We left home at 9.30am having packed a picnic and two small flasks of coffee. It was a pleasant day with the sun filtering through foamy clouds. I felt as if I was going to court, as if I was going to be held to account. My daughter was driving the car, she turned to me and said,
‘Are you alright?’
Today was Saturday the seventh of September, five days before my seventy fifth birthday, I was going to do a tandem parachute jump. When we arrived at the airfield I was surprised to see how many cars were parked up and even more surprised to see the number of people milling around on the grass area in front of a white painted fence. There were picnic tables and open sided marquees. Little aeroplanes were parked up and it had the air of a fete or a special occasion.
‘There’s a lot of people here,’ I commented to the girl at the entrance.
‘Well, it’s not only the people jumping it’s family and friends as well,’ she said.
I was with my grandson and my friend Rose. My grandson, Tom, was doing the jump for his twenty first birthday. Rose, and I had both served in the Women’s Air Force in the early sixties and decided to mark the occasion by doing something spectacular. Another friend had turned up to watch and she enveloped me in her arms saying how proud she was of me and how she couldn’t do it. I felt as if I was in a bubble, it was a bit unreal. We were told to report to the reception desk where we had our details checked including being weighed. We were then shown into a room where we watched a video of the parachute jump. I was still okay about it and before you could absorb the reality of what was happening we were given flying suits by young men and women looking fit and healthy and far too enthusiastic as they clipped us into harnesses telling us that we would soon be instructed on the next stage of how to jump out of an aeroplane. We went into another little room. On either side was a metal bar and we were were each clipped onto the bar and suspended like a row of prisoners waiting to be tortured. A young man came in full of
vigor and said,
‘I want you to feel comfortable in your gear, get used to sitting in your harness by suspending yourself from the bar.’
I lifted my feet off the ground and dangled from the bar.
‘Now I want you to lift our knees up to our chests with feet pointing upwards, this is going to be the landing position.’
I don’t bend as much as I’d like to but I was better than Rose. We were then told to go and wait outside until our names were called. Our support group welcomed us like returning heroes and took lots of photographs. We were relaxed and happy looking like real aviators in our blue overalls, encased in complicated strappings. The grass runway was busy with little planes darting back and forth and as one lot of parachute jumpers returned another lot were ushered to the waiting aircraft and we looked on in wonder and up into the sky as they spiraled down to the ground in graceful balletic turns. I was trying to embrace the beauty of it rather than the fear.
‘Wendy Knee, Rose Stower, Tom Dymond….’ the tannoy called out our names.
This was it. We made our way to the collecting area where we were introduced to our instructors, the person we were going to be strapped to when we made the jump. Straps were tightened, apprehension grew inside me but I still felt okay. We were told to make our way to the aircraft my instructor, Ed, walked alongside telling me what a great experience I was going have. Inside the little aeroplane we had to sit astride a narrow bench Ed was behind me and I had to get as close to him as I could and he hooked us together. The plane rumbled along the grassy runway before finally lifting and in wide circles it took us up to 10,000 feet. Everyone was buoyant with expectation. I held Tom’s hand who was sitting alongside me. The door was opened and all you could see was white cloud. The first pair went and then the next and then the next and then it was our turn.
‘Get to the edge of the opening, you don’t have to do anything,’ said Ed.
I didn’t have to do anything except look out on that white foam and then I was falling, free falling through light cloud sick rose in my throat and my head swirled I felt ill as we dropped like a plumb line.
‘Hold this,’ said Ed giving me a handle to pull on, ‘we can do a few turns. You can control the spiral.’
‘Please don’t do any spirals,’ I said, ‘I feel sick.’
‘Are you okay?’
‘No, I’m going to be sick.’
We were falling at a hundred and twenty miles an hour. How much longer before he pulled the cord to release the parachute. He asked me to spread my arms out as he pointed the camera at me that was strapped to his wrist. I didn’t want to spread my arms like a falling star but I obliged for the sake of the picture.
‘Ready,’ he said and with a whoosh we jerked up at an alarming rate, at last I felt better floating, suspended, not dropping but at every turn I wretched once more. Ed asked me again if I was alright and I told him I felt sick. He reached into his pocket and handed me a paper bag as if I was in a commercial aircraft.
‘It’s just like being on British Airways,’ I said gulping into the bag and trying to make light of the situation.
‘It’s very windy today and so we are going to experience a bit of buffeting,’ said Ed.
As we approached the ground we began to do circles and I heaved again into the sick bag once again. Ed said that we would wait until everyone else had landed before we went down and then finally he told me to bring my knees up ready for landing. I could do this, I thought and with one hand I grabbed under my knees to give them more lift.
‘Point your toes up,’ he shouted as the ground and the fallen parachutists got nearer. I desperately pointed my clumsy trainers skywards as we gently landed and then fell backwards.
‘Lay back into me,’ said Ed, ‘that’s what I’m here for, to take care of you.’
I was grateful for the soft cushion of his body as I recovered my composure.
A couple of the other instructors came running over asking if I was alright.
‘Are you okay granny,’ asked Tom.
‘Yes, I’m fine but can you give me a hand up?’
I didn’t want to roll over into my knees and try to get up in such an ungainly fashion. He helped pull me up onto my feet. I turned and thanked Ed who was the epitome of politeness and concern as he handed me over to the young man who was driving us back to the reception area. In the vehicle we were given small cans of coke a cola. The sweet fizzy drink was welcome but as soon as we got back to the dressing room I was sick again. The coke had done its work and cleared out my system. I was released from my harness and found a ledge to prop myself on as I wriggled out of my all in one suit. It was too much to bend down and pull the trousers over my shoes. I asked one of the young girls if she could help me and sinking to her knees she tugged off my flying suit.
‘I’m afraid I’ve been sick, where can I throw this?’ I said pointing to the bag on the floor.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘I’ll get rid of it.’
Everyone was so kind. We rejoined our family and friends who embraced us and showered us with compliments but I could hardly speak, I still felt queasy. My friend Rose on the other hand said, ‘it was fabulous’ and demanded a bacon sandwich. What a constitution. She’d even done a somersault! Tom had been put through his paces, his instructor had pulled hard on the handle and sent them spiralling all over the place on his free fall.
‘What was it like? Did you enjoy it?’
The questions came, the desire to squeeze out my thrill and in turn thrill them with my experience of falling out of an aeroplane. It felt like the worst fairground ride you’ve ever been on, spinning or dropping from a great height. It felt horrible.
‘It was lovely,’ I said in a sarcastic way and they all laughed as they registered my pale face and lack of enthusiasm to extol the virtues of jumping out of an aeroplane at ten thousand feet. I felt numb. I wanted to go home, I wanted to go to bed, I wanted to be sick again.
It wasn’t until the next day after a good nights sleep that I began to feel normal. The adulations poured in, ‘I think you’re amazing, you’re so brave, what a fantastic woman, I couldn’t do it, congratulations, congratulations.’
I don’t feel deserving of any of these compliments. I wanted to do something spectacular for my seventy fifth birthday. I didn’t want this year to go unnoticed. Do I regret doing it? Not for one minute. I wanted to do something daring and I did it. I did it!