Register Saturday | March 17 | 2018

On the Wing

Gus Wing is not around anymore.

Gus Wing will not be jumping this weekend. I won't fix his camera to his helmet, as he has for decades of years and years and years, and take some geeked out tandem out of the plane, shooting the experience the kid will probably remember wrong, except for the name of his tandem master and of Gus, that is until he sees the video, and then it will all click in. He will not be remembered by some newbie for the rest of the newbie's life, whether it was the first jump of many, or simply a one-off.

Gus Wing will not get up tomorrow morning. He will not kiss his wife and head out to the drop zone. He will not sarcastically rib a fellow jumper who just took too big a risk, or just mishandled his rig and misread the situation. He will not get the chance to impart his knowledge and concern in a way that others say always managed to drive the point home. He will not walk up to a group of bug eyed bystanders who he does not know and will not film, simply because he loved skydiving, simply because, it seems, he loved conversation.

Gus Wing will not wake up tomorrow morning. Gus Wing is not around anymore.

One quick caveat. I did not know Gus Wing. I had never met him. I have been skydiving since August of last year and only recently earned my A license, the document that allows skydivers to do what we do, what we love to do. Jump from airplane.

Still, Albert "Gus" Wing was not an unfamiliar name to me. I knew who he was, if I did not know the man himself. I had heard of him, seen some of his work, I knew his reputation.

Most by now are well familiar with the incident that took Gus' life. This is not to rehash the details. He collided with the wing of a landing airplane, and while he managed to land his parachute thereafter, his injuries were severe.

Most of the media seem to ignore our sport, that is until something like this takes place. There are articles covering the Internet right now; many local news stations placed it upfront in their coverage; hell, the Today Show even produced a segment on the incident.

It seems strange. In a sport of the spectacular, the sheer number of skydivers (34,000 according to the United States Parachute Association) and the amazing global community they comprise, seem to somehow blunt the uniqueness of what we all do. It takes something spectacular in a sport of the spectacular for the public to take notice. It's always the wrong time. The wrong information. The wrong perspective.

The idea from the outside looking in is one of oversimplification. What you want to jump out of that airplane for? You must have a death wish?

In my limited experience, I have yet to meet a skydiver with a death wish. We do not board an airplane and stare at each other and say, "If I should never see you again, it's been great!" We don't echo back, "Well, this could be the time to go!" It is exactly the opposite.

Most skydivers have an extreme life wish. There is no more safety conscious group that I have ever been involved with. We pack our rigs in a particular manner. We fold and secure, check and re-check. We are constantly feeling for our handles and points of connection, going over emergency procedures, asking others to look at our rig. Is the pin that holds our rig closed in proper position? Are all the flaps down and secure? Is my chest strap properly tight? My leg straps? My pilot chute? We talk about what we are going to do in the air. Hardly anyone just wings it, because each of us, from the newest novice to the most experienced veteran, have seen or heard horrible, terrifying, dizzying stories about what happens when a skydiver gets lazy. And more than anything, when something like this happens, when a story comes out like it did this past weekend, we gather a drop zones and on the internet to not only honor the life of the person who passed, but to dissect, argue, and question what exactly it was that went wrong. More than anything, a life in skydiving (and this is something hammered in to me by every instructor and coach I've had) is one spent constantly learning.

This is not a tally-ho, let it go, jump and hope God sorts it out sport. Skydiving is precise and deliberate. The disservice of the way it is portrayed is that it makes it seem like a game of parachute roulette, when it is decidedly anything but. One thing I've heard ad naseum in my few months in the sport is the term "pilot error" or "jumper error" relating to accidents and incidents. Not the "parachute malfunction" you read about it papers, the "error" skydivers refer to is generally a wrong, or missing, decision made by the jumper that lead to the accident.

And it's also what makes the incident with Gus so terrifying for me. From every posting I've read and phone conversation I've had with people who knew his legacy, Gus (and the same goes for the pilot flying the Otter plane at the time) was highly experienced, extremely safety conscious.

I've spent the past few days fielding phone calls and e-mails from friends and co-workers, all of which carry the same general theme: Perhaps this incident will be a wake up call for me. Maybe now I'll see the light, that skydiving is suicide, and jumping is just too dangerous.

Reading and hearing about this incident has scared the bejeezus out of me, but not for the reasons my earth bound friends would think, or perhaps hope.

I cannot help but picture the moment of panic for either one of these men. The moment of awareness that something had gone horribly, ultimately tragically, wrong. The moments to come where the Otter pilot continues to look back, a billion and a half times from now till the end, and wonders "What could I have done?"

Most of the incidents that occur in this sport are not accidents, not in the traditional sense. They are mistakes, errors in judgment, risky maneuvers pulled off with the smallest margin of error, and repercussions of the most visceral and terrifying kind. Whether what happened here was human error, or the confluence of a thousand tiny decisions that put two pilots in the exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time cannot be known this soon after. And as genuinely sad as most of the people in the community that I've spoken to or been online with this week are for this loss, there is also a compulsive need to understand what happened, why it happened, and what could have been done differently. It seems to me that the veteran skydivers I have been around grieve and learn in equal measure. They don't forget their friends, yet I've never heard a single person let anyone off the hook when a mistake has been made. This sport does not easily forgive.

I don't know if Gus made a mistake or not. I just know that this has somehow profoundly effected me. After all, if something like this can happen to someone so seemingly gifted and hyper aware in the air, doesn't that mean it could happen to me?

Grounding is not an option. I fell in love with skydiving, and there's nothing foreseeable that could take it away from me. Aside from my own mistakes, lack of decision-making, or errors in judgment, but I hope that with each tale I hear and each incident I encounter lessens the odds of that. As I wasn't a friend of his, it's the one tribute I can offer to Gus that makes any sense at all.

I will be in the air again soon. And hopefully within days. Hell, from what I've heard of the skill, precision, and care of the pilot flying the plane Gus collided with, I'd exit his craft any day as well, and without a second thought.

I am new to this sport, yes, but in the 8 months I've been jumping I've begun to feel like part of the community. This horrible incident drove that point home like none has before it. My heart breaks for what happened. For both of them.

Leonardo DiVinci has been attributed with a quote about flight that I think pertains. I'll paraphrase: Once you've been up there, you will never look to the sky the same way again. That's the feeling I get when I skydive. That's why, no matter how much this incident scared me, I'll be up again.

Gus Wing won't be up in the air anymore. Or perhaps there's a better way to think about it. Gus Wing is in the air for good. He just won't be coming down.

My deepest condolences to those who knew and loved Albert "Gus" Wing. Blue skies.