As a child I'd always been entranced by TV footage of free-fall parachutists.
I mean, what child wouldn't be? People dress up in nifty clothes, strap an important-looking pack on their back with a complicated harness, get into an aeroplane with no door which flies up to a great height, at which point the parachutist waves a cheery goodbye to the unlucky pilot who only, only gets to fly the plane 'back to base', yells the magic word "Cut!" and jumps out into space. Then, then said parachutist displays just how awesome this all is by zooming hither and yon about the sky, tumbling and spinning at will. Sometimes they jump out with friends and do complicated dances, grinning like idiots the whole time from the sheer fun of it all.
In my childhood this would end with a rather boring canopy deployment and landing, but by the time I was fifteen or so the parachute of choice was an oblong parawing which enabled more aerobatic shenanigans and displays of awesomeness1.
What kid wouldn't be entranced by it all?
There was even a TV show about parachutists who solved crimes and had adventures all which required someone jump out of an aeroplane and zip around the sky creatively for a few minutes each week. It was called Ripcord and after watching it we would all make parachute packs from satchels with string for a ripcord and emulate the zooming bit by skating down the hill on Rotherham Road into Chesholme Road with our arms outstretched.
It was all great fun unless the grown-ups decided to put more crushed granite on the roads, which would result in loose chippings being scattered all over the pavement 2 which in turn would jam a wheel at some crucial moment of high-speed pretend freefalling, precipitating a moderate-speed real-world tumble onto razor-sharp gravel. It was all very tedious but that was adults for you. There was no understanding why they did the brainless stuff they did. All you could do was dig the stones out of the wounds and carry on as best as you could.
Fast forward a few years.
In 1984 I was working as a consultant on a contract with a firm in Aylesbury, which I've mentioned before as the boredom capital of the world at that point in time. I was working on a team led by a bloke who did free-fall parachuting for fun, and who was just about to qualify at the highest recognised level in the UK (there were ten such levels at the time). He talked about it a lot, sparking memories of lacerated knees and sturdy strap-on rollerskates weighing my feet down3.
One day we celebrated someone's birthday or resignation or engagement, can't remember which, with the standard I.T. lunchtime trip down the pub, during which the Parachuting Team Leader passed around photographs of his latest plummet to the great interest of all. That evening I retired to The Brewer's Elbow, my chosen local pub of choice for whiling away the hours until they opened Ayelsbury up again4 and someone asked who would be interested in doing a sponsored parachute jump for charity.
Let's recap: Childhood fantasy reinforced by recent photographic evidence of spiffiness, voluntary brain function depressed due to repeated application of large quantities of lethally strong beer, leading question. Anyone in any doubt whose hand shot up so fast it pulled a muscle?
It should be noted that in my youth I was not so robustly muscled5 as I am now, and was known at times to get involved in athletic pursuits that might seem far-fetched to those who only know me in my post "responsibility" years. Rock climbing had been a passion in my late teens, and I would be white water rafting inside a year of getting to the USA.
And so it came to pass that I signed up for two weeks of misery, by which I mean the process of asking colleagues if they would care to sponsor me.
I ran into unbelievable levels of hostility in this, directed at me by the gittish cadre of young men who worked around me, especially the gang who worked on the Olivetti equipment6 who, if there is any justice, went to early and lingering retirement at 40 because their chosen technology went the way of the buggy whip. They spread the false story around that the first however much I raised would be used to pay for the jump, which I had, in fact, paid for myself up front in cash the night I volunteered to take part in the mass plane evacuation at inconvenient altitude, and it took me days to quash the story, only doing so by calling the chief storyteller a fbleeping liar to his face in a voice loud enough to carry to the carpark.
I later opined that the next time I would simply donate the cost of the parachute course to the charity; it would be cheap at any price if it meant not having to try and access the better side of such people7.
I should add that this sort of thing was not at all unusual in that shop. A more sullen bunch of backbiting treacherous shirtheads I have never had the dubious pleasure of meeting. Even the hostility shown to me by real southerners two years before paled into insignificance beside this Faux Fbleepheadism. I wish them all well. A corpse-poisoned well. Gits.
Where was I?
The weekend of the training course and jump eventually rolled around and the hardcore Brewer's Elbow crowd departed for an airfield in Peterborough where we were shown to a rough baracks deemed unsuitable for purpose, airmen the billeting of sometime around 1942. We didn't care because we had thought to bring gallons of life-saving Red Stripe lager with us for emergencies.
It was perhaps unfortunate that an emergency8 had been declared two minutes after setting off leading to the consumption of the entire reserve on the road, causing us to be late due to getting lost, bathroom breaks and frank exchanges of views on the subject of route.
