It was actually thanks to my doctor that I ended up jumping out of a plane. I’d been scanning through one of the regular email updates from Parkinson’s UK and seen that they wanted people to take part in a charity tandem skydive, but at that point for some reason the idea hadn’t grabbed me. It wasn’t until I went in to see my GP about a week or so later that I was suddenly seized by a burning desire to separate myself from a perfectly functioning aircraft at 14,000ft.
I’d gone in, because I needed to get yet another doctor’s note. This time it was for insurance so I could go go-karting for my mate’s stag do. The doctor was new to the practice, so she was giving my notes a thorough read and smiling as she did: doctor’s notes for a driving license, doctor’s note for a charity abseil off the Liver Buildings, multiple notes for insurance to sail on tall ships, a note to support a shotgun license application (denied! Apparently Parkinson’s + shotgun = carnage!), now one for go-karting. She looked up from the computer screen and laughed, “What’s next? Flying?” I have no idea why, but as soon as she said that, it clicked. Her face was something of a picture when I turned up a few weeks later with the fitness to jump form in hand.
Still, that was the easy bit! Making the commitment to raise a minimum £495 was much more of a challenge. I remember sitting in front of my computer thinking, “How on earth am I going to manage that?” Enter the winning combination of Just Giving and Facebook! Once I had the Just Giving page set up and announced my plan on FB money started to roll in from all over. It was up to £100 in no time, which was very reassuring, because it made £495 seem an infinitely more achievable goal. By the time I’d put an email round at the office the money was flying in (no pun intended!). So much so that not only was it reassuring, it was touching. People were getting genuinely excited about helping me achieve this! I joked that they were just trying to get rid of me, but everyone was fantastic.
The cake sale they organised at work was epic! People in the office baked cakes, their mother’s baked cakes, husbands and wives baked cakes! We had more cake than I thought we could sell, but I was wrong! I’m pretty sure we must have come very close to the cake consumption limit for the building though. People donated some stunning raffle prizes too, including a two litre bottle of vodka, and not the cheap stuff either! Between the cakes, the raffle, donation box and sponsorship forms we raised over £400 on that day alone.
Down at the Baltic Fleet pub my so called mates were pitching in too, encouraging me with a constant supply of links to YouTube clips with titles like “Skydive FAIL!” and “When Skydiving Goes Wrong!” Thanks guys! Still, they all put down their pints and put their hands in their pockets too. Tom, the bar manager, put in £100! Hero!
As the day drew near I realised that getting out to the airfield was going to be a bit of a challenge too. Langar Airfield was a Lancaster bomber base in World War II, but now its home to the British Parachute School and it’s a bit out in the sticks. Without a car this was going to be interesting. After checking the train and bus schedules it was clear that I’d have to go down on the Friday if I wanted to get registered to jump in time on the Saturday. After prowling around online looking for cheap B&B’s in the area, of which there appeared to be none, I noticed on the airfield web site that they had a “bunk house” which was not only conveniently situated on the airfield, but was also incredibly conveniently free! Ram on!
To be fair, as journey plans go, in the end it didn’t sound too bad, three hours on the train from Liverpool to Nottingham, an hour on the bus out to the lovely village of Langar and then about a mile walk out to the airfield.
The train leg went smoothly enough, but sitting on the bus I did start to wonder if the driver had some kind of problem with open spaces and greenery that gave him a death wish. It seemed the further we got out of the city and the deeper we got into the countryside the faster and more erratically he drove, charging down the narrow lanes and round blind corners with total abandon. By the time I stepped off I was quite relieved to be able to walk across the road and straight into The Unicorn’s Head for a pint!
Funnily enough though, it was the last stretch which turned out to be the hairy bit. It seems the only thing more alarming than being on a bus driven by a suicidal driver, erratically racing along country lanes at break neck speed is making your way along those same country lanes on foot with no pavement as that bus and various other vehicles driven by equally unbalanced individuals careen past! By the time I got to the airfield skydiving held no fear at all.
When I walked into the airfield bar I was greeted by Shaggy, who was kind enough to point me in the direction of the bunk house. When he pointed at the building my face must have had “You are kidding?” written all over it, because he just smiled, shrugged and turned back toward the bar. To be fair, I’d been warned the bunk house was basic, in fact when I’d called the airfield to ask about it I’d been advised to camp! But not having a tent and not wanting to have to deal with everything a tent entails, like poles and bits of string and all that putting it up stuff, I’d told myself the bunk house couldn’t be that bad… But it was. To call it a shed would be polite!
I decided the best course of action was to dump my bag, grab my book and head back to the bar. When I entered the only other people in there apart from Shaggy was a group of about eight people sitting around a table. They were laughing and drinking and it looked like they’d been at it for a quite a while, so I had a quick chat to Shaggy, got a beer, grabbed a seat and settled down to read. I was just getting absorbed when a shout came over, “Is it a good read? Yeah, you!” , which was rapidly followed by an invitation to join them! Well, it would have been rude not to, so over I went. Then came the following icebreaker:
“So, where do you usually jump?”
“ I’ve never jumped before.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m doing a charity tandem jump tomorrow.”
“Tandem!? Tandems NEVER turn up the night before! “
“This one does!”
“ Fair play! Fancy a drinking game?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
“Shaggy! Jager bombs!”
From that point forward, let’s just say, what happens in Langar, stays in Langar!
Suffice to say I don’t remember getting back to the bunk house and woke up feeling somewhat the worse for wear. The inside of my mouth tasted like the bottom of a bird cage and my stomach was a boiling cauldron of half digested Jagermeister and stale beer! I rolled up my sleeping bag, threw it in my bag and headed for the main building. I had two goals; first get registered to jump and second get a bacon roll. If I could achieve those two simple things everything else would fall into place.
