Tag Archives: freefall

Hungary for Freefall

 

 

With the Skydive Dubai desert dropzone closed for the scorching summer months and being a relative fledgling in the sport with insufficient jumps to be a Palm-bird I had to consider dropzones further afield in order to obtain my freefall fix. Yes, skydiving, as anyone who does it for fun will confess, is an addiction. A powerful one at that. The lure of open skies and thousands of feet of void to flip, slide, track and fly through is a tough one to resist.

 

Cue the search for potential skydiving holiday destinations. A few web searches, blogs and a Facebook Messenger conversation later I had my selection: Skydive Balaton, just outside the lakeside town of Siofok in Hungary. The main draw of this dropzone, other than the fact that the pictures and videos I had seen were amazing, was the fact that they jump from helicopters. Not just any heli though. No. Decommissioned military Mi8 choppers! After confirming that the forecast for my intended week was good – Eastern Europe, it seemed, was enjoying a very well timed heatwave – tickets were booked to fly to Budapest, the night shift finished and my bags duly packed. Freefall here I come!

tracking, skydive balaton

Budapest, which I chose to spend a few days exploring at the start of the trip, was stunning and despite having an unfortunate start to the week after my laptop was stolen I found the city to be charming, full of history and, much like Prague, where I had been fortunate enough to visit with my father a few weeks prior, had incredible views at each and every turn. With my tourist mental checklist satisfied and hire car secured, I left the urban confines of the city and struck out into Hungary’s countryside, driving the one and a half hours out to Lake Balaton and the skydive complex, nestled at the Southern end of the runway.

I was immediately impressed with the set up there. Manifest was well organised, with my first point of contact, Krsytina, running it like the tight ship this place clearly was, and a great system whereby newly registered skydivers were issued a personal card, with this being used to self-manifest electronically, scanning in and collecting a paper ticket from an automatic machine just prior to the jump itself. Seamless, easy and sophisticated. So far so impressed. The complex itself was superbly serviced, with a number of individual hangars that groups of jumpers could make use of to pack and hang out in, a fantastic cafe and outdoor seating with panoramic views over the landing area. Skydive Balaton also has a range of really great accommodation options, from small two bed cabins, to more extensive lodgings, and, of course, the option to camp, with clean, serviceable showers and other facilities. The on-site restaurant, Aviator, served amazingly delicious food and, of course, refreshing local beer! It was easy to see why the centre played host to a number of boogies during the summer, with one actually coming to an end as I arrived.

One of the beauties of the sport is that it is wonderfully social and it wasn’t long before I was introduced to a great group of guys and girls, making the hangar in which they’d spent the boogie week in my base for the few days I was there. Welcoming, generous and fun they made my time jumping there even more awesome than I knew it was going to be and although several of my jumps were solo affairs – great for quiet contemplation and time to enjoy the expansive views of the lake and beyond – I was also able to do several jumps with other people, which is always more fun! The options for fun that come from jumping out of the back of a helicopter are almost limitless. The choice of HOW to exit is just the start. Run out? Fall backwards? Hanging drop? If you can think of it then you can pretty much do it from a helicopter. One of the funniest exits I was able to do was to hang from the rope out the back by my feet before dropping towards the earth below head first. The group jumps were hilarious, from a nine-way ‘Hot Dog’ jump to celebrate Luke’s 200th jump, to the ‘Cat’ jump that I got to do with Chris and Kim, in which we linked end to end before tracking, Chris then dipping his head to the ground causing me to fly up and over, catapulting across the sky! Epic jumps every single one. Even the journey to altitude was magical and I couldn’t help but feel as though I was in some kind of epic action movie, sitting with my legs dangling from the rear of this master of the skies as we hurtled across the grass before climbing like a colossal metallic dragonfly and revealing the lake and surrounding country far below.

Talking of generosity, I was extremely grateful to the guys, especially Aaron and Paul, who took the time to help refresh my memory of how to pack my own rig, a skill that I had long neglected in favour of simply paying for pack jobs in Dubai. There was a part of me that didn’t really feel like a complete skydiver not knowing how to pack myself and I ended the weekend confidently packing myself and living to tell the tale! In fact, I am pleased to report that my chute opened seamlessly on every pack that I did on my own, which is always reassuring! That’s another element of this sport I love: there are very few airs and graces, with most of the people you meet being down-to-earth (ironically) sorts with a sense of humour and a generous spirit. We all look out for one another and you’re guaranteed to have friends wherever you choose to go in the world. For that I am super grateful!

