Then the engines cut out. They did so all at once without any sputtering. One second they were working perfectly, the next they were completely off.
The craft plummeted toward the ground. My stomach lifted into my chest as blood rushed to my head, making me so dizzy I nearly passed out. A daze struck me as my brain worked frantically to remember the one task I was supposed to do next.
“Engines off !” I screamed.
I could hear Ian’s voice crackling in my helmet. “Are they off?”
“Yes! They’re off!”
What a change of events a few seconds had made. The climb upwards had been gradual and peaceful. The downward descent was horribly scary and loud with wind. The PFD and I sped straight downwards. I pushed the button to release the parachute. Nothing happened. I looked behind me and noticed the hatch had opened, but the chute was pinned on the downside of the craft.
“It didn’t work!” I screamed to Ian. “The chute is stuck!”
“No problem. I’m pushing the button,” he said.
“You don’t get it! The chute is stuck on the device!”
I looked at the altimeter. I was falling fast. There wasn’t much time. Trying to get out of my harness in the bulky space suit was more difficult than I had imagined. The awkwardness of working with space gloves made it all the worse. I fought off the urge to panic. I thought of the crew on the ground beneath me, wondering if the device would come crashing down in their vicinity.
Jessica’s voice came through my helmet. “Jon, can you hear me?”
“I can’t get the chute to work! Take cover!”
“Get out of there!” she insisted. “Forget about the craft!”
Finally, I unhooked my harness and forced my way from the pilot's chamber toward the open door. We were still very high in the sky as I stood at the opening, attempting to calm my breathing. The PFD’s chute remained stuck on the bottom, pinned by the direction the craft was falling. I gathered some sanity standing there on top, watching the trapped chute flap violently against the frame of the device. I had my own chute cord in my hand and was ready to pull it and float to safety. Then an idea struck me.
The only thing keeping the chute from opening was the direction the PFD was falling. If I could get the device to spin upwards even a slight amount, the chute should open. Then I could slip easily past it and pull my own chute. For some reason, the fear had left me entirely. My plan sounded genius. I could save a valuable machine. There was still time.
I held on firmly to the frame of the craft and crawled down the side. The wind rushed past me, making it difficult to keep my grip. A slight shift in the fall of the PFD made me think my plan could work. I hooked my hands around the frame and each other for added grip. I inched further down as we plummeted through the cloud layer. My weight began to affect the dynamics of the fall as the PFD spun slowly on axis until the wind caught the chute. It flew upwards into the sky, opened and jerked the craft from me, ripping my clutch from the frame of the device.
My plan worked to perfection, but I hadn’t realized the torque my hands would be put through. Suddenly, I was hurling downwards alone with a searing pain in both hands. The pain made it unbearable to pull my own safety cord. I tried using my wrists, but I couldn’t get the required force.
“Perfect,” Ian said with relief through my helmet. “The chute has opened.”
What he couldn’t see was my body falling to the desert floor at terminal velocity. The wind roared by my suit, making a horrible flapping noise. I looked below and could make out the truck and the group of them next to it.
“I’m still falling!” I shouted.
“What’s the matter?” Jessica’s voice came through.
“I can’t pull my cord!”
“Oh, Lord. I can see you!” Jessica screamed. “Pull your cord, Jon! Pull your cord!”
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