Monday 16 June 2014

Skydive for the RNLI 14.6.14

**The World Record Breaking Day

As I made the one hour drive to the North London Skydiving Centre (which confusingly is in the middle of the Cambridgeshire Fens) early on Saturday morning, I had it in mind that I might just be home again around lunchtime. It would be a case of turn up, register, do the training, tog up, climb on board and then do the exciting jump out of an aircraft for the RNLI. I couldn't have been more wrong! By just after 8am, the heavy rain that I had encountered at Ely on my way through, had now caught up with us and a misty shroud hung over the little airfield at Chatteris, and it didn't look as though it was going to move on anywhere else very soon. At the far end of the grass strip the Twin Otter aircraft sat alone and also looked like it would be going nowhere. Sadly, weather conditions were not looking ideal for skydiving.

I had arrived to find myself checking-in behind a large group, also taking part in this world record breaking attempt for the most tandem skydives in one day but for their own reasons, and charities. Coupled with the projected weather delays, this meant there was probably no chance of me being on one of the first planes to go up. (move the returning home estimate to early afternoon) By the time this first group spilled back outdoors from their training session, the rain was coming down heavily and it wasn't long before they all filed back into the airfield clubhouse from where the aroma of fresh-cooked bacon was giving everyone the come-on.

A couple of hours went by and still there was no movement by the weather or the skydive instructors. Under a huge protective canopy, the daily schedule clipboards remained empty. Only the day before the very same canopy had protected everyone from the hottest day of the year so far but today, the mood of the waiting jumpers was as glum as the weather. A slight air of hope came with the call for the second group (which included me) to attend the training session. I was one of just a couple of individuals in amongst a large group of twenty-somethings who had made the trip up from North London (I expect they thought they might be in for an easy time travelling to the airfield when they made the booking!) The training consisted of five main points. The instructions and position to follow on preparing to exit. The position to assume during freefall. What not to do during free fall (Apparently grabbing the instructors hands is not the thing to do as it might make it a little difficult to pull the parachute cord!) The position to assume for landing. Stay with the instructor at all times. (Being strapped as snugly to the instructor as I was at times, I guess it would have been difficult stray too far!)

We were all tasked with practising the landing position, critical if we didn't want to break a leg or two. I can only say that I'm glad my yoga instructor makes us do lots of the killer boat poses. This meant I found the action of sitting down with my legs and feet in the air, hands tucked behind the knees, a little easier than some of the youngsters around me, and who worryingly seemed to be having difficulty in comprehending the requirements. The instructor then gave one last gem of useful information.
"The freefall from 10/12,000 feet will last around 30 seconds followed by up to five minutes under the canopy. However, should the fast route down be preferred, then it will take just one minute!"

Training over, we all spilled back outdoors, where the rain had passed through but the thick low cloud still hung heavy over the airfield. Meanwhile, the pilot thought it time enough to carry out the daily pre-flight checks on the aeroplane.

During this enforced period of delay, the waiting jumpers and spectators were making full use of the other on-site facilities, the wind tunnel being a popular choice. This rush of air, powered by a huge noisy diesel engine would, unbeknown to them, be the nearest that many would get to experiencing the sensation of freefall that day.

As I made my way back into the clubhouse, where the aroma of lunchtime cheesy-chips was rather tempting (but I resisted), the general mood was becoming quite resigned. The odds of doing the jump were not looking great. Some around me did quick calculations to see if under perfect conditions, there would still be time to fit in 2 x runs per hour with 10 on board and get their turn. (move the returning home estimate to late afternoon). I sat down to wait on a huge, squishy brown leather sofa and as I tipped my head back to grab forty winks, I could see the the jolly pictures hanging on the clubhouse walls and began to wonder if seeing these images of previous skydivers having fun would be the nearest I would get to a skydive experience. I started to plan the alternative - coming back mid-week when it might be quieter and when the weather might be better. It was a depressing thought as I would then have to disappoint everyone who had supported me with the news of a potential no-jump. The elements of nature cannot be easily overcome so the waiting game would be the only option, something I am quite familiar with as a wildlife photographer.

I was stirred from my nap by the sound of excited chatter. It was looking the best it had been all day and there was even a stream of sunshine flooding the clubhouse with hope. A handful of names were announced over the tannoy and there followed a flurry of activity as these lucky first few donned their skydive suits. The jump schedules appeared on the clipboards and everyone filtered hopefully outside into the chilly breeze. For the first time a parachute pack appeared. At around 13.00, four hours later than the usual start time, it looked like things were on the move.

The excited novice tandem jumpers and their instructors made their way over to the plane and we all watched hopefully as they boarded, taxied and then took off into what was still a very grey looking sky. It would take around twelve minutes for them to reach the jump height and we listened out for the hum of the plane overhead as it climbed...

