim Riordan’

Skydiving at Pope Valley Parachute Ranch

July 17th, 2013 No comments

It was one of my best friends, Jerry Wyatt, who first got me interested in skydiving, even though all my life I have been afraid of heights.

My Dad had the last privately owned franchise of the John Hancock Life Insurance company based in Washington DC and every year I can remember they flew him up to Boston to try to talk him into selling his franchise back to the “Home office”. He would say,”No” every year until 1959 when they finally “made him an offer he could not refuse”. So, In 1959 My Dad, Mom and I flew together to Boston to finalize the deal.

One evening, my dad and I stayed in the building after everyone had left and my dad said, “C’mon son, I ‘m going to show you a sight few have seen”. At that time, the John Hancock building was the second tallest building in the U.S., topped only by the Empire State Building in New York City. This was long before the Twin Towers days.

We went up to the top floor and then climbed several more flights of stairs up to an area which I am pretty sure was available only to the maintenance people. My dad opened a windowed door that opened onto a wide ledge which, as I recall, had no railing. Against my most vigorous objections, my dad took my hand and we stepped out onto this windy ledge far above anything else in the city of Boston and stared down at the street lights far below and all of the other surrounding skyscrapers.  My dad had absolutely no fear of heights.  I, on the other hand have always had a hearty fear of heights unless I have an aircraft or parachute strapped on me.  That ledge scared me nearly to death.  To this day I just don’t like heights. I can force myself, but only barely.

So, many years later when one of my best friends, Jerry Wyatt, said we should go Skydiving, my knees knocked together with a volume I’m sure those around me could hear. .  [All these years later that still sounds funny to be coming from an experienced aerobatic pilot, but yup, my knees still knock together at any height unless I am strapped into my airplane].

My wife, Lynn, however immediately thought parachute jumping would be great even though she too is uneasy with heights. Jumping out of perfectly good airplanes didn’t bother her a bit.  She loved it.

Jerry Wyatt learning to exit and hold onto strut

Jerry Wyatt learning to exit and hold onto strut

Several weekends later, on July 12, 1975 we were in a rented Piper Cherokee, with Jerry flying, on our way up to Pope Valley Parachute Ranch near St. Helena to go for our first parachute jump.

Things were MUCH different then. Nowadays a first parachute jump, in fact your first several parachute jumps, are made in a “Tandem Rig” in which the jumper is harnessed to an instructor. In 1975, the three of us had to attend a full day class involving classroom instruction, then learning “PLF”s or Parachute Landing Falls, by jumping off a (to me) rather high platform and learning to bend your knees, land in a big “sand box” and then roll your body to absorb the landing shock.  These were repeated over and over until our instructors considered us ready.

Kathy Kruger jumping off the “strut” at “GO”

Kathy Kruger jumping off the “strut” at “GO”

Next came ground instruction on how to exit the aircraft, which in our case was a Cessna 180 “taildragger” with an “in flight door” which opened UP (as opposed to “out”) and latched in place underneath the wing of the airplane. We were to step out and put our left foot onto the entry step and put our right leg out in the slipstream, while maintaining a (for me) “death grip” on the aircraft wing’s lift strut. We practiced this on a wooden platform with a simulated “strut” We were to hold this position until our instructor slapped our leg and yelled “GO” at which time we were to jump off the aircraft, still attached by a “static line” and immediately get into and maintain a “belly-out” arched back position until the static line pulled the parachute for us and we were then “on our own”. In order to reach our intended landing spot, we had to “steer” using “toggles” which were above our head on the left and the right side of our main harness.  Pulling on a toggle opened a flap toward the rear of the T10 Round canopy, the same kind used by airborne troops. Very simple design.  Pull right to go right, pull left to go left and pull neither one to go straight ahead, or pull both at the same time to descend rapidly.

