For no reason, other than my curiosity and need to experience things in life, I decided I would look into skydiving. It was one of those things I had seen on TV and it just blew my mind, what does it feel like to be taken by gravity like that? The speed and wind, I needed to know. I started researching about how to become a skydiver; I knew I didn’t want to do a tandem with another person as I would feel cheated of the experience. I wanted total control, from my legs choosing to leave the plane to when to open my parachute and fly back to the ground. That’s a pretty large goal for someone who fucks up as much as I but it was set.
I called the North London Parachute Centre up and had a chat, the next weekend I was there waiting to start my AFF training. I had it worked out almost to the pound how much it would cost for me to get 18 jumps for my license and all the training and gear rental so when I walked to the desk I offered to pay for the AFF course I had all the cash. The person paused and said “Why don’t you pay for your AFF level 1, see if you enjoy it and then pay for the next?” With a face that must have been very similar to that of a child after a simple magic trick I was confused…. She thinks I might not like it, or not even pass. How could someone possibly not like it? It was clear to me that there were a large amount who had done one jump and that was the end of their venture into skydiving.
I started my ground training with Matt Spitts and Rob Swallows, not the most charismatic couple of blokes but I hung onto every word they said. They spoke with certainty and confidence in their voices, so sure of themselves that you couldn’t help but believe every word they said. I was being taught malfunctions, arching, how to fly a parachute, how to fall. To the casual observer, falling out of an aircraft is simple, but to do it correctly and have the knowledge to deal with any problems, is not exactly as simple, it’s actually bloody hard and stressful. I was starting to worry what I’d let myself in for as I spent 8 hours that day going over and over and over my training.
One of the men on the course was sweating and not doing anything correctly. With the intense pressure to get it right and amount we had to learn in that short time he simply couldn’t take it. Later that day he was nicely approached and told skydiving was not for him and they would be happy to take him on a tandem. I was pretty determined not to be that bloke and if I’m completely honest with myself I was glad to see him go, not because he was a bad person but because it gave me a boost in my own confidence to know these people were watching us and they felt I was doing well enough not to give me a bowling speech.
I went home and continued to go over my training until the next weekend where they reviewed what we had went over. As I went through it Matt said “Good one Pete, one thing though… on the part where I told you to hold the ripcord after deploying… don’t do that, we changed our student parachutes… now I want you to pull and throw it away.”
Until it was my turn I watched the tandems and sport jumpers from outside in the grass and nervously anticipated what was about to happen. By pure chance I saw 2 malfunctions that day and people having to cut away and go to their reserves. Also an ambulance ride for a broken ankle. Still I couldn’t wait to try my hand at it.
I’m not the most confident person in anything I do, I always doubt myself and critique every choice I make. So on the ground I wanted perfection in the sky while at the same time questioning myself on how to do that while filled with doubt. My time came and I geared up, both instructors went over my final checks and before I knew it I was walking to the Nomad aircraft with Matt and Rob. A ladder was leaning against the plane to allow you to climb into the door, Matt climbed in and ushered me up over the noise of the engine. As I started climbing the ladder I was blasted by the prop as heat and wind washed over me until I was finally clear inside the door. All these new feelings I take for granted these days at one time where strange and new. Now the climb into an aircraft is normal, but back then it was something quite spectacular to me.
I sat down on the floor with jumpers packed between other jumpers legs as I felt the whole aircraft start to rattle with the engines revving up to take us down the grass strip that was the runway. I actually remember thinking “is this normal?” as it almost seemed too violent. Within a few seconds we were slowly lifting in the air and for the first time my face was blessed with a nervous anticipating smile I have become accustomed to having when things get really scary for me. Rob was calm and almost sleeping as he leaned back, periodically opening his eyes to check on me and give me the hand signal for relax, it’s strange but his relaxation and confidence really did help me. To see someone in this scenario just so calm, confident and giving me the relax signal just brushed off on me. I was smiling and happy while terrified at the same time. I felt like I was going to laugh myself into my grave, I was trying not to laugh at my own thoughts… of ME skydiving, I was laughing at my situation. That nervous grin and nervous laugh became the normal way for me to cope with overwhelming fear.
