Falling through clouds is boring today

You might think it’s hard to get bored when you’re dropping vertically 13,000ft above our planet’s surface. But then, you’re not me, are you?

Sorry. Didn’t mean to be facetious.

It’s just that I’m here in midair, not ten seconds out of a Cessna Caravan at 14 grand. Since I’m not a) a whale or b) written by Douglas Adams, I realise – once stable in a mantis pos – that this is actually a bit, y’know, snoozeworthy after the first 30 times or so.

I was last off the plane. I like being last off, bit of an action hero thing: for a moment you can pretend the aircraft is on fire and the beautiful blonde with the dangerous secret on a USB key between her fantastically sculpted breasts is a thousand feet below you without a ‘chute, having been pushed out by the big guy with the maniacal laugh (who somehow finds time to do up his helmet strap on the exact edge of the door before jumping). You’ve got a five-second window to dive at her and save the day, to the strains of the James Bond theme intercut with a balding ‘plegic stroking a white cat.

(I would have said ‘stroking a pussy’, but there’s one too many double-entendres in that sentence already.)

Fuck me this is boring.

Did I bring my iPod? I could really handle a snap of Goldfrapp right now. No.

Bugger me. Remembered to switch on the Vigil (despite this being the first time I’ve used this particular device), checked the reserve pin, even bought a new alti today, but forgot my iPod? Bummer.

(Don’t be fooled by the small pocket on the chest strap; if you tried to listen to that you’d have some unpleasantly sharp surprises.)

12,000ft. Are we there yet?

I’m a few jumps into my qualified skydiving career, and I’m a tad disappointed that solo jumping is getting this old this fast. I can see the dropzone below all ranged out like the glorious arid plains of the majestic Serengeti, and all I can think about is the great hamburger Anne the coffee shop lady cooks up for lunch.

10,000ft. Are we at 4,000? We are not.

OK, let’s try a

back

flip

OK that was almost

interesting

Are we at 4,000 yet?

She’s putting onions on them today. Usually you have to ask specially for onions. Whoo fucking hooooooo.

OK, let’s do a 360.

Then another

360.

Are we at – OK, you seeing the pattern here?

Oooh, clouds.

I like clouds.

But the clouds are boring today.

What’s so interesting about fluffy white wet things? I ask you, WHAT – is – So – FUCKING – interesting? Dan the Weatherman on Nottinghamshire TV probably likes clouds, but ONLY BECAUSE HE’S NEVER BEEN BORED ENOUGH TO FUCKING FALL THROUGH ONE AT 120 MPH.

I remember a steppes tribesman years ago, asking me if the grazing was good in London that year. Now that was an interesting thing to say.

Still in the clouds. Hooooo

…hum.

OK, it was interesting for a moment. Falling through clouds – let’s face it – has certain potential on a sunny Saturday. It’s not equivalent to, say, the weekly trip to Tesco. Or even the cinema.

But I’m still glancing at my altimeter like it’s on the wrist of a fucking 1930s civil servant at 4.55pm.

Another 360. Won’t be long now.

5,000ft.

Whoo-peeeee.

4,000!

AT LAST! AT FUCKING LAST!!!

Reach around and pull the throwaway. And I’m ready to do something interesting again.

I’ve got to start FS coaching. Soon.

Falling from a Spanish sky, twenty times or higher – why?

Andalucia!

Ancient region of the Moors, now the cradle of Spanish culture!

I’m back from the most beautiful of Spain’s regions yet never saw anything outside the modern Spain of suburban construction.

The reason: I wasn’t there for culture. I was there to jump out of planes. And Skydive Spain must be one of the best places in the world to do it. I’m now a qualified skydiver after a year of odd weekend jumping, and it feels great.

Ten days in a hangar and twenty jumps from 15,000ft, a minute of vertical giggles before pulling out the pilot chute, and the thrills and laughs came in equal measure. Some wild moments. The jump where my alti ripped off my wrist; the jump where I fluffed a float exit, the jump where I’m certain a lizard fell out of my canopy as it opened, at which I was very surprised. (Although presumably not as surprised as the lizard.) And that last jump. WHAT a last jump.

On Monday I needed one more jump to qualify for an ‘A license’, the basic certification needed to jump solo or with FS1s anywhere in the world, and the wind got messy: 100 jump minimum. With Tuesday the last day – we were leaving at 4pm – I arrived at the dropzone and it was still in force. Dropped a bit, I kitted up, and then the wind warning came back just as the jumpmaster was checking out my rig. Damn.

An hour passed. The sign never came down, but the windsock went flaccid for a moment, then another moment. Then I saw in the manifest officer’s eyes that look: the look where they know everything’s going to be ok whatever happens. And she cleared me to jump.