You can learn more about the T-10 Parachutes on Wikipedia® .  They have lots of info on them at:

According to Wikipedia, depending upon air density and the jumper’s total weight, the T-10 parachute’s average rate of descent is from 22 to 24 feet per second.  The total suspended weight limitation is about 375 pounds. I believe our nylon parachutes were deployed using a 20 foot static line, allowing the parachutist to be easily launched at speeds from 85mph to 130 mph.

Throw your arms back and arch your back as hard as you can!

Throw your arms back and arch your back as hard as you can!

The maximum suggested ground-speed wind for the T-10 was about 15mph.  Any more than that and the old round chutes could give you a pretty hard landing. However, those old chutes could provide a perfect stand up landing in a 10mph to 13 mph wind on the ground. Once you mastered it, that is.

If I recall, our reserve parachutes were attached right to the front lower part of the parachute assembly which consisted of five components: pack tray, harness, deployment bag, risers, and canopy.

So, after learning how to fall and roll, arch our backs and throw our arms back and our chests out, it was time to hit the sky.  One funny part of this story is a businessman who had brought 4 of his female staff with him. All day long, he was teasing them about how they would be too scared to exit the plane when the time came . . . the laugh was, all of the ladies jumped while the loudmouth refused to get out of the plane . . true justice we thought!

[Now I must digress for an important note.  I was at that time still very active in motorcycle scrambles racing and Motocross racing and had suffered broken shoulders, both left and right, and multiple dislocations of both thereafter.  My shoulders were so loose that I could occasionally dislocate a shoulder simply by pulling a door shut behind me! I used to have to pop them back into place by placing the disjointed arm between my knees and then quickly straighten up while turning slightly to get the arm back in place.[John Wayne style as he did in one of his movies!! ]

All day, in the class, along with, and in between the PLFs, we were told over and over and over by our instructors that “as soon as we leave the plane” we are to “THROW our arms back and our chest out and arch our backs ”  This was repeated over and over, to be sure we remembered to get into the proper position immediately to be ready for the chute opening, so that we would be in the proper position for the opening, which would become very important when it came time for our “freefalls” to begin.  In those days we had to complete 5 static line jumps minimum before we would be eligible for freefall.

After the class had practiced proper exits for some time, we were divided into groups of three based on our “gross weights”, donned our “pure white” Jumpsuits and the heaviest person would load last and exit first.

That’s me on the far left getting ready to load in our pure white jumpsuits . . More on that later . .

That’s me on the far left getting ready to load in our pure white jumpsuits . . More on that later . .


I was the heaviest person in our plane and my wife was the lightest, so I would have to get out first. [See photo at left]  Oh the joy. Lastly, we were instructed that as we jumped off the step we were to yell out “Arch thousand, two thousand, three thousand” and the parachute would open as we said the last “thousand”.  I’m certain that many of our class said that properly, but I’m also pretty sure that my count went something like “Arch .thoohhhhhh shhhiiiii”    . .I threw my chest out and when I went to throw my arms back, my left shoulder popped out of joint so fast it was unreal. I was totally unprepared for how strong a force the wind would be against my arms (and shoulder) at our forward airspeed.

Immediately, I felt the incredible pain of the dislocated left shoulder, and I pulled it in close to my body and started to reach around with my right arm to get my dislocated arm back in place. That action caused me to go into an immediate roll onto my back just as the static line was pulling the parachute out of the pack on my back.  I felt a burning on my left wrist and then looked up and saw a nice round canopy.  “YES!”

Then came the struggle to get my shoulder joint back in place.  I managed to “pop” it back into place.

Scar from parachute riser 7121975

Turns out the burning on my left wrist was from the static line pulling the chute out and one of the parachute cords had literally cut a groove into my arm as it was whizzing by.  That groove is still easily visible as I write this, 38 years later. [See photo at left] .  I then realized that I could not get my left arm up high enough to reach the left “steering toggle” so I basically just floated down getting further and further away from our designated “Drop Zone” target.

As I floated down I noticed I was being sprayed with droplets of some liquid. It was going into my eyes and my face and all over my PURE WHITE jumpsuit.

