Could you Parachute into a Hurricane and Survive?

Yes, says a man who did it. But it’s not the fall that’ll kill you.

Is it possible to parachute into a category 5 hurricane — or any hurricane for that matter — and survive?

The very premise seems ludicrous and untestable. Intuitively, our intrepid parachutist would surely be tossed, twisted and torn assunder by one of the greatest forces in nature. It would be madness to try. And impossible to survive.

Right?

Not so, says my uncle, Maj. Don Harten, who is likely one of only four people to have ever plunged into a Cat 5 storm — Super Typhoon Dinah — and lived to tell the tale. (The other three were his U.S. Air Force crew mates.)

Of course, Harten didn’t set out to make history. It was the result of an accident — a collision of two B-52s during a midair refueling maneuver at 33,000 feet at the outset of the Vietnam War.

Harten was co-pilot of a B-52 flying at night from Andersen Air Base in Guam to an enemy target northwest of Saigon in what was the first B-52 bombing raid of the war on June 18, 1965. His plane had arrived at the refueling coordinate several minutes early, and the navigator in the lead plane of his three-plane cell made the ill-fated decision to do a 360-degree turn to burn off some time. Halfway through the maneuver, the four-story-high tail of an oncoming B-52 that was part of the 30-plane squadron sheered off the outer third of Harten’s plane’s right wing. Both planes exploded, killing eight of the combined twelve crew members. But Harten had managed to eject about two seconds before his jet — loaded with 50,000 gallons of fuel and 52 five-hundred-pound bombs — detonated beneath him. He is one of maybe three or four pilots in the history of aviation to have ever survived a high-speed, high-altitude ejection from a jet cockpit.

But his ordeal was just beginning.

The good news was that he’d survived the crash. The bad news was that he’d been flying over Super Typhoon Dinah, a category 5 monster churning in the South China Sea just north of the Philippines’ Luzon Peninsula. The storm had had just reached peak intensity with winds of up to 185 mph and waves of up to 70 feet.

“Actually, it’s not that bad,” Harten says of the experience. “You’d think you’d get ripped apart by the winds. But that’s not the case. You really don’t feel the wind at all. That’s because you’re moving inside a column of air, and the wind speed, relative to you, is near zero. There’s definitely some buffeting and it’s far from a smooth ride, but it’s really not that bad. I mean, mentally, it’s horrifying and a second-to-second fight for survival, but physically you’re just floating. Think of when you blow on a dandelion on a windy day. If you were one of the seed chutes whisked away by the wind, from your perspective, you wouldn’t even know it was windy; you’d just be floating serenely in the breeze. It’s the same in a parachute. Whether the wind is blowing 10 mph or 185 mph, the wind speed relative to the parachutist is zero.”

Harten says that while his ride through the typhoon was manageable, it was the knowledge of what awaited him below that made the trip a form of torture.

“As they say,” says Harten, “It’s not the fall that kills you.”

The sea below was raging with 70-foot wind-driven waves. Harten plunged briefly into the water before his chute yanked him back into the air and bounced him along the ocean’s surface at speeds in excess of 100 mph. Though Harten hadn’t been moving relative to the column of air he’d been parachuting through, he was practically a human missile relative to the water. The torque was so great on his parachute riser that he couldn’t get it to release for several minutes, causing him to almost drown before he could get it to snap off like a bullwhip and come to a stop.

“I got dragged by my parachute over the water for at least a mile or two,” Harten says. “I had a friend in the ’60s who’d set the world waterskiing speed record at over 100 mph. I later told him, ‘Bad news. I broke your record.’”

Midair by Craig K. Collins (Lyons Press) is available here in hardcover, paperback, ebook and audiobook.

Read Midair: Foreword|Read Midair: Chapter One|Read Midair: Chapter Two | Read Midair: Chapter Twenty-Eight

Read about Harten’s fall through Super Typhoon Dinah in the following Ch. 4 excerpt from Midair by Craig K. Collins (Lyons Press). The chapter begins with Harten’s ejection from his B-52 cockpit:

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Midair: Chapter 4

A blast of air slammed hard into Don. It tore at his flight suit, causing his arms and legs to whip wildly. Don’s neck seared with pain; he’d been looking down and to the side when the seat ejected. The force whiplashed his helmeted head. He should’ve been dead from a broken neck. But instead he tumbled violently through the sky like a wayward astronaut.

Don fought to spread his arms and legs in order to stabilize his fall. He looked down and could see his one-winged plane plummeting about five hundred feet beneath him. Two successive explosions flashed blindingly and released a mighty “Whump, whump,” that reverberated through his chest and head. A third, smaller explosion sent shrapnel knifing into his left calf.

Don scrambled to orient himself as his mind became overwhelmed with a surge of surreal sights and sensations. Panic raced through every nerve, and Don fought to suppress it. Panic was a killer. Don knew that for certain. He swallowed his fear and let his training take over.

Don plunged through the clouds with no sense of up or down. In the darkness he couldn’t tell he whether he was floating or falling. The sense of time had escaped him. How long or how far he’d fallen was a mystery. His parachute opened automatically with a hard jolt. Don grabbed the risers with both hands. He couldn’t breathe, so his first order of business was to get oxygen. He fumbled with the valve on his emergency oxygen canister but couldn’t get the air to flow. Panic again began welling up inside him. He pulled on the canister as he reflexively gulped to find a breath. He became frantic, thinking that he’d survived the crash only to suffocate on the way down. It then occurred to him that he was no longer at thirty thousand feet. His chute was programed to open at fourteen thousand feet. There was plenty of oxygen at his current altitude. Don removed his mask and took a deep breath. Cool, humid air filled his lungs. The panic subsided.

