I was back in Wolverhampton for the final year of my degree – and in January 1980 my friend and fellow student, Sd, told me she was going to do a parachute jump. She was clearly excited. I thought she was mad – and I said as much, both to her and to a mutual friend, Dt, who happened to be one of the parachute instructors (jumpmasters).
“You’d never get me jumping out of a plane,” I told Dt. “I’m scared of heights.”
“So am I,” he said.
Well that’s scuppered my argument, I thought. Maybe I wanted to impress Dt – or maybe I was suffering from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Either way, I found myself signing up to do a parachute jump on the same weekend as Sd.
The training took place over two days, with a static line parachute jump scheduled for the end of the second day, weather permitting – it wasn’t safe to jump if there was too much wind. I enjoyed the training – I always love opportunities to learn something new – but the closer we got to the actual jump, the more nervous I felt.
“I’m going to do a parachute jump!” Sd squealed on the Sunday afternoon, bouncing up and down like a Jack-in-the-box. Her boyfriend didn’t look quite so enthusiastic, but he could hardly back out now. Ever the realist, I couldn’t help thinking “doesn’t she realise we could all die?!!”
We had practised how to exit from the Cessna plane, on the ground, and how to get ready for landing – but we hadn’t mentally prepared for the bit in between: launching ourselves into the Void.
At 2,500 feet the pilot throttled back on the engine, and the plane slowed to around 80 mph. The other three in my batch had already jumped – I was the last one. When called, I followed the protocol I had been taught.
First I shuffled on my knees to the open door, located behind the right wing of the plane, and grabbed hold of the door frame, placing my thumbs on the outside. Next, I put my left foot on a small plate over the landing wheel. Then I transferred my left hand to a strut attaching the overhead wing to the side of the fuselage and gradually inched my way along the strut, hand over hand, until I was standing upright on the step with both hands firmly attached to the strut and my right leg dangling in mid-air.
The final stage was to look left, into the cabin, and smile at the jumpmaster,Dt, to show that I was ready to jump. In my case, it was more of a grimace.
“Go!” Dt shouted.
“I can’t,” I replied through gritted teeth.
My brain just couldn’t make sense of the idea of throwing myself out of a perfectly safe airplane into 2,500 feet of nothing. It’s not like jumping off a 6 foot diving board into a swimming pool – and I had enough trouble doing even that, when I was younger.
When you look down from half a mile up, nothing on the ground is recognisable – it’s so tiny. I knew that the parachute was intended to protect me, and to provide a gentle descent to the ground – but I was having difficulty comprehending the vast empty space in between.
The next thing I knew, Dt had leaned out and grabbed my left hand, pulling me back into the plane. I didn’t manage to do a jump that day – I was brought back down in the plane, feeling annoyed with myself for having failed to complete what I had set out to do.
“Never mind,” Dt said. “We can’t all be good at everything.”
His comment was probably intended to make me feel better, but instead it infuriated me. I’m good at learning things intellectually, but I have difficulty doing things that don’t make sense to me, or that I can’t visualise – and I don’t take failure well.
When the plane landed, the pilot asked if I was OK – he realised something must have gone wrong, when the plane tipped over to the right, as Dt leaned out to rescue me. I confided in him that I was annoyed with myself and wanted to have another go at doing a parachute jump.
“Why don’t you ask Dt if you can do another jump?” the pilot said. So I did.
Dt was open to the idea – but he had some conditions. I had to go to the skydiving club every weekend for a month and get involved in whatever was going on – and I had to read “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull” by Richard Bach and tell Dt what I had learned from it.
So that’s what I did. Every weekend, for a month, I cadged a lift to the airfield, which was miles from anywhere, in the middle of the countryside. Once there, I made cups of tea and hung out with the other jumpers – watching TV and keeping an eye on the weather.
I even learned how to pack a parachute.
After a month, I told Dt that I wanted to have another go at a parachute jump. He knew that I had spent weekends at the club – so that was one box ticked.
“Did you read Jonathan Livingstone Seagull?” he asked.
“And what did you learn?”
“That I can do anything if I set my mind to it.”
That ticked the second box, so Dt agreed to let me do another jump.
I had a condition of my own that needed to be settled first, though – I wanted someone else to be the jumpmaster so that, in the eventuality that I refused to jump again, I would be pushed out of the plane. As a friend, I didn’t believe Dt would do that.
As I walked out to the plane with my new jumpmaster, Ph, he said that he knew my history and would push me out of the plane if I refused. In turn, I confirmed that was what I wanted.
