Humourous memoirs of a parachutist

Why did I parachute?

I heard that the landing is the most dangerous part of any plane flight I just kept losing my nerve and leaving early! Or perhaps I just needed a good subject to start conversations.

I think the real reason was that it simply looked exhilirating and fun.

Seriously, parachuting is a dangerous business. This is why 20% of the training is for the basic mechanics of the first jump assuming all goes well and the remaining 80% of the time is devoted to what you do when it doesn't.

If you pay attention in class the first jump is not really hazardous at all unless you're jumping at Shobdon, Hereford. They probably did a computer scan of nationwide ordnance survey maps in order to find ten acres with the most hazards in it and enough flat land for an airstrip in the middle.

Let's see- we had a cement factory, power lines, a field full of gliders and light aircraft, a scrap metal yard, a large orchard with young trees each tied to stakes- that must have been Vlad the impaler's fantasy in there- a sewerage farm and a field with a bull in it that hates parachutists- all within a few hundred metres of the pit.

Because of all these hazards they only let the newbies jump in the most favourable conditions. Less experienced jumpers spend most of their time in the cafeteria solving the world's problems, eating greasy food, drinking cheap coffee and waiting for the windsock to go down.

O'Brian was the boss of the place and there was no point even thinking about arguing the fact. He was massively overweight, wore a vivid quilted orange jacket at all times, a florid complexion and thinning hair. There was a rumour that he used to be in the Special Air Service, and given his general disdain for mere civilians I could believe it. If you can take a barrage of sarcastic, withering British military humour and still grin at the end, you can stand O'Brian's company. He probably hated civilians because we were allowed to grin.

He was the one who approached first time jumpers just as they were about to get into the plane and told them, deadpan, "remember what the Cherokee said". Then he would pause to register the questioning expressions and maximise the dramatic effect.

"Today is a good day to die".

Then he'd stroll nonchalantly back to the clubhouse.

There's a joke around the clubhouse that someone 'went in'. You know you're in a dangerous sport when they have such innocuous euphemisms for suffering violent and premature death. As I was saying, he 'went in'. One more digression, please? There is a legend of two jumpers who decided to kiss in free flight and lost all track of time. They died happy at least. True. All this account is true. OK back to this lonely single guy who 'went in'. He went to heaven and behold, it was an ideal perfect drop zone: Blue skies, limp windsock, a fantastic range of the latest ram air canopies to choose from, planes in tip top condition and a cafeteria that sells decent food.. There was also a huge bloke in an orange quilted jacket strutting around the place and yelling at everyone. 'Who's that?' asked the new arrival of some passing angel. 'Oh, that's God, he thinks he's O'Brian'

They say the first time you jump you're terrified because you don't know how it's all going to feel. The second time you're terrified because you do know how it's going to feel. After that you just get used to being terrified and you have fun with it.

There were quite a number of interesting folk in that place but the owner of all the best legends was Bob. Bob was the chief pilot for the parachuting club. He used to be a parachutist but he had lost his bottle, they all said. Apart from the regular slew of first time jumpers, most of which never returned, there were only two types of folk in the club, the addicts who were destined to be 'skygods' and associated honorary folk. . These latter were still addicts at heart so they needed some excuse to be there, usually a boyfriend or girlfriend on the dropzone somewhere, but they were too scared to actually jump again. They got their vicarious safe thrills by hanging around the cafeteria or bar and listening to the escapades of the skygods. I was a potential skygod who quit to try out kibbutz instead.

I'll get back to Bob in a minute.

The guys were really all very pleasant and well mannered people as I said, except at times they had a slightly sadistic disposition. This manifested itself superbly when I went to select my canopy for my first ever free fall jump. They crowded in behind me like a pack of gleeful vultures and watched me choose.

"Uh oh, she's taking number 47!" "Not 47! You remember what happened last time that was used..." Ominous murmurs and silence.

"Look, she's changed her mind! Now she's going for number 50! That's a really stiff pull! Jack had to use both arms and a leg to open that one, remember?" "Yeah right" Snicker.

More muted snickers. "60!! Are you sure? You have a death wish today or something?"