I was in kit and on the plane in ten minutes.

As we took off, it felt different. I’ve jumped in winds before – actually my first jump a year back, from a static line, was in higher winds than strictly allowed for firsttimers. But this wind was seriously borderline. When I exited at 15 grand I felt it. It was harder to hold stable, and movements caused more rockiness than usual. This felt like a real skydive. I did a backflip to celebrate.

This isn't me, it's just a cool photo.Glanced down, checked alti. At 12K I was some distance from the airfield. Time for my favourite freefall activity: tracking. I haven’t done much of it but when it works it feels fantastic: looking forward, arms back at 45 degrees, legs straight, you forget you’re falling and really feel you’re flying. (Superman didn’t know nuthin’; you can’t do it with one arm out in front.) For nearly ten seconds it all worked, grinning like a maniac, flying myself back towards the airfield as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

You can’t explain skydiving to someone who’s never done it. You just can’t.

Whoops, over the runway. I can feel the winds. I wave off and pull the pilot ‘chute, remembering – as I’ve forced myself to all week – to throw it away and not hold on. (I first trained with a ripcord, where you pull out a separate toggle and then stow it away, but absently keeping hold of a pilot ‘chute would be a very bad idea.) The ripstop F111 fabric unfolds above me like orchids in timelapse photography, there and square and beautiful, at 3800ft.

Directly below me, the aircraft buzzes between my legs like a dragonfly as it starts its landing run.

Despite the winds it’s the best landing I’ve ever done: square on to the wind, perfectly flared. I run two steps, stay standing (rare for me) and furl the canopy as if I’ve been doing it for years. Everything worked this time.

When I get back to the hangar, there’s a 200 jump minimum in force. I’ve been up on the only inexperienced lift of the day. And it’s won me my A license. What a holiday. What a holiday!

Awesome tunnel camp

Warwick Skydive’s 2008 Tunnel Camp took place this week, and it was incredible. Despite all those jumps from real aeroplanes, this was the point where I actually learned to fly. (That’s me, in the fetching light-blue-with-yellow-piping number.)

It was my first time in a vertical wind tunnel, and – whoa. I’d expected something resembling a garage; when we got close, I realised we seemed to be homing in on what looks like a nuclear missile storage facility. The ex-MOD tunnel is a privatised military site, a cylinder fifteen metres wide and forty high, with an inner ‘core’ five metres wide that goes most of the way up, topped with a vast aeronautical engine running at 750rpm, all day, every day. That’s where you fly. It’s the biggest indoor skydiving facility in the world, and next to it, little tourist attractions like the one at Milton Keynes look like Fisher Price toys.

The construction quality is amazing. I’d estimate the steel cylinder is eight centimetres thick, and the tunnel itself is brick and concrete lined. Of course it’s noisy in the chamber, but outside conversation is still possible, and in the outer ring, where you relax between flights, it’s barely more than traffic noise; there’s not even vibration. Doors are oval and made of thick steel, like a submarine’s. The site makes excellent use of technology – cams and screens everywhere, plus electronic timetabling – and you can download the vids onto a handy USB. It’s terrific.

I had 23 minutes spread over the day, and went from nervously floating at ground level to hovering confidently two metres up, spinning reasonable 360s, and moving forwards and backwards, balancing on the 120mph updraft and turning my body into a wing. Brilliant. I can’t wait to get back there.

Skyvan sprains an ankle

My word, that’s not nice. After I left yesterday, the Skyvan had to abort a landing after a wheel strut buckled. There’s a happy ending, though: the pilot diverted to Oxford airport (presumably because there’s more firefighting equipment there if the worst happens) and landed effectively. Hope the Skyvan can be repaired; the results of landing belly down won’t have been pretty, and with only 35 of these charismatic planes in existence we don’t want to lose one.

Great skydiving trip… apart from the skydiving

The UKS Weston Boogie! A festival of skydiving, hundreds of parachutists gathering at a military base in Oxfordshire. The mark of a true skydiver is when you spend the weekends at dropzones and… not jump there.

Unless, of course, you’re a RAPS student, in which case you won’t jump largely because they’re not interested in you doing so. Over a thousand jumps on Saturday, and somehow only ten places on the manifest were available to people learning how to jump out of a plane. On a perfect windless day with five lifts an hour, the wait for a RAPS dispatch was… five blasted hours. And we still had to fight for it.

While the staff were pleasant enough, the message was clear: skydiving is our sport. We’re not interested in anyone else learning it. Now get off our dropzone.