We arrived in the pitch darkness and woke everyone else who had turned up at the suggested five o'clock and bedded down at the suggested eight. They took it in good part, joining in the exchange of slanderous observations and vile epithets in which we were indulging ourselves. The next morning there was a great deal of loud greeting and backslapping. It was just a little sad that everyone else wasn't of a mood to join in, and we surmised by the dark looks people shot our way that they had yet to find their own reserves of derring-do (and perhaps some Red Stripe lager).
We breakfasted on whatever it was that parachutists thought appropriate, to be honest I've forgotten what that entailed, and began a day of learning how to count to four, which you have to do in thousands at the top of your voice for archaic parachutist reasons. After you get to four thousand you have to scream "check!" and look over your shoulder. Apparently "check" is the magic parachute-opening word.
As soon as the instructors were satisfied that we could get to four without getting lost along the way - perhaps they underestimated our tollerance for Red Stripe and feared after-effects would rob us of basic intellect9 - we were taken to the next stage of our training: the wooden mock-up aeroplane.
The aircraft in which we were to make our leap for idiocy was a Britten-Norman Islander, a short take-off shoulder-wing aeroplane originally designed for use in the Channel Islands where runway length is at a premium. In order to make the eight seater aircraft fit for six parachutists all the seats had been removed that didn't have a pilot sitting in them, the carpet had been replaced with plywood and the bit where the door and some of the wall of the port10 side once resided had been replaced with a sort of D-shaped hole. More a Delta really, with a long edge running down and a short edge running up to form the point around a foot above the deck line. This was represented by a wooden mock-up of half the aeroplane set up about four feet above the concrete of the hanger it was housed in.
The exit technique was simple. You sat on the floor. When the "Jump Master", the bloke nominally in charge of things yelled "Feet Out" you shuffled over, stuck your legs out of the plane turned forward, hung one buttock over empty space while holding the edge of the deck under your right thigh with your right hand and reached behind with your left for that point where the delta was made, just behind the small of your back. It sounds more dangerous than it would be if it were less dangerous. In point of fact there is no danger of falling out unless you fall out. When the Jump Master yelled "GO!" you would push hard with the right hand while stretching out with your left arm, trying to reach and touch the pylon of the landing gear. I was assured it couldn't be done, but the idea was to believe it could and to try and do it while simultaneously believing that you wouldn't end up stubbing the fingers of your left hand into the bloody thing.
I have to say I excelled at this and in only four hours or so was no longer whimpering aloud when I jumped out and landed on the concrete, there to stand spread-eagled in the manner encouraged by Mistress Alexa during her Executive Discipline sessions while screaming "ONE THOUSAND, TWO THOUSAND, THREE THOUSAND, FOUR THOUSAND, CHECK!"11 then hurrying out of theater so the next person could have a go, though I was dubious when told that the observers would be listening for the count when we jumped for real. It was all great fun, and soon we were deemed fit to try the various Fan Towers
These were even more fun than the Wooden Aeroplane. You climbed up a small tower, grabbed a set of writs restraints12 and jumped off the platform. The wrist harness was connected to two ropes wound round a drum, which was attached to a huge squirrel-cage fan by a massively overdriven gear train. This slowed your descent to parachute-like speeds and you crashed into the floor at only a mild plummet, collaspsing in an approved manner into a heap. If you did it wrong, a fat instructor yelled vile things at you.
Then, when we had mastered the vertical drop we got to do the really high vertical drop which was a bit of a challenge because of a teensy problem I hadn't bothered to mention to anyone: I was and am very slightly terrified of heights. However, I drew on the same reserves of sheer manliness I used while rock-climbing in my teens13 and managed to complete the training jump off the thirty foot tower with only a minor bladder leak and a falsetto shriek I passed off as a battle-cry.
Then there was only the travelling drop, a sort of inclined zip-line that crashed one into the ground at a forward speed of about ten miles an hour, and we were given the tour of the packing shed and roped into packing a parachute. We would also repack our own 'chute after we jumped later on the Sunday.
A word or two about parachutes and how they work is in order.
Parachutes came in two general flavours at that time: the round umbrella affair familiar to those who've seen The Longest Day or Band of Brothers, and the oblong sort you see the Red Devils and James Bond using. Oblong "parawing" parachutes are packed in haversack-sized packs. The canopy is bagged in something that looks like a spongebag. Really. The reserve 'chute is packed into a spring-loaded cylinder set in the middle of the haversack. The parachutist jumps out of the aeroplane and has fun, then, to deploy the parachute he or she pulls a small parachute from a sheath typically across the belly by means of a wooden toggle for all the world like a duffel coat "button", holds this outside their slipstream and lets go. The small 'chute zooms back and pulls the ripcord, and starts the parachute deployment by dragging it out of the pack. If there is a problem, the parachutist must pull on securing toggles at their shoulders, releasing a system of three overlapping rings that are the attachment points for the parachute shrouds, "cutting away" the main canopy so that the reserve parachute can be fired. The spring does the same job for the reserve 'chute as the small parachute does for the main; it gets the canopy of the reserve 'chute out of the slipstream of the plummeting skydiver (parachutes will tend to cling to the back of the skydiver because there is a partial vacuum there).