At this point I just grabbed one at total random, not even daring to look at the number, and chased all the schoolboys out of the locker room, each stifling his howls of delight at the anguish they'd just subjected me to.


Bob suffered much more anguish the day he decided to back out of a parachute jump. Well, perhaps 'back out' is not quite the right expression since he was desperately trying to climb forward and up, back into the aircraft. Noone noticed him for a minute or so since his hands had just caught the lip below the door when he had sudden last minute second thoughts about his jump. Actually he was having, 'last second second thoughts.' The plane had circled and was getting in position for the next jump when Bob's pleading face rose into view.

Jack the instructor, and a mean, keen ex- marine, swore colourfully and applied his boots to the groping, climbing fingers - one, two. Just like that.

He was not a sadist. Just practical.

Well, we know Bob survived that.

You see, Bob had a serious existential problem. His choice of parachutes threatened to terminate his existence. He experienced an unusually high frequency of malfunctions. Noone can really account for this phenomenon- I suppose just as some people are accident prone some people are just malfunction prone and Bob was one of these unique individuals who attract disaster. Perhaps he had some sort of magnetic attraction to parachutes which are destined to fail. Who knows?

My favourite legend about him concerned the debacle of the automatic opening device. This sophisticated device is mounted on the reserve chute. If the main fails the device registers the rapid fall and opens the reserve for you if the jumper passes out or doesn't have the presence of mind to pull the reserve ripcord.

Noone has adequately explained the mechanism of this device to me - I expect it registers rapidly changing air pressure or something like that, or perhaps it picks up the psychic impression of someone's life flashing before his eyes. At any rate, O'Brian, Jack and just about everyone took great pains to get across to us that the O.E.D. is an extremely expensive piece of equipment and if you should lose it you have to go grid search the piece of Hereford you dropped it in or pay the club two hundred quid. That's priorities for you. Well, of course, on this particular legendary jump Bob's main chute failed and he didn't have the presence of mind to pull the reserve ripcord and he didn't faint. Instead he tore off the O.E.D. and threw it as far and as hard as he could. I guess for some obscure and unexplored reason he thought it was the ripcord. After a few scant seconds of bafflement, (since clearly nothing was opening) he, mercifully, identified the real ripcord and pulled it. We can assume the latter because he was still alive when this story was told.

He never actually told me any of his stories in person. They were simply legends which he suffered the retelling and would nod wearily and resignedly if someone would come and ask him for the nine hundredth time if they were true.

I was generally pretty good at handling my canopy so I usually hit the pit or nearby but on a couple of occasions, totally not my fault you understand, I went a little wide. Well, OK the first time it might have been a little bit my fault, though I claim the wind changed about ninety degrees at least. I knew I was in trouble when I heard Bob over the one way-radio- the presence of that device tells you what a novice I was at the time, 'you know where you're going, don't land in a fence or anything'.

The 'or anything' was laden with meaning since I was headed for the sewerage works. I was incredibly lucky, or perhaps just skillful, and twisted down onto one of the few patches of grass in the place, a triangle just a few square metres in area.

Then I had to get out of there.

It was first necessary to open the shoulder buckles, free the parachute from the harness and then climb up the surrounding fence high enough to pass it over to the person waiting on the other side. That was relatively easy, but then I was faced with a new and dire reality. The sewerage farm was locked up for the weekend and I had to scale the wire fence- probably only ten feet high or maybe fifteen but in my memory it was at least twenty five and didn't have much purchase for my army boots. Well the fellow on the other side guided me and since I had plenty of incentive, I mean, who wants to spend the entire weekend locked in a sewerage farm, I soon managed the fence, though I confess, my knees did buckle and tremble at times... I think I had more vertigo climbing that darn fence than I had leaving the plane two thousand five hundred feet (minus about fifteen) higher.

This reminds me of the daring fools who broke the rules at Yosemite national park and jumped off the magnificent basalt cliff, El Capitan, about five thousand feet high. One of them landed quite safely in a thirty foot tree, then fell out of that and killed himself.

