But Fear Itself | UK Parachuting at Sibson Aerodrome
Think of your greatest fear.
What’s the thing you’re most afraid of and would do anything to avoid? Lying in a glass tank full of writhing snakes? Swimming with a great white shark? Crawling through a dark underground tunnel barely wider than your own body?
We all have something we’d be terrified to do: something, the very thought of which is enough to make you feel physically sick. Now try to imagine your reaction if you received a phone call asking you to face that greatest fear. How would you respond? Would you, as I did, say no thanks, make your excuses and put the phone down? Or would you think about it? I mean, really, really think about it. After all, the chance to conquer your greatest fear would surely be hugely liberating. I mean, if you finally faced up to the thing you’re most afraid of, and managed to conquer it, then surely there would be nothing left in life to fear, right? And how good would that feel?
In my case, there was nothing in the world I was more afraid of than jumping out of an aeroplane. Flying is a scary enough experience for many people (though I personally don’t have a problem with it) but the thought of actually jumping out of a perfectly good aeroplane at umpteen thousand feet and trusting that a sheet of silk is going to save your life is a leap of faith too far for me.
But after declining the opportunity to do just that for The Moment I found it hard to live with myself. For two-and-a-half weeks I thought of little else and after much soul-searching, decided that I didn’t want to feel like a coward any more and that I didn’t want to pass up on the opportunity to find out what I was really made of. I said yes.
Ten days after making that decision, I find myself at Sibson Aerodrome, the home of UK Parachuting, just outside the village of Elton near Peterborough. For the last ten days I’ve tried not to think about what I have to do, as if the reality would simply go away if I refused to acknowledge it. While we wait for the weather to clear, I try to laugh and joke and put on a brave face as my instructor Chris McCann goofs around. A former Para, McCann looks like he would kick your door down just to borrow a cup of sugar – and God help you if you didn’t have any. But as he ushers me into the Portacabin that serves as a briefing room reality catches up with me, pulling me over at the side of the road, blue lights flashing. For the first time I actually see the parachute rig we’re going to be using. I feel like a condemned man getting his first glimpse of the gallows that will shortly seal his fate. Suddenly, shockingly, I realise all this is real, and that there’s absolutely no avoiding it now.
Far from being comforting, which most people find, the briefing fills me with new terror. It’s hard to take in what’s being said to me because it all sounds so fantastical. ‘When it’s your turn to jump, shuffle to the door, hang your legs out, and hook them under the aircraft while keeping your arms crossed over your chest’ McCann says nonchalantly. ‘The aerial photographer (a petite blond with nerves of steel called Sarah Hall) will be standing on a step outside the plane filming you so remember to give her a smile and a wave.’
Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t swing my legs over a wall that was 20 feet up, and you want me to dangle my legs out of an aeroplane at 13,000 feet and actually smile about it? This guy is insane.
Fighting back blind terror I somehow manage to remember the three most important points McCann tries to drill into me; make sure my body position is correct on leaving the aircraft (legs bent round under the plane, arms crossed on my chest, head and upper body leaning back); do not under any circumstances try to grab hold of my instructor’s hands on the way down (he has some rather important things to do with them like deploying our parachute); and thirdly, make sure I clasp my knees and bring them up to my chest for landing or else I’ll break my legs.
After the briefing McCann asks me to rate my level of anxiety on a scale of one to ten. It feels like a ten already but I realise things are going to get much worse once I’m actually in the aeroplane sitting next to an open door at 13,000 feet so I decide I’d better leave some room for even more terror. ‘Eight’ I lie.
‘Remember, once you step into the aircraft there’s only one way you’re coming down – and that’s by jumping’ McCann says with no hint of humour. I had already made the decision to jump when I agreed with my publisher on the phone to write this feature. As far as I saw it, once I’d said yes I couldn’t back out – too many people would have invested time and money by then. I’d have been letting down the photographer, my instructor, and the chief pilot and co-owner of UK Parachuting, Grant Richards. Not to mention my publisher.
But this is obviously my last chance to back out. If I really don’t think I can go through with it I have to say so now before I step into the Cessna Caravan aeroplane. Every fibre of my being wants to back out, wants this whole stupid circus to stop but I shuffle forward, feeling like I should be manacled, and get on the plane. The only thing driving me on is the thought that I would have felt like a coward and a failure for the rest of my life if I had backed out. And that’s when I realise a truth – that fear of failure and of letting others down can be an even stronger emotion than fear itself. I was more afraid to say ‘no’ than I was to jump. Does that mean I’m still a coward of sorts?