People who go on two-day parachute jump training courses get to use the first kind, with a spare one in a small pack strapped across the stomach. This is because round parachutes are simple and relatively failsafe after years of ironing out the bugs and because new parachutists count to four too fast sometimes and deploy the reserve parachute needlessly. The back-and-belly design means that you can do this without one parachute fouling the other, though you lose maneuverability if you use both 'chutes. I saw a couple of figure-eight shaped canopies the day I did my jump.
Parachute failure on these round 'chutes is extremely rare. The so-called Roman Candle failure that used to be a common killer of parachuting servicemen is no longer possible thanks to the use of static-free materials (the "Candle" is actually a lethal case of static cling that prevents the canopy opening because it sticks to itself like socks do in a tumble drier) and various other design elements. A Lineover failure, caused when the canopy opens, then momentarily collapses and allows the lines to flop over the canopy top before it inflates again, is made much more unlikely by another design element that looks like a mesh skirt running around the rim of the canopy. Modern parachutes can even lose a shroud or two without catastrophic failure. Which leaves the Hang-Up.
Parachutes can be deployed either by the parachutist pulling the so-called ripcord, or by the ripcord being replaced by a thick strap called a Static Line which is attached to the plane at one end and the parachute at the other, like paratroopers do in the movies. The act of jumping out of the aeroplane causes the static line to pull the parachute after a drop of a few feet.
A hang-up occurs when the parachute fails to unbag itself and the parachutist is towed along by the static line, bashing into the aeroplane and generally not having a good time of things and making it impossible to land the aeroplane. When this happens the jump master watches to see whether the parachutist puts his hands on his head, indicating he is conscious and aware. If the Jump Master sees this signal, he takes the enormous knife fastened to the rear bulkhead of the plane and cuts the Static Line so the parachutist falls away and can deploy his reserve 'chute by hand. If the Jump Master doesn't see this signal he is supposed to put the knife between his teeth and shin down the static line pirate-fashion, take hold of the unconscious parachutist, cut the Static Line, deploy the unconscious parachutist's reserve belly 'chute, push himself away and deploy his own parachute and effect a safe landing.
This rather flamboyant methodology was developed on the spur of the moment by the first (and as far as I know only) person confronted by the problem of an unconscious man hung up on the aircraft. They gave him the George Medal for it, which suggests it isn't quite as easy or safe to do as I may have made it seem. The Jump Master I eventually flew with said if it came to it he'd cut away the dangling person and swear he'd seen the signal. In his defense, he was a git.
I was about to see why a hang-up would be about as unlikely as a lottery win after not buying a ticket.
The pack of the parachute is a bit of a fake-out. Take an envelope and gently unstick the folds from each other. You'll have an oblong with triangular flaps on the top, bottom and sides that wrap around to overlap each other. This is exactly like a parachute pack. Along the length of the pack run twin tracks to which are attached rubber bands. The same sort as you use for in-office firepower. The shrouds, the lines that tether the canopy to the harness at the shoulders, are gathered in a loom on a long table and carefully folded into back-and-forth loops across the width of the pack, tethering each loop by slipping it through a rubber band. The canopy is carefully folded and inserted into the bag and the top secured to the ring the static line will attach to by string with a given beaking strain - I was told 100 pounds. The base of the bag is also secured by string with a lower breaking strain. I was told 50 pounds. The strings were colour-coded so you couldn't get them wrong, bright orange for the top of the bag, white for everywhere else. The bag then gets packed and secured with more rubber bands and the pack folded closed over the whole thing. The flaps were secured together around the Static Line ring with 50 pound string.
When the parachutist jumps out of the aeroplane the Static Line is pulled taut and the string holding the pack flaps together breaks as it is a sure bet the force of a grown person falling into the something-like 70 mph slipstream of the aeroplane will exert more than 50 pounds of force. The parachutist continues to fall and the bag, still fastened top and bottom by string unfolds from the pack, pulled by the retreating aeroplane. Once the bag is fully extended the shrouds pull free from the bands securing them in an orderly fashion so they don't tangle.
The 'plane is still pulling away with the Static Line attached and the top of the parachute, still packed in its bag, attached to the Static Line, the parachutist at the end of the fully deployed shrouds and still falling free when the bag suddenly takes the weight of the person in the harness. The 50 pound string gives first and the parachute, still attached to the 'plane begins deploying from the bag. It begins to open almost straight away.