The other time I strayed from the pit was certainly not my fault. It was a dusk jump and a practice rip-cord pull. The wind decided to be perverse as the night began to close in, swung around 180 degrees and picked up. It decided to do this just after I left the plane but just didn't bother telling anyone of its intentions, least of all, me. I was steering directly against the wind but despite this I soon realised I was going to seriously overshoot the pit. I could see I was headed straight for the orchard with the mean forest of sharpened stakes. If I were more experienced I would have seen this a little sooner and spiralled down but I wasn't so I didn't. Instead I did the next logical thing, I simply turned the canopy around and went with the wind. Phew! I just made it and landed in freshly ploughed field on the other side. Landing in a freshly ploughed field is sheer luxury, especially when you know you've just escaped being skewered and shishkebabed.

They sent a car to get me.

Now the lads on the airfield are all gentleman but they are lads after all, so a girl has to have the right sort of expectations. One of these expectations is that you are going to be the butt of some practical jokes. New jumpers are completely fair game for practical jokes and whenever we had a new batch of innocent subjects I was soon amongst those who were struggling to keep a straight face as we anticipitated the moment of glee when the joke would break. I also felt pretty smart and smug since they had not yet succeeded in duping me.

Most of the jokes were rigged at the local pub, a necessary venue for jumpers after their first day. At this point they are aching from hours of practise landings and they desperately need to sit down and have a beer. If they sit at the bar and ask for a pub dinner they are likely to meet a large fake spider which will suddenly appear before them. Most will discover an arachnophobia they never knew they had. Mean. Then, of course, there was a coin glued to the floor. I set up one guy with that and he hated me for it but thought nothing of spiking my drink on another occasion..

Then there was the group photo. All new jumpers would sit on a bench to be photographed. Then the barman would throw a switch and all the poor credulous fools would leap from their seats as if they've been kicked in the behind, which they had, or they felt they had. Not me, I was still standing because the aura of ominous and barely suppressed mirth was impossible to miss.

So when, in the course of a party, they set me up as copilot in a reenaction of a Lancaster bomber I was pretty cocky. I didn't care. I smelled a rat but I was in that sort of mood so decided to do it anyway. John, one of the instructors, (another S.A.S. guy who just happened to be O' Brian's son in law and a real mensch) took, me aside and told me it was a set up.

'OK', I grinned.


So the narrator began his tale. Different guys took their positions as rear bombers, forward bombers, engines, pilot, whatever. The imaginary Lancaster bomber flew across the English channel and entered German airspace. We got into a few exciting and vividly retold dogfights with the Messerschmidts we encountered and lost various parts of the aircraft in the action. In one vicious attack the pilot was shot and I had to move in and take over.

Another attack and there was fire in the cockpit. Fire in the cockpit! Now what! What was I supposed to do!

I didn't have to worry about that a moment longer since I was suddenly drenched by the remains of everyone's beer, bombarded by lots of uproarious laughter and comments such as 'you smell luvly!'

I ran, or should I say, I staggered out of there fast, rubbing beer out of my eyes, my soaked clothes clinging to me, and made for the showers. I don't quite remember what loud remarks I was making on the way.

When lads like these grow up they become S.A.S. superheroes but for some not so strange reason they don't lose their penchant for jokes. They probably never actually really grow up at all, but who complains when they rescue hostages from terrorized embassies? When they're not fighting the crimson jihad, which is enough to make anyone need to retain his sense of humour, they're playing games with the Americans and the French.

There are quite a number of American airbases on British soil- in fact, any large flat uninhabited area is bought up by America and used as an airbase. I think I'm finally beginning to understand why we were left with Shobdon. Anyway, the SAS bet the U.S. airforce that their guys could land in the airbase undetected. Of course the U.S. accepted the bet and lost it a little while later when several parachutists suddenly materialized in the middle of the base and nobody had even noticed the plane.

