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A pilot takes a big risk to save a skydiver's life

Alan Ayers in 1970 and today, reflecting on what could have happened.
Alan Ayers
Alan Ayers in 1970 and today, reflecting on what could have happened.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team, about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.


In 1970, Alan Ayers was preparing for a skydiving competition in Gainesville, Florida. It wasn't the first time he'd jumped out of a plane, but it was almost his last.

Ayers would be jumping out of a Cessna 172, a small four seat passenger plane. In preparation, the passenger door and front passenger seat were removed from the plane. The passenger side seatbelt remained.

Ayers' teammates jumped first, leaving him and the pilot as the only two people remaining in the plane. It was Ayers' turn. But as he stepped out into the air, his foot got caught in the passenger side seatbelt.

"I was completely out of the plane on my back, staring up at the belly of the Cessna, with only my boot visible to the pilot ... I tried to pull myself up to reach the buckle, but I just couldn't," Ayers remembered.

Thousands of feet in the air, dangling from the plane, Ayers was out of options.

"And what happened next was incredible," Ayers said. "The 23-year-old pilot unbuckled her seatbelt, crouched down in the door of an airplane, with both hands off the yoke, and freed my ankle."

Ayers tumbled away from the plane, opened his chute, and landed safely.

After landing, he wasn't able to find the pilot to thank her. But more than 50 years later, she often crosses his mind.

"To this day, I can see her two young hands reaching out of the door to unbuckle the belt," Ayers said. "I owe my life to this person and will always think of her as one of the bravest people imaginable."

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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