Well, they’re doing a good job of it. I’m pretty down on jumping tonight, despite the rest of the weekend being great: good weather, good company, and beautiful villagey surroundings straight out of Miss Marple. Not down on the sport itself, but on the sheer difficulty of actually getting yourself manifested for a jump when the weather’s even remotely good. The only time dropzones are interested in us are when it’s raining or windy (and we can’t jump.) You don’t run a sustainable business on neglecting prospective customers for life, but it seems that’s what the industry wants. The skydiving population of the UK (those holding a BPA membership) is a fairly constant 5000; that strikes me as a growable business, but the franchise holders aren’t interested in growing it. Fair enough.

I can handle the DRP that went wrong and prevented me moving up a stage; I can cope with the time between sessions that lets your body forget the instinctive movements out the door; the laughs and jibes of experienced skydivers aren’t a problem, you just roll with them. What is a problem is that it just isn’t worth going to a dropzone for one or two jumps. The answer, I think, lies in switching courses: dropping the military-style RAPS and heading for the sports-focussed fun of AFF. A shortcut to an A license, then at least I can get on the manifest faster, although I probably won’t be able to do this before 2009.

Bronzed and flighty

The 2008 BCPA National Skydiving Championships!

I dunno, still a rookie skydiver yet I’m actually getting points in the University leagues (a bronze for landing 3rd closest to the cross among the pre-qualified jumpers. Well, being a short fall from the Morecambe Bay quicksands was a huge incentive to aim right.)

In the end Warwick didn’t beat uber-sporty Loughborough U, but it’s a credit to Warwick Skydive that we even got close – placing second against teams from the UK’s centre of sporting research is a huge plus. And the event itself – organised by 20something kids working furiously behind the scenes for nothing except pride – was brilliant: plenty to do, well attended, and full of fun.

That’s the actual plane we jumped from, a PAC 750XL – undoubtedly the best plane I’ve ever exited the hard way. Fast climbing, smooth and quiet, no turbulence** and a dream to jump from. Brilliant. (The plane doesn’t have the shark’s teeth now, by the way – it was in a midair collision a year back and they’ve only just got it back, and it’s better than ever despite an uneven paint job. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.)

And the plane, it seems, is the best thing about Cark dropzone. I don’t know if it’s the MBA or just instinct, but it’s possible to ‘smell’ somehow when a business isn’t well run, and compared to places like Langar or Hibbaldstow this little DZ was a joke.

Ticketing and Manifesting were run as one operation, not two, with a whiteboard instead of a list – so you had to be ready to manifest when you bought your ticket; no freedom to jump when you want. As any chef will tell you, this is inefficient, since there’s no ‘signalling’ denoting how many people have ‘reserved tables’ and makes filling planes an ad hoc job without planning. This wastes customers’ time and loses the centre money. Bad.

Second, why the hell do they require separate payments (one in cash) for jump tickets and kit hire? These operations may be separate businesses for the dropzone people, but customers don’t care how many sets of accounts there are; we just want to jump. Miles from a cash machine, this procedure is inward-looking and unnecessary. Poor.

Third, they REALLY don’t like student parachutists at Cark. Buying a ticket, they almost made me feel they were doing me a favour. I appreciate it’s a hassle to hook up static lines, but today’s learners are tomorrow’s customers, and it’s shortsighted to cut off your future cashflows. Why don’t they treat trainees as an opportunity rather than a hassle? There’s no way I’d jump at Cark again even after qualification; they’ve lost me as a customer for life.

But all Cark’s faults were covered by the five days of skydiving fun, and even further by the parties and entertainments later (laser shows and bungee bouncing – cool!) And somehow I had no problem sleeping on the ground in bad weather; there’s something about being under a well-pitched tent in a weatherproof bag at night, with the rain and wind howling but not coming in, that just feels awesome.

(**’No turbulence’ is in skydiving terms of course. An 80mph wind is still pretty hairy.)

You don’t need a parachute to skydive; just to skydive twice…

Another weekend at a dropzone with Warwick’s amazing Skydiving Club, with great weather and plenty of manifest space on the Cesspits, sorry, the Cessnas. (I don’t like those planes much, but anything with a big door is fine after a few jumps.)

This weekend I’m on DRPs, where you have to demonstrate pulling out a dummy ripcord within a few seconds of leaving the aircraft. (The static line’s still pulling out your actual chute; the point here is that you’re showing you’d be capable of freefalling.) And then do it again. And again. Three in a row gets you to freefall; screwing up the third one puts you back at square one.