The weather gods were certainly smiling on us during our time there, as the day I left the winds picked up. As I drove away, back towards Budapest and my flight home, I had the satisfied grin and the aching muscles that signal a great few days of jumping, already plotting my return. If you’re looking for an amazing dropzone to visit then this is one for your list.

Winter is for Jumping. Again & again.

One of the very best parts of living out here in Dubai is the opportunity to engage in a plethora of incredible sports, enabled in large part by the reliable weather – warm, sunny and generally perfect during the winter months; less so in the summer! The other main factor that drives the opportunities for adventurous leisure pursuits is the fact that Dubai invests and does so in a big way if it is something that they take a keen interest in. Skydive Dubai is one such example and the truth is that it has very much made a mark for itself as one of the premier skydiving destinations on the planet, a truth that was evident during the recent Winter Festival.

I love the fact that my days off get to start with questions of the nature,”what fun outdoor pursuit shall I engage in today?” Should I scuba dive? Climb? Trail run? Maybe kitesurf? Or what about skydiving? So many options and all within a sensible distance of the city itself. One of my key activities is skydiving. I have loved the sport ever since giving my mother grey hairs by signing up for a tandem when I was an 18 year old Gap Year student travelling in New Zealand. Fast forward 12 years and I had the pleasure of gaining my solo skydiving licence in the US, training at Skydive San Diego, and putting my new found skills to use at various drop zones in the state of California. It was, truth be told, the promise of skydiving at Skydive Dubai and jumping over the Palm that finally made my mind up as to whether to accept a position in the Middle East and to make the move to become an expat. I was seduced by the sky! I had experienced the sport in the UK and came to the conclusion pretty swiftly that I was very much a fair-weather skydiver – sunnier, hotter climes and bluer skies beckoned.

Skydive Dubai Winter Festival

One of the highlights of the skydiving calendar here in Dubai is the annual Winter Festival, that generally runs from Boxing Day (26th December) through to New Year’s Day, with full on days of epic jumping with a plethora of visiting skydivers from all over the planet. I was able to jump for just two out of the seven days this year but really made the most out of that time, with back to back loads each day that saw me focus on formation belly jumps and the ultimate goal of nailing a two-point 8-way, one of the required skills for the USPA C-licence, and something that a number of my fellow sky-buddies had their sights set on too. One of the key advantages of attending the Winter Festival is that we get to jump repeatedly with coaches, something that would normally cost significantly more during normal weeks. This not only offers a really fun way to get to know the professional skydivers here and hang out with them as friends but also leads to some seriously accelerated improvement in our skills in the sky. Planning a jump, doing it, reviewing it with a coach who really knows their stuff and then going back out and doing it again and again leads to exponential improvements and was, I am sure, the prime driver of us collectively achieving our goal of securing 8-way success.

Winter Festival, Skydive Dubai, 8 way group
8 way team rocking it at Skydive Dubai Winter Festival

In addition to getting to do loads of really fun jumps with interesting, vibrant friends, both new and existing, there were plenty of other reasons to hang out at the drop zone during the festival. Each day ended with dinner, a great opportunity to review the day’s jumps and think ahead to the next, followed by the ‘video of the day’ screened around the desert campfire. I even had a win in one of the daily raffle draws, thrilled as I was to receive a voucher for five free jump tickets. The glider was a feature during the festival as well, going up again and again to give others the same incredible thrill of being ejected as I had experienced previously and one that everyone raved about.

