Sunday, 28 October 2007


This is me trying to look confident.

I've now had a bit of time (OK, more like a month) to get my jumbled impressions of the parachute jump sorted out in my mind, examine my feelings and clarify my thoughts, and I can safely say that jumping out of a plane at 3,500ft is a thoroughly interesting experience.
When we drove up to the Black Knights Parachute Centre on Saturday morning, I thought my chances of taking the jump were about 50/50. The weather was good, but it's been so changeable lately that I wasn't taking anything for granted. I'd taken the precaution of only having a very light breakfast – a small bowl of cereal. I also took the precaution of bringing along a spare pair of underpants and jeans, just in case. We got there in good time, about 8.30 I think, and reported to the Manifest (the office that everything seems to be run from). The briefing was about 9.30, there was just me and one other guy there. Adam said he'd done something like a dozen jumps already, but had decided to go for a briefing to keep his memory refreshed. The briefing was held in the hangar, and was basically a condensed version of the training I'd had a couple of weeks previously. Basically, you're supposed to exit the aircraft and adopt a star formation, with your arms and legs spread out, looking up and your back arched to form a sort of shuttlecock shape. You're also supposed to be facing as near as possible to straight forward. At the same time, you're supposed to shout: “One thousand, two thousand, three thousand. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand. Check canopy!” This is to allow the parachute time to open before you start panicking. Having satisfied yourself that the canopy's opened OK, (ie, it's big, square and controllable) you then make sure the lines aren't twisted, take the controls and (keeping an eye out for other parachutists etc) guide yourself down to Earth. That's the theory, anyway. If there's anything wrong with the canopy, there's also an emergency drill, which is both simple and scary (get rid of the main canopy and then deploy your reserve chute). One interesting fact I learned from this briefing that wasn't mentioned in training is that I would have a radio in my helmet – one-way, so a qualified instructor could talk me down from the ground. Slightly re-assuring, but it's still just you up there when you make the jump.
Briefing finished, I was then hanging around for a couple of hours until they called my name. I'm assuming they were waiting to see if any more students turned up. I wasn't bored, a parachute centre's a good place to pass the time because they were taking up experienced people all the time and dropping them. This is good for morale when you're waiting for your first ever parachute jump, as you can watch people parachuting down, obviously enjoying themselves and not getting killed! I noticed that they weren't landing in the usual field that they use to land in, but the one next door, which is closer to the club buildings and viewing area. This is because that particular field had been full of cows previously, and they'd left the usual deposits there. First-timers were to land in the regular place, though – not that landing in a cow pat was at the top of my list of things to worry about!

Comes 12.30, and there's a tannoy announcement telling me to report to the Manifest. I reported in, and was told to wait in the hangar till called. I took the opportunity to practice my exits a bit more, figuring that was what I needed to concentrate on most. I was very aware that the greatest problem I would have with this jump would be my own fear, so I concentrated on visualising myself at the door, looking up and inside the plane, and ready to jump, and then jumping when the jumpmaster shouted “Go!”. At this point I was starting to get mildly nervous, but it still didn't seem completely real. After maybe 20-30 minutes, another tannoy announcement – report to the changing room to get kitted out. There was a selection of jump suits available to borrow, various sizes and any colour you like as long as it's black. I got sorted out with a fetching black number with red stripes down the sleeves, so at least I knew that if I died I would die reasonably well dressed. I don't think the red crash helmet with the radio stuck on the side really matched it though, but it's what I was given. My brother said I looked like a Roboman from “Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD”.

Roboman ready for action.

And then the instructor helped me on with the parachute. Those things are heavier than they look, despite being fairly compact. An altimeter was then attached to the front strap of the parachute. Then outside to a little coral area, where the me and the other jumpers on that lift waited for a few minutes. Final checks were made on my parachute, then we walked off to the plane (the parachute straps giving us all a bit of a bow-legged gait). By this time I was getting distinctly edgy.

Dead men walking.

We approached the plane (a French Pilates Porter, specially designed for this kind of work) from behind and to the right and boarded it in reverse order of who would jump. I was Number One (first to jump) so was last in. Most of the jumpers were on a bench facing the door, but as Number One I didn't get a seat. I was sat on the floor, next to the door and with my back to the pilot. Yes, I admit I was scared getting into the plane. As soon as the plane got moving the fear level drastically increased and I had my eyes shut while I focused on trying to relax through breathing control. As the plane climbed, I felt myself slide forward a bit, but still kept my eyes shut – there's a really big window built into the door, and I didn't need reminding of the predicament I'd put myself into. The jumpmaster could see I was terrified and tried to cheer me up: “There's a nice view. You can see Blackpool Tower from here.” “I'll take your word for it,” says me. All too soon comes the most terrifying sound I could imagine at this point – the sound of the engine throttling back as the plane reduces speed to the correct one for parachuting. The jumpmaster reaches over me to slide the door back and I hear the sound of the wind rushing past. This was the moment of maximum fear for me. Being Number One, I was first to be given the instruction to get ready. I had to move into the right position, facing forward and up, sitting on the edge with my feet dangling over the side, and absolutely not thinking about the terrible void outside. This was where all my previous practice and visualisation paid off – I was able to empty my mind and completely focus on the position I had to adopt in the door. I think it's also a good thing that I was the first out of the door - it gave me less time to be scared. I honestly don't know if my nerve would have held if I'd had to watch other people jumping first.