How did they do it? The S.A.S skydivers left the plane well outside the airspace over the base. Then they 'tracked' into position- that is, they shaped their bodies something like a dolphin. This causes them to descend very rapidly, something like 180 mph while moving 'forward' at about 60 mph. In a standard spread eagle jump the skydiver is dropping about 120 mph and not moving horizontally anywhere. You can't mess around in freefall, if you change your position around other people you could find yourself kicking someone's nose off or vice versa. You don't meet a friend for a tete a tete when you're tracking. If you're lucky you'll miss anyway. So they tracked over the base from a high altitude, spread out in the last few seconds and opened canopies at the minimum safe height. And there they were. The Yankees bought the drinks.

After outwitting the Americans the boys decided to take on the French. For this jump they left the planes over English soil at high altitude, opened the canopies early- they probably took oxygen along since over 12,000 feet you need it if you've not spent a year meditating in Tibet. Then they sailed down gently, using Ram Air canopies- which gives you up to 20 mph forward velocity - admiring the view, enjoying the fresh breezes from the channel and finally hitting French ploughed fields somewhere near Calais.

Everything seemed just lovely till the Gendarmerie came along and put them all in a cell overnight.

Nobody thought of taking along his passport..... I mean, the Americans didn't ask for a Visa or anything..

The French just don't have a sense of humour, I don't know why.

Now we finally come to the Tragic Accident which temporarily curtailed my jumping career. There was other negative stuff I didn't bother mentioning, such as the time my best zoom lens camera was stolen by a gang of Neonazis, or the time I ended up sleeping outdoors in the frost or the time I escaped to the local pub to flee a three hundred pound sex maniac, you know, the usual bad stuff that goes down occasionally at drop zones but you forget that nonsense the next time you sniff that glorious whiff of plane fuel and strap on your pack and wait in the manifest area in the sun...

They say that a jumper never quits. Even if you think you've quit you've really only gone into semi retirement and one day, when you're a granny or a grandad, you'll strap on a pack, eyes glazed with nostalgia, and go raid Entebbe or something, but then on the thirteenth of August, 1981 I nearly met my doom.

It was a freefall jump at three thousand two hundred feet. I had a five second delay and then I was to pull my ripcord. Or was it three seconds? It's been too long... This time for some reason I cannot fathom, I did not find the ripcord right away. Maybe it was one of those suspicious rigs. Perhaps I should have paid attention to the boys after all. Perhaps the boys had painted the handle with camouflage paint. Perhaps I was wearing too many clothes and couldn't quite bend and reach it. It can get pretty cold at that altitude in the U.K, even in August. I started to curl as I looked around for it.

When you curl in free fall, aerodynamics can do stuff you didn't have in mind.' Ground, sky, ground, sky, ground, sky, hmm that's an interesting phenomenon. I guess I'm tumbling. Ah, there it is finally.' Only it wasn't really like that. It was more like grnd!sk!grnd!hmthtblngwrpcdfk!!! It was pretty amazing to see actually. They told me it was pretty scarey to see from the ground too. All five hundred plus feet of it. Those were the longest six and a half seconds I ever lived in my entire life. When the parachute finally began to bloom the cords wrapped around my arm and snapped it. My entire being was focussed in my right humerus and I lived a very brief and very vivid shock of pain which subsided into complete numbness just as quickly.

It was obviously broken, but thank God the skin was not broken, and thank God the parachute opened anyway. I drew the arm gently down with my left arm and rested it in a safe position on top of the reserve. I only had my left arm to control the toggles and I couldn't reach the right toggle which meant I couldn't turn to the right. If I wanted to go thataway I would have to turn all the way around, which meant I would spiral down at a faster rate and I didn't have much time left to land.

I wasn't far from the pit but I was going to hit the runway. Another thank God. Thank God there was no plane taking off, and finally, thank God I landed with no further injury, protecting my right arm as I rolled.

For some reason, O'Brian did not believe me. I told him it was broken but he assured me, very authoritatively, that it was just badly sprained and I'd be swinging it around in five minutes. He also said lots of rude things about women on drop zones and suggesting I ought to take up the violin and I don't quite remember what else now. 'I'll be swinging it around into your face in five minutes.' I thought to myself.

The next day I REALLY ENJOYED waving the X ray in his face.

Of course, I had to face calling my parents but I figured that and a broken arm are the expected costs in the creation of a new legend of the drop zone. .

Copyright © 2002 Gila Atwood

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