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Around The Sun: Parachute Jump

...So there I was at twelve thousand feet, and it was my turn to jump...

Steve Harrison swallows his nerves to attempt a parachute jump.

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Its not the fall from a great height that kills you. It's the sudden stop when you reach the bottom.

So there I was at twelve thousand feet, and it was my turn to jump. We were flying in a Cessna 172. I was in the front passenger position, only there wasn’t a seat. I was crouching by an open door. I had been told that it would take me about 20 seconds to fall to the ground.

Was I in a dream? Would I wake up in a moment or two?

There was a gauge in front of me. I have no idea what it was meant to measure. My image was reflected in its glass. Bright yellow crash helmet, goggles... I moved my head to the left, then the right. The reflection did the same. Yes, that clearly was me. This was no dream. I really was about to jump out of a plane.

My only thought was"How the hell did I get here?''

Four of us had gone to Birkenshaw show, an annual carnival, complete with toffee apples, a ferris wheel, cattle on show, and dogs showing just how obedient they could be to their masters' commands.

Above our heads there was the drone of an aircraft engine. Then six dots appeared in the sky. Six parachutes opened. Those parachutes grew larger, ever larger... There was a terrific thud right beside me. I was enveloped in parachute silk.

There was excitement all around us. Then apologies from the parachutist. He had missed his mark in the show ring and landed on us.

Frank Peel was his name. I remember that, and I also remember his hands which were huge. As he gathered in his parachute he was talking to us. Telling us about the delights of parachuting. A unanimous voice went up. Yes, we would all like to train to become parachutists.

In fact I was scared of heights. The thought of leaping out of a plane was horrifying. Peer pressure is a funny thing. I guess I just allowed myself to be manipulated into going along with the others.

We turned up at a training field, got kitted out in military jump suites, donned crash helmets and goggles then learned how to fall. We jumped from a height of six feet, learning how to roll so as to absorb the impact. Legs together, so that you don't break any bones.

We sat in an aircraft, dangled our feet out of the open hatch, learning how to put one foot on the wheel while leaving the other to dangle in space. This enabled one to make a perfect exit from the aircraft.

Now we had to get certificates saying we were all in good health. Off we went to our respective doctors, three of us feeling gung-ho, the fourth (me) reluctantly.

Three were unable to get medical clearance. Perforated ears, flat feet, a heart murmur. I was in perfect health.

So there I was at twelve thousand feet. My mum, dad, sisters and friends were down there on the ground, all of them perfectly safe.

I was remembering a song we used to sing as kids. Remembering particularly a line in the song. "They scraped him off the tarmac like a lump of strawberry jam.”

Frank Peel was sitting behind me. The plane's engine stopped. So too it seemed did my heart.

"Onto the wing.'' Frank ordered.

I dangled both feet out of the open door. I put my left foot on one of the plane's wheels. I grabbed hold of a wing strut with my left hand, then, stretching out, grabbed hold of the same strut with my right hand. Then I looked down.

Oh God!

Frank patted me on the back of the head. "Go!'' he ordered.

So I did.

One thousand, two thousand, three thousand... Pull!

This fall was exhilirating. I couldn't catch my breath. Then there was a sudden crack..,

My chute had opened.

Now there was silence. It almost seemed as though I could hear my heart beating. I reached upwards for the toggles which would enable me to steer the 'chute. Now where was the windsock, and the cross on the ground that I was supposed to head for?

Time seemed to be standing still. There were small cottages, neat fields, roads, cars, cattle, sheep...and people.

It was like looking down on a model of a landscape.

I swung my legs. I was alive. Euphoric. At one with the elements.

Suddenly the ground was coming towards me real fast. Frank had prepared me for this. This was what is known as ground rush. It kicks in when you are around 500 ft up. At 200 feet I had to turn 180 degrees into the wind to slow down my descent for a soft landing.

People on the ground were yelling at me. "Turn around, turn around!” "Legs together!''

I didn't turn around. I didn't know where my legs were. There was no soft touchdown. I landed in a heap. The canopy dragged me several feet along the ground. I didn't care. I felt like a hero. I had completed my first parachute jump.

People came running. The patted me, congratulaed me, packed my parachute.

I was in a daze, experiencing the biggest high of my life.

My career as a parachutist was however short lived. I checked in most weekends to practice packing parachutes and exiting the plane, but the weather was more often than not against us. I did only five more jumps in the space of a year. Each jump I did got progressively scarier.

However from then on I have always been an adrenaline junky.

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