The jumpmaster didn't waste any time: “Go!”, and like a robot I was out of the door. Just for those few precious seconds, I had managed to clear my mind of the fear and focus single-mindedly on what I had to do.

My impressions of the first few seconds after “went EVA” are fragmentary and confused. I felt a blast of cold air as the slipstream caught me. I caught a glimpse of the plane flying away from me and the yellow static line. Most of all, I felt like I was falling too far and should hit the ground any moment. I definitely made a bad exit, I think instead of going into the approved starfish/shuttlecock shape, I instinctively went into a semi-fetal position. I probably spun around a bit too. I think I saw the canopy begin to deploy, and the next thing I knew I was being jerked around as the parachute slowed my descent. I felt like a sack of potatoes that had just been dropped out of a plane. In all the confusion I'd also forgotten to count. Never mind, I looked up and the canopy was reassuringly big and square. It wasn't controllable though, as the lines were twisted. This wasn't unexpected, the trainer said it happens a lot, and I knew what to do. I kicked my legs to try and spin myself to untwist the lines. Didn't work. I tried again, still no result. Then I get “CapCom's” voice in my radio: “Number One, turn right.” Thinking he's giving me instructions for untwisting the lines, I continue kicking, still no result. I kick the other way, and the lines start to untwist, while CapCom repeats the instruction and I realise that he's instructing me to turn in the air, which I can't do until I reach the control lines – and I can't do that until I've untwisted the main lines. Finally the lines untwist, and I take the controls. At this point, I start to have a bit of a look round, which is when my anxiety level starts to drastically increase again!

I have to admit, I had my eyes closed most of the time for the first couple of minutes after the canopy opened, and the rest of the time I was mostly staring straight upwards. I flew through a cloud at one point, I could tell by the feel of the cool moisture particles on my face. Fortunately, I had CapCom's voice on the radio to guide me, which is just as well, because turning either right or left in a square canopy parachute involves a bank so steep that I couldn't keep my eyes open! Eventually, my courage restored itself to a level where I could start to look around a bit more, and the view was, in retrospect, glorious. I had a clear view of Morcambe Bay and the surrounding countryside, which is very flat (one of the things that area a good dropzone is the relative lack of potential aerial hazards, such as mountains, barrage balloons and pterodactyls). I didn't see Blackpool Tower though, but I've seen it before anyway – just not from that angle. The view seemed strangely unreal to me, as if I was watching it on an IMAX screen. In retrospect I think that was because there was nothing to give the scene a sense of depth, and maybe also because my mind was a little stunned. Once or twice I caught sight of Number Two higher in the sky than me and a good distance off, but mostly I concentrated on following CapCom's directions.

Who is Number One?

I am Number One!

As time went on I got less and less nervous, but it was only when I was in the landing approach that I finally started enjoying myself. Nice steady approach past the parachute centre and into the landing field – feet together – and about 10 feet in the air, I get the instruction to pull down on the control lines to break the parachute, and I come down to a nice gentle landing on my feet, with the canopy collapsing in front of me. I then fell over, but I still managed to avoid any cow pats!

Frankly I think I must have been a bit dazed. It took me a while to gather my parachute together and one or two people came up to lend me a hand. Back at the parachute centre, I got rid of the chute and the jumpsuit (no change of underwear required) and it was at that point that I realisede that I hadn't looked at the altimeter once – I'd forgotten I had it! I waited to be summoned back to the Manifest, where I was given a nice, embossed jump certificate, the instructor signed my Jump Record Card with the comment “More effort on exit but well done.” I definitely made a bad exit, but I'm quietly pleased with myself that I did it at all, even though I admit that I could have done better. They also gave me a magazine called “Skydive Startup”, which had a useful-looking article in it about coping with fear- thanks a bunch, guys!

Seriously, many thanks to the people at Black Knights Parachute Centre for getting me through this – I must have seriously tried their patience at times. Thanks also to everyone who sponsored me, I didn't reach my target but I hope I've raised enough to make a difference. I've been trying to think of something else I can do to raise money for cancer research, preferably not as extreme. I'm sure I'll think of something.

One question this experience has left me with is, could I do it again? Would I have the guts to do another parachute jump, knowing what to expect this time? Would it be harder or easier? I don't know, but I'm curious. There's space for one more jump on that record card. I'm not at a point in my life where I can afford to go on another jump right now, it would have to be next year or the year after, which means I'd have to take the course all over again. So I've got plenty of time to think about it. It's an interesting idea, though.

Overall, it's an experience I'd recommend to almost anyone, either to prove to yourself that you can overcome your fears or to raise a bit of money for charity – or both. To conclude, here's a promotional video for the Black Knights Parachute Centre:

If you're interested in trying a parachute jump and you live in the North West, I can't imagine you'll find a better place - and the canteen food's good!