On Friday I jumped out of a plane. Twice.
You have no idea how fantastic it feels to be able to write those words. Four years ago one of my friends told me I should think about skydiving and I thought about it for 30 seconds and said ‘No fear,’ or words to that effect.
But this friend mentioned it again and again on a regular basis and while I was still saying no in my head, my heart was already thinking about flying above the earth. I saw his pictures as he trained to be a skydiver, secretly looked on YouTube at other people’s skydiving efforts and wondered whether I should – literally – take the plunge.
He stopped mentioning it and I stopped thinking about it. Until the summer when an e-voucher dropped into my inbox, offering me the chance to do an indoor skydive. I looked at it for a moment, bought it without thinking and booked to do it on my birthday. My head was saying ‘This will prove once and for all whether you want to do this thing.’ My heart was saying, ‘Yeh, yeh, yeh…’
I did my two minutes at the centre in Basingstoke. As I went in to the vertical wind tunnel, I felt a thrill of excitement. As I came out I booked another six minutes. And then some more after that. And then – after being put in touch with a skydiving instructor by my friend who was really encouraging me – booked some more time with with him in the tunnel.
And in between all this tunnel time I booked a skydiving course in Spain. I lost weight. I worked hard to master the position that my skydiving friends were telling me would keep me stable in the sky. I booked the course for October. Those three months between the summer time and heading out to Madrid seemed the longest of my life.
From my previous blogs you’ll know that for the first six days I was at the dropzone where the skydiving course was held, we were all grounded by the weather. It wasn’t until Friday, two days before most of us were due to go home that the weather was anywhere near good enough to jump.
I was assigned to an instructor and waited my turn to go up in what seemed like a very tiny plane considering the eight or nine bodies stuffed into it. Slowly we climbed into the sky until at last we reached 13,000 feet. An alarm sounded to let us all know that the door was opening and I watched as the others in the plane – the more experienced jumpers – disappeared.
By now I had a real understanding of fear. I’d have given anything to get off that plane. In fact I’d have given anything for someone to shut the door and tell me the whole thing was just a joke and we could all go home now. If I’d not been warned that’s exactly how I would feel, I’d have felt ashamed. As it was, I crawled to the entrance, lingered for slightly too long but finally pushed myself out of the door and into what felt like an abyss.
I have no idea what happened for the first few seconds as I fell out of that plane. That’s common too. Your brain is refusing to recognise what has happened and you are experiencing what’s called sensory overload. I was aware of the two instructors either side of me, holding on and sorting out my position in the air. I tried valiantly to do all that I had been told to do but my brain was refusing to believe that I was falling through the sky at 120mph.
I was checking my altimeter every five seconds and looking into the horizon as I’d been told. At six thousand feet I knew I needed to pull my parachute. I couldn’t find the pull for it, despite having practiced several times on the ground. I kept searching but knew I was running out of time.
Just as I thought that, I was suddenly pulled away from the two men either side of me and realised it was my canopy opening and that one of them must have pulled it for me. Forgetting for a second what I was supposed to do, I realised that my falling had stopped and then remembered what I was supposed to be doing and looked up. I’ve never been so pleased to see a piece of material in my life. It was orange, but more importantly it was big and symmetrical and – when I moved the steering toggles – it was controllable. As those were the things I’d been told needed to happen, I was able to take more of an interest in the things around me.
And then it hit me. I was flying. Flying six thousand – no, now five – thousand feet above the earth, with my feet dangling and a smile as big as the canopy over my head. To nobody in particular, I announced that I rather liked this game and sang several choruses of Oh What a Beautiful Morning.
Not for long of course. I had my instructions and looking down, identified where I was supposed to be heading to begin my pattern of descent. Pulling myself around so that I was heading towards the olive trees where I’d been told to hold on until it was my turn to come down, I was quite pleased to hear the voice of my instructor asking me to do a couple of pull downs on the steering toggles (known as flares which cause the canopy to brake) so he knew I could hear him.
I listened as he guided me to where I needed to be next, marveling that this piece of material could respond so sensitively to my pulls. Dropping slowly to one thousand feet and turning left, dropping gently to 500 feet and turning left so that I was facing the wind seemed easy. I watched the ground come closer and closer, listening intently to the instruction from the man on the ground who told me when exactly to put my brakes on to land. It was a perfect text book landing. Or would have been, if I’d not put my feet squarely onto muddy ground and stood uncertainly upright for a second before the squelchy mud inevitably pulled me over so I landed in an undignified heap causing my instructor to laugh through the radio while he asked me to raise my hand so he knew I was uninjured.
As I stood up to collect up my now collapsed canopy, I realised that I was crying. Crying because I really could fly. Crying because I could actually throw myself out of a plane. And crying that someone who wouldn’t even climb a ladder when she was 19, had descended through 13,000 feet of space.
I hope I never forget the day that the earth was spread out under my feet. I hope I’ll never forget the moment that I brought a parachute canopy down to earth. I hope I never forget what it truly means to live life to the full.
I did go up and do a second skydive but for various reasons was unable to continue the skydive course after this one. Sometime in the future I hope to return to the accelerated freefall course, but until then, I shall hold the memories in my heart and smile from time to time as I remember the day I believed I could fly.