Love To Fly, Afraid To Fall

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

More often than not, people say flying. But in this modern age of jet engines and space travel, is this desire to simply be in the air really that exciting and unusual? I think those Superman wannabes are looking wistfully at the birds not at the planes; that notion of organic flight is still so appealing to many (just look at how many views those wing-suit videos get on YouTube!) Alas, evolution did not give us wings so we have to find our own way to sail among the clouds.

Here is where adventure activities come in, and where my story starts. You see, I would love to fly as much as the next person but here’s the catch: I’m terrified of falling. Heights aren’t the problem; it’s that awful stomach-churning drop that sets my teeth on edge and seriously threatens my resolve to – quite literally – take a leap of faith. I studiously avoid theme park rides that take you up only to drop you straight down – repeatedly. I mean, really, what sadistic arsehole thought that would be fun?! Bungy-jumping was also firmly off my radar, but more on that later on. For now, we begin with my 16 year old self bouncing up and down in front of her parents as they pass the cheque allowing her to go on a weekend training course which would culminate in a solo parachute jump. Thanks Mum and Dad!

Learning to fly

The Army Parachute Association, Netheravon, in Salisbury was to be the site of the biggest challenge we teenagers from the British Air Cadets would ever have faced in our young lives. For me, I hoped it would be the beginning of a less fearful version of myself – surely if I could do this, I could do anything? As part of the Air Cadets, we were lucky enough to regularly enjoy adventure activities, flying, gliding and expeditions which I was always keen for, but this was a whole new level. This would be a static-line jump from 3500ft, not the regular tandem jump done by tourists and the like. There would be a line connecting us to the plane which would automatically open the parachute for us once we jumped. Sound easy? Not quite.

Health and safety required a full weekend of training learning how to hold our bodies during free fall – many painful hours laying on the floor using your core to lift both arms and legs – how to correctly exit the plane, understand an altimeter, and most importantly, how to get yourself out of trouble. Worryingly, many of the instructor’s warnings ended with ‘or you could die.’ Twists in the lines connecting your harness to the chute are common so we were trussed up in fake harnesses shaking each other hard to simulate turbulence while kicking to spin the lines out. All dressed in orange jumpsuits, this must have looked like a very strange prison breakout scene. Perhaps the most important thing we had to learn was in what circumstances it would be safe and necessary to deploy the reserve chute. This would be down to individual judgement, and had the potential to be fatal; the reserve is the last resort – if that fails there is nothing to stop you smashing down to earth. Releasing the reserve before getting rid of a faulty main chute could tangle the two leaving you in serious trouble without sufficient air resistance to slow your descent. Getting caught on trees and pylons was a similarly grim prospect, as was the instructor’s advice should you land on a building – if you don’t get out of your harness fast enough, the chute can drag you off the roof and, yup you guessed it, you can die.

With such positivity spiralling us all into a deep-seated unease, you can imagine the nerves on the day of the jump. A huge storm the night before had flattened our tents leaving us soggy and sleep-deprived. And then we had to wait. And wait… and wait. All day in fact until the final verdict was given that the weather was too bad and we would have to try again in a few weeks time. Talk about anti-climax. When about to face a fear, we build ourselves up from I won’t and I can’t to I will and I can, but only if we can get it over and done with before the doubts start creeping back in. Believe me when I say, that high of self-belief does not last indefinitely so we were all basically back to where we started in terms of fear.

A leap of faith

Take two. The day arrived, dawn spreading golden and clear across Salisbury Plain – today we would jump! Each armed with a one-way radio so the instructor could guide us down, an altimeter on our wrists to tell us when to begin the landing procedure, helmet and parachute, we were bundled down the runway and into the waiting plane. Forget the big carriers you see in war movies – this plane was so tiny we had so sit in between each other’s legs in two rows down the length of the plane and scramble over each other when the time came for someone to jump. One of the instructors was filming and there is definitely a point during the video where you can clearly see me hand over mouth cursing after watching the first victim (I mean volunteer!) plunge into open air never to be seen again. Or at least that is the fear that my facial expression conveyed. I was feeling steadily more nauseous each time someone jumped – I had to get this over with!

Shuffling over to position myself legs hanging out of a plane at 3500ft was not one of my favourite moments. How had I got to this point? What was worse was that no-one could push you – it had to be your decision to freely fling yourself into the abyss. The wind was so loud at the door that any sound was whisked away before you could utter ‘I don’t want to do this’, but I could see the instructor signing at me to jump. It was now or never.