When the canopy's length is fully extended the top string is pulled and breaks and the parachute, finally, is free of the aeroplane. The Static Line and the bag are still attached to the aeroplane and of no further interest to the parachutist. At no point is there anything stronger than rubber bands or string holding the parachutist to the aeroplane, thus a hang-up is just about impossible.
Should the parachute not open after all this, the parachutist simply grabs a fat red tab situated on top of the belly pack and pulls to deploy the reserve 'chute (we also practiced this with fake packs fitted with reusable Velcro ripcord tabs). The parachutist does not attempt to cut away from the main canopy because the belly 'chute is designed to deploy forward of the main canopy and is unlikely to tangle in it. Anyway, this sort of parachute does not have the three-ring release mechanism, but a sturdy pinch-and-pull-hard release on each shoulder called "Capewells" that we were warned time and again not to release in mid-fall because their primary use is for cutting away a canopy when it is dragging one along the ground after landing.
Modern equipment may differ from this 1984-era stuff I should add. My info is based on my own experience. You want research, you do it.
Parachutes in those days had twin vents in the rear panels that spilled air and conferred a 10 mph forward speed. This was considered an important factor for many reasons. Firstly it made the parachute maneuverable. By pulling on the steering toggles that would dangle over the parachutist's shoulders once the canopy was deployed the contraption could be steered and the Rottweiler Farm adjacent to the airfield could be avoided, as could the section of the National Electrical Grid that passed to the other side of the airfield. Secondly, positive airspeed would confer a small amount of lift to the canopy and reduce the downward velocity considerably14.
Unfortunately, after all the jumping and spreading and screaming and falling and packing, it transpired that the wind was blowing at a steady 20 mph on Sunday afternoon, and all jumps on round parachutes were cancelled. We would have to come back another day.
To cut a long story short, everyone else eventually did this on various weekdays, but I could only get to the airfield at weekends and for a few of these the weather was naff. Every Saturday morning I would dress in my jeans and a sweatshirt with no buttons or hooks, and a pair of Doc Martens I bought when I realised that the only boots I had had hooks for the laces which are a safety no-no in the world of parachuting. Foregoing breakfast in the interests of not suffering a catastrophic involuntary digestive tract evacuation should the sheer terror of jumping into pure height be too much for the old endocrinal system, I'd pile into the TR6 and drive to Peterborough only to be told "not today", and I would drive back getting into Coventry just in time for the lunchtime boozing session and throwdown Space Invader challenge down the Dog and Trumpet.
One Saturday I pulled into the airfield around eight thirty or so, to the vision of a thick blanket of fog. "So, no jumps today, then?" I asked a man wearing a Stetson, sunglasses and a parachute.
"Oh no, we're just waiting for the Sun to burn off the fog. I'll run you through the Wooden Aeroplane while we wait." His accent was South African.
I wandered back to my car past a group of people playing at free falling by running around with their arms spread so they could work out a four person routine and figure out how not to crash into each other before they did. Another team were doing the same but using mechanic's crawlers so they could be face down and see whether their close-order plummeting would end with someone getting a boot to the head. I'd always wondered how it was all choreographed.
Back at the car I carefully emptied my pockets of everything I could find and dumped the contents into my car boot. Nothing in pockets, nothing in bowels, no hooks. I was in good shape for the madness to come. I passed the time watching someone practice a juggling routine using the then-new "Klutz" bags. I had taught myself to juggle using the same book15 some weeks before16. He was good, too. Soon it was time for a parachute fitting.
"We've got ten-stone17 rated 'chutes and thirteen stone rated 'chutes. What'll you have?"
"I'm eleven stone18. What should I do?"
"It’s up to you."
I did a little thinking and reasoned that a parachute that was too small would drop me too fast and possibly injure me. An oversized parachute would, at worst, give me a longer ride for my money.
"Thirteen stone, please"
It weighed a ton. Then there was the belly 'chute that added another half ton to the whole sorry affair. Then I was hurried over to a group of five others. Two of them were sporting haversacks so they were going up to 15000 feet and would be last out, so first in.
Two were wearing elaborate parachutes with bulky automatic ripcord safety altimeters attached. They were at the point in their training that they were practicing a mimed cutting away of their main parachute19 demonstrating they could stay stable in free-fall while moving arms around. They would be going out at around 7000 feet and so were in second.
The last of my co-jumpers was also in training, and was destined to show she could pull a ripcord without becoming unstable in free fall20. She would be leaving the aeroplane at 5000 feet. Since I was the only one on a Static Line and would be jumping at 3000 feet, I would be last in and first out, and would not be able to "change my mind".
