A few days ago I completed a tandem skydive for Glasgow Children’s Hospital Charity. A link to the video is above, and the story of the day is below.
‘Over eight thousand parachute jumps, I’ve only ever had one malfunction.’ He leaves the statement hanging there. No-one queries it. He’s still alive and sitting in front of us in one piece, so whatever malfunctioned, it hadn’t been fatal.
It’s 9 a.m. on a bright, clear Sunday morning at Fife Airport. Rab is taking a group of us through our basic training for a tandem skydive. A tandem skydive, for those that are unfamiliar with the activity, is where an experienced skydiver and parachutist straps a complete novice to their chest and together they jump out of an aeroplane, freefalling through the air at 120 miles per hour before deploying a large parachute and gently falling to earth.
For most of us this training is a refresher. Thanks to the typically unhelpful Scottish weather, we’ve all been through this before. For me, it’s the second attempt. A month earlier I made the early morning drive through from Glasgow on a clear, sunny day and sat through the basic training with high hopes – only for unseasonal gusting winds to postpone any jumping. From the body language and resigned faces of the instructors that day, this is not an uncommon occurrence.
Today, the atmosphere is different. The first two jumpers have already had a separate training session and are suited up and ready to go. The small Cessna plane sits on the runway. Being a Sunday they can’t fly before 9.30 a.m. At 9.31, the propeller is turning and the first passengers are boarding. It’s all efficient business, without being hurried or rushed.
The reason is the weather. It’s a perfect morning for throwing yourself out a plane at 10,000 feet. The skies are clear, there’s a slight breeze and it’s mild. Those of us who have been through the frustration of a postponed jump day have all had the same idea and turned up early to ensure we get a jump today. The forecast has clouds moving in during the afternoon, but they’re already calling other potential jumpers to say there’s a chance they can go skydiving this afternoon.
While the instructors are a uniform group – middle-aged men, ex-military, fit and healthy in t-shirts and board shorts – those of us volunteering are a mixed bag. Some, including myself, are doing this for charity, others are ticking it off their bucket list, a few have been given the opportunity as a gift. There are more females than males, the majority of us in our mid-thirties to early forties – perhaps a sign of our encroaching middle-age and a ‘last chance to do it before I get too old’ mentality.
Rab, having finished talking us through the equipment and jump, gets us all to lie on the ground and practice our body positions for the jump. For exiting the plane it’s forming an arch with our heads stretched back and knees bent, feet tucked up to meet our behinds, arms crossed over our chests. For the freefall it’s maintaining that position but bringing our arms out. The landing is all about getting our feet and knees raised up. They spend a lot of time emphasising this to us because if we get this wrong it’s the part that can cause serious injury to us, and more importantly, to them.
Training is done. I’m ready to go. The timetable is handed out. I’m not jumping until after lunch. A four hour wait. The adrenaline subsides, especially with the forecast of cloud moving in as the day progresses. Anxiety about the jump turns to anxiety about whether it will be another wasted day. Such is the life of skydivers in Scotland. My support team has arrived – wife, mum and children. We sit outside on picnic benches and look for the first jumpers of the morning to appear in the clear blue sky above. It seems to take forever, eyes turned skyward, scanning for the plane. We can hear one. Then a small dot appears overhead. An even smaller dot separates from it, then another. Half a minute later brightly-coloured parachutes mushroom out. We watch as they glide effortlessly to the ground. Both landings are safely completed. What could be easier?
The Cessna taxis in from the runway. The next two jumpers and instructors are suited up and get straight in. Off they go. There’s still another six flights to be made before my turn. My support team and I depart for the small cafe for brunch. Waiting.
An hour later we’re back. The plane has just left. The clouds are building. The instructors keep popping out of the hanger and having concerned glances at the heavens. One jumper gets back and mentions rain sighted to the north of us. It could be heading this way. They stop for lunch. There is nothing to do but wait and hope, and prepare myself for the fact it might not happen. There will always be another day.
