Over the last couple of years, we have run quite a few events for Naomi House and Jacksplace Children’s Hospice. When we run our National 3 Peaks Challenge for them we always have an information evening for the participants and the Naomi House team talk about the hospice and then I talk about the challenge and what is involved. This means I have got to know about what the charity does, how they work and the value they bring to everyone involved with them. I have my own children, I have nieces and nephews, and we all know that life can be tough and can present challenges that we would not wish to be bestowed with.
I had seen many participants take on the challenges that we had run for Naomi House, and every one of them had put in a huge amount of effort and commitment to take on these challenges and the fundraising that goes with them, and they all had their own reasons for doing it. It was time that I took on a challenge.
Naomi House run lots of events and they all look superb, but I was drawn to the Skydive. I had never got the chance to do one before and although I think the interest had always been there, it was mostly lost in the wilderness of my mind and was never near the top of my very long to-do list. I had recently been getting very interested in wingsuits and have been looking at trying that out, but before you can try that you need to be an experienced skydiver so when I saw a skydive on the Naomi House website it had started some sort of germination of that little hidden seed. I was unable to do one of the Skydive events in 2017 as the dates on offer coincided with me running other events. But when I saw the 30th September 2018 date, I knew it was one of the very rare weekends when I had nothing planned. After mulling it over for a few weeks and making the occasional mention of it to the boss (…erm wife…) to gauge her reaction, I was then ready to commit. I logged on and I got that skydive booked. The Skydive was to take place at Netheravon, home of the Army Parachute Association. Netheravon was used before the First World War for balloon operations and was home to RAF 296 and 297 squadrons during the Second World War. It is claimed to be the longest continuously operated airfield in the world.
I posted my skydive as an event on my SVL Adventures Facebook page to try and get a few more people to do it with me. I had only one person who took me up on the offer. My friend Emily said yes, and she booked straight away. I later found out that she had seen my FB post on an evening where some wine had been involved and booked it there and then. I think there was some slight nervousness the next day when she realised what she had done. We sponsored each other to get the ball rolling and then bit by bit we both had more sponsors pledging to our fundraising, and now there was no going back. We were going to jump put of a perfectly good aeroplane from about 14,000 feet. I work mostly in metres and I calculated this as over 4,200 metres. In my mind that is just shy of the summit of Mont Blanc. That’s high up!
I was excited, and the excitement was building. But I had no nerves at all. I was really looking forward to it. I had a few months to go so I just kept trying to get the fundraising going. That is pretty hard work, so I know the effort and time that all the participants of our challenges must put into this. It’s not easy to fundraise in the current climate of financial cutbacks and austerity, but bit by bit we had donations come in and we got closer to our target. I want to thank everyone that donated. It is hugely appreciated. I also wanted to make sure that I paid for the skydive myself so that all the donations went straight to good use.
Soon after I had booked I received an information pack from Naomi House and it contained lots of fundraising ideas, as well as all the important information about the skydive. I read through it all and it answered my questions and provided me with all the details I needed.
It was getting nearer to the big date, so I spoke to a colleague of mine who I am doing some work with at an army camp, as I knew he had done many skydives in his time with the special forces. I was getting more excited and still there were no nerves. I was keen to jump out of this plane. A couple of year ago I did some parasailing on holiday and as I rose on the parachute, gently above the boat that was towing me, I was amazed at how peaceful and quiet it was. The gentle breeze, the warm sun, the people far below where out of earshot and it was the most relaxing feeling I had encountered. I pretty much thought the skydive would be similar, so I had no need to be nervous. How wrong I was!
In the days before the jump I checked up on how the fundraising was going and I reviewed all the information that I had received. I checked out my directions and driving time to Netheravon and made my final preparations.
The big day arrived, and I was up early to make sure I got there in plenty of time. It is about an hour drive for me but some roadworks on the motorway meant that it was closed all weekend, so I had to take a diversion and head through Salisbury. I was heading there on my own, so I had a few tunes pumping out the car radio. Was this to calm any nerves? I had been watching the weather closely and I knew it was going to be a superb day. It was cold, but the sky was blue and not a cloud in sight. There was some cloud due later in the day but nothing that would cause any issues. It was indeed a perfect day to throw yourself out of a plane.