I sat, back to the pilot, looking at the South African cowboy sitting under the machete in its sheath on the rear bulkhead, nothing but open air a little forward and to my right. I comforted myself with the knowledge that I'd only have to look out at 200 feet (in order to get a mental picture of the "get ready for landing" look of the ground). The Jump Master held up two fingers and I had a good, long, nauseating look. And fell back, propped up by my parachute. The engine noise was deafening.
The Jump Master leaned forward to shout in my face: "We're a bit crowded in here with all these parachutes" he yelled.
I thought: Well I'm not chucking mine out, mate, but elected to say nothing.
"I want you to come and sit opposite the door."
I nodded, maintaining a manly silence rather than scream "Are you out of your fbleeping mind?" and scooted around to face the "door", with a foot on either jamb since we had not completed the ascent to 3000 feet yet and the pilot was banking to port which had the "door" pointing down for long periods as we climbed in a lazy circle.
"3000 feet!" yelled the pilot.
"Feet out!" Screamed the Jump Master.
I scrambled into the doorway and dangled one buttock over empty space and looked up as I had been trained to do. If I looked down, I had been informed, I would get pulled out of the 'plane, spinning, which would temporarily tangle the shrouds when the parachute opened and make it unmaneuverable until I'd kicked myself around and untangled them.
And I pushed and stretched and by some miracle missed the undercarriage pylon and watched the static line paying out forever overhead as the plane zoomed away21.
"One thousand, two thousand, three thousand"
It was at this point it dawned on me that my feet were not on concrete, that I was falling belly-down rather than standing vertically and that I had just jumped out of a perfectly good aeroplane at 3000 fbleeping feet.
The parachute opened with a "thwack", and, being underloaded by two stone came to a dead stop in the air. I, falling at about 70 mph by then was grabbed by the shoulders and swung onto my back for a good look at the canopy.
Having given me time to check the canopy and judge it good, my body swung back down. My feet, however, clad in their Dr Marten's Patent Parachuting Boots hung around at face level so I could also check them22 before swinging down to dangle bonelessly under my arse while I tried to inventory my organs and the contents of my underwear.
All seemed to be in order. The shrouds were not twisted (the only way this could have happened is that it had opened while I was spinning, though parachutist etiquette is that those who experience twisted shrouds are allowed to claim their parachutes were "packed wrong" on their first couple of jumps without being openly mocked) so I had full control of the canopy spread majestically above me. I reached for the steering toggles and Assumed Command. Now to get my bearings so I could pilot my little aircraft to a landing on the circle of sand called the Drop Zone, or DZ (if I was going to be a parachutist, I supposed I had better master their banter and when better than now, in the peace and quiet of the air over England?).
It was very quiet up there. The instructors had all emphasised that any failure of the canopy on deployment would be immediately noticeable because of the noise it would make. Most of the people listening to that imagined the roar of the aeroplane and the rush of air past their heads and smiled, but having experienced the quiet of a working parachute in action I can say that yes indeed, the first thing one would note would be the flapping or tearing noises because that aeroplane noise is above you and for some reason much, much quieter than you'd think. It might even be quiet enough for the observers to have heard my count as I fell, though I reckon that was a tale to make everyone concentrate on counting loud rather than thinking about the distance to the ground. It was time to get my bearings so I could begin to pilot myself around the sky to land triumphantly in the DZ. Easy peasy.
The airfield had in it two features that were vitally important. First, there was a DC 3 parked on it with prominent black and white stripes on its wings. This aircraft had given of its best and was no longer airworthy, but now did sterling duty as a piloting aid. It was perhaps the biggest identifiable thing below me and would serve to help me find the airfield itself. Laugh all you want, but at 3000 feet the world looks small and the bits of it you think would be unmistakable are hard to find if in fact they are, when you get down to it, a bunch of flat grass among many hundreds of acres of flat grass. The DC 3 would also enable me to see which way the airfield was pointing relative to my boots because one of the things that had been hammered into the students was where the DC 3 was in the airfield and which way it was pointing. Every time we had occasion to be in eyeshot of the thing, someone would point it out and note its bearing in relation to this hangar or that control tower. This took a while because I was directly over the wretched thing and my belly 'chute removed large amounts of the ground from my field of view.
Now I needed to find the other vital feature of the airfield, the windsock.
This bright orange tubular streamer was not, as I had first thought, merely a way for the normally taciturn people working in and around the aerospace infrastructure to express a small amount of festivity in the workplace, but was in fact a sophisticated wind direction and strength indicator. If the sock dangles around the pole, for instance, it means there is no wind at all. If it flaps about in a half-hearted manner in some direction, it mans there is a low-speed wind of a few measly miles per hour blowing from the opposite direction. If the sock is standing out horizontally it means that the wind is perhaps too strong for parachuting, certainly too strong for the round parachutes of the students. If there is no sock on the pole it means that your car has probably been blown into the next field too. If you can't see the pole, it means it is foggy.
