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“This is how I’m going to die”

A thin line stands between life and death for skydivers

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Author: Erik Sherman

Marco Büchel remembers the first time he was about to jump out of a plane and plummet toward the ground at more than 200 kilometers per hour. Despite all his training of what to do if something went wrong, his mind went blank.

“The instructor gave me the signal by clapping on my shoulder,” Büchel said. “I placed myself in position, didn’t look down, and simply thought, ‘So, this is how I am going to die.'”

Büchel survived and found the emotional charge “overwhelming.” He’s no stranger to physical thrills, having been in a record-tying six winter Olympics as an alpine skier. Büchel was also one of the oldest winners of a World Cup race at two-and-a-half months past his 36th birthday.

Retired from racing since 2010, he’s still an active skydiver with 1,300 completed jumps … and another 300 if you count BASE jumping — the times Büchel has leapt with a parachute from bridges and cliffs.

Büchel’s most impressive jump came in 1995 over the coast of Florida, near Cape Canaveral in the United States. It was 5:30 AM and a Space Shuttle launch was scheduled to occur. “As soon as the Space Shuttle lifted off, the pilot gave us the jump signal,” he said. “We left the plane and immediately opened our parachutes. So I was flying high up over the Florida coast, watching the NASA Space Shuttle lifting off in the morning sunrise.”

What has kept him returning to skydiving so often is “the feeling of absolute freedom, when nothing touches you but the air.”

Despite his long experience and career as a professional athlete, Büchel still feels fear on every jump. “It is a very important and helpful emotion,” he said. “It keeps you aware of the danger ahead, and keeps your focus and concentration at a very high level.”

The ultimate danger — the one he recognized on his very first jump — never disappears. Büchel mentally rehearses everything that could go wrong before each jump so he is ready to quickly react. Before getting on the plane, he packs the parachute, ensuring that none of the lines is tangled and that the all-important large canopy of cloth is folded to open easily and quickly when necessary. A full set of equipment can easily cost 10,000 euros, according to Büchel, but the money means nothing if the skydiver doesn’t take good care of it.

The material that separates life from death is made of thin manmade fibers, most commonly polyester and nylon. The technical requirements are daunting. The massive parachute cloth must be light at about 7 kg, still strong enough not to rip into shreds when forces from 3 Gs to as much as 18 Gs snap the cloth open, and almost impenetrable by air to slow the skydiver’s descent.

Parachute material has seen big changes over the years. Originally it was canvas, then silk. Eventually manufacturers started to use polyester and nylon and found that it was superior to anything that had come before: less expensive, less likely to suffer from mildew, and more elastic. More recently, Dacron and Kevlar have been tried for special parachutes used in extreme heights, although polyester and nylon are still the big favorites.

Parachute companies have to deliver consistent quality with the most advanced features available. Because creating quality industrial yarns for chutes is literally an issue of life and death.

 

Under the brand Oerlikon Barmag, the Oerlikon Segment Manmade Fibers is a leading manufacturer of equipment for filament spinning. The polyester, nylon, polypropylen, kevlar or aramid yarns produced with this equipment are used for various applications where the material has to meet highest quality requirements such as parachutes, bullet-proof vests, flame-resistant clothing for firefighters, and many other critical uses.

 

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