‘Iain Kelly.’ The shout rings out across the spectator area. A quick goodbye to family. Time to get suited up. I will be jumping with Rab. I can only hope I’m not malfunction number two on his record. He straps me in to the harness, double checks it’s secure. I get hooked up to a rope and have to practice the landing position once more, suspended like a puppet on strings and feeling foolish. The ugly cushioned hat I have to wear doesn’t help. This is not the glamour of skydiving that you see online or in movies.
Before I can think too much about what lies ahead, we’re walking out to the runway and the plane is waiting. Patrycja will be jumping at the same time as us and filming my jump. I manage a few awkward, nervous words to camera as I pass. Rab gets in first and shuffles to the back of the plane. I follow him and then have to sit on his lap. He hooks himself onto my harness before the plane starts to move. I can only trust that he has done it right. Patrycja squeezes in next to us, followed by Iain, the head instructor and Gillian, who will be jumping with him. Iain walks with a pronounced limp. I have no idea how he got this limp, but alongside the ‘one malfunction in eight thousand jumps’ comment, it adds another little touch of doubt.
We start taxiing before the door is closed. Reaching the far end of the runway we don’t wait. The door is pulled shut and the small plane starts gathering pace, lifting effortlessly off the ground and rising quickly. There’s some chat between Iain, Rab and the pilot about the cloud cover and the approaching rain. There is no doubt in Iain’s mind – we’ll make it fine.
It takes about twenty minutes to climb to the desired 10,000 feet height. I’m quite happy sitting looking out at the beautiful rolling countryside, the green fields marked by lines of roads and hedges, the expanses of water. I’ve never been in a small propeller plane like this. With time and money the idea of getting a pilot’s licence and spending weekends flying above the earth seems tempting. We head east and are in sight of the coast before circling back. Rab points out Perth, the Ochil hills, some gliders and small aircraft that are also up here with us. We pass through some lower levels of cloud.
The pilot signals with his hand. He’s circling once more to gain the final few feet of height before he starts the final run. A perfect gap in the white cloud opens up beneath us. Another signal. We’re starting the run. The pilot leans over and flips open the door. Wind rushes into the cabin, along with the noise of the plane engine. Rab starts to adjust our position. I look away and when I look back Iain and Gillian have gone, dropping out the door in a split second.
Patrycja manoeuvres herself out the door and stands on the strut of the wing, waiting for Rab and I to get into position. There is some undignified shuffling across the floor, like an an ungainly octopus. Then my feet are hanging out of the opening. I can’t help but look down before Rab reminds me that my head needs to be back and arched into him before we can jump. He pushes my head back a little further. Over the rushing noise I can make out his count to Patrycja.
‘3. 2. 1.’
It’s not a glamorous jump out the plane. Rab tips me forward and we start spinning through the air. The plane drops out of view. In quick succession I see the ground, clouds, the sun, blue sky, then the ground again. Rab steadies us and taps my shoulder. My crossed arms come out as I somehow remember what we were told to do in training. And then we’re falling and it’s all amazingly peaceful. We’re travelling straight down at 120 miles per hour, but it feels like we’re floating on air. The only noise is the rushing wind. Rab swings us round and Patrycja comes into view. Look at the camera, don’t look down. Thumbs up, wave, smile. I feel Rab’s arm movement and the sharp pull of the rip chord. I can hear the fabric unfurl. Suddenly I’m tipped upright and the harness digs in around my groin. And then we are floating gently. We’ve fallen 5,000 feet in thirty seconds. After the adrenaline and thrill comes calm. Rab wants me to have a shot at steering the parachute, but my stomach feels a little queasy and I’m more than happy for him to gently float us back to earth.
From the ground watching the parachutes, it seems like they take a long time to reach the landing. While doing it, it’s over in a few quick moments. Rab brings us in to land on the airfield, I get my knees up out the way and we have a comfortable landing on our feet. And that’s it, I’ve done it. Patrycja is there to capture the landing and my initial reaction. A few more awkward comments to camera before Rab and I embrace, high-five and shake hands.
He collects his chute and is off to get ready for his next run. I walk back to my support team and reflect on what it feels like to fall to earth from 10,000 feet.
Rab’s last question to me as he departs: ‘Would I do it again?’