It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, that’s all. But in the Olden Days you went solo, like my friends Tanis and Martin, so the decision to jump out of a plane at 15,000 feet was left to you. And if you hesitated, that was it. No second chance. And, I was told, you needed to be able to jump from a 10ft wall, because that’s what landing was like, and I didn’t think I could. But these days oldies like me go tandem. No skill, no risk, so a perfect 70th birthday present.
I knew it was going to be fabulous because God had organised the weather and Janice had organised the jump. The forecast was for one fine day between grey, wet ones. And so it was on the Friday, clear and sunny. And I wasn’t nervous. At least not until I tried to check in and – the usual thing, everyone else seems to know by instinct that they had to enter their details on the computer. I queued at the desk for about 15 minutes to be told that. So then I was sure I would miss the training. Kate and Richard duly arrived, jovial and relieved not to be doing it themselves. We watched the planes go up and the parachutes come down. Nobody called me for training. I was sure I’d missed the briefing and would be put in a plane without having a clue what to do.
After two hours my name was called, along with a few others including Sue who was wearing a sprig of white heather on her shoulder. I realised I’d forgotten my “World’s Greatest 70 Year Old” button. The trainer told us to watch a video and to remember to raise our legs as high as possible when we landed. He explained that the “freefall” was slowed somewhat by a little parachute “It slows you to 150mph from 200mph” which we think is too fast. So did I.
More coffee and a game of Bananagram to pass the time. A shaken-looking woman greeted her friends and told us still-to-jumpers: “It’s a hell of a jerk when the main parachute opens. I wasn’t expecting that.” Then I was called to meet Neil. Neil was comfortingly big. Simon had told me of his jump in New Zealand where he was given a tiny little woman as his tandem partner, so small that once she was lashed to him her feet didn’t reach the ground so he had to totter around with her stuck to his back with her legs waving in the air. I was given a jump suit – a real one, not something to go jogging in – and a fetching hat like an acorn cup. And Neil explained again about legs and how they must be high in the air or I’d break one. He made me demonstrate that I could lift them, one at a time, high in the air. And he explained the various signals he would give me. I was to begin with my hands tucked out of the way in my straps, then when he tapped my shoulder I was to spread them wide. “I’ll make this sign with my fingers”. I had to make my body like a saucer. And not my usual hunched concave saucer, either. Convex, with a nice arched back.
I was introduced to the video man and asked to say something “for my friends”. I said “I’m doing this for a nice charity – oh no I’m not actually, but I would… well I’m…”
A small black plane was waiting with a very large open door. We got in, about 12 of us but only two other tandemers, with Neil just behind me. He had bare arms, for heaven’s sake. I had lots of clothes under my jumpsuit but the straps were so tight that I felt my intestines being squashed flat like penne pasta. I gasped out my request and Neil loosened them a little. The plane took off. I felt sort of numb although the photos show me looking decidedly worried. Neil showed me his altimeter: 7,000ft – the height the main parachute opens – 10,000ft, the height I was originally going to jump from before Janice changed it to 15,000, then shuffle forward. Oh God, this is it. Oh shit. Kneel at the entrance, see the green patchwork fields far, far below. Then – whoosh!
The video shows my mouth open so perhaps I screamed. Neil pulls my head back and I remember that saucer shape. He keeps tapping on my shoulder so I saucer and saucer. I’m almost a bowl by the time he has wrenched my arms out to the proper flying position. The video shows his lips set in a grim line as he prises them away from their tight grip on the straps. Well, there’s such a lot to think about. There’s the video man leering below me asking me to do a thumbs-up, and he’s circling around getting different angles, and I’m grinning like a lunatic and feeling: Wow! What does it feel like? Extraordinary! The wind is so strong, its roaring so loud, and the knowledge of what you’re doing is so weird. And there are the little fields below getting ever closer, and the video man appearing in odd places so you keep smiling, but I think my head was empty of thoughts, just sensations.
Neil probably indicated to me the main parachute was going to open, I’m not sure. But the woman was right – it’s one hell of a jerk on the thigh straps and really painful. I thought briefly “I can’t stand this!” but Neil said “Put your feet on mine, it’ll take some of the weight”. And it did, and we were upright instead of face down, floating gently through the air, looking around at the scenery. “Do you want to go through a cloud?” asked Neil. “Yes please”. Then say “Hello cloud!” “Why, hello cloud!”. “And what do you do for a living?” It was a bit surreal chatting about travel writing and publishing while suspended under a red parachute.
“Where are we going to land?” Neil pointed to a little square of green not far from the spectator area. Goodness how precise. “Now lift those legs!” And I did, but I couldn’t hold them there. They should have been straight out in front of me, at right angles to my hips, and I couldn’t do it. For a split second I thought “Damn, I’m going to break a leg!” and then I was down on my knees, light as a feather, with Neil saying reassuringly “You’re all right, you’re fine”. And I was, just blithering an apology about the legs. One of the other instructors heard and asked Neil if he’s done such-and-such a manoeuvre and he said yes. I bet they give him all the little old ladies who can’t be trusted to do things right. “I broke a woman’s leg last week” he said ruefully. “That felt really bad”. “You broke it? She didn’t do what you said, I bet.” Then he told me about the 81 year old that he’s taken down last month. “She was brilliant!”.
So there’s the challenge. Back in ten years’ time.