I’ve always idolised my parents. I won’t deny it. When other kids hit their difficult teenage years and started deriding their elders and betters for poor sartorial and music choices, I was spending weekends in the hills with my parents, marvelling at golden eagles and listening to Deep Purple in the car home. It was really, really hard to rebel against people who seemed to lead the kind of life that really appealed to me, and who seemed pretty nice on the whole too. If anything, my real problem was discovering my niche separate from them and finding something I could do that they hadn’t done, become experts in and finally tired of and moved onto something equally cool. Whilst most parents were spending Saturdays going round furniture warehouses and watching TV, mine would be at the airport learning to fly light aircraft, up hills playing with paragliders, racing classic motorbikes….you get the idea. As someone who loved being outside and getting muddy and worn out doing something slightly dangerous, I had to really work on finding something I could do for myself, that would be mine and mine alone (eventually I discovered rebellion could be achieved by not doing anything at all, but that can wait).
My big foray into doing my own thing was born out of my parents’ respective hobbies at the time. My dad was heavily into paragliding, that fantastic French sport where you climb a hill, spread out your glider and run off the hill. If all went well and you were an eight-stone, tanned and well-dressed European who had perfect conditions every day and an appreciative female audience, you would glide into the air, soar upwards and off into the cloudless sky, to land a few miles away by a bar and another appreciative female audience.
If you’re a slightly rotund Scotsman, in a club of slightly rotund Scotspeople with one hour of good flying conditions a month and your audience consists of bored hill-walkers and even more bored sheep, you would struggle into the air, only to descend at speed towards a field full of sheep and the delightful leavings of sheep, which you would then make a valiant attempt to dance around in case you faceplanted into a steaming herbivore turd.
It lacked romance and a certain amount of style. We’d go on holiday and I’d be entranced by these airborne demi-gods, laughing in French and looking wonderful while team GB would be looking pale and ill-equipped, like the nerdy cousin who really wanted to play World of Warcraft but had been made to come to your raucous house party instead.
In Scotland, I would religiously go out paragliding with my dad, in the hope that someone would take pity on me and let me have a quick flight in the tandem glider. I’d spend entire days sitting on wet hills, pulling gliders out of ditches, finding radios and carrying the lunch up from the car. In a tragically teenage way I optimistically described myself as “ground crew”, when hindsight shows me to be a gofer, or similar hillside-dwelling rodent (a marmot perhaps?) I was obsessed but I knew that years of running around after my dad and his friends was not the way to become like those awesome continental pilotes.
I was a flying fanatic at the time, and for this I blame my mother. She was learning to fly light aircraft and when I wasn’t up some godforsaken hill with my dad I was at a small airport outside Glasgow, waiting for (you guessed it) someone to take pity on me and take me up for a flight while she was out learning to fly properly. I’d managed to rack up about three hours flight time in powered aircraft and about half that in paragliders when I decided that the sky was where I was going to be. I started looking into becoming a commercial airline pilot, and ways of gaining experience with anything to do with flying.
This brings us to skydiving. It came to me in a flash of inspiration one night. It had everything: adrenaline, aircraft, the chance to show off to my classmates and (more importantly in my 15-year-old opinion) teachers, and a sport that would show British Airways/Midland that I was really into this whole flying gig. It was perfect.
Of course, at 15 deciding you want to learn how to jump out of planes and actually jumping out of planes are two very different things. I had no money, and no means of making money. I needed a plan. Thankfully, school came to the rescue. It was the year I took my Standard Grades and, hearing about some of my friends brokering deals to get money out of their family in exchange for grades (in some cases, up to £50 for a grade 1, or A to the rest of the civilised world). Confident in my abilities to do really well in my exams, I asked my parents if they’d pay for me to learn to skydive if I did well.
They told me not to be so ridiculous, and after a swift reminder of the importance of doing well in school for it’s own sake, and then another reminder that it was my birthday soon and it could be my present instead. Makes sense, I thought, and before long I had a date for departure. All I had to do was be up at 5am to get into Glasgow to meet my friend who was going to be jumping with me, get the train to some tiny Perthshire town, and then find a way of getting from there to the airfield.As someone who at the time was uncomprehending of the link between bus number and the number on bus stops, this would present a challenge to say the least. However, I was determined, I was excited, I was as ready as I was ever going to be. bring on the parachutes!
It was a good day to jump, not that I'd have known if my parents hadn't woken me up. Sleeping through my alarm on a day like this? Being a teenager was awesome, and terrifying in the inherent ability to sleep through even the most important occasions.
After a flurry of activity in the house, racing to meet John (who was late of course), finding and getting ont he right train and getting off at the right place, we were on our way to the airfield. Our next hurdle was getting there from the train station. It was a fair few miles away and the train station consisted of a platform and a broken ticket machine, hardly the most promising start. So, off we wandered in search of the nearest village. Upon finding the only open shop, we were told that there just one taxi in the area, which the shopkeeper generously offered to phone for us (on the unspoken assumption we bought a few packets of crisps)
Finally our chariot arrived. It was beautiful. No, really. A white merc sedan with white leather seats, and the smartest taxi driver we'd ever seen. He explained to us that he doubled up for wedding car hire, and did a bit of taxi-driving on the side. And so we pulled up to an enormous prefab shed, at half eight in the morning, wearing our stout boots, old clothes and stepping out the sort of thing an England WAG would dismiss as being too flashy. Never let it be said I didn't like to make an entrance.