I looked and looked but could not locate it for the life of me. Had I been with some of the original crowd from The Brewer's Elbow I would have suspected high-jinks at my expense, but they had all jumped weeks before and had the broken limbs to prove it. I figured out later that during the time it took me to trundle across the sky enough to see the DC 3, I had trundled directly over the windsock and so my belly 'chute was hiding it. These days I sort of expect this kind of behaviour from the evil spirits that commonly infest everything I try and do, but then I was a callow youth who did not believe in evil spirits other than the one I found in a bottle of something vile that allegedly came out of Yugoslavia23, and so I failed to pause and take stock.
It was then that Mr Brain made an overt move in our war of wits and suggested a plan. I licked my finger and held it up. Cold on the front, so I was heading into the wind and all was good. I would maintain this course and forget about the DZ, which I could hit the next time. Paramount was the need to face into the wind and gain the lift needed for a soft landing. The collection of busted arms and legs now propping up the bar in The Brewer's Elbow demonstrated that in unequivocal terms. Besides, I couldn't find the DZ either. Stupid airfield staff for not painting the sand bright orange. Didn't they know that everything looks like a big, flat bewildering plain of unidentifiable stuff from up there? You'd think they'd notice when they jumped themselves.
Have you figured out the flaw in my brilliant scheme? Don't worry, I didn't see it either, though I was still swamped in the euphoria of the Parachuting Experience so I at least have an excuse. Plus, of course, my brain was ambushing me, though I didn't recognise the signs at the time.
Recall that the parachute has a forward speed of 10 magnificent miles per hour or so. this would confer the illusion of an oncoming wind in just about any direction I cared to point myself. As it happened, I was carefully maintaining a course directly downwind, which upped my forward speed to about twice that I would be going in still air. It also meant I had lost the lift provided by the wind's movement over the canopy, and my downward speed was much higher than that recommended for a safe and comfortable landing.
None of this was conveyed by the view of the ground, which didn't change much as I descended and robbed me of any sense of approaching impact. I've been told the brain simply cannot properly interpret what it sees because of the illusion of flatness, but I suspect Mr Brain simply refused to interpret what I was seeing out of sheer bloody mindedness.
"I'm good" I thought as I zoomed across acres of flatflatflat. "That is nice soft grass." Tranquility was the order of the day.
Let us pause a moment to talk of the phenomenon of Ground Rush. Everyone who parachutes experiences it, and it is quite disconcerting, not to mention a hell of a shock the first time you see it firsthand. It is caused by the long period of long-distance viewing robbing the brain of its stereoscopic information as to the depth and distance of the ground features. A haystack can and does collapse into a flat disc under these conditions and the brain fails to note the gradual increase in size of that disc as you fall unless you specifically make note of it, and even then it can't make sense of the information because it isn't used to it coming in in that way. A field is just a mostly green Jackson Pollock canvass that stretches out to the peripheral vision on every side. Look up and you get no useful information because there is nothing to look at besides the horizon, and the angular change as you fall is so small that that doesn't provide useful "how fast am I falling?" info. Besides, look down again and you have no idea how high you are so even if you could estimate your downward speed it would be a useless statistic. This goes on until your eyes finally resolve the fine detail, at which point the brain updates the information and starts working normally on your visual intake.
As an experiment to demonstrate the effect, you'll need a camera with a manual zoom of around 70-210mm focal length. Find a wall containing texture but basically one colour - granite will work but you need detail in there that will become apparent quickly so pick some with light specks or veins in it. A Where's Waldo poster of sufficient size will work too.
Now, stand some distance from the wall and set the lens at the shorter focal length, 70 in my chosen example. Focus the camera and take a good look at your surroundings, making sure there are no pits, open manholes, children, bales of barbed-wire or sleeping humans for you to fall over. You need a clear field around you because you will be mobile for a bit and won't be looking where you are going.
Look at the wall through the camera and close your other eye. I know this is not how you were taught to use a viewfinder, but do it anyway. Now you have a two dimensional view of the patterned wall. Walk forward a couple of steps while looking through the viewfinder. Walk back. Notice how the wall is essentially unchanged and that you have no real idea of how far away it is. Now brace yourself and grip the zoom control. Concentrate on the wall and fool yourself that you are a long way from it. When you have yourself convinced, pull the zoom to maximum quickly (but no so quickly as to threaten damage to the lens elements). Watch the wall the entire time. Try not to fall over. You have just seen what Ground Rush looks like.
Back to me, dangling under the Zooming Parachute of Treachery.
