I hit the ground at such speed that my legs buckled and I was thrown forward on to my head, and then it too buckled until my legs flipped up behind me and I did an ungraceful forward roll, bending my neck at an ungrateful angle, until finally my body came to a halt, crumpled on the ground. There was that momentary pause when I wasn’t sure if I had done any damage to myself, and then the gradual realisation that thankfully, most of the injury was to my pride. I had a few grazes, and my head and neck hurt a bit, but other than that, I was remarkably unscathed. I stood up, gathered my equipment up, and started walking back to the hangar. My instructor came running over and was immediately relieved to see that I was able to walk, which he told me he was very surprised about, and then proceeded to tell me off for such a bad landing.
After that tandem jump in South Africa in 2005, I had looked into doing some skydiving training, but after a year of cancellations due to weather or instructor issues, it wasn’t till September 2007, that I arrived in St Andrews to do my level 1 Accelerated Freefall Course (AFF). Following a morning of ground schooling, learning the ins and outs of safety and control, there was a long afternoon waiting for a good weather window to put the theory into practice. It was a long wait. It was a beautiful sunny day, but the wind was too strong. Just as I was about to head off for the day, I was summoned to gear up. Finally, the moment had arrived.
The AFF course for skydiving is essentially a crash course in learning to solo skydive, with 8 levels: 7 full altitude jumps, between 12,000 ft (3657 m) and 14,000 ft (4267 m), and a ‘hop-and-pop’ at 6,000 ft (1828 m). Levels 1 and 2 involve 2 instructors, not strapped to you, merely jumping with you, and holding on to you until you’re stable. Levels 3 – 5 involve just the 1 instructor holding onto you whilst you stabilise, then levels 6 – 8 are all solo exits with the instructor following only to give directions. After that, there are 10 more jumps, completely solo with no instructor at all, and once that’s all done, you’re certified to skydive. Easy.
I don’t remember much about the journey up, other than noticing that the drop zone was quite difficult to pick out amongst the patchwork of surrounding fields. I ran through the jump procedure both out loud and again in my head, and finally, the magic altitude was reached, and the door opened. I was last to exit, alongside my two instructors who held onto my jumpsuit either side of me. Exit procedure commenced and then out I launched. Straight away there was a problem. The instructor who was supposed to be on my left had lost his grip at exit and was flying solo, trying to track back towards me. I was therefore off balance with the air flow, and immediately I was distracted by the lack of control, and despite being trained on what to do in the event of instructor loss, I forgot everything. I spent most of the 50 second freefall looking for the other instructor, who finally made it back to me in time for the instructor on my right to pull open my parachute for me at 5,000 ft (1524 m).
Under canopy, it was up to the people on the ground to guide me down. Again, I had forgotten everything I was supposed to be doing to guide myself down, and as it turned out, the wind was stronger than what it should have been for someone of my lack of experience, and as a result, I had little chance from the outset of landing anywhere near the drop zone. I drifted a mile off course, narrowly avoided a small copse as well as an electricity pylon, and finally landed in a freshly cut field of straw, with the razor-sharp stalks sticking skyward. I did a perfect parachute landing fall, or PLF, and was left with grazes and bruises up my entire right hand side. It was dusk by this point, and frankly I was just glad to be back on terra firma.
After the drama of that jump following a year of cancellations, I decided that it would be better to continue my training somewhere with more predictable weather. After a bit of research, I booked myself a week at the Skydive Lillo centre in Spain in the summer of 2009. Landing in Madrid, and waiting at the baggage carousel, I experienced that not-so-delightful feeling of watching everyone around you collect their luggage then depart, and my bag was nowhere to be seen. Eventually the belt was empty, and it stopped turning. There were 4 of us standing there with no bags. The rest of them were Spanish, so they had no problem conversing with the man at the help desk. I stood flicking through my phrase book, before eventually piping up with ‘Habla ingles?’ Thankfully, he answered with the affirmative, and I was directed to wait at the belt. After 15 minutes, the belt started up again, and out popped 6 bags, 1 of which was mine. Jumping onto the metro, I headed into the city, and onwards to the bus station. Once there, I rehearsed my well practiced Spanish in order to buy a bus ticket, then as usual, caved to the same phrase again at the desk. This time the answer was no. I had no choice. Spanish it was then. Sometimes I just need to be pushed.