Once again I was the last jumper out of four. Once again I followed the protocol – grabbing the doorframe; putting one foot on the step; inching my way along the strut, hand over hand until I was standing on the step with my right leg dangling in mid-air, and smiling in at Ph.
“Go!” he shouted.
“I can’t,” I replied after a moment’s pause.
It takes three seconds for a static line parachute to open, once the jumper has left the step. The static line is attached to the top of the parachute at one end, and to the plane at the other. As the jumper falls, the static line pulls the parachute out of the bag on the jumper’s back, until it’s fully deployed; then a small piece of string, tying the static line to the top of the parachute, snaps – releasing the parachute from the plane. The parachute forms an envelope around the air beneath it, to support the jumper as s/he drifts toward the Earth.
During those three seconds, several things happened.
Ph had leaned out of the plane and peeled the fingers of my left hand off the strut beneath the wing – so, unable to hold on with just one hand, I fell from the step; the static line started to deploy the parachute – but I was twisting as I fell, so the static line was trapped between my left arm and my body; I thought about moving my arm, to avoid injury – but then I thought my hand might get caught in the parachute’s guide lines when it opened, so I left my arm where it was; the parachute opened; I moved my arm over the guidelines to a normal position.
For the next couple of minutes I drifted gently through the Void toward solid ground. It was such a magical feeling, and I’m not sure I can describe it accurately.
Time stood still, and the rest of the world ceased to exist. I was completely alone, in a silent bubble, and yet I felt totally supported. I realise now that it was a spiritual experience – although I wouldn’t have had the words then to express that feeling. It was like being in another realm. I was not in control, and it felt wonderful – as though I had surrendered myself totally to the protection of forces other than my own will. Many years later, when I read the book “Dying to be Me”, Anita Moorjani’s description of her Near Death Experience (NDE) probably came closest to what I felt that day.
There was no Fear, only Peace. And Love.
Most people do parachute jumps for the adrenaline rush – they can’t wait to get their three good static line jumps out of the way, so they can progress to doing free-fall jumps. But, as an introvert, I don’t need an adrenaline rush – I get enough of that every time I set foot outside my house.
To this day, I don’t really know what possessed me to do a parachute jump against my better judgement. Perhaps a part of me knew that it would be extraordinary – something I couldn’t experience any other way – and that it would help me understand Fear.
And the Void.
Back on the ground, I knew I wanted to repeat that extraordinary experience. I knew that I would be safe once I was “under canopy” – cradled by my open parachute. All that remained was to overcome my fear of letting go of the perceived safety of the plane.
I thanked Ph for pushing me and told him that I wanted to have another go.
“If you don’t jump, I’ll push you out again,” he said.
That was alright with me. Sometimes we need a little push, to help us achieve what we most want.
The scene was set for the following weekend. This time I was number three out of four jumpers. When it was my turn to move toward the door, I started to doubt myself.
“I don’t think I can do it,” I said, as I drew alongside Ph.
I expected him to get angry and call me names. Instead, he nudged me gently in the ribs.
“Give it a go,” he said. So I did.
Once again I followed the protocol until I was standing on the step and smiling in at Ph. Only this time, I didn’t wait for him to shout “go” – I had already let go of the strut and was falling toward the Earth. It was a messy exit, but it got the job done.
Once again I experienced being cocooned in a magical environment which bore no relationship to the world I had become accustomed to.
After I landed, I thanked Ph again and said that I wanted to have another go. Although I had successfully let go of the strut that kept me attached to the plane, it hadn’t felt like a conscious decision – more of an automatic reaction. Next time, I wanted it to be a more conscious choice.
The following weekend I packed my own parachute and walked out to the plane again – this time with Dt as the jumpmaster. He put me in first place out of four – the position where you can cause the most damage to the most people if you get it wrong.
Standing on the step, looking in and smiling at Dt, I waited for him to shout “go.”
When he did, I let go of the strut and journeyed to Earth as before. It wasn’t a perfect exit, but at least, for a change, I landed on an area of grass rather than in the middle of the runway. Altogether a more conscious experience.
There was no need for me to go back to the skydiving club after that – I had no further interest in skydiving. But I have carried that extraordinary experience with me ever since.
I had learned what I came to learn:
- I can overcome my greatest fears
- Letting go of my perceived notions of safety is easier than I might imagine
- It’s OK to surrender control over my life to the unknown forces that surround me.
I also learned that I can do anything if I set my mind to it.