On arrival I used my current army pass to get into the base and followed the directions to the car park and rendezvous point that the gatehouse had given to me. I checked in and was given the info about meeting the instructor who would be doing the initial briefing. After the briefing there is ground training. My friend Emily had not arrived, so she was going to be in a separate group for the ground training, but we would be in the same plane for our jump. I had a quick look around the small shop where the check in desk is located and then I grabbed a coffee from the onsite café and sat outside. There was a member of staff there from Naomi House, so we had a chat about the skydive and the fundraising.
There was some activity as a group of skydivers adjusted and checked their kit. I was surprised at how young they were and wondered why I had left it so late in life to do this for the first time. The plane took off and I made mental notes about its flight path as it circled above us and gradually gained height. I lost it a few times as it was now just a speck way above me and a few light clouds had come into view. Then I spotted the plane again and its engine note changed as it slowed down above me, and then I saw the speck of a skydiver as they made their exit. Amazing. My excitement was building and as they dropped through the sky it was hard to track them, then the parachutes opened, and they floated down, each with a wonderful landing. I noticed that when the parachutes opened I could hear the whoosh of wind noise as they decelerated and the parachute took its shape and filled up. They were still high above me at that point so that I was surprised I could hear it. Next a group of people in wingsuits were getting ready. Wingsuits have been an interest of mine for a few years, along with slacklining, so I was pleased to be seeing this group getting ready and heading out. This was already a superb day and to see some live wingsuit flying was wonderful.
Emily had arrived, and she had some moral support from her sister who had come with her. I headed off for my briefing and then we were told that there would be a short delay as the cloud had thickened up a little and we needed to wait for it to pass. In the meantime, we had to go for our ground training anyway. This is about 40 minutes of instruction on the kit, heading for the plane, what happens on the plane and preparing for the jump, and then the jump itself. My first thoughts, and probably most peoples, is that 40 minutes training is not much to then be jumping out of a plane. But on a tandem skydive there is not much for the student to do. The work is all done by the tandem instructor, and even if you forget what you are told in the training then they are in control and will make sure that everything happens and that it’s smooth. I was with Ash. He looked young too, but these guys and girls at Netheravon know their stuff so I knew I was in good hands her. Just jealous that I was so much older and only on my first jump! He went through everything that we needed to know while showing us the kit and answering any questions. After the training we checked to see when our flight was due to go, there was still a slight delay, so more coffee was the order of the day. When we were given the time of our flight we headed off to get kitted up. The kit involves a jumpsuit, a soft helmet, gloves, and goggles, and a harness to attach to the tandem instructor. Once that was on and checked we were ready to go and headed to the plane. I had booked a video of my skydive and was introduced to Trevor who was going to be filming, and off we went. My nerves were still fine, but the excitement now was huge!
We got on the plane, a Cessna Grand Caravan Blackhawk Hound. Inside the plane we sat on the floor in two rows, facing the rear, with our tandem instructors behind us. They attached all the harness points, and everything was double checked, and we were soon heading down the grass runway and airborne. It takes about 15 minutes to reach the jump altitude and there is a fair amount for the tandem instructor to do whilst in the air. They were continuously talking to us to keep us informed of the process and remind us of final instructions. Just a few minutes into the flight I looked out the window and I could see all of Hampshire and over to the Isle of Wight. I could even make out the coastline of Southampton where I live. It had taken me an hour to drive to Netheravon from there, but within a few minutes I could see it all, and it looked tiny. We were still only at about 5,000 feet, just a third of the altitude we were going to jump from! Suddenly the nerves kicked in. For months I was so cool and calm, but now there was a lump in my throat. What on earth was I doing. I had another 10,000 feet of height to gain and then I was going to be jumping out of this tin can and falling. This was crazy. Emily, who was seated behind me and my tandem instructor had been a bit nervous leading up to the day, but now she looked calm and I was the one with the nerves. Next to me was a young lad, it was his 16th birthday, and this skydive was his birthday present. We looked at each other and a nervous nod and smile passed between us, as if to acknowledge that we both were feeling some fear, but we’d be ok, we’ll get through this. I managed a quick look out of the window and the height was real. I tried to keep a check on where we were in relation to the airfield and drop zone. My instructor tightened the harness and instructed me to check the helmet and get my goggles in place. We were almost ready to go. There was a final bit of activity as all the last checks were made and then the plane slowed. This was it. I could not back out now, but a wave of fear really hit me. This isn’t like me at all. I have no fear of heights. It doesn’t phase me at all, but I am more used to securing myself, and others, to the mountains to ensure we are safe and will not fall or come to harm. This was different. I had to go against all my instincts and usual approach of being secured, and just let myself go, and drop to earth.