My friends insist they could clearly hear ‘Fuuuuuuuuuuck!’ upon my exit, but I am still convinced I was only counting down as instructed ‘4000, 3000, 2000, 1000’ until the chute opened, which thankfully it did. Those four seconds of free fall were possibly the worst of my young life. But at the same time, so chaotic being flung around like a ragdoll, not knowing which way was up or feeling any kind of control over your body and direction that it was also a very fast mess of sensation, not really allowing for time to consider the pace at which you were hurtling towards the ground. I am not a religious person, but that reassuring tug of the chute opening and pulling on my harness filled me with such resounding relief and gratitude that I was probably thanking God the whole way down for keeping me alive. It is quite a profound moment to stare death in the face then to look around and realise the world is more beautiful than you ever noticed before.

The beauty of flight

But first, I had those darned twists to sort out. Looking up, I could see plenty of tangles so began kicking my way free to regain full control of the chute just as we had been taught on the ground. Confidence boosted by my ability to fix a problem even at this height, I sat back in my harness to enjoy the view. It is not entirely a peaceful experience – the wind still drowned out my radio and beat about my ears, but I could relax, watch my fellow jumpers start their descent back to base, knowing I still had more time left up here. I felt utterly alone and yet completely at one with the world. The sky was my friend, supporting my body and my chute, the earth a rich carpet spread beneath me, encircling me in nothing but open space and horizon. I don’t think I have ever felt so free in all my life.

Until I realised I couldn’t actually see the landing circle. Or indeed the runway for that matter. I could see everything and nothing at the same time. I could vaguely hear Control guiding in some of the others but I was still too high to begin the descent and certainly did not want to be landing anywhere near the towns and villages which spattered the rolling plains below me. I could have freaked out – I definitely remember squirming slightly in my harness desperately trying to work out where I was. And then it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be up here forever so instead of focussing on what next, I should concentrate on the present – my gloriously absurd present – where birds flew beneath me and I had the whole world to myself. So I started to play. We had been taught some tricks on the ground so I decided to throw in a few corkscrews, revelling in the thrill of speed and rush of air as the ground hurtles towards you that bit faster. And it was all down to me; I was in charge yet putting my trust in aerodynamics to play their part too. I think I laughed and whooped the whole time. And as I levelled out lower, I could finally see the runway and hear Control calling me down.

It is important to land with precision and control. I thought I had both. The earth speeds towards you looking less like a postcard and more like a very solid potentially painful mass every second. At a certain height, you pull the cords to fluke your chute (in essence, putting the breaks on) and start running in mid-air so you land on your feet at pace rather than a sudden stop. It would appear I fluked too early so hit the ground at speed with momentum still pushing down rather than along. Needless to say I face-planted. Unfortunately for me, there was also someone filming on the ground and I made it to the final cut. Distance obscures my identity but I was later informed that I was the only face-plant of the day so everyone knew it was me anyway.

What next?

I would like to say that I have since become a champion skydiver, but unfortunately that is not the case. As time went on, the fear of falling has crept back like an unwelcome guest, so I have yet to repeat the experience but I have sought out similar activities. Parasailing in Corfu seemed like a great idea as I could fly without jumping as a speedboat hauls you up into the air. That feeling of being at one with the world returned until I was unceremoniously dumped in the ocean – my other fear is open water – but thankfully I was fished out pronto to enjoy the rest of my holiday. Then came hang-gliding in Queenstown – possibly the closest to true flight one can experience as you lay horizontal, strapped into the frame above you. For me, that beats the standard parachute set-up where you sit in your harness – hang-gliding feels much more authentic and bird-like (one step closer to that Superman dream!)

Then came the bungy jump. After swearing I would never do it, it came as part of a deal at an adventure park and would be tandem so I wouldn’t have the added pressure of jumping myself. My partner had to drag me off the edge of the platform and my terror at free-falling head first was so complete I couldn’t even scream. Needless to say, The sore ankles and pounding headache confirmed this was not to be repeated. Ever.

So what have we learned here? If there is any message I would like you to take away, it is this: Fear is not a brick wall. Sure, jumping out of a plane isn’t for everyone and not all my leaps were enjoyable (bungy!), but just because you are scared doesn’t mean it is impossible. There is no greater sense of achievement than beating those barriers imposed by fear, whether fear of failing or of falling – sometimes to see the world in a new light, one jump is all it takes!

Helen Shelvey