Tag Archives: parachute

Falling in the Dark

Life is a series of opportunities and experiences, some odder and more extreme than others. I had the chance recently to take part in one such experience that most sane members of society would consider utterly insane, and I can see that they may well have a point. The activity in question was nighttime skydiving, which as you might have correctly guessed involves skydiving. At night. In the dark.

skydiving essentialsHaving recently acquired my USPA B-license I was eligible to sign up for the jump, which is only generally run once a year and is limited in terms of how many jumpers can take part. As it is part of the requirements for the D-license it was an extra bonus that I was able to get that part of my skydiving career under my belt at this stage. So, after making a mad dash out of work on the Saturday evening in question, skillfully navigating myself away from the car park that was Sheikh Zayed road and heading out to the desert dropzone, it was time to manifest, grab my rig and get psyched up for what was always going to be a mad experience. The fact that pretty much every other skydiver regardless, it seemed, of their experience level looked nervous simply added to the feeling of epic trepidation that I was certainly feeling.

The briefing was conducted once everyone had arrived and like pretty much everything we ever do in skydiving it was completely focused on safety and ensuring that the jumps went as smoothly as possible. That is one thing that crops up again and again with ‘extreme’ sports: the uncompromising focus on safety, in spite of what most people view as simply a bunch of unhinged loonies engaging in reckless tomfoolery.

The jumps were to be performed from a helicopter, which is always a treat in itself, and each skydiver had three lights on them: a green glowstick on the back of the helmet (so we could be seen by other skydivers as we jumped from the helicopter), a red light on our chest strap (so we could be seen by other skydivers should we be falling with our backs to the earth), and a strobe light attached to our left ankles, to be switched on only once we were safely under canopy. It was drilled into us how much of a bad idea it would be for us to make the mistake of switching our strobes on in the helicopter, as someone had done the year before. Basically it takes about 30 minutes to regain night vision and so having a bright light suddenly go off in front of you before leaping would have done nothing good for everyone’s ability to see.

The plan was for everyone to complete two jumps in total: one solo jump and the second a group jump with one or more other people. As the number of jumpers that could go up at any one time was relatively small and the ground control had to be certain that everyone who had just jumped had landed and returned to the dropzone safely, the progression of the evening was a little slower than I think I had initially anticipated. As such, I spent a lot of time actually just kicking back on the sofa, waking up just in time for my jumps.

Gearing up and cracking the chemical light sticks on both my helmet and chest strap, I couldn’t help but feel like a character in the sci fi movie Tron. One thing that was a little disappointing was that the ‘glow in the dark’ Batman t-shirt that I had excitedly purchased the day before did anything but. In fact, the whites of my eyes were probably glowing more than the bat logo! Shame as I reckon it would have looked mental to have the bat logo looming out of the dark.

The helicopter ride up was a strange sensation, as the only lights visible were the soft luminous glows of various red and green light sticks, and the various dials and switches of the main cockpit area. As such, the atmosphere was one of calm anticipation as we each mentally prepared and rehearsed what was about to follow.

Once at jump altitude it was a relatively swift business of leaping out, dropping silently away from the helicopter blinking before us, whilst savouring the utterly alien sensation of freefall in the dark. I found that we had surprisingly more time in actual freefall than initially expected and when pull-altitude eventually came I felt satisfied that my appetite for this new form of adrenaline shot had been sated. The canopy portion of the descent was much as it is in daylight, apart from remembering to twist on our strobes and the fact that, well, we couldn’t see much. One of the strange and apparently unnerving phenomenon that can occur when jumping at night is that your own shadow can end up looking like another skydiver flying in uncomfortably close proximity to you, with a lot of jumpers instinctively turning to fly away from the perceived danger. The problem, of course, is that one’s shadow tends to follow and can’t be shaken off, so it takes a few moments to realise that you’re actually trying to escape yourself!

skydiving at night in DubaiLanding was, in many ways, a much calmer process in the dark as the fact that you can’t easily see everything around makes you focus intently on what is immediately approaching, and also on good altitude awareness and steady canopy control on the approach. I think my landings in the dark were smoother than many of my daylight ones. The landing area itself was very clearly marked, with lights in an arrow shape, and the fact that we had the road and InFlight tunnel very brightly lit up made it easy to know where to aim for.

Having checked in with ground control – one of the important safety measures in place to ensure that everyone was present and accounted for after each jump run and before the next – I headed back in to get my rig packed and wait for the next jump, this one being a two-way.

Jumping with someone else in the dark was just as insane, and we had time enough to turn a few points before turning, tracking and pulling as we normally would.

A late finish (1.30 in the morning!) but a great way to spend an evening here in Dubai and a unique experience to record in the personal history.

 

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.