I recently completed my first death-defying skydive held in honour of successfully being alive for 30 years.
Why did I do it? What was it like?
Why Did I Skydive?
I’ve always wondered what it’s like to fly without the aid of an aircraft. Some of my favourite dreams were those of flying and swooping around the sky. If it was possible to do that while I was awake, then why not give it a go?
There’s a widely held belief that jumping out of a plane is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. After all – curiosity can sometimes kill cats, dogs and even people.
But it’s OK, I told myself. I’d done the research and found that people were 4 times more likely to be murdered and 17 times more likely to die in a road traffic accident than die following a skydive. So by that standard it’s completely safe.
At least I wouldn’t be murdered or be in a car accident while skydiving……..
Where Did I Skydive?
There was an early start to the day, meeting up with a fellow 30th birthday sufferer before travelling down to Hinton Airfield near Brackley in Northamptonshire. The fellow 30th birthday sufferer; Calley, immediately presented me with a hoodie emblazoned with the Superman logo as a birthday present – what a perfect outfit to skydive in!
We’d dragged our partners along with us – but Calley still had the presence of mind to be able to drive. Maybe she was in denial about what might happen on that day – I know I certainly was.
There were recommendations to turn up early as skydiving places would be given on a first come, first serve basis. Arriving early would also mean than there would be more chances to catch breaks in the weather, should it be foggy as it was on that day.
Hinton Airfield is located in the middle of nowhere, but very well sign posted up to a certain point. After leaving the main A road, there are 1 ½ miles of narrow lanes and bumpy tracks to negotiate – complete with strolling Pheasants to miss or aim for depending on your taste.
After accidentally calling at the nearby Paint Balling range and grand looking farm house we finally found the airfield at around 9am. After the journey, the first thing we did was to visit the toilets and I couldn’t help but think I might be a frequent visitor there throughout the day……..
Waiting To Skydive
At reception the staff immediately took our payment. I’d looked around for prices for Tandem Skydiving and found Hinton to be the cheapest (and luckily nearest) location to our hometowns. The decision to go to Hinton had been made from the information on this website which gave the price as £230, but on enquiring direct with the skydiving centre at Hinton, the cost dropped to £180. This is still an awful lot of money to part with – but then again it’s difficult to put a price on such an experience…..
As much as I would have loved to have filmed the whole thing myself, Hinton offered a documentary service where another parachutist would jump with you and your tandem instructor. The extra parachutist would have a video camera and stills camera attached to their helmet. This service cost an additional £95 with the payment split into £40 and £55 parts for the centre and the extra parachutist.
After payment and signing the ‘declaration of fitness’ form (a doctor’s certificate is required if you’re over 40), we were given a briefing on what we should do and what we should expect during the jump.
The instructor said the briefing was only really needed to teach us three things – the exit position, the freefall position and the landing position. He reassured us that if we forgot, then we shouldn’t worry as he and the other instructor would be there to guide us throughout the whole thing. He also warned us that the other instructor who wasn’t around at that time may have a slightly different way of doing things.
I must admit that I didn’t find it too comforting to discover there wasn’t a golden standard to skydiving.
We were also warned that should we feel the urge to throw up on the way down, that we should try and do it down our jumpsuits, and not in our instructor’s faces. When I asked whether that had ever happened to them the instructor replied that he had managed to avoid it most times.
Following the briefing, there was a long wait for the fog and mist to clear up. Hinton has a nice waiting room with comfortable sofas and a wide screen television. Unfortunately the same promotional skydiving DVD was played repeatedly, but strangely enough the short film was still quite mesmerising – even after the 2000th time of watching it. I’m not quite so sure that our partners (who refused to jump) would agree though…
There was also a little trailer outside selling decently priced drinks and burgers. Unfortunately there wasn’t a vegetarian option to choose from. There was also a little Jack Russell wondering around who liked to sit on everyone’s laps. I was particularly grateful for this calming distraction.
We were told that in order for the conditions to be suitable to jump, a tower and mast should be visible in opposite directions across the airfield. This lead to frequent visits outside for Calley and I in order to try and spot these mystical objects.
Yet, they escaped detection – even as midday approached.
After 4 hours of waiting around and staring at the cloudy, foggy sky, the instructors recommended that we might be interested in visiting the nearby village of Brackley. After leaving our mobile numbers we promptly escaped and went on a tour of Brackley and the other nearby villages. Calley & I couldn’t stop looking at the sky. I didn’t really notice anything about the villages and was beginning to think the weather would stop us from skydiving.
On our return to the airfield driving along the bumpy country road, the sun broke through to the other side and made an appearance. This prompted squeals of both delight and horror from the soon-to-be-parachutists. I was happy to see that the fog was rapidly clearing – but also acknowledged that this meant that the jump was probably going to happen.
The Skydive Is On!
The instructors were confident that it wouldn’t be long before we went up into the sky and soon enough, preparations were being made for that to happen.
Bits and parts of conversations were heard. People went off to get the aircraft ready. Telephone calls were made for the other parachutists to come to the airfield and to Air Traffic Control for permission to fly above 5000 feet. The parachutist who had given Calley and I our briefing started to put on his jumpsuit.