...or so we thought. Suddenly the aircraft appeared to our left on final approach to the airfield. The news filtered round that the session was being aborted due to the cloud layer being too thick to see the ground. (Just a bit of an issue when jumping out of a plane)

The looks on the faces of those returning said it all. They never imagined they would do an exit jump from the aircraft in the manner they did. We all felt so disappointed for them as to go up in the sky and not jump would be worse than not even getting off the ground. Safety had to come first though.

The plane taxied back to the parking spot and we all sat down for the next spell of waiting. At around 14.30 all skydivers were called to a briefing. The cloud base was still thick and low and the wind was starting to pick up, with gusts of 20 knots. Over 23 knots and it would be a no-go. However, the Met Office forecasts and the aviation forecasts, despite actually saying different things, both indicated an improvement in conditions over the coming hours. The best assumption that NLSC could make was that it would be 50/50. The options were given: hang on to see what might happen or make a decision as to whether to come back another day, bearing in mind those at the end of the list would be informed as soon as there was no possibility of time allowing the jump. (move the returning home estimate to teatime)

This announcement prompted the North London group to make the decision to leave along with a steady stream of individuals who had lost heart with the wait. I saw this to my advantage as my position, currently half way down the list would rise to the 'possible' zone. I was determined to stick it out. I had waited this long and wasn't going to miss out on a something that I wouldn't be able to know when it might happen again.

Those die-hards amongst the decreasing crowd, sat and waited in the shelter of the clubhouse. Looking out of the window at the grey sky, the impromptu notice stuck to the glass made a dig at the fact we were there one day too late to take advantage of the recent blip of summer weather.

But we waited.

The light began to improve.

Sunshine peeped through tiny holes in the clouds.

Names on the list were called...!

Finally, patience was rewarded and once again the first group prepared to take to the skies at around 16.45. Then the call was made for the second group, and the third, each time I listened to hear if my name had been escalated up the list. No such luck. My heart sank a little as the ever-changing cloudscape could mean that even the third group may not get off the ground. In between flights two and three the plane would have to be refuelled and the parachutes had to be repacked. It would all take time and pessimism was overruling my optimism.

A sense of relief and joy went around the airfield as the Twin Otter once again took to the now bright sky.

As we waited the twelve minutes for the plane to reach jump height, blue sky began to appear in huge patches.

Everyone looked skybound and held their breath...

Then one by one, tiny dots punched through the thinning cloud...

Getting bigger and bigger as each of the tandem skydiver pairs approached the ground...

Then, in the beautiful evening sunshine and in between the flurry of activity, there were finally moments for brief reflection.

Relief all around as the first group was finally down.

By now the second group were ready and waiting to board whilst the third group were being kitted out. I had no idea when it might be my turn but as I waited I looked at how some of the instructors chose to dress - with great character and with an element of 'brrrrr, really?!!"

Finally, at around 18.00, ten hours after arriving at the airfield, my name was called for what was to be the last flight of the day. I was overjoyed I had moved up the list (thank you everyone who chose to go home - bet you're wishing you hadn't now!) and relieved to slip into the skydiving kit at long last.

This is also the point where I borrowed the non-participating husband of another tandem jumper, for photographic services. (Sadly none of my own family were able to be with me to fulfil this role on the day)

So this was the skydiver onto whose chest I was going to be strapped and who I was to entrust my whole safety. Adam checked and double checked that all of my harness, straps, buckles and nerves were all in shape.

Nerves?! I have to say I had none! For not even one moment, before, during or after did I have butterflies, anxiety or panic. This was a moment I had been waiting for since I was seven years old, having watched John Noakes on Blue Peter parachute out of an aeroplane. This was to be my moment of 'madness' as many called it but I was blissfully happy in this temporary madness and the stupid grin seldom left my face for the whole experience.

I was about to jump out of an aeroplane in support of the RNLI - the charity that saves lives at sea.

Going up in the Twin Otter was absolutely no bother for me. I love flying and have done so in small, large, vintage and state of the art aircraft. To be sitting virtually in the lap of someone else was a first though (even the low fares airlines haven't tried that economy drive yet!). I had also opted to take a camera operator with me as I had heard on a couple of occasions that those who didn't regretted not recording their first jump. Now I take my hat off to him too, as he had to jump out before us to film AND freefall under control.

We were to be the first of three tandems out of the plane and just before we reached the jump height, all the connections, straps, goggles and commands were checked. The two freefallers jumped first and then the cameraman swung out on the back edge of the door as we awkwardly shuffled our bottoms along the floor and towards the open door. Adam sat on the edge as my rear-end hung out into thin air, my feet tucked up back up underneath the plane. I hung onto my harness and laid my head back onto his shoulder (...they were the instructions - I wasn't getting all lovey-dovey at 10,000ft!) It took a couple of seconds for me to glance down my cheeks to see the white frothiness of the clouds way down below.

Then I felt the rocking one... two...