A few minutes later, I realized I was WAAY off course and headed for what looked like a dirt road next to a grass field.  I was headed for the grass field and thankfully (yet uncontrollably) headed INTO the wind. The wind was approximately 10mph which just about equaled the forward speed of the parachute. Great, I thought, at least it will be an upwind landing so the landing should not be too hard.

It was just about then that I noticed there seemed to be a line of tall grass in my landing spot . . .THEN, I saw that the “line of tall grass” was actually un-mowed grass UNDER A BARBED WIRE FENCE . . . EEegad!!   We had been warned to stay away from barbed wire fences, but no one had told us what they looked like from ABOVE.  An added bonus was this was the type of fence that had white metal “stringer” posts that were virtually invisible from above.  . . . I immediately reached up with my good arm and pulled on the right toggle as hard as I could.

The parachute responded quickly with a right turn and now I was going about 20mph downwind to a tumbling landing in a dirt road with about 4 inches of the finest dust/dirt you could imagine. I was instantly covered head to toe with this brown dust on my white jumpsuit.

When I finally stood up and tried to dust myself off, I realized my jumpsuit was also covered in red dots of blood.  I imagine I was quite a sight to see. My left wrist was now squirting blood and I had to hold it closed as best as I could with my right hand as I walked back to the hangar.

As I approached the hangar, the next class of students were getting ready to go. I looked at some of them staring at me literally with their eyes wide open and some of them with their jaws dropped open . . . I looked at the group and yelled, “That was GREAT, you guys are going to love it!!

In retrospect that must have looked pretty funny to onlookers. I walked inside and the drop zone owners, Tim Saltonstall and Curt Curtis looked at me and queried, “What the hell happened to you?”  After I explained it, they said, “Well, no more jumps for you until you get your shoulders operated on.”

I had been putting those shoulder operations off for a long time so I had them both done and then returned to the drop zone a few months later to complete more static line jumps and finally

First Jump Certificate

totaled enough jumps to begin my freefalls.

My wife Lynn loved skydiving and actually completed her fifth jump and then found out she was pregnant with our son Brett.

Jerry wyatt and I began bringing large groups up for the first jump classes and Tim and Curt began giving us free jumps in return for bringing the classes.

Later we would learn that Jerry and I had brought the most new students to Pope Valley to complete their first jump than anyone else. I received a nice letter from Curt Curtis which you can see below. (Note: From 1970-1977 Curtis was a Member of the 1971, 1972, 1976 and 1977 US National Parachute Teams). He was US National and World Parachuting Champion in 1977.

Pope Valley Parachute Ranch, Inc. letter to Jim Riordan


Jerry and I had lots of fun bringing these large groups to pope valley. Jerry and I would go jumping while the classes finished up and then we helped on the ground, directing students with a big arrow which the students would watch on their way down as we continually pointed the arrow in the direction of the drop zone landing area, a gravel circle in the middle of a field..

Tanya runs to see Lynn after Lynn’s first jump.  Check out that grin!

Tanya runs to see Lynn after Lynn’s first jump. Check out that grin!

My wife Lynn would jump with us several times as well. The photo on the left is Lynn Riordan right after her first jump. Tanya, one of the instructors is running to congratulate her for landing right near the center of the gravel target area.  Pretty darn accurate for a first landing and just check out that big grin on Lynn’s face.  She got the closest to the center of the target than anyone else in our class.

Every now and then, “Stretch” the pilot who flew the Beech 18 would allow me to fly right seat as we took groups of experienced skydivers up to 12,500 feet and dropped them out and then we followed the free-fallers down right over the top of the formation and then dive down, turn tight around the big oak tree at the end of the runway  and pick up another load. Riding with Stretch was always a thrill for me.

Years later, Stretch, who is now flying skydivers at Lodi Skydiving center just South of Sacramento, CA again took me up to put out a large formation of Skydivers and let me fly right seat in Bill Dause’s DC3 back home. Flying the DC3 was a real thrill for me. Very light on the controls at cruise and very heavy in landing configuration,

That’s me on the left and Jerry Wyatt on the right, after our first free-falls.  You could not chisel those smiles off!