My introspection is once more disturbed by experienced adrenalin junkies laughing and joking as we board the plane. McCann has already told me that first-time jumpers react in two different ways; they either get very loud and gung-ho as they try and psyche themselves up, or they go very quiet. I am most definitely the latter; lost in thought and trying desperately to find depths of courage I’m not sure I have. McCann – a veteran of some 7,500 jumps and the chief instructor at UK Parachuting – seems to sense this and tries to keep me talking. I remember something else he’d said during the briefing; that we’d be strapped so tightly together he’d be able to feel how hard my heart is beating before we jump. Presuming that it actually is still beating, of course.
I’m not afraid of flying, in fact I love flying. And I’m not afraid of speed either. I arrived at the airfield on a Triumph 675 Daytona and spend a lot of my time testing motorcycles on a professional basis. But here’s the thing that gets me about sky divers; it wouldn’t enter my head to accelerate a motorbike up to 150mph and then jump off of it. So why do they feel the need to jump out of a perfectly good aircraft? Why not just enjoy the flight and land like a normal person?
My brain is almost completely numb now, as if it just doesn’t know how to react and has simply shut down. It doesn’t have a script for this. I’ve always promised myself I would never do this. I lied. I’m just going through the motions, allowing myself to be pulled here and there, trying to remember all the things I’ve been told to do and in what order. That helps a little and gives me something to hang on to; some order and logic in a world gone mad.
We sit on the floor of the stripped-out aircraft in two rows like schoolchildren playing at buses, each jumper sitting between the legs of another. Turkeys. Christmas. I’m even strapped to my instructor like a trussed-up turkey.
Without warning the little Cessna starts buzzing across the grass and I try to enjoy my first take-off from a grass field. ‘That’s it’ my instructor says in my ear. ‘There’s only one way down now.’ No shit Sherlock.
Sarah Hall points the video camera in my face and asks me to say some words. I haven’t a clue what I said, my mind is so far away and I seem to have lost the ability to interact with other human beings. This is a personal journey and one I’m struggling to deal with. I try to respond to the jokes and camaraderie but I’m not truly engaging; I’m battling my own inner demons, or rather, getting ready to face them.
The earth already looks a long way away. Chris points to the altimeter strapped to his wrist. 5,000 feet. ‘Welcome to the Mile High Club’ he grins and pats me on the shoulder. The fields look tiny and we’ve still got to climb another 8,000 feet to our jump height of 13,000 feet. That’s almost three miles up in the air. That’s insane. I swallow hard and my ears pop and clear a bit. I keep glancing at Chris’s altimeter: it’s like watching an egg timer counting down to my moment of execution. When we reach 13,000 feet, it’s time to dance. I will the altimeter to stop as if that will somehow end my current nightmare. It doesn’t.
Suddenly there’s movement and everyone starts high-fiving each other and checking straps, shuffling into a position of readiness. ‘When the green light comes on I want you to pull your goggles down’ Chris says over my shoulder. ‘Once the first guy has jumped, shuffle forwards to the door and bend your legs under the aircraft. Keep your arms crossed on your chest, lean back, and don’t forget to wave to Sarah.’
I don’t mind admitting that at this point I would have given anything to be anywhere else. Had there been any possibility of backing out I would have. My bottle level had been reached. I was absolutely terrified. I had wanted to put myself in an extreme position to see if I had some hidden reserve of courage. Like most of us, I’ve often wondered how I would react in an emergency situation – a train crash, a terrorist bombing. Would I be able to help others? Make myself do things I didn’t think I could do? I was about to find out. The flimsy, see-through plastic door opens. I have no idea if it happened automatically or if someone opened it right in front of me. My brain has no spare capacity for registering unimportant details; it’s focused in a way it has never been before. Only one thing exists in my life at this moment and that’s finding the willpower to drag myself forward and throw myself out of this aeroplane, nearly three miles up in the sky. To put that height in perspective, it’s the same as you’d normally fly on a domestic flight. Take my word for it, it’s high. And for someone who’s not particularly fond of heights, it might as well have been outer space.
I was right to leave some room on the scale for my anxiety levels. When the first psycho throws himself out right in front of my eyes I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack. On a scale of one to ten I am now way, way off the register. He disappeared so fast, tumbling upside down as he left that it was like watching someone commit suicide and not being able to do anything about it. And I was next.
Sarah. Nice friendly, little Sarah is grinning like a sociopath as she steps out of the aeroplane and positions herself on a step to the side of the door, video and stills cameras mounted on her helmet.
It’s my cue.