In contrast to most DRP students, my pulling-out technique is a little… relaxed. Both ‘good’ jumps, I was right on the five-second limit for a successful pull. I push myself out the door… wheee, this is fun, look at the scenery…. OK, time to start counting…. Two Thousand… Reach around…. There it is… OK, let’s see if it comes out…. wahey! Done! So for the third one, the instructor wanted to see a slightly faster pull.

I, er, screwed up the third one. Forgot to mention above: ‘…while maintaining a stable position’.

There are perhaps occasions where being upside down and rotating rapidly is stable, but falling through void a mile up isn’t one of them.

Yet somehow I’ve had no problem locating and pulling the toggle itself, even with the pack changing shape as the canopy deploys. Maybe it’s an indication of my general attitude towards life, but somehow seeing the ground above my head didn’t faze me. Just reached for the toggle and pulled, forgetting that above me (technically at that point below me) the instructor back on the plane would’ve been shaking his head sadly.

Quote from the debriefing instructor: “You pulled the toggle effectively, if we ignore the fact you were head down and spinning, which we er, won’t….”

Oh well; had a great weekend anyway. Roll on the nationals!

Now that’s what I call living on the edge

For those people who think skydiving just isn’t exciting enough, there’s wingsuiting! The jumpsuit creates lift and responds to body twists, so it’s a bit like skydiving with a very, very, very small canopy and faster response times… I’m several hundred jumps short of being qualified to try this, but it looks amazing.

Skydiving: the perfect weekend

Hope, mud, and sunburn. The three essentials of every truly perfect British weekend, and I experienced them on this one.

Up at Langar with Warwick University’s staggeringly efficient Skydiving Club, and it’s been great. I was running on empty after the Strategy & Practice module, but somehow 7 days of 3hrs sleep a night was do-able. A couple of jumps to build my RAPS static line experience, late in the day after winds on Sat, and a legendary set of twists in my canopy – TWICE. Once due to my over-nonchalance at exit (“Hey, all this training can’t make THAT much of a difference; I think I’ll just gently push off the aircraft this time – oops) and once due to the slipstream itself (“Great exit! The plane really pissed up the bag though.”)

As befits a roomful of people doing rather extreme things all weekend, the party later is suitably magnificent: lasers and a sound system that wouldn’t disgrace a London club, while the room fills with costumes: men in pants, even the Klan and Nazis put in an appearance. (‘Inappropriate’ is the theme.) Even I dance. And it takes a lot for me to dance. I head back to the tent about 4am, and plenty of people are still dancing. (Apparently until 6.15am. The beauty of a remote location is that the dancefloor and bar only close when there are no remaining customers.)

I love skydiving. And I love skydiving culture, too. On the edge.

I’m good at camping, being always intense as a child

There are probably more sensible things to be doing on a Saturday afternoon than putting up a tent in one’s college room, but at that moment I couldn’t think of one. (There is a reason: I haven’t used my tent in several years and may need it this weekend for skydiving.) Was gratified I can still get it up in less than ten minutes.

Dead calm on the edge

“Look up and in…. GO!

And I’m falling. Through fresh air with nothing more substantial in it than a few wisps of cloud. The ground is 4000ft below and the air is rushing past at 120kph.

Yet amid the chaotic whooshing, I feel strangely calm.

Because I know what to do. In 10 surprisingly physical hours yesterday, the RAPS instructors trained us to jump with a static line. All the stuff you need to do in the air, most of which happens in the five seconds before your parachute opens.

(Yes, I know it looks like a watercolour, but that’s me in the pic.)

I don’t do it quite textbook – my “ARCH THOUSAND, TWO THOUSAND…” speech is too fast, and when I look up the canopy’s still unfolding. You miss a lot by waiting, though: it’s a thing of beauty, like orchids expanding in timelapse photography. “Is it big?” No, but give it a moment…

Floating below a good canopy at last, I’m at peace.

Never been here before, but I recognise the place: it’s where you feel life at its fullest. The edge.

‘The edge’ is what I call any environment that’s alien to human beings, yet where by our resourcefulness we’re able to survive. Extreme cold in mountains, a searing desert, a solo jungle trek. Gore-Tex, Toyota, and Silva help us to balance on that line between life and death, as long as you know how to use them. The edge is where you learn what it means to be human.

Most species of animal live on the edge all the time. But too many of us humans have forgotten it, encased in our comfortable prophylactics of cities and services. We don’t appreciate running water or electricity or rooves over our heads because they’ve become too Normal, taken us too far from the edge.

All the problems of the world would just dissolve, if everyone lived closer to the edge.