Lillo was an hour bus ride roughly south of Madrid. It is a quiet, sleepy little town, with little to mark it out, save for the parachutists descending upon its outskirts, visible for some distance ahead. I was supposed to be getting met at the bus stop, but there was nobody there. After 20 minutes, I was still waiting and a phone call to the drop zone went unanswered. Eventually I tried to find the drop zone, which was not as easy as I anticipated down the various dusty lanes and roads. I returned to the bus stop and sat down again, overlooked by some local gentleman. After over an hour, eventually my hosts arrived, and took me to the guesthouse. It was roasting, and the heat was so severe, that I struggled to sleep until well after 1am when it finally subsided slightly, only to fire up again about 5 hrs later.
The following day marked the start of my training. Repeating the ground school, I was worried about going back up in case there was a repeat of the last time. In the end, I had nothing to worry about. Levels 1 and 2 were cleared easily, managing to stabilise with an instructor either side, and getting a brief spell of solo flight. Under canopy, I remembered my instructions, and flew it well, and at the last moment, I was instructed to flare my parachute, in order to land gracefully. After a bit of bother with my ears not equalising, I had to wait a day before getting back up for level 3. Stabilising with just 1 instructor was a bit trickier, and I had to repeat the jump before being allowed to proceed a level. My instruction under canopy was much reduced by this point, mainly restricted to a command to flare the canopy for landing. On the second level 3 jump however, I didn’t flare adequately. In fact, as far as my instructor was concerned, I didn’t flare at all. From a distance, he was sure I wasn’t going to get back up off the ground. I certainly lay there for a moment mentally checking myself to make sure that everything worked. I was certainly relieved myself to be able to stand okay, with just some minor throbbing in a few places, but my suit and helmet were covered with dirt which gave away the roughness of the landing. I gathered up the parachute and the lines, and headed back to the hangar, the adrenalin still coursing through me. I did another jump that day, but even now, the landing, and in particular the flare, makes me very nervous indeed. In the words of my instructor: “the only thing that’s going to stop you falling is the biggest goddamn obstacle there is: the motherf*cking Earth”.
In the evenings, I spent the remaining hours of sunlight wandering around the town or following various trails into the countryside. It is a very dry area of the country, and a lot of the land appears barren and brown. Whereas St Andrews had been a patchwork of green fields, the surrounding region of Lillo was brown and featureless for miles around with only the town and the neighbouring reserve for reference. I went to bed each night exhausted from the adrenalin surges and the heat and the fresh air, but each night, the temperature remained so high that it was regularly after 1am before it was cool enough to let me sleep. In the morning, I would either get a lift to the drop zone with my host, who was also an instructor, or I’d wander through the town square and walk there along the side of the highway that appeared to go nowhere, disappearing in a haze on the horizon.
By the end of level 5, I was starting to master the 180 degree turns, but I was still showing bad habits with my leg position. As a result, I had to repeat level 5 as well. Progressing beyond that was on to the solo exits. Level 6 was a standard exit, without an instructor holding on, and for the first time I started to enjoy myself. It seems an odd thing to put yourself through if you’re not enjoying it, but in all honesty, I spent the first levels quite terrified. It was simply the memory of that joyous jump in South Africa that had made me continue with the whole shebang. Now, I was getting my reward. Whilst a tad nervous without somebody holding on to me, it made me feel a bit more like a real skydiver. Whilst neither graceful nor well-balanced, I started to enjoy the freefall like I had all those years before. Under the canopy continued to be a non-event that served only to get me to the ground in as safe a manner as possible. I was restricted to keeping a holding pattern, whilst watching the aerial acrobatics of the more experienced jumpers on the other side of the drop zone.