At this point I was semi-desperately trying to convince Calley that it would be better to get back into the car and drive off the airfield at 100 miles an hour. But before this could happen our instructors had caught us with jumpsuits and harnesses. They had a fantastic attitude, acting as if what was about to happen was just as common as making a cup of tea. They were completely calm – joking along with us while tightening straps around our legs and chest.
There were carabiner style hooks at our waists and shoulders to attach us to the instructors, but for practical reasons these weren’t attached until we got into the aircraft. My partner assured me that even if the hooks failed then I should be ok as I would probably fall at the same speed as the instructor (yes, thank you Richard!). I assured myself that if the hooks should fail, it would just be a simple matter of him holding me under the arms at the last moment to bring us safely back to the ground…….
Then we were off walking up the runway to find the aircraft. Our instructors kindly asked to walk slowly as they had almost 20kg of equipment strapped to each of their backs. The documentary parachutists followed us along the runway, filming us all as we went – ‘Smile and wave for the camera girls!’ I was particularly thankful for that distraction!
The aircraft itself was a small Cessna type thing, fitted with two benches that we straddled and scooped ourselves slide along. The door consisted of nothing more than a fragile looking thin plastic shutter – but who needs a good door on an aircraft that you plan to jump out of anyway?!?
It was decided by our instructors that Calley would be jumping first.
My instructor sat behind me and I was parallel with Calley’s instructor, with Calley in front of him. It was probably a good idea that I couldn’t talk to her on the way up and that the only person I could hear was the calming voice of my instructor. It was very noisy inside the aircraft and he had to lean in close to make himself heard. He told me that on average over the whole year, he jumps twice a day and professed to love his job.
It took around 15 or 20 minutes to get up to altitude. The plane circled at 5000ft, waiting to get permission from air traffic control to progress further. The documentary parachutists who were seated in front of us (and would be first outside the plane) were filming the view outside the window and occasionally turning round to film us.
I must have still been in some kind of denial at that point. It’s very, very strange to be sitting in a plane, enjoying the view while thinking ‘I’ll be flying through that in a minute.’
We passed through two layers of cloud and the instructor suggested that when we passed through the layers on the way down – I should reach out & grab a handful, eat the cloud and then when I breathed it out make a wish. He was a very jolly chap and I was very thankful for him talking to me on the way up.
When I looked over to Calley’s instructor, he just sat there with his eyes close looking like he was meditating. When I mentioned this to Calley after the jump she said she was thankful that she didn’t know he was doing that on the way up as it would have freaked her out!
Just before we jumped, the instructors pulled us up onto their laps to secure and tighten the harnesses. They had some strength pulling us up onto their laps – but I suppose you’ve got to be strong if you’re jumping with people who could potentially freak out and endanger you! The harness was certainly a tight, intimate fit but given the circumstances that was certainly reassuring.
Then at 13,000ft and all too soon our instructors placed the soft leather helmets and goggles onto our heads and faces. The shutter was opened and Calley’s documentary parachutist climbed and hung on a ledge on the outside of the plane.
All too quickly Calley had disappeared out the plane. Although l knew she was safe it didn’t stop me feeling like it was a bad thing that my friend had fallen out of a plane. Before I could take this thought much further, my own instructor was scooping me forwards towards the door. I was told to keep my arms crossed over my chest as apparently too many people try to grab onto the doorframe to stop themselves leaving the plane.
The exit position involves the student hanging out of the plane with their feet tucked underneath the fuselage, their arms crossed over their chest and head held back. It’s a bizarre thing to be hanging out of a plane while your instructor is getting ready to propel you both clear. This seemed to last for an eternity but in reality was only 5 or so seconds.
As my head was held back I could only see the documentary parachutist hanging onto the side of the plane. It’s very confusing to be acknowledging the situation you’re in and then to try and remember to smile at the camera!
Then off we went. We were flying!!!!!
We had been told beforehand that we would perform a somersault out of the plane. This would enable us to see the plane we had just left and the instructors said that this was something we would remember for the rest of our lives.
I can’t remember seeing the plane. It was a fast somersault – but my brain must have gone into shock for a couple of seconds. Immediately after the somersault, the instructor had released a drogue parachute to slow us down from 180mph to 120mph.
I recovered to find myself in freefall and thinking ‘I’ve done it! I’ve done it! I’ve done it! I’m flying through the air! Wwwhhhhhheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Wow!!!!!!!!!’
I tried to breathe, but due to the speed and altitude it didn’t feel like I was getting enough air into my lungs. This didn’t bother me as the instructors had warned us about it before hand and told us that the effect would pass soon enough. The air that I was managing to get was the freshest I’ve ever had though! It actually tasted different…..
To be honest the sensation of flying through the air was enough of a distraction. It was such a euphoric feeling! All other thoughts about everyday life were pushed from my mind and I was looking around me thinking of how beautiful everything was! It was the most amazing thing that I’ve ever done in my entire life.
I didn’t even think of whether the main parachute would open and to be honest I wasn’t even bothered. The freefall was so much fun. It was exactly as I dreamed it would be.