...and we plunged into the space in the sky. There was no going back. Immediately my right eye suffered the usual explosion from my over-active tear-machine, the tear drop jiggling around on the inside of my goggles. That annoyance accepted the next thing I realised was that we were falling head first towards the ground...

...and then I felt the tap-tap on my shoulders, the signal to assume the freefall position.
Here I was, falling through the sky at speed and blow me, there was a guy wanting to take my picture!!! I couldn't do anything but smile - it was just incredible.

It had been discussed before we left the ground that as I had had wind tunnel experience of assuming the freefall position and I was keen to do further jumps, Adam would pull his arms in and let me 'fly' but reassured me he would take over again if he felt we were getting into any bother.


I couldn't see what he was doing and really hoped that I had been able to play my part in the freefall control. It was only when we got to the ground I double checked to find I had indeed been 'in control'
It was just as well though, that I couldn't see what he was doing behind my back but I forgive him as the resulting shot has given me great joy since. In fact it is one of those forever in the memory, happy photographs.

As we continued our controlled freefall there were naturally a few checks to do along the way.

And then the time came to deploy the parachute.

At first I wasn't aware of any change in the noise and speed at which the wind was rushing past and sculpting our faces. Then the rushing noise abated and there was an air of peace and quiet as my legs swung down below me and I moved my hands back to holding the harness. We were now drifting down under the canopy.

During the the gentle descent we had opportunity to chat. To look at the beautiful rainbows in the top of the clouds
(I forget the special name) To point out a great place to have breakfast when I come back for my second jump. To look at the criss-crossing of the many little grass strips at the airfield.
I was also able to take over the toggles and steer the manoeuvrable canopy, unlike the large round parachutes of the old days. He demonstrated a tight spin or two although I requested a curtailment of the unwinding spin (I never was much good on that type of fairground ride!) He pointed out the cameraman who was now down on the ground, the square meterage of his canopy much less than ours to enable him to get to the ground before us and to photograph us coming in for the landing. We watched as the aeroplane came in to land below us just as we did one final sweep round towards the landing zone.

All too soon we were preparing for the landing. The action of lifting the legs up in front being all the more difficult with gravity now working against us. I had nothing to fear though as we landed gently on our feet. The ground support crew slowing their 'catch us' run-in as they realised that all was just dandy.
I was down! It was the first time I had gone up into the sky in an aeroplane and not come back down to the ground in it. Wow!

As Adam neatly gathered up his parachute (he'd done that a few times before, I could tell!!) we went over the points of the jump, confirming that I had been in control whilst we made our way back towards the almost empty viewing area, now bathed in beautiful evening sunlight.

Then I remembered the borrowed husband in charge of my camera. I looked across to see his wife waving at me with emphatic joy and in return I waved an equally joyful "I have done it" back.

I had completed my charity tandem jump for the RNLI    :-)

There was the paperwork to complete and further discussions regards my intention to come back to do the TAFF course, or at the very least, a solo jump - one more of the things on my 'to-do' list.

I was one of the last to leave the airfield at around 19.00 and how the weather conditions had changed! A far cry from the drizzly shroud that had greeted me nearly twelve hours earlier. (move the returning home estimate to mid evening)
And that stupid grin? It stayed with me for the whole drive home and way on into the evening, and even now, I still have a little grin to myself when I think about it. In fact, there is all the more reason to grin about it as today (Tuesday)
there was an important statement released from the overall event organisers:

Skyline and Do It For Charity co-founder Siobhan Dillon said: “At Skyline, we’re very proud of everybody who has helped us to break the record for the most tandem skydives in a 24 hour period, and in the process raising much needed funds for a great number of fantastic causes. We first set the record back in 2012 with 177 jumps, topping that last year with 187. This year, we smashed that record spectacularly with 323 jumps. 

"So many UK charities, including the RNLI, depend solely on the fundraising efforts of the public and not only did this weekend's participants make a little bit of history, they also contributed to changing the lives of others, right across the UK.”

It means that I and the 322 other tandem skydivers nationally are all currently **World Record Holders**

So not only have I done my first skydive, I also hold my first World Record!
I don't expect it will be long before our group record will be broken though as there are more challengers set for the Summer but who cares? I'm not going to lose sight of the fact that I did this jump as a result of, and for the RNLI. 
I am delighted that my total now stands at £547.43 for the fourth emergency service.
...and it's not too late to show your support for my little 'madness' My Justgiving page will be open for a while yet! 

A huge thank you to everyone involved, especially Adam, and all those who have kindly supported me. Thank you so very very much - I do appreciate everything xx

A special thank you must also go to fellow skydiver / World Record holder, Lesley Irwin for letting me borrow her husband Dave, who was in expert control of my camera. Credit goes to him for all the shots I actually appear in except for the freefall sequence which were supplied by NLSC.



  1. Fantastic - well done you!

  2. Glad you enjoyed the day and thanks for your patience. It is a very good report of the day that's well written with great pics. Hope to see you again soon.

    From all the staff at NLSC :-)


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