In a moment of either extreme sanity or insanity, I don’t know which; I asked them if I could sit up higher to see out the windows. I wanted every opportunity to take in this whole experience, I didn’t want to get on the ground and remember looking out a window at just the sky. I wanted to get up and look out that window into the vast gap below, to see what I was doing. They held me by the shoulder and let me look around the aircraft windows before I was satisfied and sat back down. Now the most profound moment and a defining moment of my life came, the light went red as the pilot signaled we were on jump run and one of the experienced skydivers opened the door, sticking his head out to check the spot and make sure we were jumping over the right area and not about to jump out over Wales or something. To see that is quite a sight, your senses are overwhelmed from the noise, the air smells different, and its cold and you see something you have never seen before. In a flash the experienced jumpers started leaving the aircraft. It was controlled and beautiful to see, these people willingly flinging themselves into that void above the earth.
“Are you ready to skydive” was all I heard over the noise as my instructors both took hold of me, I let out a confident yes and stepped into the door way. “Check in, check out, prop, up, down, arch” and I was out the door with my 2 instructors holding me. Now you’d expect me to have a recollection of what happened but with the amount of new information my brain was trying to process everything is simply a blank. I somehow done all my drills without thinking thanks to the training I’d received, right up until pull time. As strange as it sounds, I was so absorbed and overloaded that I forgot the one most important principle of skydiving, to open my parachute. All I remember is jumping then seeing a finger waving in my face, the universal sign for “open your parachute now because if you don’t, I’m going to do it for you and fail you.” The 40 seconds or so of freefall, checking my altitude and doing practice pulls was lost. I had done it but I don’t remember.
I reached back and threw my pilot chute, in an instant I felt the drag of my canopy as it started to inflate and that roar of wind stopped. I could suddenly hear again and flew my parachute, back to the ground with the help of a radio. I had made my first skydive and returned to the office to pay the rest of my course. I was confident I wasn’t going anywhere and was going to complete the whole thing. Or so I thought.
It was jump 6 that worried me, the tasks in the sky were getting more and more technical and with every jump my confidence was shrinking, not because I was doing anything wrong but because mentally I was hitting a wall. I doubted myself and my reasons for being there, was I a skydiver? On the way to the plane for jump 6 I stopped and told Rob I couldn’t do it, I made an excuse about the rig not feeling like it fit me properly and without any hesitation he grabbed me, without stopping in his stride and said “its fine, get on the plane.” If he didn’t believe in me I think that may have actually been the end of my short skydiving experience and it’s something that always stands out in my mind.
Life seemed different to me after the experience of skydiving, my stress levels went down and I was almost in a sort of drug induced high. One that needed topping up periodically or I’d start to feel a real kind of emotional strain. It was almost like missing a person in a bizarre way and it consumed every thought, I was missing freefall if I went without it for too long like someone misses their lover. A strange addiction to the freedom I was experiencing while falling.
Today I have seen my fair share of dropzones, and my fair share of AFF instructors and it’s not a bias statement when I say that I thoroughly believe that I was taught by the best in the business. The professionalism of these two was second to none and it’s a shame I didn’t stay there long after I got my license. But I had other plans.I was working 4 day 12 hour shifts sometimes 5 or 6 with overtime and spent all my money on skydiving. I was saving for my own parachute and if doing a night shift that ended at 7am I would drag my tired self to the dropzone and try to make a jump. A lot of the time weather wouldn’t cooperate but I was being exposed to something I really enjoyed. My mum wasn’t taking any rent from me as she saw what was important to me and knew I had plans. She made it so much easier for me.
I wanted to be a BASE jumper.
Note: The names have been changed to protect the innocent. :)~