Here’s a story just a few people know about. That’s the story of why I choose to leave my military life and go neck deep into rigging.
There were not many opportunities to jump as a civilian in the beginning of the century in Bulgaria. Actually, there was only one place that was organizing jumps one weekend every month in the summer. And in order to jump there, you had to share the gear with everyone else who wanted to jump. And usually that was some beat-up accuracy system without an AAD. That was if you were good enough to jump with a “square”. If you were a student like me, you were challenging the gravity with a round on your back and a chest mounted reserve in front.
At that time, very few people had their own gear. As soon as I became “good enough” you should read this as able to deploy somehow stable and mostly at the correct altitude, I decided to buy my own system. So, I bought a Parafoil 200, a friend of mine gave me an old Mini system with Capewells that were a bit rusty, and I was going to use the chest mounted reserve and PPKU AAD from the club. Needless to say, that when the instructor saw me ready to rock, he politely said that there’s no way in hell, I’m getting on the plane wearing that. Back to square zero. At least I had a main. Later that year I bought a NARO container with a Predator reserve from a friend of mine. Great deal money wise, but he is almost 190 and I’m not even 170, so that means that it fitted me like a glove… a boxing glove! The rig was not even AAD ready nor RSL ready. Not that I had AAD to put in, and we all know that RSL is for students only, and with my 90 jumps I was closer to a Sky God than a student. I did manage to jump that system for a year till I got tired from deciding if I wanted to look over or under the chest strap once the canopy opened and oh boy, did that canopy open… The openings were “so soft” that I remember being in freefall on several occasions thinking to myself, If I don’t pull, it’s not going to hurt that much.
So, it was clear that the Parafoil had to go. I found a good deal on a ZP155 which is a Sabre 1 copy. Not exactly the slowest opening canopy out there, but much softer than what I had previously. The problem was that now my new canopy, didn’t fit my rig. So, I went back on a market for a new rig. This is pre-Facebook time where you couldn’t find whatever you wanted if you wait a bit, or you just pay the asking price for something that’s a bit overpriced. This Javelin comes by and it has everything I wanted. That’s for a 1998 model Javelin. Not Odyssey, so don’t imagine stuff like Skyhooks, extra padding and other extras that cost as much as the rig nowadays. Long story short, I bought it. Fond a cheap Micro Raven 135 and a CYPRES 1 with fresh batteries and I was back in business. The harness was still a bit big and the container definitely too long, but much better than my previous rig and I had an AAD.
Maybe a year or two later I was talking to a friend of mine about my struggles with finding a well-fitting container that’s not hanging low on my butt, he said:” Why don’t you order a new Mirage?! They have short sizes for dwarfs like you and you might qualify for their military discount as well.
I went back home, did my homework and find out that actually, I did qualify for their military discount. I just needed to save some more money. Later that year the order was placed and the “waiting game” started. Some weeks later, the rig showed up, I took it out of the box, packed the reserve, packed the main, fitted the rig and SHIT, it didn’t fit. Too small. Kinda ironic… Got in touch with the manufacturer, they agreed that an adjustment had to be made and suggested I should return it to them. That wasn’t my desired option though, I already had spent a day trying to get it released from the Customs and the idea about doing that again (not to mention paying the taxes one more time) didn’t look very attractive. Mirage suggested I send it to a rigging loft inside the EU, so at least I didn’t need to deal with the Customs again. They gave me an address, put me in touch with the rigger, I shipped the rig and again, the waiting game started. Some time later, a box shows up all taped in “Checked by the Customs” tape. Strange, it wasn’t supposed to be opened, but some curious dickhead had decided to check what’s inside. That of course wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the dickhead in question, didn’t have 2 brain cells to safely operate a box cutter. The stupid fuck had cut through the box, through the extra cardboard inside the box left there to protect the rig from stupid fucks, and through the side panel of the rig.
Well, double FUCK! The damage was purely cosmetic. Only the Cordura was damaged. The parapack lining wasn’t, which meant that the rig was airworthy.
I’m writing all this to help you understand the level of frustration I felt at that moment. Many years of jumping ill fitting rigs, finally having enough money to buy something custom made, still not fitting and on top of that, not fitting with a damage that made it unsalable.
I don’t remember anymore how it happened, but someone suggested I should contact a specific person at Mirage. A gentleman by the name of Jeff Johnston. Found his email, shoot him a message, explained the situation and to be honest, I didn’t think anything would come out from all of that. After all, it wasn’t his faut the rig got damaged.
He answered, told me to send the rig back to DeLand and that he will take care of it ASAP. And he did. I was tracking the rig online and the day after it was delivered, Jeff asked me about the return address. That fast. The rig shows up in a box full of all kinds of goodies, t-shirts, gear bag, pull up cords, sweater…. And inside the box was also a perfectly fitting rig without any damage on the side panel. Double WIN. Finally!
I was so happy!!!
Some days later I was going to toss the box when I found a ziplock bag with a piece of Cordura inside. It was the damaged panel.
Over the next few weeks, I concluded that what Jeff did for me is by far the most badass thing I’ve seen. Mind you, at that time I was rappelling and fast-roping from helicopters, jumping out of military planes, playing with guns and doing stuff, most people will never get to do. And all of a sudden, I didn’t think it’s cool enough. I wanted to learn how to fix parachutes. Not how to pack them. I knew that already. At the time I was packing reserves, PEP’s, handling the lifesaving gear for the crews, but I wanted to reach the Master Jedi level of Jeff. And I wanted to do for others, what Jeff did for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but Jeff is a legend in the sport, and now I’m super proud to be able to call him a friend!
4 years later, I was already a Master rigger. 9 years later, AREA 47 was born…. And 16 years later, the circle is now completed.
A girl struggling to find a well fitted rig, ordered a new Infinity. The rig was shipped and some mouth breathing moron from the carrier company had decided to open the box with a box cutter during an inspection. As a result, the rig had 10 cm damage on the center flap.
I just fixed that rig with the help from the manufacturer who provided the replacement panel!
I’m still not a Master Jedi…. but I’ll get there!