I decided to cross No:10 off my list when Barrie found out Help the Aged was holding a sponsored skydive and suggested it to me. I thought it was a great idea – I could do a list item for free and raise money for charity. I applied for it and once my sponsorship forms arrived, set about persuading people to give me money. Several weeks later, I was ready. RJ, who was driving me up to the aerodrome, got us horribly lost and was very stressy about it. We eventually arrived under grey and lowering skies. It did not not look promising . I spent thirty minutes having a safety talk (you don’t need much training to do a tandem jump) and then got told to go home; the weather was too bad and no one was going up today. I was pretty disappointed, obviously but the silver lining was that I then had time to save up and pay for a DVD to be made of my skydive, for which I will be forever grateful.
The second time we didn’t get lost and the weather was perfect, sunny, warm and with barely a breeze. We bought breakfast but before I could have more than a couple of bites, I was being called over the PA system. Following my instructor to a hanger, I donned the red jumpsuit I was given to wear and was quickly attached into my harness. Everyone was rushing to get ready so I barely had time to worry. Gloves in hand, Biggles hat and goggles attached to my harness, I followed the rest of the people to the plane. As I crossed the fields I felt as if I was moving in slow motion, as if I was in movie, the sort where intrepid aviators are setting off on a trip across the Atlantic for the first attempt in history. The notion was only encouraged by the camera man filming me.
Having reached the tiny aircraft, I stood while my tandem partner tightened my straps further; increasing the difficulty and awkwardness I already had walking. I approached the open doorway blasted by the backflow of the propellers and entered; making my way down the aisle to our space on the bench that ran down the left-hand side. The plane began to move, picking up speed quickly and then, amazingly, we were in the air. I watched the aerodrome and the surrounding fields of Headcorn diminishing while my instructor repeated my instructions.
“Tilt your head back, arch your body, don’t uncross your arms until I tap you on the shoulder, lift your legs up when we land…”
Six thousand, seven thousand, eight thousand and then we were at twelve thousand feet and heading towards the gaping hole of the doorway. I saw the divers before us jump one by one and then we were there, watching the clouds scud below us as I tucked my legs behind me and off the floor. Suspended from the guy to whom I was entrusting my life, I contemplated the folly of leaping from the very first plane in which I had ever flown.
As we launched from the aircraft I attempted, as instructed, to scream in order to force the air from my lungs. Unfortunately I mistimed it and ended up instead inhaling deeply at the exact moment we hit the air. The net result of this was that the wind traveled up my nose and mouth and over-filled my lungs, producing the sensation of being unable to breathe. I panicked. I can’t even breathe properly in high winds at ground level and here I was at twelve thousand feet, falling at terminal velocity, around 120 mph. It felt an age but eventually I got my breathing under control.
The world had turned white, surrounded by clouds and the only other visible object was my personal cameraman, cruising casually in front of us. He waved to me and I waved happily back, then drifted dreamily calm until my instructor tapped me on the shoulder to signify he was about to open our parachute. We had traveled seven thousand feet in a mere thirty seconds. The jerk of the ‘chute opening brought me back to my senses and I was occupied for a while adjusting my deeper breathing back to normal. Gazing down at the patchwork patterns of the fields and the tiny metal birds that were the other planes, I was left speechless.
As I took the loops that steered our pale blue canopy and began to take us into our slow spiraling descent I realised with some amusement that I felt like a character in the film the Matrix, when they pan the camera around them as they hover mid-air. As we slowly approached the landing field my instructor took control and I watched the sheep scatter in droves as the other skydivers landed. In training I was told that adrenaline would cause me problems lifting my legs for landing and that as they would stiffen, I would have to pick them up. As we came closer and closer to the ground I tried and failed to lift them, so I did the only thing I could to prevent my instructor and 50lbs of parachuting equipment landing on me; I tucked them up behind me instead and came in on my knees. We skidded for a few hundred yards before we stopped, grass-stained but otherwise fine. As my instructor detached me from him, my camera man approached.
“Hi!” he said. “How was it?”
“Hi!” I squeaked back, several octaves higher than usual.”It was cool.”
He laughed. “You seem ever so calm! Hi, yeah, it was cool!” he mimicked. “Do you think you’ll ever do it again?”
“Oh, totally.”I assured him with a grin.
“Well then,” he smiled, shaking my hand, “Welcome to skydiving.”