“I feel like skydiving is still a pretty safe-ish sport,” Manson Tung, ’16, said.
“Granted, I’m also bed-bound for over a month, so what do I know?”
On July 22, Tung braked too early while skydiving at SkyDance Skydiving in Davis, landing him in the hospital with a broken leg.
“I’m a very squeamish person when it comes to my own body, so I kinda closed my eyes and covered my ears with the initial prognosis,” Tung said.
“My understanding is just I broke the fibula and tibia, (which) connect my ankle to my leg, ripped a bunch of muscles in my ankle (and) damaged the cartilage and probably some of the ligaments and nerves.
“Not pretty at all.”
Although he knew how to land properly, Tung said he timed his braking wrong. Instead of flaring – which is closing the back of the parachute to halt forward momentum before landing – 15 feet above ground, he started it at about 25 feet.
“I was maybe 15 feet off the ground (when) I realized my flare was done, and I was like, ‘Oh, s–t, oh, s–t,’” Tung said.
“They even tell you that for the first couple times, flare after you think you need to. But I just let my instincts take over, and now I’m paying the price for it.”
Moreover, Tung failed to complete the parachute landing fall – a technique that allows a safe landing – causing his feet to take most of the impact and further worsening his landing.
“Hell, yes, I remember the impact,” Tung said. “Hurt like nothing else I had experienced. My foot wasn’t even in the right position.”
A flight instructor and another Accelerated Freefall (AFF) student, who was a paramedic, took Tung to the emergency room in Skydance’s van. Tung was in the ER for two-and-a-half hours and received X-rays, a bone resetting and a concussion check before being discharged with a cast, splint and crutches.
But Tung didn’t know there was a “golden window” of up to three hours after the injury for operating.
“(The ER doctors) weren’t sure whether they needed to operate at all, and we didn’t see the orthopedic surgeon (until the next day) because the ER doc said it didn’t really matter,” Tung said.
“Turns out it did.”
Because he missed the window, Tung said he has to wait until Friday, Aug. 3, for the swelling to subside in order to have nails and metal plates drilled into his foot. If the cartilage damage is too extreme, Tung said he will have arthritis at an early age.
After Tung leaves the hospital, his recovery will take a few months, including two months without walking and over a month on crutches. However, the long-term repercussions – which include loss of range of motion in his right ankle – depend on the outcome of the surgery.
“My version of a workout is walking to my car after dinner, so this whole bed-bound process is not something I’m used to,” Tung said.
“My mom was sardonically doing the math and said, ‘I hope those five minutes were good enough to make up for the next five weeks.’”
Afraid of what her reaction would be, Tung had thought he could finish the AFF program and earn his skydiving license before telling her. So until Tung called her at the hospital, his mom didn’t know that he had ever gone skydiving.
“The call went something like, ‘Hi, I hope you’re not busy. Surprise! I was skydiving this morning, and I broke my ankle. Can you come to the hospital?” Tung said.
“I wish I were joking. Not my finest moment.”
Tung’s mother handled the news well, according to Tung.
Additionally, as a result of Tung’s injury, his family has postponed its move to Houston, Texas, and he has asked his school, New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), if he can start a week late.
Tung’s most recent skydive was his first Category C jump. Accelerated free falls where the skydivers are piloting their own parachute and are not attached to a guide are rated Category A-H by their levels of difficulty, Category A being the easiest. To advance to the next level, a skydiver must pass criteria such as stability, 90-degree turns and consistent lands.
“This most recent time was definitely more of a ‘Well, why not?’ sort of thing,” Tung said.
Additionally, the crown prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is a passionate skydiver, which may be why people in the United Arab Emirates – where NYUAD is located – view skydiving as less extreme, according to Tung.
“It discouraged any red flags for me when I started out with the Accelerated Freefall program,” Tung said. “If the crown prince skydives, then it can’t be that dangerous.
“Which, yes, is the same mentality of ‘Johnny jumped off the cliff. Why don’t you?’ But it made sense at the time.”