Gliding to Freefall

One of the really incredible features of pursuing adrenaline sports as a pastime is that pretty much all domains become big playgrounds. From playing at being a fish and exploring the other-worldliness of being a scuba diver to the sheer thrill and exhilaration of freefall as a skydiver, I love the constant stream of ‘new’ that such endeavours present.
glider dubai skydive
When I saw that there was an aerobatic glider parked on the runway at Skydive Dubai’s desert campus, and knowing that they were offering something special as advertised on social media, I was intrigued but otherwise didn’t think too much more about it. That was until we were all sat around chatting after a couple of early morning jumps and the topic of the ‘glider jumps’ came up. As fun as it sounded I still wasn’t especially sold on the idea, especially given that the one and only previous time I had been in a glider was a couple of year’s ago when I ended up feeling really quite queasy whilst crammed in next to my dad. The price also seemed a little steep, representing several standard jumps – ones that would get me closer to my current goal of 200 – and so I somewhat mentally parked the whole idea. That was until Shunka, one of the most experienced instructors at the dropzone described how even after 15,000 jumps under his belt, his glider experience was among his top three jumps of all time! SOLD! I trust what he says and if he was saying that it was an awesome experience then I had to see what the fuss was all about….
Cash handed over, I was summoned to manifest where I met Tony, our glider pilot, and was taken through the briefing of what to expect, what to do and all I could think was “wow!” The description of the anticipated experience was intense enough and that was whilst standing safely on terra firma! When it came to my turn I strapped in and just started grinning from the moment we started rolling. I was going to do this crazy thing and I didn’t even fully know what that thing was even going to be!
As we climbed, higher and higher, towed by the plane just up in front of us, I appreciated the intense sense of freedom and presence that being in an uncovered seat on a glider that is flying affords someone. The view out over the desert, the dropzone and the surrounding properties and landscape was crisp, detailed and in full technicolor. I was able to appreciate features of the area surrounding the desert campus that I just hadn’t really ever been able to closely notice in the main skydive plane. The ride up alone was worth taking up the challenge!
At 4,500 feet we detached from the plane and started truly gliding, swooping in and out of the isolated banks of cloud that were our companions and spotting the current load of skydivers as their canopies popped sequentially into view. We completed a few fairground-worthy manoeuvres, including a full inversion to leave me dangling in my strap, head pointed directly towards earth, and the ‘practice runs’ of the main move in which we dived steeply before banking sharply skyward, placing us on a fully vertical steep ascent. After the second of these trial runs I was given the nod to do several things in sequence: a) undo my seat-strap – something that emphasised the reality of what was about to go down and the fact that I was putting my full trust in Tony; b) bring legs forward, with knees clearing the console positioned directly in front; and c) place my hands on the side of the glider, both in anticipation of the main event and also to ensure that it went as smoothly as possible. Only one thing left to do and that was grin from ear to ear as we dived one last time before pulling up into our steep, vertical climb. When the glider shifted it was the strangest feeling, even though I was fully expecting it to happen: the glider and I simply parted ways!
“I felt myself continue to move up!”
Whilst climbing at 100mph, Tony simply moved the glider in a quick fluid motion away from my relative position, the effect being to essentially eject me from my seat and the aircraft entirely. As I did so I felt myself continue to move up! The completely wrong direction! All whilst still moving in synch with the glider itself. The effect was one of simulating complete and utter weightlessness – a very powerful and difficult to fully imagine sensation. As both myself and the glider reached the apex of the ascent, the rush of air quietened to complete silence as we both sort of hovered in place for a split second before starting the downward phase of the arc, driven of course by gravity. After all, what goes up generally must come down. As I started to fall back to earth I remembered the advice I was given not to rush deployment but to a) continue to enjoy this most bizarre of experiences and b) to wait until I had sufficient speed with which to establish normal stability for correct pilot chute deployment. So it was and as I felt the rush of terminal velocity return – by now a familiar feeling – I waved off, threw out the pilot and waited for my parachute to open before surveying my airspace for the glider as it started to swoop and circle me whilst I flew under canopy. Being buzzed by an aircraft, especially one that makes little to no sound other than a rapid swoosh as it soars past, was akin to sharing the sky with a giant bird and the next few minutes of flight were like something out of an extreme sports movie.
Every piece of GoPro footage I have seen to date from those who have completed the same experience ends the same way: landing followed by a holler of delight at how utterly awesome the jump was. I was no different! I touched down, was buzzed at practically touching distance by the glider one final time – a pass-by that I was not expecting – and proceeded to whoop and holler like a man possessed. The entire experience was electrifying and had it not been for needing to get back to Dubai I would have been very very tempted to sign straight back up for another go. Wow! Every skydiver has to try this out. It was nuts!

Wet & Windy

I think I may have overdosed on adrenaline! A recent trip away from the heat and humidity of Dubai, and the Emirates, saw me head back to Europe, principally to attend the wedding of some good friends. The destination was Switzerland, or more specifically the small but fairy-tale looking lakeside town of Nyon, a short drive outside of Geneva. After the wedding itself I packed up and drove my nippy little hire car out of Switzerland and into France, directly towards the hypnotizing and impressively majestic Mont Blanc, which my now married friends have an unrivaled view of from their townhouse, across Lake Geneva (or Lac Leman, to give it it’s local name).

wakeboarding, Nyon, Lake Geneva
Perfect conditions for wakeboarding on Lake Geneva

The adrenaline rush started, however, in Switzerland, after I had stopped in at a small skate shop in Nyon whilst out for a morning run to enquire as to whether there were any options to wakeboard locally, something I was keen to repeat having indulged in the activity on the lake several years before with my friends, and also off the back of the fact that I had been practicing here in the Middle East at the lakes in Abu Dhabi. Fortunately the owner of the job had a friend with his own boat in the town and so gave me his number to see if he might be heading out during the weekend. As such, the following morning, after the fun, games and excesses of the wedding, I roused myself with an early morning breakfast Swiss style, grabbed my board shorts and Go Pro and met Stefan, his girlfriend, Charlotte, and their mutual friend and fellow watersport enthusiast, David, down at their boat before casting off on to the crystalline and tranquil waters of the lake.