The speed of the fall forced my legs back at the knees – it was very difficult and practically impossible to try and straighten them. I was told that once the instructor tapped me on the shoulder that I should bring my arms out into a kind of weightlifting position to make our bodies stable. It was possible to feel the force on my arms and it a tiny bit of effort to bring them out into that position.
The instructor would put one arm back along his side which sent us spinning in a slow circle. It’s one hell of a view to be dropping at 120mph then to be given a 360° view. Amazing!
All the same time we were falling; the documentary parachutist was falling with us. His suit had little wings sewn into the arms to give him greater maneuverability. There he was repeatedly swinging closer and further away from us – grinning and holding up his thumbs. I replied to him by grinning like an idiot and holding my thumbs up too. We were told that if we didn’t smile our face muscles would be loose and our faces would just flap around in the breeze. Better to look like a happy idiot on camera then!
The freefall only lasted 45 seconds – but it felt like so much longer. The instructor had an altimeter strapped to his wrist which would indicate the right height at which to release the main parachute. At this point he put my arms back over my chest and pulled a cord.
The drogue parachute was there to slow us down so that the documentary parachutist could fall at the same speed, but also to lessen the impact of the main parachute opening. Never the less, when it did open there was a massive jerk backwards on my harness. It really tugged on and hurt my legs. That was the only point at which I got distracted from the gorgeous surroundings though.
Soon enough the main parachute was open and we stopped falling so fast. In fact it felt like we had stopped falling altogether! I felt like I was walking in the air! This section of the jump lasted about 5 ½ minutes.
There was no longer the sound of air rushing past our ears so it was possible to talk to the instructor. He pointed out various things across the landscape including a circular rainbow sitting on top of one of the clouds. I’d never seen a circular rainbow before! He repeatedly told me how much he loved his job too.
He let me take hold of the handles of the parachute and do a bit of steering. I think there were still loops for him to hold though. We performed a few tight spins and slowly passed through the two layers of cloud. The airfield slowly came into view with the people looking like tiny little dots.
The documentary parachutists had left us once the main parachute had opened, so it was just myself and the instructor floating through the peaceful sky. As we got a little bit closer, it was possible to see that they had already landed. The plane that had taken us up into the sky had already landed too.
I could see Calley floating around a little bit below me and that certainly brought a good feeling. It was good to know that she was safe and swooping around under a parachute.
All too soon it was time to land. In our original briefing, that instructor told us that when we landed, we should bring up our legs, picking them up with the jump suit if it was too difficult. We would then land by digging our heels into the ground and sliding on our bottoms.
While gliding under the canopy, my instructor told me that he wanted me to put his feet on his, and then just walk off his feet on his command. This gave us a rather more dignified landing and we didn’t even fall over.
To be honest, it was the landing that I scared of more than anything else. I’d heard horror stories about bones snapping and dislocations upon landing – but for me there was hardly any impact.
There were two people who caught the handles of the parachute to make sure it didn’t drag us backwards and then the instructor unclipped me. Shook my hand and gave me a little kiss on the cheek, before telling me to turn round and smile for the camera (again!).
I was happy to be back on the ground but I immediately wanted to be back up in the plane doing it again! Calley had a similar opinion and we were both so excited about the whole thing. She said it was definitely worth the wait.
We walked (or rather skipped) off the airfield and were immediately presented with a certificate – tucked into a magazine on what to do if you wanted to do more jumps and become qualified as a solo parachutist.
There was just enough time for a cup of tea and within 15 minutes we were presented with the films of our jumps. We settled back onto the sofas to watch what had just happened – it still seemed quite unreal! It was very amusing to watch the expressions on our faces as we jumped…
I would recommend the experience to everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re visually impaired, blind or even unable to walk – you can still parachute.
What Other Options Are There For Parachuting?
To train even further, there are a couple of options to become a solo skydiver, as detailed on Hinton’s website :
The Accelerated Freefall Course Level One (£380 for one jump): One step further, the AFF Level1 is for you. This course requires more commitment as you will need to budget two days in order to achieve your aim. The first day is spent in the classroom learning about all aspects of freefall and canopy control through a series of lectures and practical lessons. The second day you will be taking to the skies at altitudes up to 13,000 feet and feeling the rush of adrenaline as you take your first “leap of faith” into the skies above. Courses run every Tuesday or Friday and when training is complete, jumps can be made every day from Tuesday to Sunday. All students will receive a personalised certificate and a log record of their jump on completion.
The Full Accelerated Freefall Course (£1380 for 8 levels / jumps = £172 per jump) : Convinced you want to become a Skydiver? Ready to take that leap and commit to an adrenaline infused lifestyle, fuelled by throwing yourself from an aircraft at heights in excess of two and a half miles? OK but next time you are sat in the office, not concentrating on work, looking out of the window and wishing you were at the “Drop Zone”….. Don’t say we didn’t warn you! Once the AFF phase is completed, your consolidation jumps (priced at only £35) will enable you to practice what you learnt on the course as in most cases you would only get one attempt at the skills. Once these consolidations are completed you are the master of your own destiny, free to decide what the next challenge is going to be and where your newly acquired skydiving skills will lead you…..