No amount of watching James Bond movies or extreme sports documentaries on the Discovery Channel can prepare you for the moment when you have to actually jump out of an aeroplane. And try as I might, no words can describe what I felt like at that moment. There has simply been nothing like it in my life to compare it to. This is an experience that exists all on its own. This is as extreme as it gets. You have to do it to understand. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who have jumped out of an aeroplane and those who haven’t.
Somehow, and I’ll never know how, I manage to shuffle my way to the door, trying desperately to focus on my simple routine. I put my legs out and hook them under the belly of the aircraft. I cross my arms and lean back into Chris. I even manage to give a thumbs up to Sarah.
And then it just happens.
Chris had told me he wouldn’t be giving me a countdown. He knows from experience that it gives people too much opportunity to grab at the doorway and try to struggle their way back in. No, he assured me, it was best that I didn’t know when we would be going. He would just push me out.
And so he does.
For as long as I live I never ever want to be as scared again as I was at that moment. Mercifully, it didn’t last long. In a heartbeat (or probably ten, given how fast my heart was racing) I was shoved out, my would-be murderer having decided it was time to pull the pin. Chris had also mentioned earlier that we might exit the aircraft with a double somersault. I had laughed, certain he was joking. He wasn’t.
I am tumbling with a violence I could never have imagined, looking upwards intermittently at the perfectly good aeroplane I’ve just left. The wind noise is astonishing, the sensation of falling even more alarming – it’s an overwhelming assault on my senses that literally takes my breath away. I feel the pre-arranged tap on my shoulders which means I can take my arms off my chest and splay them out in the classic sky diving pose. Then I somehow remember to start breathing again.
Sarah is just feet away, looking for all the world like my guardian angel. Always there, always with a smile on her face. Nothing bad can happen if Sarah’s around.
Then the strangest thing happens. I find myself grinning from ear to ear. I’m plummeting towards the ground at 150mph (we average 137mph and top out at 150mph) just seconds after being more scared than I’ve ever been in my life, and I’m actually enjoying myself? Who is this maniac who’s lived deep inside me for all these years and never bothered to introduce himself? I wish he’d made himself known on the aeroplane. I could have used his help then.
Still, better late than never. I embrace my new devilish persona and just roll with it. There’s no more need to call on reserves of courage. I had done it. I had jumped. Maybe it was the sheer elation of that knowledge more than the descent itself that was making me grin. I don’t know, but the fact is there’s nothing I can do about my situation now so I accept it and start to enjoy it. If it’s to be my last few seconds on earth (or at least heading towards it at a vast rate of knots) I might as well have the biggest rush of my life.
Suddenly, violently, Chris put us into a spin and I remember the simple code he has taught me. Thumbs up if I’m happy with it and want to do some more, or hands on head in a gesture of surrender meaning he’ll stop. I give him an enthusiastic thumbs up while trying to figure out a new way of breathing that will stop my snot lashing my face in the 150mph wind.
This is insane. Absolutely, utterly insane. A rush like no other, an absolute abandonment of all sense, all reason, all care, all things. We’re just falling. And falling. And falling. Think about the longest you’ve ever fallen for. Maybe a dive off the high board at the local swimming pool? Two seconds, tops. It’s a fact that you just don’t experience falling in normal life – and with good reason, cos it usually hurts when you land – so your body and brain don’t know how to react; they haven’t got a clue what’s going on. So all you can do is fall. It’s that simple, that brutal. You just have to accept it.
‘An absolute abandonment of all sense, all reason, all care, all things.’
Strangely, never once do I think about splatting into the ground like a squished bug, and never once do I worry about the landing. Most bizarrely, never once do I feel myself to be in any danger. Lord, but the human brain is a strange thing.
WHOOOOMPPPH!! My guardian angel disappears. Sarah is gone. Confused for a second, I then realise we must be at 5,000 feet and Chris has opened our chute and I feel a surge of disappointment rather than relief. I was enjoying that! We had been in free fall for precisely 48 seconds but it felt like a fraction of that time and I wonder if I’ve done something wrong to make Chris deploy the chute early. Dude, let’s cut the straps – I want to keep freefalling!
Suddenly everything is incredibly quiet and peaceful as we leave the 150mph wind behind us and flutter down in slow lazy arcs. It’s quiet enough to talk now and Chris starts pointing out local landmarks. It’s utterly surreal after the violence of the freefall, the spins, and the double somersault; a completely different experience but equally enjoyable. Or at least it is until Chris pulls down on the right hand toggle and sends us into a spin. After all I’d been through, I didn’t expect this to be the worst part of the experience. My stomach is turning cartwheels as my body is thrown around the sky. I feel like I’ve been picked up by Godzilla and am being toyed with like a rag doll. I could, at any point, have told Chris I wasn’t comfortable and he would have stopped but my new friend, the inner demon, tells me we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. Hell, I even take hold of the toggles myself and instigate a few spins under Chris’ instruction. What the hell, I can be sick later.