By level 7, I was desperate to get into the plane and get jumping. This last jump of the core block was a front roll exit, going head over heels out the door, and initially facing upside down until the air flow corrected my position and I was once again facing the Earth. This brief moment, staring up into space was awesome, before I flipped over, and I was staring at the ground once more. Attempting to do a back flip in mid air was a slightly feeble affair that created the desired instability for me to prove that I could correct, but wasn’t quite what I was going for. A couple of 360 degree turns, some tracking (again not my strong point), and then after 50 seconds, I was at 5,500 ft (1676 m), and it was time to prepare to deploy. For those who don’t skydive, tracking is essentially the art of moving through the air in a linear plane by adopting a position that allows the appropriate air flow to essentially move ‘forwards’ through the air. This is what allows formation jumpers to form aerial displays. An alteration of this position, allows ‘backwards’ movement. I was extremely chuffed with this jump, and it was my favourite jump of all of them. I was even more ecstatic to be greeted by an announcement on the loudspeaker that I had graduated. I was greeted by my instructor with a handshake and a hug.
After the obligatory photos and congratulatory interview for my video log, I was soon back up in the plane for my first solo jump. Excited, I was now one of the first to exit the plane, and on jumping, I immediately went into a right-handed spin. Having never spun before, this was unexpected. I tried to alter my leg position to see if that would help, but the spin proceeded to get faster and faster. I went through the safety criteria in my head, and reluctant as I was to deploy the canopy early, I felt this was my only option. The rules are essentially to deploy the canopy at the correct altitude and in a stable position. If it is deployed in an unstable position, then there is the risk of a parachute error or failure. In a spin, the main risk is in the parachute lines being twisted, and this can either prevent a full inflation, and therefore fail to slow the speed of descent, or simply take a long time to untwist, and therefore reduce the flying control on descent. But as the spin proceeded to speed up, and I descended through clouds, I felt that I had no choice. I moved my arms into the deploy position, and in doing so, the spin corrected itself and then stopped. Panic over. I had a brief spell to enjoy the rest of the free fall before deploying the canopy at 5,000 ft (1524 m). I was relieved, but it had given me a bit of a fright. Now without command, and fully aware of my previous bad landing, I had developed a bad habit of premature flaring. Whilst not ideal, it allowed me to land at a speed that wouldn’t injure me as long as I maintained the flare, but it did mean that I tended to skid in on my bum, rather than coming to a stand on my feet. Not very dignifying, but it did the job.
I forced myself to go back up the same day, and this time I managed not to spin. Somehow, I developed a minor line twist on deployment, but this was easy to kick out, and I landed without concern. The last day of my trip, I continued with my solo jumps, and managed to master the back flip, and enjoyed another front roll exit in order to stare up at the stars again. I was loving it again, and eagerly queued up to get back up again. Both solo jumps I experienced line twists on deployment, but again they were easy to sort out. Clearly my positioning was still a work in progress.
Finally, it was my turn to do the ‘hop-and-pop’. Essentially, it involves a lower altitude jump that gives time purely to stabilise quickly after exit, then immediately deploy the canopy. Due to the cost of the jumps, this was to be my last of the trip. I had had a fantastic week soaking up the sunshine, sweating away in the heat, watching dust devils (small dust tornadoes) whiz past the hangar, while away the hours when the wind speed had been too high, and generally engage in the banter of the guys who worked at the drop zone. I had watched them deftly pack away the parachutes after every jump, carefully placing the lines to avoid a line-over – an automatic parachute failure – and setting up the rigging jump after jump.
Having retrieved my rig from the team, I kitted up in preparation to go up for the final jump. I was positioned right by the door of the plane for the first time, due to my lower exit. Essentially, this involved kneeling in a rather cramped, uncomfortable position in the door-well of the Pilatus Porter until it was my time to exit. In such a cramped wee plane in such heat, it is a relief to jump out into the cool and spacious air. Stabilising quickly, I assumed the position to deploy the parachute, and it wouldn’t budge. I released, then tried again, and still it wouldn’t budge. With the altitude dropping away quickly, I was ever aware of the increasing size of the buildings below. Tugging and tugging, my heart rate started to soar, until on the 5th pull, it finally came away in my hand, and I felt the all-important jerk as my descent was dramatically slowed. Thankfully, there were no line issues to contend with, and it was a not-so-subtle reminder of how little margin there is for error in this sport. I had my usual landing on my bum, and I stood up in the sunshine eager to go up again, but in great discomfort. After a week of jumping day in, day out, a bad landing causing a lot of bruising, and multiple canopy deployments that caused the harness to dig into my groin area, I was frankly quite sore, and feeling ever so slightly battered. I left Lillo that evening sore, but satisfied, and I was already working out when I could get back out there again.