Jump start

(GQ magazine, June 1989)

Sky-diving is dangerous even for the experts, so what’s it like for an absolute beginner? Richard Askwith takes the plunge

At about 45 seconds, my first experience of accelerated freefall sky-diving lasted considerably longer than my first experience of sex. Apart from that, though, the two had a lot in common.

Beforehand, the comments of the initiated made both experiences seem impossibly, terrifyingly exciting. Afterwards, each left me with a slight sense of “Oh, is that it?”, mitigated only by the thought that it was bound to improve with practice. And the subsequent pleasure of being able to brag about having done it was, in each case, marred by the irritation of constantly being asked the same unanswerable question: “What was it like?”

What was it like? To be honest, I can scarcely remember. Different, I suppose. Unlike anything else.

Perhaps I should start by explaining what it was. A freefall sky-dive is like a parachute  jump except that you don’t open your parachute until the last minute (give or take a few seconds).

When I tried it the other day, for example, I left the aeroplane at 11,300 feet and opened my parachute at 4,500 feet.

The first 1,000 feet of freefall takes about 10 seconds, as you gather momentum. Then you reach a “terminal velocity” of about 120 mph, which means that every 1,000 feet from then on takes about five seconds.

Accelerated freefall sky-diving is exactly the same: the “accelerated” just refers to the training. According to traditional practice (and regulations) you cannot freefall until you are an experienced parachutist. You start with a few “static line” jumps, then begin jumping out unattached and pulling the ripcord straight away, then gradually increase the pre-ripcord-pulling delay, until you eventually become a fully-fledged sky-diver. This rarely takes less than 30 jumps and takes many months.

Accelerated Freefall Training aims to have you freefalling thousands of feet the first time you ever jump out of an aeroplane. If you are really good, you can be a fully qualified sky-diver, capable of jumping without supervision, after only eight jumps, which usually takes a week. At the very least, you can perform your first sky-dive after just six hours of training, as I did. There are about half a dozen AFT centres in Britain. I used the biggest, which is run by Slipstream Adventures at Headcorn Airfield in Kent.

The key to AFT is that, as you plummet earthwards for the first eight times, you have an expert instructor plummeting with you.

For your first jump there are two, each holding on to your jumpsuit. They don’t make you plummet any slower, of course, but they check that you are conscious and make signs to you to remind you what to do. If the worst came to the worst, they would probably be able to pull the ripcord on your behalf.

I’m not sure if any of this sounds frightening or not. At an average of one fatal accident for every 90,000 jumps, sky-diving is statistically more dangerous than most other sports. But accidents almost invariably happen to those who have become overconfident – or to those who have become careless with their equipment. As a student, with two experienced sky-divers looking after you and your equipment, you are unlikely to fall into either category.

But it is still frightening. Unspeakably frightening. Not many people are quite as cowardly about heights as I am, of course, but I understand that even daredevils feel sick with terror at the thought of throwing themselves for the first time into millions of cubic feet of cold, bright emptiness, thousands of feet from the nearest solid object. The main point of the training is to help you overcome this fear.

In my nightmares, which tormented me for more than a week beforehand, I imagined myself tumbling uncontrollably into an indefinite void, unable to focus, unable to think, unable to do anything except give up and die. In real life, the main thing I felt was a sense of comfortable familiarity, because every second of the dive had been meticulously rehearsed beforehand.

You mime each move in training again and again, shouting out words to go with each action until the whole thing has become second nature.

It is a remarkable exercise in positive thinking. If you do it all properly, you have no time to be frightened. As one of my instructors put it: “Everyone feels fear, but it’s not a big thing unless you make it a big thing in your mind.”

After six hours of training, I was ready to put this claim to the test.

The action proper started with a hair-raising drive to the aircraft in a battered van. “If you survive the drive, you’ll survive the dive,” quipped one of the sky-divers who would be sharing our flight. Another joked about the door having fallen off the aircraft.

Then we reached the aircraft. It was smaller than the van. After one last rehearsal of the diving routine, seven of us crammed ourselves into it, each sitting on the feet of the person behind. The green Kent fields remained visible through a gaping hole in the side: the door really had fallen off.

We bounced down the runway; took off; and within seconds were hundreds of feet in the air. Miraculously, no one had fallen out. The ground lurched before my eyes, and I wondered what the instructor in front of me would do if I was sick on him. Then it struck me that I had imperceptibly crossed some line of commitment, and the thought that had sustained me so far (“You can always back out”) no longer applied. Or did it? I briefly imagined refusing to jump, but somehow it didn’t convince me.

“It’s only a big thing if you make it a big thing in your mind,” I told myself. “You can trust these people,” I added, thinking about my instructors. “They’re not going to let you die.” Then I looked out of the door again and thought: “Anyway, what makes you think you’ll be any safer if you stay in the plane?”