Tung was injured during his third AFF jump, but he started his skydiving hobby with three tandem skydives (for which a student skydiver is attached to an instructor). Although he went alone for his Category C jump, his first tandem parachuting was with Max Schmitz, ’16, at SkyDance Skydiving after they graduated high school. After his third tandem skydive, Tung parachuted with the AFF program three times.
“The funny thing is, I didn’t like my first time,” Tung said. “I was just cold and a bit jarred by the wind, and I wasn’t a fan of being attached to someone. It didn’t feel like flying, but AFF feels way more like flying.”
Six months later, his friend from Hong Kong visited and wanted to go to SkyDance with Tung, and Tung enjoyed it much more.
However, his interest in skydiving began much earlier.
“I’ve always liked skydiving since I was a little kid,” Tung said. “I remember checking out a book from the Rust Library – before they moved to the current lower school building – about skydiving and reading it over and over again.”
Before he started skydiving, Tung said he researched the statistics on skydiving injuries, mainly the statistical chance of death, because “the world is full of terrible things, but next to death they’re all peach cobbler.”
“They have an actuary report that says if you start skydiving at 20 (years old) and get moderately into it, by 35 you have a 99 percent chance of living compared to a 99.5 percent chance if you don’t skydive at all,” Tung said.
This was Tung’s first injury from skydiving, which – with a 1 in 1,800 chance of injury according to the San Jose Skydiving Center – is statistically safer than driving to the grocery store. Ankle injuries, like Tung’s, are the number one type of skydiving injuries, according to the San Jose Skydiving Center.
“If you’re thinking about tandem, just go for it,” Tung said. “The likelihood of something bad happening is so slim.”
“As a libertarian, I would never say that someone shouldn’t do something – I believe in personal choice.
“But I would say that with skydiving – and with dangerous sports in general – if you are married with kids, then I wouldn’t make the same choices (if I were you).”
Tung said that AFF or solo skydiving should be considered more carefully.
“Tandem skydiving is a very different experience,” Tung said. “It’s much more amusement-park-esque in that you get tied up to a pro, drop, land and take a picture.”
In Tung’s Category A and B jumps, two instructors helped him with balancing and didn’t let go until pull time – when the parachute is pulled at about 5,000 feet. But for Category C jumps, the instructors will let go of skydivers during free fall if they are stable.
“This was my first jump in free fall where the instructors were comfortable enough to let go of me, and my main guide was actually confident enough in my stability that he was flying around me and came up right in front of me,” Tung said. “That was amazing.”
Although he had a radio with which the instructor could give him advice, Tung couldn’t hear the instructor clearly during his last skydive, unlike during his Category A jump, when the instructions were comprehensible and useful.
Although that might have factored into his injurious fall, Tung said, “It’s all spilt milk under the bridge now.”
“If my timing was literally one second better, I would be all good right now, and the landing would’ve been fine,” Tung said. “I actually lined up directionally much better on my Category C than my A or B.”
While Tung most likely could skydive again, he said he won’t continue outdoor skydiving.
“Right now, I’m not seeing how the joy matches up to the pain, frustration and annoyance if something goes wrong,” Tung said.
“I’m sure for some people (for whom) skydiving is a huge part of their life, then it’s a cross they are willing to bear. But for me, it’s just not quite there.”
Because of the schedule changes and stress that his injury has created for his family, Tung said that he regrets learning to skydive. Among the consequences are his cancellation of his internship with California State Senator Patricia Bates and his inability to go to his cousin’s wedding or see his Sacramento friends before they leave for college.
“It’s just a lot of pain for a few minutes of joy,” Tung said.
“At the same time, if I didn’t hurt my leg, I would be in love with the sport.
“But retrospectively, I don’t think it was necessarily worth it. Like if I had gotten 50 jumps and had my license, then, yeah, OK, I get it. But it was so early in the process, and my timing, in terms of what I had scheduled for the next month, was terrible.”
Since he injured himself before completely immersing himself in skydiving, Tung said the hobby shouldn’t be too difficult to replace. Reading and golfing may take up his time instead, although the operation may negatively impact his right leg, from which he generates his golf swing.
“I have a stack of books to go through now and no excuse not to, so I’m sure my old English teachers are happy about that,” Tung said.
—By Larkin Barnard-Bahn