A July morning over Perthshire saw a fundraising parachute jump
THEY say third time lucky but if I’m honest I’m not sure how lucky I felt to waken at 5.30am, see clear skies and know that after two postponements this was the day that our parachute jumps were going to go ahead. I skipped breakfast and collected Betsy Dorfman (late of the Royal British Legion Scotland HQ) en route to Errol Airfield, Perthshire. Betsy was bright eyed and bushy tailed in contrast to me; my face became slowly greyer the closer we got to the parachute centre.
We arrived at 7.40am; jumps are on a first come first jump basis. We were second. Not that I was complaining. My heart was thumping like a scared rabbit’s. The centre opened at 9.30am and it wasn’t long before all parachutists were called into the office to run through the routine.
Paperwork. Check. This eliminates the possibility of any lawsuit if the ‘chute fails to open. Training. Check. Lie on floor and lift legs with hands crossed. Perfect. Equipment. Check. Don’t worry about hair and make-up. The helmet, goggles and jumpsuit are going to ruin everything anyway. Betsy looked great in her black jumpsuit. It really suited her. My white one, on the other hand, was not so flattering. I looked like a marshmallow.
Betsy and I were second up. Then clouds moved in and we were told to brace ourselves for a long wait as there were deep layers of cloud coming over. Thirty minutes later, just as we had mentally prepared to re-book, the instructors said there was a gap in the cloud and they were prepared to jump us through it. No time for nerves! They hurried me and Betsy on to a bus before cramming us into the aircraft.
The plane was tiny, barely bigger than the inside of a mini. Betsy went in first and we sat between our instructors’ legs as they strapped us to them – our shoulders to their chests. Strangely it wasn’t awkward being so close to my instructor, Mark, who was quite a strapping man. I felt really safe. But as the plane took off and began its climb to 10,000ft I felt less safe and more sick.
It took fifteen minutes to reach the correct height. Our plane had the luxury of a door - most don’t. I’m not sure it was a good thing because once opened the reality of jumping out of a plane hit me with a terrible force. I realised then that I had two options: jump or look for a new job as I wouldn’t be able to face anyone if I chickened out. The wind was now deafening.
Betsy crawled forward. I shouted “Good luck!” but she couldn’t hear me. Her instructor’s leg went out. Betsy’s leg went out. They leant over and… were off! Simple, right?
I crawled towards the door. But all my training disappeared, carried off on the wind perhaps. Mark had to speak pretty firmly: “Shuffle, leg, remember, and cross your arms.” We shuffled to the door. He popped his leg out on to a little step and tapped my leg for me to follow. Heart pounding, I crossed my hands. We leant over. Then it dawned on me: “I can’t!” But before I knew what was happening we were off! Wahey!
240mph for 20 seconds of free fall! Incredible! My eyelids flickered from the sheer speed. It was like falling through the steam clouds of a really hot shower. The training kicked in as the wind pulled our combined bodies sideways and I kicked my legs back, arms crossed and began to enjoy the controlled drop. After twenty seconds the canopy opened and the deceleration jerked my body upwards as we slowed down to 120 mph.
It suddenly became silent. The wind had ceased and I could open my eyes fully and have a good gawp at the landscape as we floated down. Mark spun us around and pointed at a black rain cloud over Perth: “Five seconds later,” he said, “and we’d have jumped through that.”
It was over all too soon. Mark shouted: “Up, up, up!” I lifted my legs while he slid his under mine so that his bum would double as a break pad. It worked. We landed uninjured! For a few seconds I just lay there, arms stretched out silently thanking God that I was alive. I looked up and, yup, there was Betsy, safe and sound with a big smile on her face.
Buzzing with adrenalin, we scooped up our parachutes. Momentarily I thought: “I want to do that again.” But it was a fleeting moment. Never say never. BUT I have a sneaky feeling that the next time I’m throwing myself out of a plane it will be only because the plane is on fire. Betsy and I have raised over £1,000 for Houses for Heroes so far and we thank everyone who has sponsored us.
Caroline Wilkinson works at the Edinburgh HQ of Houses for Heroes Scotland (Scottish Veterans’ Garden City Association).