Wake board, Lake Geneva
Refreshing & exhilirating!

There is no better way to blow away the cobwebs and be left feeling amazingly refreshed than to jump into the cool waters of an amazing lake, with blue skies, the sun shining, and a majestic panorama of snow-capped peaks in the distance, and to then rip it up on a wakeboard. It was awesome, and although I didn’t quite grab any major air, the very sensation of being out there was fantastic. The best part of the experience, however, was then getting to try my hand, or rather feet, at wake surfing, a totally new concept for me but the main reason for why Stefan and Charlotte had purchased their fancy wakeboard boat in the first place.

Wake surfing, Lake Geneva
Wake surfing

Wake surfing basically sees you start in the water, much as you do with traditional wake boarding, being pulled up onto your board, which in this case is a small, mini surfboard. The aim is to then find the sweet spot in the large wake created immediately behind the boat and to then literally surf it, meaning that you discard the help of the rope pulling you initially and rely on the fact that you essentially surf down the wake/ wave towards the boat. It really was surreal to be that close to the boat and yet moving without the pull of a rope. Although I wouldn’t say I was an instant natural, or even stayed standing on the board for very long at a time, it was an amazing experience and something that I can actually see the appeal of over wake boarding, which is pretty much what Stefan and co had moved away from. Those people who are well practiced, such as my fellow lake playmates that day, can start to pull off some funky trickery on the board, which was great fun to watch.

The fun very much continued as I headed off into France to continue my activity fueled vacation. The first stop was a small airstrip in Annemasse just over the Swiss-French border, and home to the local skydiving fraternity. With a runway that points directly towards Mont Blanc, the views of the highest peak in Europe are unrivaled and it was clear that jumping there was something that I had to make happen. Unfortunately by the time I arrived en-route to Chamonix it had become too windy or me to safely skydive. Not one to be deterred though I simply made the decision to return early the following morning, hoping that the winds would prove to be lighter – which they did – and spent an entire day jumping over one of the most incredible landscapes I have had the pleasure to freefall towards so far.

Skydive, in plane, Annemasse, Chris & instructorOne of the aspects of skydiving, or indeed most adrenaline sports, is the friendliness and general feeling of comararderie that you get with other participants. I jumped initially with one of the instructors, who took along his Go Pro to record the jump, and had a blast as we pretended to swim through the air and generally lark about as we took in the amazing views that are abundant from 12,000 feet in the air, especially when there isn’t a single cloud in the sky. A leisurely lunch at a traditional French cafe in town was the perfect intermission before donning the flight suit and chute again, this time jumping with Lucile, the attractive girl who I had first had the pleasure to speak with when I arrived the previous day. That jump saw me leave the plane first, with Lucile diving out afterwards before we ran through a fun ‘routine’ before breaking away and making our own way under canopy. High fives all round on the ground after successful jump number 2!

At that point I had made up my mind that the day’s freefall fun was over as I had every intention to head back to Chamonix, but the lure of a sunset jump with Mont Blanc glowing in an ethereal light, was just too much to resist. “Besides,” I thought, “I’m on holiday!” It was worth hanging around for, as I joined three other skydivers for the jump, which again was caught on film and awaits my editing attention. A top day and adrenaline sport number two of the trip already ticked off. On to the rest of the week then…

How fast is Terminal Velocity?

Freefall, skydiveThere are several ways to answer this question. One is to look it up on Wikipedia, which is probably the most sensible method; the other is to do what I did in July and fling yourself repeatedly out of a perfectly good aeroplane and fall, yes fall, towards Earth eventually reaching, you guessed it, Terminal Velocity (120mph).

Skydiving is awesome! That is my overall assessment and it is a sport that I would encourage everyone – assuming you are fit, healthy and meet the minimum weight requirements – to have at least one experience of. For most, their introduction to this gravity defying – or rather, obeying – past-time is to sign up for a tandem skydive, whereby you are strapped to the front of a very well qualified and experienced instructor who is then responsible for controlling your freefall, parachute deployment and safe landing, leaving you to scream/ hold your breath/ grin/ laugh ecstatically and generally have an amazing time as you experience the ultimate rush followed by an incredible view as you literally float back down to terra firma. Many do just the one jump, satisfied that they have tried it, hopefully enjoyed it but ultimately have no desire to repeat it, whereas some, such as myself, become well and truly bitten by the bug and vow to return to the skies.

