In the summer of 1980, for some unfathomable reason one of the lads in our sub-aqua club suggested that we should have a go at parachuting. We were young and keen to give life a good shot at full pelt, so several of us enthusiastically agreed.
Pete 3 (I had several mates called Pete) was the instigator, and once he’d ascertained the where, the when and the how, everyone apart from Pete 3 and me went off the idea fairly rapidly.
Pete and I duly presented ourselves to The Eagle Parachute Centre at Lympne for a weekend course. The training element included jumping off of platforms, rolling about on the floor, learning what can go wrong (lots!) learning how to pack a parachute and generally having a laugh.
We would be doing a ‘static line’ jump, meaning that as you leapt out of the plane the deployment mechanism remained attached to said plane, the idea being that if you jump and freak-out then the parachute will be automatically deployed and you’ll hopefully regain enough self control to avoid hitting the ground like a sack-of-spuds.
Our leap of faith was scheduled for Sunday, day two of the course and at some point we were introduced to the transport that would facilitate our act of bravery (or, depending on your outlook, act of stupidity). The first thing that Pete noticed was a sodding great knife strapped to the fuselage of a venerable (read tatty) Edgar Percival EP.9 Prospector. The jumpmaster explained that in the event of a static line tie up, the parachutist would remain tied to the plane, flapping about in the airstream and that this would render controlling the plane somewhat challenging, therefore the knife would be used to cut the static line. Hopefully the novice, by this time plummeting towards the ground would be in a fit state to deploy their reserve, a small package that a member of the ‘Eagle’ team chucked at us as we were kitting up for our first jump. These reserve chutes clipped on the front of our harnesses and in the event of the main parachute failing to deploy, you could firstly dump the main chute and then pull and discard the handle on the front of the little reserve pack, take out the contents (as you plummeted back first towards the ground) and then proceed to flap it in the airstream until it inflated and broke your fall. We were told that the reserve was a ‘life-saver’, not a ‘limb-saver’. My view was that no one had looked inside these threadbare little packs and if I did need to ‘flap it in the breeze’ all that would deploy would be be a shower of mice and an old bedsheet full of holes.
I wasn’t at all nervous as we clambered aboard the old Prospector. What could possibly go wrong? This was a professionally run organisation (dubious!), we’d had the training (had a laugh!), the parachute had been packed by a seasoned parachutist (probably not!) and we were fit young lads (gung-ho twats!). The fuselage was an empty shell, so we made our way to our assigned positions on the floor and waited expectantly as the old bird lumbered along the airstrip towards lift-off.
Once airborne the plane circled around the airfield gaining height. Pete and I were first in and therefore last out. I vaguely recall shuffling along on my arse towards the open side of the plane. The jumpmaster indicated that I should take up position and then do what I’d been trained to do. He he gave the static line a tug to indicate that I was attached correctly for deployment of the main parachute and on his count I let go and flew. The training had been very specific about the next bit. You counted…
One thousand and one…
One thousand and two…
One thousand and three…
And then you looked over your shoulder and said “check”. This rigmarole was designed to give the parachute three seconds to deploy, followed by the glance over you shoulder, which, in the event of your body preventing the airflow from opening the parachute, would cause your body to twist, thus allowing the airflow to fill the canopy. I just let go, screamed “XXXXXXX HELL!” and felt an excruciating squeeze on my goolies as the canopy deployed and the harness sharply interrupted the effect of gravity.
I have little recollection of the descent other than it passed without incident. However, it must have been an adrenalin rush because Pete and I decided to give it another go.
There were a lot of variables involved in getting off of the ground and jumping out of a tatty old plane; wind, cloud cover, fixing the plane, joining the queue behind the experts heading for greater altitude to undertake natty freefall moves and fitting in with the next wave of would-be skydivers doing a weekend course. We had several wasted trips to Lympne, but eventually, there we stood, kitted up and waiting patiently on the airfield feeling terrified. My problem was that I’d packed my own parachute and although there were a few cursory checks from the professionals, I was gripped by visions of static line tie-ups, malfunctions and reserves flapping uselessly in the breeze.
We spent a lot of time watching and waiting that day. Conditions were perfect and watching the old plane struggling up out of site, followed by a clutch of pretty butterflies wafting with precision to within feet of their parked cars was impressive. Not so the accidents!
I recall two visits by the ambulance. The first was only minor; the result of a dodgy landing but the second was bloody terrifying. During training, one of the cheerily described malfunctions that can occur was referred to as a ‘Roman candle’. We watched the drama as it unfolded; plane takes-off, lumbers up to freefall height, then tiny little specs emerge and hurtle towards the ground, and then came the ‘thwack’ as their chutes opened; apart from one who was spiralling towards the ground, seemingly attached to something resembling a windsock; yes, he was having what we call in the trade a ‘mal’. The experts started screaming “break away, break away”, but he continued downwards, arms and legs flailing until, YES, he managed to detach himself from the useless parachute, followed by a loud crack as he opened his reserve the instant before hitting the ground. We were informed that he only broke his leg.
Our turn next!
Yes, I was crapping myself, right up until the plane took off. When my turn came, I dangled my legs over the side, shuffled out into the breeze, did the count, checked the canopy and steered the parachute to within a few feet of the marked target in the DZ (drop zone). It was a stunningly clear day and I could see for miles across the Romney marsh and chat to Pete through the clear air as we wafted down.
There was a wee lass with us in the plane who had completed the course that weekend, so it was her first jump. She fearlessly shuffled herself out of the plane before Pete and me and in theory should’ve been on the ground well before we were. However, the ‘wee’ bit caused her a wee bit of a problem because due to her lack of weight, while Pete and I (Mr averages) glided effortlessly towards terra firma, the wee lass wafted about in the breeze, so after we had safely landed and roughly gathered up our canopies to prevent them blowing away, we looked up and saw, despite the lass’s attempts to steer towards the target, her being blown towards the adjacent Port Lympne safari park. The wolf enclosure was looking like the probable DZ and as we ran towards the airfield perimeter it was looking like our new buddy was going to be lunch. Luckily though the light breeze faded away and the girl’s attempts to steer her chute caused the air to spill more rapidly, so she was able to make a perfect landing on the safe side of the fence.
Pete had had enough; it was great fun, but took up a lot of time, often with little reward. I wanted to progress to freefall and decided to come back for another go.
Some weeks elapsed as bad weather and various other commitments prevented my return. And then, one evening, on the local news came the report of a terrible accident. I recall the jumpmaster telling us that in the event of engine failure we should stay in the plane as it would never venture any further than gliding distance from the airfield. He went on to explain that the only risky period was from take off to about six hundred feet, when the plane was under full power, but had yet to reach sufficient speed to glide. Tragically, that was what happened on that fateful day…