He left his mask to dangle along the side of his cheek and looked down between openings in the thunderheads to see the ocean burning where his plane had gone down. He wanted to simply relax and hang beneath his parachute to watch the spectacle, but he needed to keep focused to stay alive. He pulled the lanyard to open the automatically inflating life jacket called the Mae West. Flaps of yellow rubber rolled down either side of his chest as flat and flaccid as the ears of a hound dog. The CO2 cartridges responsible for inflating the Mae West had failed. Don reached for the tube to blow up the life jacket with his mouth. He looked down in time to see a tremendous explosion and a heat-fueled cloud mushrooming toward him. It had been caused by the fifty thousand pounds of jet fuel that had just ignited on the water. The heat and turbulence would sear Don and rip his parachute apart.

Panic again gripped him. He thought about his training and managed to suppress the terror. The cloud roiled closer.

“Think, damn it, think,” he said to himself out loud.

He remembered the “four-line cut” that the Air Force had taught him. There wasn’t time for a textbook maneuver, so he just grabbed two risers, pulled hard, and slipped the chute sideways. Don skidded across the sky. He felt the heat from the fireball rush to the side of him.

Excerpt is from Midair by Craig K. Collins (Lyons Press)
Available here in hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook.

Read Midair: Foreword|Read Midair: Chapter One|Read Midair: Chapter Two | Read Midair: Chapter Twenty-Eight

He’d literally dodged a bullet. He relaxed and let the risers go. The parachute came to a sudden stop, but Don didn’t. He swung up in the air, then down, then up again. It felt as if he were on a swing set. The typhoon raged, the winds grew fierce, and the ocean lay black beneath him. Pockets of flame sprawled for a mile or more atop the surface. Don swung like a pendulum and began gathering momentum. He pulled on the risers to try to make the swinging stop, but nothing worked. If this continued much longer, he would be in danger of swinging over the top of his parachute, becoming tangled in its lines and plummeting to the ocean. Exasperated by death’s relentless pursuit, he tried to think his way out of yet another dilemma. He remembered from one of his physics classes that the longer the arm of a pendulum, the slower it would swing. He reached down and pulled a handle that released his life raft and survival kit. The yellow raft inflated and dropped fifty feet beneath him, suspended by a lanyard. The survival kit dropped another thirty feet below the raft. Don held the risers tight, and the oscillation stopped as quickly as it had started.

Don noticed that the fires below had been nearly all consumed by the sea. The night grew black once more. Don knew he would again have trouble telling which way was up or how close to the water he might be. He turned his sore neck in each direction to see whether any of his crew members might’ve made it out of the plane, too. About a half mile away he spotted a white parachute with Day-Glo orange panels drifting through the storm. He wondered who it might be.

Don yanked his risers in opposite directions in order to turn the parachute toward the other survivor. He hoped to chase it down and land as close as possible. His parachute spun quickly but then wouldn’t stop. Don started twisting in the opposite direction. His parachute cords began twining together and pulling his parachute into a ball.

“Holy mother of Jesus,” Don screamed into the sky. “Not again.” Panic welled up once more. Another few seconds of this, and Don would begin dropping like a stone. He pulled against the twisting lines with all his strength, and the spinning stopped. Briefly. Don then began twisting in the opposite direction, only faster. When he got to the bottom, he popped the risers as hard as he could, and the spinning stopped. He vowed to cease tinkering with his parachute. It only led to trouble.

Lightning flashed, and the ocean loomed a couple of thousand feet beneath him. Between intervals of blackness, the electric flickers sporadically revealed the menace that lay in wait. Huge waves foamed white. Luminescent plankton churned in the storm, and the water glowed turquoise in places. Don clung to his risers in terror. As bad as his parachute had been, he wanted to stay with it forever — just a guy and his parachute, floating in the air for as long as it took to get rescued. Anything to stay out of the ocean. Anything.

But still Don descended. In the lightning flashes, he could see mountains of waves undulating beneath him. Sea foam blew from crests and scudded white across the black surface. He was maybe one hundred feet from splashdown. He remembered his training. Arms tucked, legs tucked, stare at the horizon. Arms tucked, legs tucked, stare at the horizon. Terror overwhelmed him. He gritted his teeth to suppress an involuntary yell. The water rose fast to greet him. He slapped hard into a black wave and sank beneath the surface.

Read Midair: Foreword|Read Midair: Chapter One|Read Midair: Chapter Two | Read Midair: Chapter Twenty-Eight

Craig K. Collins is a San Diego-based writer and the author of Thunder in the Mountains(Lyons Press, 2014) and Midair(Lyons Press, 2016). He has a novel due out in 2021.

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook and audiobook.

Copyright © 2016 by Craig K. Collins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review.

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Craig K. Collins

Author of Midair (Lyons Press, 2016) and Thunder in the Mountains (Lyons Press, 2014). At work on a novel, as well as a book of historical non-fiction.