As the plane climbed, the air grew colder. I sat with my eyes closed most of the time, rehearsing the jump again and again in my mind, breathing as deeply and slowly as possible, trying to ignore the fear in my stomach and congratulating myself on having spent most of the previous hour glued to the lavatory. Occasionally I looked around. The air had grown whiter and brighter and emptier. A couple of divers disappeared into it. I closed my eyes again.

“You’re not leaving the aircraft, you’re entering the air,” I said to myself, repeating another instructors’ dictum. “It will be exactly the same as swimming,” I added, even though I had specifically been told that it wouldn’t be. Sod it, I needed such fictions to get me out of the door.

And then we were at 11,500 feet and the aeroplane was almost empty and I hadn’t looked out of the door for some time and was beginning to feel relatively calm when I felt a tug on my arm. My instructors, Paul “Apples” Applegate and Jack Gregory, were giving my equipment a last check. And then Apples was leaning into my face and saying “Are you ready to sky-dive?” and I, just as I had done 1,000 times already in my mind, was shouting back (not saying, please note, but shouting heartily with a smile on my face): “I’m ready!”

After which, sink me if I didn’t go through the whole routine exactly as planned, without giving another thought to anything. I balanced a single buttock on the edge of the void, and a moment later the aircraft had gone and I was in another world.

Most first-time sky-divers experience a second or two of “sensory overload”, during which their senses simply cannot take in what is happening. I’m not quite sure if I experienced this or not. The first thing I do remember is seeing the earth stretched out in front of me, an intricately mottled carpet of greens, not noticeably rushing up to meet me, just flickering in a faintly unreal way, rather like one of those moving backdrops they used to use in low budget silent movies. Then I thought: “What’s happened to the instructors?”, looked to each side and was surprised to find that they were both there. Next, I worked out that the ground was in fact below me rather than in front. Immediately I began my routine, looking at the ground, checking the altitude registered on the altimeter on my chest, shouting the figure (“10,000!”) to each instructor, and so on.

It was like – well, it wasn’t like swimming, but because I had made quite a good “arch” with my body I was quite stable, like a falling shuttlecock, and I wasn’t really conscious of doing anything more dangerous than floating in a swimming pool. In a sense, I wasn’t. Nine thousand feet is pretty high, and the skydiver’s motto is “Altitude is safety.” If I hadn’t been busy going through my routine, I might even have stopped to think, hey, fresh air, no water, no chlorine, no breath-holding, no noise, indescribably beautiful view (perhaps slightly curved with the globe)… this is how birds feel … I’m flying… this is paradise!

Then I let the arch slip a little and was violently buffeted by the wind. With the help of a signal from one of the instructors, I corrected the arch and the turbulence eased. But as I did my practice rip-cord pulls and checked the altimeter again (“7,000!”), I decided that relaxation was not such a good idea. My main aim was to survive, and just because I wasn’t feeling particularly frightened, that didn’t mean that it wasn’t terrifyingly dangerous.

From roughly 6,500 feet to 5,500 feet there was meant to be a period of “free time”: five seconds in which we were supposed to enjoy the view and perhaps experience that sense of ecstatic liberation which sky-divers call “airgasm”. I spent most of it checking my altimeter, watching the needle edge backwards. I didn’t want to get engrossed and forget something important.

Then there was one last set of signals, followed by the unconsciously longed-for moment of pulling the ripcord. Suddenly I appeared to be shooting upwards, even though I am assured that I was only decelerating. The instructors shot downwards and vanished. In the ensuing silence I realised for the first time that throughout the dive there had been a deafening roar of air rushing past.

I have no idea how long the parachute descent lasted. I was in a state half-way between euphoria and shock. “Don’t stop concentrating,” I told myself, but it was useless. I felt safe and complacent and sat back and enjoyed the view. I had no sense of falling, no sense of motion, not even, for the first couple of thousand feet, the slightest sense of where the airfield was. I was just gliding, like a hawk. After a while I began a half-hearted attempt to steer myself towards the target. But all I could think was “I’ve done it!” and “It opened!” Then the ground came rushing up unsettlingly fast, and I landed with a fairly hefty bump.

Back on earth I felt shame and anti-climax. Why had I messed up my landing? Why had I not made more of my free time? Above all, why had I been so scared? Such feelings, I suppose, are what turn first-time sky-divers into long-term sky-diving addicts.

Even now, though, the disappointment persists. I have skydived a thousand times in my mind. Once I did so and it was real – but which of the thousand was it?

“It’s only a big thing if you make it a big thing in your mind.” That was my problem. If I had let it remain a big thing in my mind, I would have been unable to do it. Because I persuaded myself that it was small enough to handle, it now seems small. One can only play tricks on one’s mind so much before it starts playing them back.

On the other hand, every now and then I remember that I did it. And if life seems daunting at the time, I think: “Sod it, I’m not frightened of anything. I jumped out of an aeroplane at 11,500 feet,” and my fears vanish. And sometimes I look up at a swimming-pool-blue sky on a summer’s afternoon and think, with an indescribable thrill: “I’ve been there, I’ve flown in that.” Remind me to go there again some time.

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