I survived: Indiana man returns to skies after skydiving accident
All this week, we're sharing incredible stories of survival - people who beat the odds and lived to tell about it.
One of those survivors is an elite skydiver from Indiana, who plunged 2,000 feet in free fall after his parachutes malfunctioned.
It was all caught on camera.
The outer edges of earth inspire a sense of wonder. It's the peaceful periphery that most of us never truly experience.
But a fascination with the air and a keen sense of adventure drew Roger Reynolds right to the sky.
"It just absolutely captivated me," Reynolds said. "It was just like going to the moon for me. The thought of somebody jumping out of an airplane and falling thousands of feet and pulling a ripcord, I just...was mesmerized by that."
Reynolds says he was always a risk taker - the first kid to climb a tree, then the neighborhood school roof. He fashioned makeshift parachutes out of bed sheets and strings. Eventually, he begged his father for a real parachute and took his first dive from an airplane as a teenager.
"When you're up in a plane and they open the door, everything gets accentuated - the colors, the smell, the sight. The fear completely goes away. You get this contrast of scared to death into feeling the support of the canopy and a view of the world like you've never gotten before," Reynolds explained.
It's a leap of faith some might call crazy. But for Reynolds, skydiving is a way of life, even now at age 59 and even after a horrific accident sent him crashing to the ground.
That one jump decades ago made headlines nationwide. It was an incredible fall that nearly killed him.
"They estimated my speed of impact at around 80, 85 miles per hour," Reynolds recalled. "You can see on the film, you can see the smoke trail. It just looks like a rocket coming straight down to the ground."
Man met earth in the spring of 1974. Reynolds was a 19-year-old soldier. The Speedway High School graduate joined the Army to serve his country and perfect his parachute skills. In fact, Reynolds earned a spot as the youngest member of the elite U.S. Army parachute team, the Golden Knights.
"That was probably the greatest single day of my life when I got accepted. I'm getting choked up just talking about it. We represented the United States Army. I mean, we were their showcase," Reynolds said.
But at a show Charlottesville, Virginia, everything went wrong.
Reynolds wasn't feeling well. Someone else had packed his parachute. Plus, even with a rainstorm, the team decided at the last minute to go on with the show and make their jumps at a lower altitude.
"I remember the plane taking off because of the wind blowing," Reynolds recalled. "The plane is bouncing around. I'm trying to hold onto the seat and get my gear on."
Reynolds' jump that day was a cutaway - a unique stunt, where the jumper appears to have a malfunction with his parachute, only to have a second canopy open to take him down safely.
But frantic moments inside the rain-whipped airplane turned dangerous once he exited the door.
"I pulled the first canopy. It didn't have enough force to open it up, so it stayed like a bed sheet, just kind-of flapping behind me. I looked down and I realized boy, I gotta get something out, so I went ahead and pulled my other main canopy," Reynolds said.
It didn't work.
The cords jammed and the second chute got tangled in the first. Suddenly, the ground was rushing up below him at 85 miles an hour.
"When I saw the canopies unravel, I...I thought...this is...I'm dead," Reynolds said. "I'm just saddened by the fact that I'm 19 years old and I'm gonna die. This is it."
Home video by a doctor recording the show for his family, captured the terror in the air. It shows a smoke trail, an unopened parachute and Reynolds plummeting 2,000 feet.
It took 14 seconds.
Then came the impact.
"It was just such an all encompassing impact that just the lights went out," Reynolds recalled. "It must have been five or ten minutes later before I came to because the crowd had gathered, the doctor was already working on me and the ambulance light was there. The fear of the fall was gone. I thought, 'God, I, I'm alive. I thought I was gonna be dead!' And so I remember trying to stand up thinking, well, God if I can just stand up, I think I can shake this off because I didn't feel any pain. I thought, 'well, I came through this with flying colors.' I had no idea the damage I had done to myself."
He soon learned just how bad it was.
"I remember when the ambulance went over the railroad tracks, I felt like a bag of broken china. My knee was up near my hip. I had a bone come up here (through his leg) and down here. I had a 90 degree snap in my arm which was bent up. My whole left side was broken - 18 bones in total. And boy did I go into shock then. I just fell back down. I thought, 'My God, they're gonna amputate all this off me'. I mean, when you look down and you see your own limbs at these oblique angles. I thought I'd be an invalid."
Reynolds would spend the next six months in traction and a total of a year and a half in the hospital. But he survived and he healed.
Reynolds even shared his survival story with Readers Digest, and the TV show "That's Incredible!" He's still amazed that the landing, though painful, was lucky too.
"When I think of all the places I could have hit - the driveway, his car, a roof, a tree or various things in there, but I was fortunate to land in a soft yard, in a doctor's front yard of all places, and in a town that had a terrific orthopedic hospital," Reynolds said.
Plus, he was young and determined not only to recover, but also to jump again. He used weights in his hospital bed to gain strength and when he got out and got back to Indiana, he got back into an airplane at the encouragement of his friends.
Even though he was still walking with a cane, Reynolds suited up to jump and as he put it,"get the monkey off my back".
"Once I got the gear on, I was beginning to get weak-kneed and shaking about this. I told myself, you know, I had done this 800 times. I've got to...I've got to do this. Then as soon as the door opened, the fear was gone again and the childlike memories of 'Boy, this is beautiful up here' came back. You leave and it's just like, 'Ah, this feels so good.'"
Roger Reynolds was back where he belonged, in that rarified air where courage and adventure meet. Now, nearly 40 years after that fateful fall, Reynolds has made more than 7,000 jumps. He trains at "Skydive Ohio", in Xenia, Ohio for accuracy competitions worldwide.
During his descent, Reynolds has to control the chute and land on a quarter-sized dot on a mattress-like tuffet. His friends and employees at Skydive Ohio watch the man who fell to earth jump over and over again, as if he'd never had an accident.
"There he goes," laughed George Loudakis, of Skydive Ohio, watching Reynolds glide to the ground. "You know, he had the drive and the will to keep jumping and he's really pretty remarkable!"
"Yep, that was a good jump," Reynolds said, after landing on the spot. "I feel like I'm 18 years old! It's just such a thrill to jump from a perfectly good airplane and to come down and land. You just feel like you're just...a little bit more special than the average Joe down the street."
Reynolds says he won't stay grounded. His mission aims much higher - a survivor, who continues to soar.