So, we were here, we were ready, we were put into bright orange jumpsuits. The purpose of these was to stop us getting our clothes filthy (and, as I found out later, to make our bodies easier to find if we went way off-piste). We went through the initial safety briefing, practiced jumping out of the balsa wood mock-up of a Cessna side door kept in another shed, and practiced how to get out the plane in the event of an emergency (quickly seemed to be the jist of it). There were four of us to a flight, and the instructor did the decent thing and kept us young'uns together (me being the youngest by a good four years). There was me, who spent the day being the kind of mouthy and brash that you can only really get away with when you're 16, John, who seemed slightly embarrassed to be there with me, Mike, who had dreams of joining the RAF as a pilot, but had a crippling fear of heights and hoped that jumping out a plane at 3,500 feet would be a good way of curing this, and Dave, who was there to be supportive of Mike. Poor Mike, I really hope he made it into the RAF. At the time however, I was terribly unsupportive, and making jokes about jam donuts and stories I'd heard about water landings was erring on the cruel side of polite conversation.
Speaking of water landings, a little note on mechanics. On your standard square parachute harness, you have two brakes. These brakes are stuck on with velcro, and once your 'chute has opened, you can release these brakes and use them to turn, hang in mid-air, and (most importantly). slow yourself down before landing so you don't break both ankles and mess up your orange jumpsuit. Simple.
Also on your right hand side is the 'chute-opening handle, which we weren't worrying about as we were on a line, the reserve 'chute pull, and way up, on our shoulders, was the water-landing handle. This we were told, was VERY DANGEROUS. It was very small, had a DANGER: WATER LANDING ONLY tag on it, and had the unique ability of making your main parachute detatch itself from your harness. And the reserve parachute. If a skydiver lands in water, the cells of the parachute fill with water, sinking and dragging the hapless victim down with them. From my time on the hill with the paragliding crew, I'd heard stories about poor bastards drowned this way, and it was very fresh in my mind. So, the water-landing handle. Very important. Very useful. But ferchrissakes, do not under any circumstances pull in an emergency (unless that emergency is waterborne).
So, four up and we're in the plane, a little, beaten-up Cessna held together with duct tape and the kind of frantic optimism possessed only by those in aviation (a kind of amphetamined-up Right Stuff). I'm jump three of four, and now it's real I am utterly, utterly terrified. I've stopped making jokes now, and can do very little but stare at my altimeter as it counts up. Three thousand feet is a terrible height to jump from. High enough to be very deadly indeed, low enough that I could make out little details on the ground. The sheep, the lake (lake!?! Fuck me, there's a LAKE over there!), my mum and dad getting out their silver Volvo.... this may have been an exercise in striking out on my own, but I was bloody happy to see them at that moment.We ascend, the dial on the altimeter rising in time with my sense of foreboding.
One out. He's fine, Mike is one step closer to flying jets for the RAF (and how is Afghanistan these days I wonder?). Two. John grabs my hand as he moves past me, and he's gone. Three.
We circled the airfield after John had gone and I could see him, a small dot in the air, his canopy blossoming above his head. I simultaneously wanted it to be over now and wanted there to be a problem with the plane, me, the chute, anything, so we would have to land and do it another day far, far in the future. Then our instructor put his hand on my shoulder, shouted "Ready?!" at me. It was time.
People always wank on about how everything becomes automatic at moments like this. Bollocks they do.I had to consciously do everything in my head before my body could be trusted, as I'd developed a fear of falling head-first out the plane by fucking up. Christ, don't fuck this up. I sit in the doorway of the Cessna, almost side-saddle. my right arm is braced against the back of the doorway, my left on the floor by my legs. It all feels very precarious. In common with almost every other human being who ever lived, I've never dangled out a plane before, it's very surreal. The land rushing beneath my feet, thousands of feet below. It looks like a whole world of nothing between me and safety, and the plane feels like it shouldn't be up here, let alone with me in it. It's all wrong!
Finally, the pilot shuts the engine, the plane slows, and I remember it becoming very, very quiet. Time didn't slow but I suddenly became aware of every breath. Every movement. Every. Single. Second.
And suddenly, there are no seconds left. I feel a hand on my back, I launch myself out, and I'm screaming. Really, really screaming. I believe my thought process in freefall went something like this.
Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck I've just thrown myself out of a plane what the hell is wrong with me....
How many seconds was that?
FOUR THOUSAND CHECK CANOPYYYYYY
...and the parachute opens up and in my head it opens with a crack like gunfire and I'm suddenly soaring, not falling. My screams transmute into tears of sheer, unbridled joy. After a few seconds of hyperventilating, snottering and kicking my legs like a toddler on a tyreswing, I remember my checks and get my brakes out. It's a beautiful view from here (though I'm watching that fucking lake like a goddamn hawk, oh yes. It's when you let your guard down, that's when they get you...), the late afternoon sun turning the airfield and nearby farmland into a glorious, golden, bucolic cliche. However, it wasn't long before I decided to show off a little. A few steep banks and turns on the chute using me (basic) knowledge of paragliding made me feel far better at this than I thought, a pretention that gravity quickly disabused me of when I misjudged the final ten feet and fell over arse over tit, spraining my ankle and starting a good fight between me and the canopy that made me look like a sweary extra in the soft porn they used to show on BBC2.
Still, I had done it. I had thrown myself out a beaten-up Cessna for reasons other than necessity. I was a fizzing ball of joy and incessant chat all the way home, and John and I promised we'd make this a regular thing, that this would be our sport from now on. Elation never felt this good.....