meet some people who, for all I knew,
resented my flying over them and would
not appreciate having a little parachute
land in their midst.
I do not readily walk right up to strangers and say, “Hey! How ya doin’?” On the
contrary, I have blended in perfectly on
New York City subways (head down, no
eye contact, nobody gets hurt). So the
prospect of having to go retrieve my parachute from people from another country,
whose language and culture were profoundly different from mine, was too
cringe-inducing to bear. And that’s how
I stepped into the bear trap.
Watching my parachute drift toward the
garden plots, it occurred to me to use my
newly developed skill at catching toilet-paper streamers with a wing to snag the
parachute. The idea had literally never
crossed my mind before. But there it was—
and it would save me the embarrassment of
having to try to explain what I was doing to a
bunch of total strangers.
WELL, WHY NOT?
There are higher and lower orders of stupid. An example of a lower order would be
taking off with half an hour’s worth of fuel
for a one-hour flight. There’s no way that
could possibly work, and everyone knows
it, and pilots prove that a few hundred
times a year. So that’s at the lowest level,
which I’d like to think I am well beyond.
Then there’s a middling order of stupid,
for example a VFR-only pilot continuing
flight into deteriorating visual conditions.
That one has an escape hatch; you might be
able to find a way to turn back before conditions get too bad. Again, I don’t think I
would do that, but then I am something of a
scaredy-cat when it comes to weather.
And then there’s a higher order of stupid,
in which you try something that’s never
been done before, at least to your knowledge, such as catching a small parachute
with a wingtip—something you would not
do if you were to think it all the way
through and realize the full implications
of the act.
The airplane yawed suddenly
to the left. Astonished, I
had to apply almost full
right rudder just to fly
straight ahead. It took a
couple of dumbfounded
moments for me to realize
what was happening.
I managed to catch it about two-thirds
of the way out on my left wingtip on the
first try. The leading edge caught the
shroud lines, and the canopy whipped out
of sight over the wing as the shroud lines
slithered over the leading edge and came
to a sudden halt when the pair of heavy
washers caught on the leading edge, and
were trapped between the edge and the
forward outer flying wire.
The airplane yawed suddenly to the
left. Astonished, I had to apply almost full
right rudder just to fly straight ahead. It
took a couple of dumbfounded
moments for me to realize what was
happening. The canopy had re-
inflated and was now applying a
ferocious amount of drag way out on
the left wing. With the combined drag
from the parachute canopy on one side
and the rudder on the other, I had to add
full power (the MX Sprint had only a
40-hp engine) to keep flying, but even so,
airspeed began to bleed slowly away.
A lot of forward stick stabilized the airspeed but left me losing altitude fairly fast.
Conveniently, because I had caught the
parachute well before it had reached the
gardens, I was still over the home field and
nobody else was in the pattern just then.
The parachute was not quite so far out
on the wing that I needed all the right rudder there was to compensate for it. There
was a little bit left, just enough so that I
could nurse the airplane around in a gradual right turn. I did not dare let the
airplane enter any kind of left turn. That
could lead to an unpleasant increasing spiral. Slowly I eased it around and lined up
with the runway as I ran out of altitude. As
I flared for landing, the decreasing airspeed
also reduced the asymmetrical drag applied
by the parachute, and the actual landing
was almost normal.
I taxied up to the hangar and stopped.
The parachute, freed of aerodynamic forces
and now free to obey only the gravitational
pull of the washers, slithered off the wing
and fell to the ground. Somehow I expected
crowds of admirers to greet me, sort of like
Lindbergh’s arrival at Le Bourget, but no,
only the usual two or three people were
around the hangar and none had noticed
my hair-raising, and hare-brained, stunt.
The bear trap, having clamped its jaws
on my leg, slowly opened and left me without a mark. When I wrote about this
incident years ago, I concluded with this
lesson learned, that it’s very unwise to venture into unknown territory. There are
people called test pilots who have the skill
and expertise needed to do things for the
first time. They are highly competent and
well-informed, and they are noted for their
careful planning. In other words, they don’t
do things on the spur of the moment.
The lesson remains as valid as ever.
Since then I have generally tried to avoid
breaking new ground in aviation. I’ll just
keep doing the same old stuff, because it’s
lots more fun than treading on a bear trap.
Trust me on this.
Dave Matheny, EAA 184186, is a private pilot and
an FAA ground instructor. He has been flying light
aircraft, including ultralights, for 30 years. He accepts
commissions for his art and can be reached at