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Sky-Diver Lucky to Be Alive After Chute Fails

September 24, 1989|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

From his hospital bed, with both legs in casts, rookie sky-diver Richard Leishman laughs about the moment in the Utah skies when his parachute failed to open fully.

He was 4,000 feet above farmland of the Beehive State.

"I was not mentally with it at that particular time," the Torrance resident recalled with a giggle. But it was no laughing matter.

"My instructor kept talking to me on a one-way radio set. I thought I was going to land fine. I knew I was going a little fast," he said.

Although his chute eventually opened almost all the way, its lines remained tangled and Leishman was unable to avoid a 15-foot ravine. He slammed into its wall.

The impact broke both legs below the knees.

"They were just flopping around any which way when I rolled or slid down the hill," he said. "I was not a happy camper."

End of His Vacation

The event that ended his summer vacation began when some friends in Utah urged Leishman to try sky-diving.

"It seemed like something fun to do. Then it came to the point of whether I could do it or not. Everyone has that fear of whether you will physically do it," he said.

Conquering that fear was "the only macho thing involved," he said. "I wouldn't go out risking my neck if I thought I was going to get hurt."

Leishman, who works for Hughes Aircraft Co., took a four-hour course from a sky-diving firm called Cedar Valley Free Fall.

At 9 a.m. on Aug. 9, he strapped on a navy-blue and gray parachute, climbed into a Piper aircraft and took off from the Cedar Valley Airport. At 9,000 feet, he and two instructors jumped, free-falling about 5,000 feet.

Free Fall Was Fun

"It was kind of neat. It was different. . . . The fun part of sky-diving is free fall," he said.

His instructors, in accordance with their plan, pulled the rip cord to open Leishman's parachute. "It opened, but it didn't really open all the way. It had twisted lines," he said.

To say that Leishman tried to remember what he had learned is an understatement.

"They teach how to get out of twisted lines, but it didn't work," he said. "If it was just twisted lines, I would have gotten them out. There must have been something else."

Jack Guthrie, the chief instructor for Cedar Valley Free Fall, said: "We will never know what happened." He said that Leishman could have avoided injury by following radioed instructions to cut his main chute clear and switch to the reserve chute. But Leishman continued to struggle.

"At 100 above the Earth, he had a collapsed parachute," Guthrie said, "At 50 feet, the parachute got inflated again. He is the luckiest person on earth."

The final twist was landing in the ravine.

"What happened could not be duplicated," Guthrie said. "This ravine is the only obstacle in miles and miles of flat farm land," and if he hadn't smacked against the wall he probably would have come away unscathed.

In the aftermath of the accident, Leishman has become the hot topic at American Fork Hospital in Lehi, Utah.

"One of the physical therapists was in the area and he saw me coming down and he saw me land. He thought I had died" in the fall, Leishman said. The therapist told Leishman later that seeing the accident "had ruined his day, because he (thought he) had watched someone die. Then the next day he came to work and I was a celebrity."

His friends at Hughes, where Leishman works in inventory control, spread the word too.

"My boss called me twice in the last two days and cussed me out because he needs me at work," Leishman said. "I would much rather be at work than a celebrity in a hospital bed."

Leishman, a bicyclist and runner, said he will stick to those sports when his casts come off in six months.

He said nothing like the accident had ever happened to him before, even during service with the Marines.

"I went through boot camp and didn't get hurt," Leishman said. "I have learned my lesson. No-o-o, this kid is not going sky-diving again."

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