When we stop spinning (even though my stomach hasn’t), it feels like we’re just hanging in the air. There’s very little sensation of downward movement until suddenly we start to pick out people in the landing zone and they’re getting bigger by the second. I spot our photographer and give him a wave. We’ve been under canopy for approximately six minutes and now the ground is rushing up fast. A few moments ago we’d practised our landing position so, upon Chris’ instruction I pull my knees up to my chest and leave him to take the strain of landing on his tree trunk legs. We touch down perfectly then a gust of wind catches the chute and we topple over. I sit, as instructed, until Chris untangles us but even after he’s done I still sit there experiencing a mixture of emotions like never before. I can’t quite establish what I feel. Elated, relieved, excited, pumped full of adrenalin, yes, but I also seem to be in some sort of post-traumatic shock. It takes me several hours before I think I can figure out what I’m feeling. The jump itself was nowhere near as bad as the fear I went through in the hours leading up to it. And now that the fear is over I’m completely exhausted. It’s true: there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. I want to lie on the grass and sleep, my poor tortured little brain has never had so much asked of it.
But Chris shakes my hand and helps me to my feet. ‘Well done mate. You’re a sky diver.’
The realisation kicks in. I am a sky diver. I bloody well did it. I gritted my teeth and threw myself out of an aeroplane at 13,000 feet. And I’m more proud of that than anything I have ever done in my entire life.
Would I do it again? Give me a break. I’ve faced my greatest fear and conquered it. Now it’s your turn.
Meet my Tormentors…
Grant Richards, 48, is company director and chief pilot of UK Parachuting
Richards served in the RAF for 21 years, first as a physical training instructor and later as a parachute jumping instructor.
‘I did a lot of high altitude stuff including halo (high altitude, low opening) jumps and did a lot of work with Special Forces, training them to get into areas that they couldn’t get into any other way.
This is the oldest parachuting centre in the country. In various guises it’s been around for 40 years and is fully approved by the British Parachute Association. I took over in 2009 and have also been involved with our other drop zone in Beccles in Suffolk for the last seven years.
I did my first jump out of a Hercules in 1980 as part of my military training and did eight further jumps but didn’t really like it. I didn’t jump for another nine years until I was sent to the parachute school at Brize Norton and I still wasn’t keen then, all of a sudden, when I got to the freefall side of it I thought “Oh, this is really good” and here I am, seven-and-a-half thousand jumps later!
Everyone gets nervous about jumping – there would be something wrong if you didn’t get nervous – but very few people refuse to jump once they get up there. Our instructors have usually put their minds at rest before that point. All our instructors have to pass British Parachute Association courses. Our tandem instructors have to have a minimum of 800 jumps under their belts and our Accelerated Freefall instructors must have 1,000 jumps so they’re all vastly experienced.
People find it hard to believe but it’s actually possible to sky dive on your own on the first day of your Accelerated Freefall course – and you can earn your licence in as little as three days.’
Chris McCann, 48, is a British Parachute Association Advanced Instructor and is chief instructor at UK Parachuting.
‘I’m ex-military. I spent a lot of years in the Parachute Regiment and have been instructing now for 12 years. I’ve seen all sorts in that time. The minimum age to jump is 16 but there’s no upper age limit as long as you can provide a doctor’s certificate to say you’re fit enough. I did a tandem with a woman for her 80th birthday and told her if she was still alive to come back and do one for her 90th. She held me to my word and came back. The following year she went white water rafting down the Grand Canyon and for her 92nd birthday she went wing walking with the Utterly Butterly team then did some abseiling the year after that.
The biggest fear is the unknown but the briefing helps to calm that. I always say to people when they’re in the doorway of the aircraft “Don’t start shouting “no” cos I’m a deaf old bloke and it’ll sound like “go!”’
Go Ahead and Jump
You can experience the greatest thrill of your life by doing a tandem jump for as little as £190. If you want to learn to sky dive on your own, Accelerated Freefall training packages are available starting at £300. That rises to £1,350 for an eight-jump course and up to £1,950 for a Platinum 18-dive course. But once you’re qualified you can make a jump for as little as £20. Tandem sky dive vouchers are also available as gift packages starting at £225 or you can jump for free by doing it all for charity.
You can usually jump at Sibson four days a week, from Thursdays through to Sundays but UK Parachuting is also open on Bank Holiday Mondays and for a week each month in May, June, July, August and September.
Full details can be found at
UK Parachuting Sibson Airfield
Wansford, Peterborough, PE8 6NE