The plane door, about the width of 3 people and a sliding up and over type of door, was opened. There was a rush of cold air and the noise increased. My legs were like jelly, my head was fighting to stay calm and sensible. A voice in my head told me it was fine, I was in the best hands possible. I am used to being responsible for people out on the mountains, and it is a big responsibility, but it is nothing compared to the responsibility of the parachute instructors. Their skills and knowledge and experience are unbelievable. My life was in the hands of Ash, and I trusted him, even though I had only met him a couple of hours earlier. It is not easy to put such complete trust in a stranger, but I had little choice now, and he seemed a decent sort, so what the heck.
Within just a few seconds of the door opening the people ahead of me in the queue were on the edge of the pane, and then, gone. Wow. That was it. No hanging about, just straight out. I am not sure what I was expecting, maybe a last cup of coffee and a few minutes at the door to contemplate it all, but no, it was quick. When they jumped the plane also moved slightly with the shift of weight. I wasn’t expecting that. It wasn’t a huge or violent movement, just a slight sideways lurch and back again. But the one thing that took me by surprise more than anything was the speed they dropped. Again, I am not sure what I was expecting. Maybe they would hover magically next to the plane for a few seconds, maybe even a quick wave to us all waiting in line before gracefully and slowly gliding downwards. But no, they were just gone. There is this thing called gravity, and it was fast. Very fast. They just dropped like a stone and for some strange reason that surprised me. It shocked me. And the nerves flooded back.
The two rows of remaining people shuffled forward as the next jumpers quickly got to the exit, positioned themselves, and then went. Again, the plane lurched slightly, and they were gone. I was again surprised at the speed they dropped. My head was swimming now and I am not sure what happened next, but soon, probably less than a minute, I was at the exit. Hanging over the edge while my instructor prepared for the jump, I was holding my harness straps as we had been trained. The cameraman Trevor was to my left, outside the plane, holding onto a rail with one hand, and filming with the other. I looked down, wow, this was it. This was total madness. I looked at Trevor and then the instructor pulled my head back – we were told in the ground training to keep our head back, I forgot completely, but Ash is experienced and probably used to that, so he just took control. And then we went.
The first second was a feeling like I have never had. We tipped forward, I wasn’t expecting that, and I lost all aspects of my bearings. I didn’t know what was left or right, up or down. In my mind we had done a complete somersault, at over 4,000m up, as we hurtled to earth. After watching the video back, I can see that wasn’t the case, but it sure felt like that. I looked around and saw the plane we had just left, and I seemed miles below it already. I spotted Trevor with his camera, but I had no idea if I was looking up or down or if he was above or below us. He just looked cool as, like it’s just a normal everyday thing to be falling through the sky. Which of course it is for them. These people that jump put of planes many times each day must be the coolest calmest people on the planet. We steadied and assumed the standard skydiving position. I let go of my harness straps after Ash had tapped me a few times on the shoulder to remind me, and I got my body into what I though was a good skydiving position. Again, on the video you can see it was poor in comparison to Ash. It felt like a long time, but it was just a few seconds and all that was done. I had lost all sense of reality, space, distance and time. I said earlier I though it would be a little like my parasailing, peaceful, serene, quiet, steady, slow and relaxing. This was fast. This was loud. The wind noise was immense. The raw power of what we were doing was not peaceful or serene at all. We were falling to earth at terminal velocity. There is nothing quiet and easy about that. The ground below looked far away, but we were heading for it at a rate of about 120mph. Strangely though, it did not feel like we were falling at all. The first second or so out the plane it did, but now, it was more like the wind and the air was rushing upwards towards us, rather than we were falling downwards towards the ground. I think I now managed a smile into the camera, maybe even a wave. This was amazing. What a feeling. I am flying. Actually flying. Not inside a plane, not being towed behind a boat with a sail attached to me. Just me, and the faithful Ash of course, flying through the sky. Free. Who on earth was the first person to ever think of this and try it?
