‘I’ve always wanted to go skydiving.’ Be honest – how many of you have uttered those words, safe in the knowledge you’ll probably never have to do it?
Maybe not skydiving, necessarily, but about the hundreds of other crazy things only a few people ever actually do: climbing K2, running a marathon, writing a book. Most of us have cosy excuses that prevent us from actually following through: lack of money, an old knee injury, a busy schedule. But sometimes an opportunity presents itself. In my case, it was an email landing in my inbox. Suddenly your convenient reasons are no longer so convenient, and you end up flying at two-and-a-half miles high in a terrifyingly tiny airplane, which you’re going to have to jump out of.
It’s the kind of foolish activity you agree to six months in advance, when the future is an abstract concept you’ll never have to worry about. Then, somehow, time goes by, tomorrow arrives and it’s the morning of the jump. On that overcast day in April, I was ‘comforted’ (supposedly) by my lovely colleagues at Living North, who enthusiastically informed me I was more likely to die driving to the parachute centre than I was actually doing the jump. Considering how terrible a driver I am, they weren’t far off the mark. Fortunately (sort of), I made it there in one piece, and the last of my excuses evaporated. Now I had to go through with it.
Arriving at Peterlee Skydive Academy, I have to confess to being slightly baffled by the sheer number of other people there. I’d been operating under the illusion that I was the only person in the North East crazy enough to plummet to the earth supported by a single slip of fabric. I was wrong. The North East is full of crazy people.
While queuing outside reception (yes, people on the verge of jumping out of a plane still form orderly queues), I got chatting to a few of the others. The majority were skydiving for various charities, some were training to go solo and some had come with their whole families in tow. One woman started having a full-blown panic attack over what was about to happen. She wasn’t even jumping.
After filling in a lot of paperwork, undergoing extensive training and being given a talk on the alarming variety of ways in which the jump can go wrong, we were ready to go. A group of hyperactive instructors fitted us with extremely tight harnesses, which made me thankful to be female, and then there was nothing left to do but board the plane.
Up until that moment, I’d been surprisingly calm. Denial is a powerful tool in keeping your cool. But when you’re packed like sardines into a tiny plane, with a whole host of other equally terrified first-time jumpers, and that engine starts up... it starts to feel real rather quickly.
I was going to be the first tandem student to jump, leaving me with very little time to change my mind. As the altitude on my instructor’s meter kept climbing, so did my heart rate, until I was fairly positive I was going to throw up. It felt rather like I’d had a few too many cups of coffee – I had stomach cramps, I felt sick, but I’d never felt more alive. When you think about skydiving or other extreme sports, you think mainly about the adrenaline rush after the main event. Nobody had told me about the buzzing in my veins before the jump. The atmosphere in that plane was electric.
At 8,000 feet, we were all convinced we were nearly there. The fields were rolling into a blur of green and the clouds were surrounding us, but absurdly, we still had a way to go. Once we’d hit that magic 13,500 feet, the door (more like a plastic flap) was swung open and it was time to go. There was one man jumping solo before me. He’d been so relaxed on the flight up that he’d taken a nice little nap, but when it was his turn to fly, he grinned manically, waved to the rest of us and leapt out of the plane. Then he dropped. And it was me next.
What happened in those few seconds is still a bit of a blur. We shuffled towards the door, the roaring wind drowning out my steady chant of ‘oh my God’, and I tucked my legs under the plane as we’d been taught in training. I laid my head back onto my instructor’s chest, and he grasped each side of the doorframe with his hands. We perched there for around three seconds, which felt like a lifetime, until finally he pushed away.
Then we were flying. It feels exactly the way you think falling out of a plane would feel: a constant stomach drop, a lot of noise and the strange sensation of having nothing to grab onto to make it stop. It was incredible.
I’m told we were in freefall, travelling at terminal velocity of 120mph, for nearly 60 seconds, but it didn’t even feel like 10. Before I knew it, there was a sharp tug upwards as the parachute was deployed at 5,500 feet, and I was left yelling at my instructor, ‘What happened? I thought it was going to last a whole minute?’ Apparently it did. I still don’t believe it.
From the ground, the parachute portion of the fall looks almost peaceful; more like floating than falling. I hate to shatter the illusion, but it absolutely still feels like falling. You’re still plummeting to the ground quite quickly, and as the instructor spins and steers the parachute to ensure you land in the right field, there’s a definite rollercoaster sensation. The views, however, are amazing. Despite the overcast weather, we were able to see right up to Newcastle and right out to sea. The North East at its finest.
You don’t realise quite how fast you’re going until you get within 1,000 feet of the ground, at which point it starts getting rapidly closer. The instructor will scream at you to lift your legs up to your chest, and despite being almost positive you’ve lost the ability to use your limbs, the landing won’t be anywhere near as dramatic as you think.
The adrenaline buzz coursing through your body will last for a few hours, and when it wears off, you’ll feel totally and utterly drained. That’s when you pour a glass of wine, laugh at the sheer absurdity of what you’ve just done, and start researching your next adventure.
Tandem Freefall, from £199
Peterlee Skydive Academy, County Durham
0191 517 1234 www.skydiveacademy.org.uk