So I'm busily correcting my line, which is carrying me further and further from the airfield buildings, the DZ and civilisation in general but who was keeping track of such mundane stuff? Not me. I was busy. I was looking down and internally chanting the mantra "That's nice soft grass. Grass, grass, grass. Soft green grass." and watching for the ground to come up at me as I'd been warned it would.
And it did, with a vengeance.
With no warning whatsoever the ground suddenly swooped up at me like a giant swooping thing. Simultaneously my eyes suddenly reported that the ground was not a carpet of grass but a rather barren field covered in sparse weeds and straw. Mr Brain gibbered "That's not grass, that's hard-packed dirt!" and shut down completely. I had just enough time to announce my consternation at this turn of events to the world when my trajectory intercepted the plane of the field and then some24.
I smacked into the ground and was catapulted into the air a few feet so I could try my landing again, this time face-first. The parachute had not finished its headlong flight either and so my bounce was a sort of parabolic affair that covered a few tens of feet of field before I once more felt the tender caress of Mother Earth on my face, chest and sundry other bits too stupid or too slow to take shelter behind the rest. Once more I rebounded and was dragged somersaulting through space to land on my backside, it having so far escaped injury and obviously feeling left out of things. If I hadn't had the good fortune to collide at this point with a pile of haybales I would probably have ended up in the next county.
Naturally I had readied some appropriate class four Words of Power at the sudden onrush of landscape, but such was the force and frequency of the blows dealt to my body by the terrain that I was unable to deploy any of them in lucid fashion and was forced to content myself with some interpretive groaning after the fact as I lay across the scattered haybales and did another inventory of my limbs, vital organs and underwear. My boots were still not full of wee but since I had lost all feeling in everything but my feet I couldn't swear this wasn't because I was partly upside-down and they had simply drained themselves.
I reflected a bit on the new-found knowledge of haybales as ballistic cushioning. I had, like most people, seen footage of those lunatics at the Winter Olympics zooming along on the Luge only to take flight like a rocket through a pile of haybales at some corner. I had always assumed they used haybales because they were soft and would safely cushion the sledging loon to a safe stop so they could have another go free of bruising and without having to bus back in from wherever they ended up. Now that I knew that a haybale is approximately the same consistency as a block of concrete it became obvious that they were deployed to make the Luge pilots ricochet back away from the public and press, and to shield said public and press from any blood spatter caused by the disintegration of the body of the unfortunate sledger. Live and learn.
Fortunately the wind had dropped and so I was given a few minutes respite in which to lie groaning on the cubist nightmare the orderly pile of haybales had become. Then, galvanised by a gust of a breeze, I leaped to my feet over the course of a minute or two, and limped around gathering the shrouds over my arms just like you see the Airborne Regiments do on war movies. It is vitally important during this phase of parachuting to get on the downwind side of the deflated canopy and to collect the shrouds quickly so you can pull the "mouth" of the canopy to leeward25 lest it get the bit between its teeth and re-inflate so it can drag you hither and yon across the ground in mutinous fashion to the detriment of your skin and the amusement of your fellow parachutists.
I collected the parachute over my arms and began the long trek back to the airfield and the packing shed. I had ended up on the extreme edge of the airfield, in one corner in fact, and so faced a journey of about a quarter mile or so with a ton of parachute in my arms. Those who had hit the DZ got bussed back to the shed. I had to walk the entire distance, which seems unfair to me even now. Oh well.
I repacked my parachute and went to see how I had been marked on my jump by the observers. These gentlemen watched through enormous German binoculars attached to massive steel pipe mounts as everyone jumped out of the aeroplane and noted the salient details on a card that would be important if I wanted to start a career as a parachutist, which I was not as keen to do as I had been earlier that morning, I will admit.
"Excellent exit26. Ran downwind out of sight. Landing unobserved." Result! No-one had witnessed the landing fiasco.
Well, there was nothing for it but to sign up for another lift and do it over again27. I signed up again before I could talk myself out of it and was soon riding up into the sky, this time with five other Static Line jumpers, all of whom knew each other.
This time I would be second out of the aircraft, and I got to see how the Jump Master dealt with Reluctant Parachutist Syndrome. The guy in front of me took up the proper position when the Jump Master yelled "Feet out!" and I watched with interest as the Jump Master quietly and unobtrusively placed his own left hand under the parachutist's pack. When he yelled "GO!" the young man sitting in the doorway hesitated and the Jump Master simply lifted his hand, not much, just enough to register on the parachutist's sense of balance. He naturally whipped his head round to see what was going on and the slipstream of the aeroplane pulled him spinning out of the door. Interesting.
I left the aircraft slightly less stably than the first time but still with a good line and not spinning or tumbling at all. The opening of the parachute went much as before, with a sudden dead stop from 70 mph interrupting my shout of "Check" so I could once more be spun about by my shoulders to look at the canopy and then my boots.