We were not flying of course, we were heading rapidly back to the drop zone, but it was amazing. We were in freefall for about 40-45 seconds and then Ash pulled the ripcord and the parachute deployed. My hands were back on the harness straps as we seemed to go upwards! It is such a sudden deceleration from freefall speed but it’s not as rough as it looks. We slowed, and I know Ash had things to check on to ensure everything is good and in order. If there was an issue, he would release the main chute, we go into freefall again for short time, and then deploy the reserve. I had none of this to worry about, I was just there for the ride and enjoyed the lack of responsibility I had in all of this.
The tandem chute has an extra-long set of controls so that the student can have a go at steering under the main guidance and control of the instructor. Once we were stable and sorted Ash dropped these longer controls down to me and told me to pull down on the left one. We went slightly left. I pulled on the right one, we went slightly right. I reckon even I could remember that system. He then told me do it again but harder. I gave it a bit more this time, but not too much, however, I am sure Ash gave it a good pull at the same time, and we turned hard left, almost so much that we were horizontal and in line with the parachute as we turned, rather than below it. That’s how it felt anyway. My stomach lurched. Although I had been nervous, I had not had any feeling of being sick or queasy at all, until now. Then we turned right with the same amount of vigour. Woah, my stomach was doing somersaults now and I had lost all sense of direction again.
We did a couple more turns and then Ash took complete control again as we prepared for the landing. I didn’t have much to do here, except make sure I picked up my legs high and pulled them up by putting my hands under my thighs. Ash was going to do the landing and I just needed to keep out the way and let him do his work. The ground appears quicker than you think. At height, even the freefall feels like you are not falling as there is no perspective. The ground is so far below it doesn’t seem to get closer. Even when the chute is deployed, and we are lower, it is still high enough to appear that we are not really moving downwards, but then as you get closer to ground, it creeps up very quickly and suddenly we were touching down.
A pretty good landing I thought. With Trevor already down and filming it. Ash was gathering the chute as we headed away from the drop zone and back to the safe area. I was a bit lost really. I was full of adrenaline, excitement, amazement. I had just jumped out of a plane. I wasn’t sure what to feel or think, it was staggering, incredible, but a bit surreal. Trevor was filming me asking how I was. You can see my reaction in the video, apologies for the words used!
So that was it. It was over. Fundraising was done. I was down to earth again. I caught up with Emily and we swapped tales of our jump as we headed to get out of our kit. I went back to the shop and bought a T-shirt and woolly hat. Then went for a coffee while my video was edited and put on a USB stick. I collected that and picked up a magazine from the British Parachute Association. I wanted more of this. I am now looking into booking some instruction at Netheravon, so I can go & jump out of a plane on my own on a regular basis. It was that good! I need it in my life.
The video of my skydive is here
I need to thank a few people. First and foremost, Ash, the tandem instructor. My life was completely in his hands and he was superb. Trevor for the superb photos and video. Everyone at Netheravon who looked after us that day, a super team of people and well organised. The Naomi House events team who organise so many great events. Emily for being my crazy partner for the skydive day, you were great. My family for putting up with my crazy life and the mad things that I do.
Naomi House – https://www.naomihouse.org.uk
Army Parachute Association, Netheravon – https://www.netheravon.com