Learn to Fly

When everything tells you ‘no’

What am I doing?!!

I’m sitting on the edge of the doorway of a small aircraft, five people have leapt out already and now it’s my turn. I am strapped to an instructor called Mike Rust, someone who has done this thousands of times; this is my first. There are another half a dozen behind me waiting to do exactly the same thing. The time sitting there was seconds, but it felt frozen in time. My legs are dangling under the aircraft, my thumbs are in the harness and my brain is saying “Why are you doing this?” The trouble is it should have asked that question a few weeks before when my friend, John Triplis, asked if I wanted to take his place. I have always said I wouldn’t skydive, I’ve heard of too many accidents happening, but have I? Have I really? Or is that my perception? As I read through my Facebook feed over the weeks between saying “Yes” and jump day I see a few more souls have jumped and all have returned safely to the ground. My safety fears are alleviated, so why am I doing it? Because I’m 50 now and I never have done it before. I’ve done firewalks, the Three Peaks Challenge, run marathons and fought in World Championships, but until this day I have never sat at an open doorway and been prepared to throw myself into the abyss.

Cold and pain

Those seconds seem to last longer than I expected and then we are out. Mike has pushed us away from the ‘plane we are out into the cloud. Every photo I’ve ever seen of skydiving has been in bright blue skies, not for me, there is cloud all around and it is the cold that hits my senses first. It reminds me of being in the dentists chair with the drill screaming and the jet of water flushing out your mouth. The cold is staggering and a complete shock. Although I’m wearing gloves my fingertips are contracting in pain; I feel a tap on my arm and my brain somehow remembers to open my arms out into the starfish position. We are travelling about 120mph straight down and still we are in cloud. I’m breathing properly again now, but still wondering what’s going on, I can’t see a thing now as my goggles have frozen up too.

Now I can see the world open before me

Suddenly there is a halt, like the feel of an engine in your back as you accelerate in a sports car, in fact we are decelerating as the parachute opens and we are yanked up into the sky still surrounded by cloud. I can hear Mike in my ear, his voice is calm and we chat as we go through the air. His goggles and gloves have frosted as well, but as we come out of the cloud line we warm a little and can now see the fields of Cambridgeshire. He turns the parachute and we glide through the air seeing wind farms and chat about the amount of power they generate. He loosens the harness and I drop a little to supposedly get more comfortable. My calf muscles cramp up; another surprise. I lift them up then straighten them out to alleviate the pain, it subsides. Mike points out the airfield and where we are aiming for. A few turns more to see the landscape, now I feel a bit sick, like going on a Whirlitzer at the fairground or a bit of travel sickness, but nothing too bad. The ground is coming up to meet us now as we descend gracefully and smoothly to the drop site. There is a yellow flag, like a flag on a golf course and we land within feet of it. Mike’s skill is excellent and I’m grateful for it. We hit the ground just a little harder than I expected, but only like jumping off a small wall.

You have to do things for real

The entire experience has been surreal and everything took me by surprise. How calm I was going up in the plane, the weird experience of watching people throw themselves out of a moving vehicle – I’m glad I didn’t go first so I could see that – sitting on the edge is the experience which has stayed with me the longest and then the cold. Totally unexpected and a real shock to the system. The whole thing lasted a few minutes, maybe 7 or 8, but it has stayed vividly with me for more than 24 hours. I didn’t get the dvd or the photos which was probably just as well with all the cloud, but every part of it plays in my mind in HD quality. I’ve seen people in those skydive wind tunnel things and people have all said how much fun they are, but they can’t replicate the real thing. There is no risk and even if skydiving is remarkably safe there is still that element where if it goes wrong you will be dead within 5 minutes, after hurtling through the air. Maybe that’s why so many of us admired Felix Baumgartners’ amazing leap from 25 miles up; my jump was a fraction of the height but now I know one part of his experience. The part where you make the decision to jump.

Taking a risk, making a decision

Which rather sums up life. There are many times in our lives where we sit facing the abyss. We know that to stay sitting on the edge of the ‘plane is the safe thing to do, but by going back to what we know we can never change, you have to leap into the sky. You have to have checked your parachute, it helps to have great advice and help, but ultimately you have to do it yourself. You make the decisions. You have to change the course of your life and you have to have the experience. My first parachute jump was odd, weird, cold, uncomfortable, but also rewarding, unique and gave me an experience that I could not have had in any other way. Who knows? One day i might do it again and I’ll think of it when I have to make one of those tough decisions as well.