I spoke before of the quiet. They had kicked me and the first fellow out of the plane at the same altitude a few hundred feet apart, yet we could converse in conversational tones easily. Amazing, really. I can remember the sense of absolute stillness thirty years and more later.
My landing was this time a thing of more professional execution. I missed the DZ by quite a bit but was able to catch the bus with the other five, all of whom hit the sand effortlessly28. I was amused to hear my jump-buddy and one of his friends who had jumped on the very next circuit of the 'plane complaining that their parachutes had been packed wrong.
"Did you let out a Rebel Yell?" one of his pals asked me. "We thought we heard one from the plane as we circled round."
"Yes. It's exhilarating, don't you think?" I responded, and allowed ghost of a jaded parachutist's smile to cross my face.
"Are you having a stroke?" He asked in a worried tone.
I was tired and happy. I grabbed lunch in the cafeteria and called my mother to tell her that no, I wasn't lying dead or crippled in a field from this idiotic stunt and drove back to Coventry and a hot bath as my muscles began to stiffen up. It was only at that point that I discovered that although I had gone through my pockets, somehow an old-style29 Ten Pence piece had been left hiding in my right back pocket, and that the face depicting the head of state had been pointed inward. The coin was new and the sculpted relief was good, and the velocity at which it had been repeatedly driven into my buttock had been extremely high.
I would have bruises over 100 percent of my body the next day, leading some to speculate that I had lost a fight to a combine harvester, but all would fade over time except the one left by the coin.
- Though for some reason it seemed that everyone who used one had their feet catch fire and would end up landing in a cloud of orange smoke↑
- US: Sidewalk↑
- And I'm not kidding when I say that. Jacoskates were a fine product that lasted for ever, but they were like unto wheeled deep-sea diving boots in terms of weight and inertia. Mine had red lace-up leather toecaps, others had brown. The skates had wheels that made them look like miniature formula one racing cars of the day, with fat black rubber tyres and double ball-bearing races. Mine were almost worn down to the metal when I stopped using them. I don't think I ever thanked my Grandparents adequately for the fun these things gave me. They were truly the spiffiest skates in the world↑
- Seriously, they closed the bloody swimming pool at seven. It was like the town fathers were trying to engender discontent and dismay in the locals↑
- Albeit with relaxed muscle↑
- It is a small hope of mine that these gits recognise themselves one day from this brief but flattering description of their gittish miserable caricature Southern English Gittism that they strove so hard to cultivate↑
- Because they don't have one↑
- Namely the realisation that we would be facing two days without beer↑
- A realistic fear in some cases as it turned out↑
- Technical parachutist jargon for "Left as you face the sharp end while seated on the floor with a parachute pushed in your face"↑
- Mistress Alexa was perplexed by my reflex screaming of this mantra on the occasion of my first visit to her House of Executive Correction over on Tenth Avenue and Greenwich, particularly as she had not in fact begun the planned course of instruction that would prompt such outbursts↑
- Not unlike Mistress Alexa uses, but the ones in Peterborough didn't lock and were made of canvass, and there was less thrashing involved↑
- Another mad thing Mr Brain talked me into that was extremely bad for me↑
- Important point↑
- Juggling for the Complete Klutz↑
- I have remarked on the entertainment possibilities of Aylesbury before, and I couldn't drink all the time↑
- Fourteen pounds to the stone. Figure it out↑
- Them were indeed the days↑
- Once they'd done that to the satisfaction of the Jump Master they would have to actually jump with three parachutes. They would open the first, cut it away, fall free on their backs and mime deploying the belly 'chute then turn over and actually deploy their second main 'chute↑
- Where any movement of the limbs causes movement of the whole body in numerous ways↑
- Which was how I knew my exit was good and I wasn't tumbling↑
- Both on, laces fastened, not filled with wee↑
- And is probably part of the reason there is no longer a place called "Yugoslavia"↑
- I once saw an Action Man (G.I. Joe) tossed into the air tied to an improvised parachute which turned out to be inadequate to the task of soft-landing the 12-inch mannequin. In my minds eye I see my bounce as about the same as that experienced by the unfortunate doll when scale is accounted for↑
- Downwind from the rest of the canopy↑
- I remain inordinately proud of this to this day. I got out of the plane under my own steam when requested to do so, and was properly stable for the entire time the parachute was deploying. Job done↑
- The lifts cost quite a bit, and you had to be insured for each jump which was another expense, but I was entitled to six lifts in a given time so I wouldn't be paying any more for a second jump, at least not as far as money was concerned↑
- Show offs↑
- The size of a Florin or Two-Shilling piece↑