And there’s a fairly strong case for skydiving being edge. Like all edges, it’s perfectly possible to survive and thrive simply by following certain rules. If I do something wrong, I’ll plummet a vertical mile and end up slightly dead. But as long as I don’t do anything stupid, there is only a one in four million chance that both my main and reserve ‘chutes will fail (far smaller still now the main’s inflated without trouble) and I’m in considerably less danger than crossing the street. Completely safe, in this utterly untenable environment.

I don’t have a care in the world, up here.

I was second out of the plane, so there’s only one ‘chute below me: he’s drifting some distance from the white X. Ha ha, I’m certainly not going to make that mistake. Let’s just line up with the landing arrow and do our three stage turn at 1000-500-300ft, shall we…

Two minutes later I’m directly above him, having turned around to face the wind for landing, and discovered the windspeed exactly matches the speed of the canopy. My descent is basically vertical, and I land in the muddy field several hundred metres from the X. Jumper 1 and I tramp back together.

But damn, it feels good. I’ve just traversed the distance between a plane in flight and the ground, VERTICALLY, using the contents of a rucksack. This rocks.

I’m the Buddha. I’m Zen. I’m the Bulletproof Monk. In a state of satisfied equilibrium that isn’t exhilaration; it’s more like… understanding. Comprehending the true vastness of human experience. And loving it.

Next challenge: 6 more jumps to start freefalling. The midterm goal is to freefall from 15,000ft by September. I’m on the ground now, but I’m still a mile high.

Managing the risks

As I walk back to the classroom, one guy in the air actually has to use his reserve chute. It’s rare, about 1 in 2000 jumps. But that’s not the point.

Skydiving isn’t about taking risks; it’s about managing them. Every jumper, every jump, has a reserve chute backing him up. There is a risk you’ll have trouble with your main chute; you manage that 1-in-2000 risk away by taking a spare, squaring the problem to 1-in-4-million. But that’s not the point either.

The point – as I realise over the afternoon’s training – is that the reserve chute is not an emergency procedure. It’s a normal procedure, because emergencies are part and parcel of your normal checks at the start of each jump. A normal jump is simply one where you considered all the options and decided not to deploy your reserve. On the very rare occasions you need it, you’ll simply take the other decision and deploy it. Based not on panic, but on having one ‘No’ answer among the three you ask yourself on every jump.

Life is not about avoiding risk, it’s about recognising and managing it. That’s what’s wrong with Britain’s ever-tighter Health & Safety culture: it assumes risk is something bad, something to be veered away from instead of confronted head-on. In newly risk-averse Britain, Health & Safety people are the biggest risk of all.

Because by trying to legislate away risk, they make us less capable of dealing with it. They forget that we are alive because we took risks. And learned how to manage them. We bob and dip a lot, but we soar. Luminous beings we are, not this crude matter.

There are no emergencies in parachuting; there are simply alternative courses of action.

Ready for the jump

Training for a skydive is almost as much fun as the jumping-out-of-aeroplanes part itself.

This weekend I’m at a small airfield doing some static line jumps, i.e. proper parachuting. A cable attached to the plane does the important work of pulling your ‘chute out, but after that you’re on your own. The main bits of training cover what happens in the first five seconds after jumping, and the last five before you hit the ground; everything in between is common sense.

The training is both interactive and entertaining.

We learn the basics first: what a ram-air system is, getting touchy-feely with an actual parachute. They’re surprisingly complex pieces of engineering: imagine a pack of sausages lying side by side, with holes in the skins allowing meat, sorry, I mean air, to swirl between sections in a controlled way, inflating the canopy part by part. Making sure this part by part goes smoothly is the main point of today.

‘Arching’ is fun. Splaying your arms and legs out and upwards creates a shuttlecock shape, with your hips out front (the instructor calls this ‘shagging a leper’) meaning you’ll fall stably and the ‘chute has a nice measured environment to open in. Getting this part wrong can have consequences I don’t want to think about just yet.

There’s a checklist post-exit from plane. We shout the checklist again and again. Is it big? Is it rectangular? Is it damage-free? Is it a nice colour? (OK, we added the last one as a joke since there are many girls in the training group.)

My practice exits are bit showy. “Stop leaping so much – you’re older than these guys and you think you’ve got something to prove.”

The plane we’ll jump from is one seriously cool chunk of metal: a little Dornier G92, slab-sided, scruffy of interior, and as noisy and smelly as an ancient diesel. But it shoots into the clouds in a way that suggests it knows EXACTLY what it’s doing. (Photo courtesy Alex Lane.) Scruffy frame and scuffed edges it may have, but everything is screwed together tight as a drum. Good workaday technology, just add pilot and stir.

When someone asks you what you this weekend, ‘Jumped out of an aeroplane’ is a pretty cool answer.