My experience of skydiving started when I was 18 and traveling in New Zealand. It was there that I did a tandem and bungee jump (body painted with the Union Jack incidentally) in the same week and vowed immediately to learn to jump solo by the time I was 30. Fast forward several years, during which time I tried out indoor skydiving – a great option for those who don’t like the idea of falling towards the ground for real – and my approaching thirtieth birthday. There was only ever one thing I was going to do and that was train for my solo skydive license.

The first decision was where to go? I was vaguely aware, through some basic research, that Spain, especially the skies around Madrid, were great places to learn, and that the US was also a popular destination for both rookies and experienced jumpers alike. It makes perfect sense actually if you think about it: to jump you need clear skies, and both are examples of places that offer plenty of these. Of course you can train in the UK, and that was an option, but as well as wanting to get my license I also wanted a real adventure, and that was only ever going to come about by leaving my home shores. As it turned out, a good friend of mine is now living in the beautiful city of San Diego, California and rather handily it turned out that they do quite a fair bit of skydiving in California. In fact, a little bit of internet research and emailing later and I had myself booked in for my first lesson with Skydive San Diego, south of the city and toward the Mexican border. Flights booked, insurance purchased and with a spot of surfing in between, I arrived all fresh-faced, eager and full of anticipation for my very first day at ‘Freefall School.’ The education had begun!

You may be asking yourself some of the following questions…

1. What exactly is skydiving?

Well, at its most basic it is essentially jumping out of an aeroplane, freefalling towards the earth for a variable period of time, depending on, among other factors, your initial altitude, and then significantly slowing your descent by deploying a parachute, thus enabling you to steer yourself safely down to a predetermined landing area on the ground. And then to do it again and again and again.

2. Is it the same as jumping off bridges, buildings, cliffs etc?

Err, no. You’re thinking of BASE jumping, which is essentially when you jump from something, in effect, fixed to the earth, ie you don’t need a plane, helicopter or balloon to get to your jump point. You don’t “start out” BASE jumping – not unless you wish to have a very very short parachuting career and life – and it is most definately a branch of skydiving that people “graduate onto,” should they wish to really take their adrenaline addiction to another level. The amount of time in freefall is usually significantly less than normal skydiving, as you’re so much lower, and BASE-jumpers will often deploy their chutes as they jump. Having said that, there are some places you can jump, such as some massively high cliffs in Northern Europe, or styles of jumping, such as wingsuit flying, that will enable you to ‘freefall’ for longer and maximise the buzz. Check out the videos online – they make for epic viewing!

3. Why do people skydive? Are they mental?!

That’s one theory, yes. Everyone who skydives will do so for their own unique reasons and you’ll have to ask them. For me, it is a multitude of factors that attracted me initially to the sport and has well and truly gotten me hooked. The nervous anticipation of what it is you’re about to do as you climb into the plane and ascend towards jump altitude is surreal and strangely meditative. You simply cannot afford to let your mind be preoccupied with anything other than your skydive and so its a great way of clearing your head of all of life’s deluge of, ultimately, unimportant details and concerns. Climbing is a little like that as well. In fact, any activity that relies on your complete and utter focus is a great way to relieve stress and free your mind from its usual baggage. Once you step to the door, your heart starts pumping and you have a choice to make in that moment: jump or don’t jump. Simple. This is then followed by sheer unadulterated ecstasy as adrenaline literally courses through your veins, permeating every inch of your being. The strange thing is that although you know that you are in fact hurtling towards the ground at terminal velocity, the fact that the ground isn’t rushing up to meet you as it does with a bungee jump, results in you feeling as though you are, genuinely flying. This is a phenomenon that is amplified when jumping with other skydivers, as you just get to do the kind of crazy moves, such as flips, that you would never be able to do normally. Then there’s the oh-my-god-hold-your-breath moment as you deploy your parachute and wait for it to fully open, thus ending your freefall and taking you into the final phase of your jump, which is the canopy descent back to your life on the ground. The feeling of achievement and satisfaction that comes with touching down safely is hard to rival through any other activity. So, for me, skydiving is the ultimate way to simultaneously relax and get that awesome adrenaline buzz all in one. Some might call it ‘Healthy Heroin.’

 

DISCLAIMER: Anything written here is based on my own, personal experiences of skydiving and do not constitute in any way professional instruction or advice to go and jump out of a plane. If you happen to feel inspired to do so then do the sensible thing and consult a skydive centre with proper, real, qualified instructors.