CNPS numbers spotted 6 (846).
Predictably I didn't sleep too well last night. And it was a very early start as I had to be in Oxfordshire by 9.30am. I probably only had two hours sleep which made the early morning drive probably the most dangerous part of my day as I struggled to keep my eyes open.
But maybe being in a bit of a sleep-walking (well sleep-driving) trance wasn't such a bad thing. I proceeded to the air-field like an unthinking automaten, still unable to comprehend the magnitude of what I was doing today.
I arrived much too early, despite having stopped for a coffee on the way - as it might be my last day on earth I also allowed myself a final bar of chocolate. If your body is splattered on to the ground it doesn't really matter if you're carrying extra weight. In fact it will just make the splatter all the more impressive. So I sat in my car waiting for everyone else to arrive. An occasional wave of nausea would pass over me when I tried to think about what was going to be happening in the next few hours. The question, "What the fuck am I doing?" went through my head a few times. For a brief second or two I considered turning round and driving home, but that would only postpone the inevitable.
Eventually other cars pulled up with some other people looking a bit tentative and joshing with one another and laughing a bit too much. They were clearly going to be jumping too.
Then I met up with Ian who had organised the whole thing for me. He showed me round the hangar, where various adventurous looking men were packing parachutes (with care, but still a little too nonchalently for my liking). He was hopeful that I would get on the first plane and as the sky was looking mainly blue (with some ominous cloud in the distance) that might mean being out of the plane by 10.30. I suppose it was a good idea to get it over with quickly. I was still in a bit of a daze.
As I signed my forms absolving the club of responsibility for my death a video was playing of someone else's jump. It still couldn't really make me get a grip on what was going to happen to me. I wasn't really feeling nervous, just numb.
Me and the other jumpers were then given a talk by one of the team, explaining how the parachute worked and what we were expected to do. It became clear that there were a lot of safety features in the parachute pack to make sure your parachute deployed. Not only was there a back-up shoot, but a little chip in the top which measured height and speed and which would open the parachute automatically if anyone forgot to pull the cord. The only thing that could go wrong it seemed is that the guy I was jumping with could accidentally put on his ruck-sack instead of his parachute and then when he pulled the cord his sandwiches would come flying out, like in a cartoon.
All this was very reassuring, as was the fact that really we were expected to do very little. Basically the man we were strapped to would do everything and we just had to try and keep our bodies in a shape that would help him balance and then get our legs out of the way when we were coming into land. I wouldn't even really have to jump as once we were up there I would basically be sitting on his knee on the edge of the plane and then he'd push us off. Of course I would have to be sitting with my legs dangling out of a plane for a while, which was a worrying thought. We would start the free-fall with my arms across my chest and then when the fella behind tapped me on the shoulder I could bring my arms out and wave at the camera and goof around and so on. Simple.
Very quickly I was being put into a jump suit and a harness by my tandem instructor, Ralph. He had that typical hard man bonhomie, enjoying the fact that he knew what he was doing and that I was nervous and taking the piss. But I wasn't going to complain. After all he had the power to undo all the clips that would be holding me to him and send me plummeting into the ground.
There was a slight delay as the pilot who was meant to be there today was unwell. I wondered if this meant they'd be getting the tea-lady to fly the thing, but I think they probably just rang another pilot. Then we headed down to the air-field. It was our ten minute call. Ian looked dubiously at a large patch of approaching cloud. We were going to have to wait for that to pass, so it was back to sit down in the club-house. Maybe if the weather stayed like this forever then I wouldn't have to jump. It was worth a life-time of rain in order to save myself at this late stage.
Within half an hour a patch of blue sky was approaching and this time we were off. We strode towards the small plane, with the cameraman encouraging us to lark around. I was surprised to find that I wasn't feeling nervous at all. This was just something I had to do and soon it would be over. It was rather like the way I feel before a gig these days. I was focused, but not scared. Weirdly on any other occassion flying in such a little plane would have made me nervous, but the fact that I was going to be jumping out of the plane in a few minutes made such a fear rather frivolous.
There were two guys doing solo jumps, one other pair doing a tandem and two cameramen to record the event for posterity. We packed ourselves carefully into the small space. We were very close together. I had to sit between Ralph's legs as he attached us together. But because we were about to do something extremely macho we could allow ourselves these minutes of unusual male closeness.
Even though I could see Oxfordshire spreading away beneath me I was still not really able to comprehend what I was about to do. I just hoped Ralph hadn't forgotten to do up the buckles that would hold us together.
I had no choice in the matter now; the only way out of the plane was to jump. If we didn't go then the people behind us woudln't be able to jump either. I am English and thus would rather career to my death than create a socially awkward moment. I wish whoever it was who farted in the plane at this moment had had the same respect for others. He could at least have waited til he got outside.
Then we were at 12,000 feet, the door opened and people started jumping out. I sat on Ralph's knees and we shuffled to the door. It was indeed extremely freaky to be sitting with my legs dangling out of a moving plane and now I had a few seconds where I was finally able to comprehend what was about to happen. The cameraman was hanging off the plane and he counted down and we jumped.
I may have screamed like a girl. I really can't remember.
Free-fall was an incredible and weird experience. I was also trying to concentrate on keeping my head up and my body in the right shape and to cope with the sudden lunge of falling downwards at 120mph. (if I had only thought about doing this during the Marathon I would have finished in abotu 12 minutes) It was a very exhilarating feeling and now there was little point in worrying about anything. There was literally no turning back. Then the parachute deployed and the descent seemed to stop and it felt like we were just hanging in the air. Of course we were still descending reasonably quickly, but after the lurching and the rush of the air speeding past us, all was peaceful and quiet. It was an incredible feeling and one you are only really going to understand by trying this for yourself. I do recommend it. It was awesome. Ralph put us through some spins and pointed out some sights. We saw the jumpers after us on their descent: hurtling towards the ground at what seemed like impossible speed. Of course just seconds before that had been us. Their parachutes deployed and all was well with the world.
I was practically speechless about it all, managing just the occasional "fucking hell" or "wow". Even in the midst of doing it all it felt unreal and yet I was still able to feel amazement that I was actually doing this. I mean me. For whom something like this was one of the worst things imaginable.
Yet now I was doing it, I was pretty muchy loving it, though I also felt slightly sick.
Yet it couldn't go on forever; the whorish force of gravity was pulling us down to earth. The ground was approaching fast. Ralph told me to lift up my legs and then suddenly we were colliding with the world- a bit more forcefully than I had imagined. Ralph had slightly mis-timed it and I ended up landing on my bum with a jolt. But there was no harm done. And another task was completed.
I spent the rest of the day in complete amazement at what I had done, mixed with pride, mixed with the same surreal sense that made it hard to believe it had actually happened. Did I feel like more of a man? Perhaps.
Maybe the world was also seeing me with more respect.
In the evening I was walking down the street on my way out. A handsome young man was walking towards me carrying some flowers. I smiled the smile of a man who knows that another man is on his way to impress someone (and hopefully going to get some). He stopped and said, "I notice you are chewing gum. You should try one of these instead." He held up a box of Smints, but they were fruit flavoured Smints. "They're really good, I promise," he added persuasively. My mum told me not to accept sweets from strangers, but he had a bunch of flowers and rather beautiful, trustworthy eyes so I said I'd give one a go, on the assurance that they weren't coated with acid or anything. I took out my chewing gum and popped in the fruity Smint and it was indeed quite pleasant. "See, tasty and refreshing in one quick hit," he said, very much as if we were in an advert. I thanked him and went on my way.
The only explanation is that he was somehow able to sense that I was the kind of man who would throw himself out of a plane. My life has changed forever.