I decided to register myself first, because the jumps were scheduled on a first come, first served basis and I knew there were a lot of people jumping. As soon as I’d put my paw print on the dotted line though, it was tea with five sugars and a greasy bacon roll, rapidly followed by more tea and sausages! Heaven!
Outside the day was starting with low cloud cover which meant no one could jump. I was told you have to be able to see your landing area from the plane, which I guess makes sense, unless you fancy landing on a motorway. So, all we could do was wait, which was a problem, because I needed to get back to Liverpool that day and the last bus from Langar village was at 4pm. Apart from not wanting to spend another night in the bunk house, the next day was my birthday and I was joining the tall ship Pelican Of London in Liverpool to sail over to Belfast, so I was on something of a schedule. I was explaining my plight to one of my fellow survivors from the night before when he raised a hand to stop me.
“Hang on, you’re going to jump out of a plane! And all you’re worried about is missing the last bus back to Nottingham?”
“Hm, hadn’t thought of it like that.”
The call we were all waiting for came finally came about an hour later, the first flights were going up. Game on! Each time a plane took people up it was called a lift and once they got going the lifts were surprisingly frequent. Even so, it was another couple of hours before I heard my name called. And that’s when the calm kicked in. I wasn’t expecting it, I was actually expecting the exact opposite, but from that moment on it was real and I really wanted to do it. With each step in the process I got progressively more and more relaxed. Putting on the somewhat snug jumpsuit, climbing into the reassuringly hefty harness, running through the aircraft exit and landing procedures all just made for an ever growing grin factor. Once I was kitted up we all piled into one of the big red pickup trucks to be whisked out to the end of the airstrip where our chariot to the skies would soon be arriving.
In the weeks leading up to the jump I’d been wondering if it would be better to be by the door and be the first to go or further back, so I could watch other people go first. As it turned out on the day we were the only tandem on our lift, so we ended up right at the back, just behind the pilot, which meant we’d be last out. And, I have to say, I’m really glad it worked out that way! Initially we climbed to 6,000ft where the first group of skydivers jumped out. Apparently they were going to open their chutes virtually straight away and do some kind of “special thing” (shrug). All I know is that watching them vanish out that door was amazing. One moment they were there and in the blink of an eye they were gone!
We were supposed to jump at 10,000ft, but as we climbed the pilot said something about the conditions and having to climb to 14,000ft. An extra 4,000ft! All I could think was brilliant, more freefall! Watching the remaining people jump at 14,000ft was just as mesmerising as it had been watching them at 6,000ft, but this time as each group disappeared out the door we shuffled a bit closer to it! As we worked our way down the plane I looked out the windows at the ground far below, the pencil line roads, the tiny buildings, the fields. Then I could see everything through the open door. Then I was out there and all I could hear was the deafening roar of the wind!
As the passenger in the tandem scenario, when you get to the door, you don’t actually sit in the doorway, your instructor does that. You just hang outside the aircraft in your harness with your legs bent as far back under the fuselage as you can get them and your arms crossed over your chest…and you wait… and you grin… Then suddenly the whole world goes insane.
As we parted from the aircraft every sense, every instinct, every past experience of anything even remotely similar combined into a deafening roar of neurological white noise as my brain desperately tried to figure out what was going on and drew a massive blank! All I got was “FALLING” and “MORE ADRENALINE!!!” before it gave up and I gave myself over completely to whatever was about to happen. It was a straight shot of pure freedom, the most care free moment of my life. Then came the tap, tap on the shoulders and I put my arms out into the freefall position. Awesome doesn’t even begin to describe the sensation. 130mph straight down! It was the most intense, extreme, insane experience I’ve ever had. I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted; it felt like hours, it felt like the blink of an eye. All I know is I didn’t want it to end.
When the parachute was released I heard it flapping above us for a few seconds as it opened and I remember feeling a pang of disappointment, because it was over. I felt the deceleration immediately, but it wasn’t a sharp jolt like I’d been expecting, it was actually quite gentle. And then there we were, drifting around a mile above the earth, watching an airliner fly by in the distance below us. I looked down and smiled at the 6000ft of nothing between the soles of my feet and the ground and put my arms out, like the wings of a bird, to fly. This wasn’t over by any stretch! It was so quiet, no cars going past, no city din, no people jabbering, nothing, just silence and an incredible sense of peace. I could have stayed up there for hours.
It was only when I looked down from about thirty feet that I realised just how quickly the ground was getting closer. Before that I hadn’t even noticed it was getting any closer. I suppose logically I knew it was, it had to be, but up to that point it had been sly about it, sneaking up when I wasn’t looking. Then right at the last minute it charged at us!
And suddenly there I was, sitting on the ground. The touchdown was so soft I didn’t even feel it. I just found myself sitting there on the grass like I’d woken up from a dream!
It was only when I stood up that I realised that my entire blood supply had been replaced by adrenaline! From that point on I was in a jabbering daze. The journey back to Liverpool didn’t even register, not even the screaming family on the train. When I walked out of Lime Street station four hours later I still couldn’t stop looking up at the sky. It had been the perfect way to see out the old year! Tomorrow a new year in my life would begin and I’d celebrate that by sailing to Belfast on the Pelican. I thought about going home, packing and getting an early night, but there was no way this day could end like that! I’d just jumped out of a plane and fallen two and a half miles, tomorrow was my birthday and there was a sea shanty festival on at the Baltic Fleet! I could hear the pub’s soft voice calling and I answered with a grin.