That’s me on the left and Jerry Wyatt on the right, after our first free-falls. You could not chisel those smiles off!

especially just before touch down.  I cannot even imagine how many flight hours Stretch has by now. Many of the skydivers who used to frequent Pope Valley Parachute Center moved down to make Lodi their new home “Drop Zone”.   In fact Lodi has become Northern California’s premiere Drop Zone.  You can read all about them or even better, book a jump at

The owner of The Lodi jump center Bill Dause holds the world record for hours spent in freefall and can provide instruction from first jump through freefall

“relative work”.

We had many great experiences taking jump classes up to Pope Valley. I could not even estimate how many people we took all total, but it was a LOT. I know I recruited over 80 employees of FMC ordnance engineering department alone when I worked there.

Of all the classes we brought to Pope Valley, we had only one “incident” that would have been comical had it not been for the damage done. I cannot remember his name, but this student breezed through class with sort of a cocky, “this will be easy attitude” but sometimes it is that very attitude that can change very quickly once you are airborne and that in-flight door opens up, the wind whistles by and you realize you are going to have to climb out the door and actually, well, JUMP!

This particular student did not panic in the aircraft, but he “froze up” solid once he jumped off the plane.  I noticed that he was not “following the arrow” to the landing site early on and was not responding to my directional instructions at all. As he got lower, I jumped on my little Honda 70 mini-trail I brought along as ground transportation and followed his route as he headed for the aircraft parking area at the far end of the field.  As he got low enough to hear me, I began yelling at him to turn back toward the grassy field and away from the parked airplanes. . . . No response. He was absolutely frozen.  . . . . and now heading downwind at approximately 15 to 17mph.

As he got closer to the parked airplanes, I was hoping he would land between them but that was not to be. When his feet, with laced up hard-toed boots , were still about 6 feet off the ground, his right foot impacted the left inner leading edge of a brand new Cessna 182 and dented the leading edge clear in to the wing spar, immediately grounding the airplane.

Note the leading edge of the wing smashed back to the spar!

Note the leading edge of the wing smashed back to the spar!

Since he was still being pulled along by the chute, amazingly, he flipped over- from the impact and the pull of the parachute-  in what appeared to be a somersault and then crossed over to the right side of the plane where, as he came down, his LEFT boot went clean through the top of the rt. horizontal stabilizer and out the bottom, missing the inner ribs and creating a big  hole all the way through the stabilizer!  Unbelievable.

He jumped up, just as I arrived next to him.  He looked at me and said, “I’m never doing that again!  . . . .and then he unfastened the parachute harness and reserve chute, dropped it on the asphalt, took off the jumpsuit, removed the boots, and quickly beat a path to his car and left the drop zone.

About that time, the unsuspecting owner of this factory new airplane came out of the nearby restaurant, (which was famous for its prime rib and was located right on the field along with a small motel)  where he had stopped for lunch on his way home from picking the plane up from the factory back east, and he could not believe his eyes. His brand new airplane now damaged and grounded leaving him with no transportation.  I know Curt and Tim took care of the plane owner and the damage but I never did learn whether the skydiver ever paid anything or whether the drop zone ended up paying the full bill.

It was not too long after that when a member of, I believe, of the “Hong Kong Parachute team”, based in England, who had come to California to practice, was not watching where he was going and walked right into the spinning propeller of the 180 killing him instantly and damaging the aircraft. I can empathize with the poor pilot who told me later, “Jim, by the time I realized he was oblivious to the propeller, there was nothing I could do .I had no horn, I could not back up and then “Wham” and it was over . . . These guys walk near spinning props all the time  . .  I could not believe it!”. He felt terrible and suffered with the memory of that incident for a long time.

Not long after that I called to book another class and found out that there was no more Pope Valley Parachute Ranch.   Later I would learn that most or all of the group except Tim Saltonstall and Curt Curtis had relocated to Lodi.